Chapter 2: A Polish Year (continued from Intermezzo)
One of our last adventures in Poland proper would be a camping trip that summer in Masuria (pronounced much like the American state) which is the Polish equivalent of Britain’s “Lake District” because of the 2000 lakes the wind and connect through this northern part of Poland.
Historically part of East Prussia but now the province of Warmia, the region has a bipolar existence with the heavy industrialization of centres like Olsztyn and Elblag nearby. Masuria sits equidistant between Warszawa and the port of Gdańsk and, on a good day, it is a 3½ hour drive; on a bad day, like the one we’d return on, count on leaving at noon and getting home just before dark. The reason for the variability of commute is because it is also arguably the eco-touristic centre of the country and is a vacation mecca for all of Poland – much like the Muskokas are in Ontario or the Shuswap is in BC. Each year, tens of thousands of Poles descend on the region to play in its waters and escape the heat of the city. As well, on the eastern edge of the province (and of the country) there lies the Białowieża Forest which preserves the last of the European bison – yes, who knew, there are buffalo in Poland – and thus it is also a UNESCO reserve. These two regions, Masuria and Białowieża, plus the Tatras (and it’s principle town: Zakopane) in the South, are on most Pole’s lips when asked which part of the country they most love and what are the ‘natural’ must-sees of the country – and each would also be in the top 10 places to visit in Poland as a whole.
The first weekend of August is particularly notorious as Poles race for the beaches and any water they can find. And, second only to the start of the summer holiday is the August long-weekend itself: August 15 marks Święto Wojska Polskiego, Polish Army Day (the anniversary of Polish Army’s 1920 victory over the Russians fought on the outskirts of Warsaw). In our last Polish summer, this was also peak heat as well with temperatures staying around 30° for the weeks leading up to the holiday … and I have to say, that is very warm when you don’t have AC and live in the raw concrete of a socialist apartment building – this concrete quickly becomes hot … and it doesn’t give up this captured heat very easily either.
Thus it was that in the middle of July, exams ended and papers being piled up and as we were neared the end of our university careers, Magda invited us to join her and Ryszard for a weekend of camping in Masuria with a number of their friends who were also going. Magda knew we hadn’t been before and, like most Poles, believed our discovery of Poland these three years would not be complete without a visit to their lake district. We enthusiastically agreed. This would be a chance to vacation like native-Poles and see another part of their culture. And, yes, Ryszard had forgiven New Years Eve enough that Ben would also be coming.
Our destination was Mikołajki, a small town in the middle of Masuria that is second only to Giżycko in popularity. As much as I was keen on visiting Masuria before leaving Poland and seeing what all the fuss was about, if you add in the heat of summer, the foretold throngs of people, and the tourist focus of the region in summer … well, I was not so gung-ho about doing in the middle of August. However, if it wasn’t this August, it wasn’t going to happen at all, so we committed.
Andrea herself was well known for her total disdain for camping and anything that put her into contact with bugs, so it kinda sucked over our four years abroad the number of times we stayed in hotels and other non-camping accommodations only to end up battling crickets, cockroaches, millipedes, silverfish, malaria-carrying mosquitoes, and god knows what else. Personally, I thought camping was a bit more predictable, so told her not to worry. The real kicker was that we were going to be sleeping in a two-person tent … with a crazy dog that had never been camping before.
What could possibly go wrong?
Continued next … Chapter 2: A Polish Year – Mikołajki