When you get to France, hang a left for a change
By bike or boat, canoe or campervan the Mazury region known as ‘the land of a thousand lakes’ is beyond compare. It’s a trip well worth exploring.
Motorhome and campervan enthusiasts from this neck of the woods, by which I mean Ireland and the UK, have traditionally headed for France, Spain or Portugal, if not holidaying at home.
From a camping culture, facilities and weather perspective that’s perfectly understandable.
There are those of course who venture further afield and are justly rewarded. You hear of great adventures in Italy and Greece, talk of the great camping opportunities in places like Hungary.
I have recently started some long range research on a prospective trip to Morocco which would take me down through Galicia and Portugal. I believe it’s important to do your homework and prep properly when heading to new terrain.
When the restrictions on international travel are relaxed I think there is going to be a burst for the door, as it were, with a pent up demand coupled with a desire for some sun on far off shores and a welcome change of scenery. Combined with the new found love of camping and the great outdoors and the resurgence of interest in the freedom, flexibility and space afforded by campervan culture and motorhomes there will be I suspect be heavy demand.
My forecast is for some pinch points especially on high season availability for pitches in popular resorts in Spain and France, and on ferry crossings.
Therefore this evening let me entertain you with an option which you may not have yet considered.
When you disembark, hang a left for a change and head for Poland. Yes you heard correctly, Poland.
We have a golden rule here at Vanhalla.ie and that is to only delve into discourse for that which we have personal and informed experience. Poland qualifies.
I have been fortunate going on 25 years now to regularly visit many parts of this vast country. None more intriguing, interesting and delightful than the wilderness expanse in the north-east of the country, Mazury. Next stop Russia.
There are very few places I would return to time and again, but to Mazury I do at every opportunity. I can’t recommend it enough.
The beauty of it is that Mazury is not only a remote reserve of international significance but it has an authentic earthiness and refreshing isolation one can only dream of in the incessant intrusion of today’s online world.
In Mazury the only signal available sometimes is the spark of a campfire on a distant shoreline in this immense lake filled landscape of bison, eagles, giant dragonflies, pike and storks, as plentiful in places as sparrows picking over the spillage at a grain mill. In Mazury you get a real chance to step off the treadmill of modern living.
If I have whetted your appetite and awakened your interest you’re in luck because Mazury is a camper’s paradise. It’s particularly appealing for the lover of the outdoor lifestyle, whether by caravan, motorhome, cycling, hiking or canoe. Mazury is especially popular with sailing boats whose crews travel the series of navigable lakes, linked via an intricate network of canals and sluices.
Mooring facilities at jetties and marinas are often located nearby camping areas, with shared services such as toilet-shower blocks and water supply. The region is also popular for wild camping, with some places accessible only on foot through the dense ancient forests or from the lakes off a boat.
|There are a wide variety of touring and camping options throughout the Masurian region.|
|A camper takes advantage of an ideally located tree along the lakeside in Mazury. Note the all important mosquito net to ensure a good night’s sleep.|
|Caravans find an ideal summer pitch near the lake and marina facilities.|
|Lots of space for the lone camper in Mazury.|
|Just a small section of the Masurian lake expanse. One of the last great European wildernesses and an authentic camper heaven.|
The best times to go are in June or September when it is less busy. In the summer you will catch the nesting storks, in the autumn a treasure throve of wild mushrooms including the exquisite penny bun (boletus edulis) hiding out in the woodlands.
To give you a flavour of what to expect should you hang a left for a change when you disembark the ferry at Calais, Cherbourg or Roscoff, here is an essay and some photos charting a composite of our many trips to Mazury where I yearn for the stillness of that soft sunrise on the lakes muffled by the morning mist, rivalled only by the majestic night sky and a star studded performance that gave the milky way its name.
We often travel as a group of friends for what has turned into an annual retreat. On other occasions as families passing on a fine tradition to the next generation so that they too would learn the ropes and rituals of the great Masurian lakes.
By bike or boat, canoe or campervan Mazury is beyond compare
Mazury, one of Europe’s last great wilderness expanses snuggled up in the north east corner of Poland, has eaten into my soul so that I have returned numerous times for sailing expeditions. Unrivalled serenity, sensational sunrises burning off misty waters, night skies that take you on a personal star trek, sausages (kiełbasa) sizzling on open campfires, storks – thousands of them, mushrooms – millions of them, sing-songs soaked in companionship and perhaps saturated in vodka and of course sailing. Day after day of sailing, mostly lazy but often full on, the total sailing experience on the enigmatic Śniardwy.
That’s what brings you back, along with Giżycko, Ryn, Sztynort, Węgorzewo, Ruciane-Nida, Krzyże, and personal haunts like Skorupki, Kal and Wiartel, and everone’s favourite Mikołajki;the myriad of hamlets and towns, which punctuate the region peppered around its vast lakeshores; others like Kamień, camping resorts from another era and more blissfully isolated yet sandwiched between sprawling forests and the foreshore hideaways such as Sowi Róg and Kacze Rajno, the glow of campfire flames on the opposite side of the lake the only tell tale sign of your nearest neighbours as you berth up, bow lashed to a tree, Mazury style for the night.
Sailing on Poland’s vast inland waterways is not expensive, exclusive or elitist. It is a popular pursuit of the Poles and as many youngsters learn sailing there as are taught skiing in Zakopane and throughout the Tatra mountains along the Slovakian border in winter.
My travelling companions are often a motley crew, usually three small yachts taking up to twelve of us, all from the southern region of Śląsk (Silesia Region), mostly power station workers from the huge Elekrownia plant in Rybnik. These lads cut their teeth and learned their sailing skills in communist times in the boat club on the artificial lake which cools the turbines. Each year with family and friends they head the 600km north and hire out yachts for the real deal. All are master sailors with their skipper licenses.
Calling the shots, our captain Mirosław Piecha (Mirek), a stickler for safety, coming here since a boy he knows the place like the back of his hand and is widely regarded wherever we go; Włodzimierz Abłamowicz (Hapel) a happy-go-lucky bulk of a man, a great cook his ciapas dish is to die for; Stefan Dolecki, a former paratrooper and policeman is extremely resourcesful, has a delicious honey vodka recipe and you always feel safe when he’s around; Bogdan Nierada (Bodzio) is solid out and a great photographer; Henryk Putko (Wujek), a gentleman and a much revered expert on wild mushrooms; Edward Mietła (Edek) the cigar smoking raconteur; Eligiusz Malinowski (Elek) our intrepid interpreter in the early days; his father-in-law, Adam, a man who is always whistling or whittling in rhythm with planning his next meal; and the entertainers, Mariusz Kubis (Mario) and Aleksander Moetler (Olek), there is not a chord or a chorus they cannot learn in jig time, the latter a fire eater and extreme-sports fanatic.
|Our motley crew enjoying a typically lazy day in Mazury|
|The many sides of Mazury. The campfire and the sing-song are essential ingredients to the experience.|
Mazury’s rich network of lakes, rivers and canals is amongst the finest in the world and teeming with fish. The surrounding shores, swamps and forests home to an abundance of fascinating flora and fauna. They call it ‘the land of a thousand lakes’ here and they occupy over 11,000 sq km of the region’s surface. The largest is Sniardwy (114 sq km). Mostly shallow Śniardwy can throw up dangerous conditions and up to two metre waves in high winds and it’s dangers are not to be toyed with particularly in treacherous lighting storms.
The second largest Mamry Lake complex is made up of others like Kisajno, Dobskie, Dargin, Święcajły and house up to 30 islands. The most popular tourist attractions are the finger lakes, especially Nidzkie (18 sq km) situated in the heart of the Piska Forest; the lake complex Bełdany-Mikołajskie, very popular with water sports enthusiasts. There are majestic rivers too and undoubtedly the finest the Krutynia. Its water trail, among the most popular canoe trails in Europe is over 100km long composed of The Krutynia proper and more than ten lakes conjoined by rivers. The Masurian lake complex itself is stitched together by an intricate network of canals and sluicegates, dating back to the days of Prussian control, which make all sorts of adventurous routes possible, but taking up and down the lanky mast to pass through locks and bridges can be a chore.
|Top shelf, Tullamore Dew and an exquisite selection of Polish vodkas. Shopping in Mazury is always a pleasure.|
The beauty of Mazury is that you can opt for the bustle of it’s quaint and historic towns, amble through its sleepy villages or sail on and get lost in the wilds, silent zones where no outboard engines are allowed. If you are becalmed, it’s deep breaths, an oar and a paddle to the shore. Our crew prefer the peace and privacy of the outlying reaches of this nature reserve. This is the best of both worlds as you can stop off in a town or hike through the forests for a village shop (sklep) to stock up on fresh provisions, cold beer (such as Żywiec, Lech and Tyskie now freely available in Ireland and the UK) and of course vodka (local favourite Luxusowa potato vodka or my own poison Żubrówka, bison vodka with its distinctive green hue and trademark blade of grass), to kick start the engines of an evening’s sing-song, an aperitif before a supper feast for the famished sailors.
|The port at Kal.|
|World famous Polish pierogi. How do you like yours?|
|Honey beer. Sweet. This craft beer from the Kormoran brewery hits the spot.|
Polish food in general is delicious and the fresh air of Mazury an ample sauce. The staples are peasant food with dishes based on potatoes, cabbage, tomatoes, fish and pork. Favourites to watch out for in the numerous great value small and family run restaurants are bigos (based on sour cabbage, sausage and tomatoe purée); ciapas (a hot pot of layered cabbage, potatoes and fat bacon); czarcie żarcie (spicy potato cake smothered in Hungarian style goulash) and roast duck (kaczka) with fresh salad.
Leczo is a tasty peppers and tomato ratatouille type dish, while chicken and noodle soup, (rosół) and the beetroot based barszcz are always welcome after a Mazury downpour. Smalec, a Polish favourite is an acquired taste but worth the effort to savour this atom bomb of cholesterol,reduced lard with crispy bacon and onion eaten on fresh baked bread! In the nearby woods are an abundance of wild mushrooms which can make for a fabulous fry up. Watch out for varieties like parasol (lepiota procera); brown birch bolette (leccinum scabrum); slippery jack (sillus luteus); chanterelle (cantharellus cibarius) and the much sought after cep or penny bun (boletus edelis). These are often sold in punnets on the roadside by farm families, but beware. The advice from Mirek as we sift through the forest floor one September evening after a thunderstorm: “You can eat all the mushrooms in Mazury… but some of them, only once!” Some varieties are deadly poisonous and we always defer to the expertise of Wujek.
Mazury is home also to countless storks who keep the maternity wards of Poland busy during the summer months as they nest precariously aloft telegraph poles or farmhouse roofs. Their presence is regarded as a welcome blessing and good luck before they migrate to Africa. They are joined in this Mazurian menagerie by deer, wild boar, hares, squirrels, foxes, pine martens and badgers. Beavers love the waterways while elk and wolves are not as common and lynx is in danger of extinction. Herds of bison can be spotted in the nearby marshlands. Mazury is famous for many rare species of birds including the white-tailed eagle, osprey, crane, eagle owl, grouse, kites, cormorant, swans, herons, bitterns, woodpeckers, and kingfisher. A birdwatcher’s paradise whose concentration of storks is among the greatest in Europe and the ‘stork villages’ of Żywkowo, Szczurkowo and Lwowiec attract crowds of tourists from all over the world. The region’s coarse fish varieties include roach, rudd, bream, perch, eel, pike, tench, sheatfish and thunderfish. Not forgetting the colourful catalogue of damsel and giant dragon flies that make these lakes their home.
Now you get some sense of why I keep returning.
Whether sailing or camping, a week in the wild outback of Mazury can leave a longing for some home comforts. Back in Mikołajki there is the posh and plush Hotel Gołębiewski whose superb spa and leisure centre are open to day-trippers, a grand place to refresh before the long homeward leg of the journey.
No trip to Mikołajki would be complete without a visit to Bart, a restaurant and bar down at the marina port area which is immensely popular for its fish dishes and roast duck specialities. These can be served up in its lakefront garden where you can sip on a crispy refreshing local craft beer. While you recharge your own batteries you can also charge-up your phone from the USB ports on the solar powered connections along the bench seats.
A clever and convenient innovation which would work so well on any campsite.
When it comes to recharging the batteries it’s hard to beat Mazury.
For additional reading & research on the Masurian Lakes, Mazury – Four Seasons by Waldemar Bzura (Biały Kruk) is written in Polish, English and German and beautifully photographed.
|Pirates in another life… Mazury’s motley crew after a week on the lakes.|
|The campfire sing-songs in Mazury are very often a blur. (Photo by some drunken sailor). But sure what will we do…?|