Situated in the north-east of Poland – at the geographical center of Europe – Podlasie is called “the green lungs of Poland”. Anyone looking for an escape from civilization will find it there, in the land of forests and rivers, of which the most important is the River Narew, a “Polish Amazon”. The only of such kind in Europe.
People familiar with western and southern regions of Poland can be surprised a bit by the level of infrastructure underinvestment in that region (we wrote about it in: The Poles: a self-portrait). Many towns still bear marks of a long term neglect, but situation is quickly changing for better thanks to the Polish accession to the European Union. On the other point of view time flows there quietly and leisurely, with no hurry typical for well-developed civilizations. And that is conducive to maintaining the spirit of the past and respect for tradition. The past of this multi-cultural region, which is home to the Poles (followers of Catholicism), Belarusians (Orthodox), and earlier also the Jews, is evidenced by numerous Catholic and Orthodox churches, still full of the faithful people. Only Jewish synagogues ceased to fulfill its role, because the followers of Jehovah had been swept from Podlasie by the holocaust.
A bit of history
Podlasie is a historical land of Poland, extending on both sides of the middle River Bug and upper River Narew. These lands belonged from the 11th century to Kievan Rus’, later went to Mazovia (which was an independent principality) – was a disputed area of Lithuania also – to became finally in the 16th century a part of Poland. During the partitions of Poland (after 1795) Podlasie had been divided by the invaders; at the beginning of the 19th century some part was incorporated into the Duchy of Warsaw, and later to the Polish Kingdom (under Russian control). It returned to Poland in late 1918 and 1919.
Kontusz (a type of male’s outer garment) worn by magnate Branicki
The settlers in Podlasie came there from the Russian and Polish lands. The Poles, natives of Mazovia, colonized the land between the 13th and 15th centuries. For this reason in the preserved material and spiritual culture Mazovian and Russian elements clash with each other (what explains coexistence of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches). This land has never been economically well developed. From the end of the 16th century up to 18th century most of the land owned by the privileged class in the country belonged to the poor farmers’ nobility.
Podlasie is located within the plains. Geographical formation of this area has been decisively influenced by the youngest geologic period – Quaternary. In contrast to the areas lying to the north there are no scenic lakes. As Podlasie had been not embraced by the last glaciation, therefore its terrain is only slightly varied.
The real wealth of the nature of that region is the Upper Narew Valley – shallow, broad and marshy, with unique natural values – which is also one of the largest wetlands in Europe. Some part of the valley is protected as belonging to the Narew National Park, and the main reason for its creation is unique character of Narew – the river is flowing at the same time in many beds. This type of river is called “anastomosing”. In the world there are only a few of them, including Amazon River and Congo River. In the picture: a map of the Narew National Park.
Narew in a village Waniewo
During the spring and summer floods the whole valley is filled with water, and therefore it is called a “Polish Amazonia”. Narew Valley is a paradise for birds, because tens of thousands of nesting and migratory birds, including the species of wetlands, find there a shelter. Narew National Park is situated only 15 km from the administrative borders of Bialystok – the capital of this area. Its office is located in a historic manor in Kurowo, and it is worth to start the trip to the NNP from there. Visitors can navigate on the park waterways (kayaks, special pushing boats called “pychówka”), bike paths around the edge of the park and in the protection zone and on foot. The big attraction is the natural path “Footbridge in the marshes” in Kurowo and the footbridge located between villages Waniewo and Śliwno. In the picture above: a residence of Narew National Park, Kurowo.
A footbridge in Kurowo
Tourists can cross the numerous riverbeds using floating platforms fixed on the ropes.
A ferry in Waniewo
The cultural landscape
Historical rural architecture in Podlasie has a unique style, typical only to this region. One of its features is decorating doors, windows, tops, porches, corners and eaves of houses with ornaments cut on the boards and painted with contrasting colors. This type of dressing – borrowed from the Russians but creatively developed by the local artists – became widespread in the years 1920-1940, and began to fade in the ’60s, when the wood for was replaced with a brick. Characteristic feature of the architecture in Podlasie are also porches and verandas, which are the most decorative element of the houses.
Unfortunately contemporary cultural landscape of Podlasie raises rather sad reflections. Inhabitants of this region do not show greater respect for local tradition and it is not enough that they stopped decorating homes, but many ornaments were removed or destroyed during old buildings renovations. You can also see there numerous examples of improper “inclusions” spoiling local culture landscape, such as a nasty tile or pavement created with concrete cubes mismatched to the old wooden cottages.
In addition to the natural values Podlasie has to offer also few urban attractions.
The capital of the province and the largest town the north-eastern Poland, with population of 300 000 inhabitants (it got municipal law in the 17th century). Bialystok serves as administrative, economic, scientific and cultural center of the region.
Until the 17th century it was a small settlement, developed in the 17th century thanks to a magnate family Branicki who built its residence here. And here comes a valuable Dutch clue – Branicki palace was designed in the late 17th century by the Dutch architect Tielman van Gameren (read also: Architect from Utrecht). This magnificent and vast palace and park complex is called the Polish Versailles.
The Branicki palace
Today a city, and before that a settlement established around the Orthodox monastery invested there in 1501. The Supraśl history is inextricably linked with the history of the monastery, which for centuries underwent tumultuous changes, being Orthodox monastery, then Uniate monastery, a Catholic church and from the end of the 20th century an Orthodox monastery again. It is presently a health resort of two great attractions. The first of these is the Museum of Icons, having a collection of about 1 200 icons from 18th and 19th centuries, religious objects and unique frescoes.
Museum of Icons, Supraśl / Wikipedia
This is the first interactive museum in Poland showing the sacred art of the Orthodox Church.The second important tourist attraction is the Orthodox male monastery of Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The historical city, which has acquired municipal rights in 1425 (lost it in 1950, and then gained again in 1998). There is the oldest preserved historical urban complex of Podlasie. The western part of the city is characteristic for the spatial arrangement of the Jewish town. Up to the World War II half of its inhabitants were just Jews who were murdered by the Germans in 1941. The only remains of the Jews in Tykocin are: Baroque synagogue from 1642, the Talmudic House and numerous brick houses.
Jewish brick houses, Tykocin
The other precious monuments are baroque church of the Holy Trinity…
Church of the Holy Trinity, Tykocin
the complex of the Bernardine monastery and ruins of the castle. Residential buildings of the city are mostly wooden and antique, but unfortunately they still show marks of a long term neglect.
Wooden houses in Tykocin
Pictures presented in the article – made in 2013 by Marek Angiel – show the central part of Podlasie: the Bialystok Plateau (Bialystok); High Mazovian Upland (Tykocin, Krzyżewo, Mojsiki, Sokoły) and Narew Valley (Waniewo, Kurowo).
Marek Angiel (a story and pictures), Renata Głuszek (a story)
See also a photo galery: Podlasie
Marek Angiel – geographer, traveler, explorer, actively cultivating his profession; born in Gdańsk, Varsovian of choice. He photographs light and color of nature, cities, towns and villages. He meets and discovers the identity of the Polish regions seeking order, harmony and beauty in the cultural landscapes of his homeland. He loves Polish Carpathian Mountains, Sudety Mountains, Polish sea coast, Pomeranian Lake District, the spaces of the Arctic, the interior towns and cities.
More stories and pictures by Marek Angiel: