Discovering the edge of the EU – A road trip along the Eastern border of Poland

One of my personal dreams came true. I made a road trip along to the eastern border of Poland. Where West meats East. An area which sometimes seems to be forgotten. Some parts of the region are cut off from any civilization but picture it yourself and read my story about the trip through rural Poland.

For a long time I had dreamed of seeing the eastern border of the European Union – the land at the edge of West and East. I am from Wroclaw (Breslau). A large city in the southwest of Poland and for me the eastern border had always seemed to be far away and slightly exotic. Inspired by great photographers, particularly by Robert Frank’s work ”The Americans”, I simply got into the car in July this year and made a three weeks voyage along the eastern border. I had planned to start from North, a beautiful calm lake district and finish in the South in the wildest region of Poland, the Bieszczady Mountains. I had not planned the journey in details. I decided to drive as close to the border as possible and make stops wherever I can. My plan was to get in contact with the local people and ask them for recommendations for my further route.

For proper documentation I had chosen the LUMIX GH5, the best Panasonic photo camera. I wanted to have an excellent image quality, a solid construction, a small size, a very good dustproof and weather conditions resistance. I took my favorite lenses with me. Three very good and not so big prime lenses. The Leica 15 mm f/1.7, Lumix 20 mm f/1.7 and the Leica 25 mm f/1.4.

After a long and tiring road trip from Wroclaw I made my first stop at a calm lake called “Wigry”, not far away from the Wigierski National Park. A local forester told me that the beekeepers in this area are still very active. They are reactivating the old tradition of collecting honey from hollowed wood or from beehives hanging on trees, a few meters above the ground. I decided to contact one of the beekeepers. After a few phone calls I met Piotr Piłasiewicza. A man with a great passion, knowing everything about traditional bee hiving, in the forest, at seven in the morning. We were wearing protective uniforms. Unfortunately, there were not gloves left for me, so I was partly hiding my hands in my jumper’s sleeves. Mr. Piotr opened the hive and a swarm of irritated and wild bees came out. For the first time in my life I was surrounded by so many massive aggressive insects. My instinct was telling me to run away but I had to calm down and remember myself that I was wearing a protective net. One of the bees stung me in the hand in which I was holding my camera. I was groaning in pain but that couldn’t stop me from taking even more images. Unfortunately, it was not time to collect honey but I imagine that honey made by wild, forest bees must be fabulously delicious.

After my adventure with the bees I decided to see the panorama of the Suwalski land. This area was a glacier in the past time – now the hills are covered with forests and meadows. I was driving to the North to climb on the Cisowa Mountain which the local people call “Fujiyama of Suwalsk” because of its similarity to a volcanic cone. The stunning view from the top of the mountain was worth the hike. But that was not even the highlight. While enjoying the magnificent landscape I saw the biggest and most beautiful butterfly called the “Old World swallowtail”. It was continuously flying around me, getting up and down or landing on a warm stone. There was no escape. I had to take a photo of this beautiful butterfly. Of course capturing a butterfly with its quick and rapid movements is not the easiest thing to do but I grabbed my GH5 and shot a series of pictures while chasing after the butterfly. I must have looked like I am doing a real Saint Vitus dance. I wanted to have large, full RAW files and GH5 shoots with the speed of 12 frames per second (fps) which is sufficiently fast. Thankfully one hour later I got what I wanted and started my way back down. Exhausted but satisfied.

After a few days of travelling in this area I decided to drive south, to the Bialowieża Forest at the boarder of the European Union. I stopped by a tiny village with traditional housings called “Old Masiewo”. There was only the forest between the village and the Belarus border. For my stay I rented a small room in a private apartment. During breakfast I recognized a large emblem hanging on the wall. After asking I learned that it is a religious symbol and that many of the inhabitants in this area are eastern orthodox. They speak their local language – a mixture of Belarus, Russian and Polish – which sounds interesting and melodious.

I do not know much about the Eastern Orthodox religion but I felt like it is an enormous part of the Eastern peoples identity. I decided to visit a few old Eastern orthodox churches in the area and met an Eastern orthodox priest, Sławomir Troc, in Puchły village. He kindly allowed me to shoot during a traditional Sunday mass. A small local choir was singing during the mess and I was really fascinated and moved by the chants and melodious atmosphere. A beautiful concert in the halls of a small church at the end of Europe. I decided to join the next mess as well. I was really lucky with the timing and the weather. The yellow morning light was shining through the tall windows and colored the room in an atmospheric golden light. I tried to be discrete so that I don’t disturb the prayers. Another advantage of the Lumix GH is its soundless shutter.

The next day I found out that an eastern orthodox monk who is still working with herbal lives in a near swamp. His name was Father Gabriel and I was curious to meet him in the small Odrinki village. Luckily he allowed me to talk to him and shoot photos. The scenery was mystic. I was in a swamp, a big birds reservoir, dipped in golden light while looking at a deep green forest on a mild summer afternoon. Father Gabriel had two visitors this afternoon. He gave them advise in solving life and health problems and prescribed them herbal medicine. At the end they prayed together. Afterwards Father Gabriel invited me in. He lived in an old railway carriage under very modest conditions. He offered me delicious kvass (a fermented beverage made of rye bread) which was perfectly quenching my thirst and seemed to be tastier than Coca- Cola. We talked about his life in the hermitage. Father Gabriel showed me his small, wooden East Orthodox Church as well as relics, which were rescued from the fire in the previous church. Father Gabriel was also a beekeeper. I bought a jar of his honey made of swamp herbs. It was so delicious that till that day it was my dessert during my whole trip.

While talking to different people living in the Bialowieża area I recognized their strong bond with the forest. It is not only a habitat for many animals it is also essential for survival. Many local people sell  fruit or mushrooms as well as deer antlers they found in the forest to earn some money. Alicja Filinowicz focused on selling deer antlers. She follows groups of deer in their territory to know exactly where they drop their antlers in autumn.

After a few days of biking around the Bialowieża Forest and shooting photos I decided to move forward south, to Belarus border- and then Ukraine- on the river Bug. In heavy rain I arrived at an eastern orthodox monastery in Jabłeczna village. Kind monks allowed me to stay and I had an excellent, vegetarian dinner. I stayed in the monastery for three days to rest while it was raining. I just drove and took hundreds of pictures of old oaks and wheat fields among woods. I really found my peace while staying in the modest small room in the monastery from the XVI century. After gathering some strength and when the weather got better I was able to continue my trip. I was interested in Lubelszczyzna because of its numerous landscape parks and its wild nature. I drove all day along country roads, looking for interesting places to shoot. I was amazed by the wide and peaceful landscape which made me fell relaxed and lonely at the same time.

When the sunset dipped the wide wheat field into golden light I decided to stop my car for a quick shooting. While I was parking I heard firefighter’s sirens coming closer and closer. I jumped in my car reflexively and followed the firefighters. I had been a newspaper reporter for eight years and when I saw the scenery my journalist instincts had been awaken right away. After a few kilometers of driving around while searching for the firefighters I saw a truck on the road and followed it right away. Slowly it was getting dark and while I was driving over rough terrain I thought about possible reasons for the fire. In the middle of the forest the fire truck stopped and a number of men in uniforms, were pouring out. It turned out that there were two more trucks in front of the last one I was chasing after. I saw smoke in the distance and while I was getting closer to the center of danger. It turned out that woodcutters had left on a fireplace which was now a serious danger for the whole forest. The scenery was definitely worth a quick shooting. Thanks to the GH5 I was able to shoot without flash. The existing light coming from the flames was good enough for the high sensitivity ISO. Great images with natural light and dramatic shadows are the result. When the firefighters put out the fire I talked to them and they told me that they will have a long night ahead because they are going to search for any remains to make sure not to leave a single spark.

The next day I started a new chapter of my journey. I was heading towards south to the wildest Mountains of Poland called “Bieszczady” which are part of the Karpaty chain. I am staying at the Pine Manor House which belongs to Piotr Tuniewicz and his wife, Iza. Piotr is one of these wealthy Polish men, who had finished tremendous managing and business careers and had settled down in the wild Bieszczady mountains, far away from the city rush. That evening I saw the most beautiful night sky I have ever seen. The number and brightness of the stars was overwhelming. This phenomenon is caused by the clear mountain air, the wild region and the fact that there were not city lights disturbing the pure darkness. Moreover astronomers call the phenomenon “light pollution”. I shot some images of the Pine Manor House and the sky above me from a balcony. That time I used the trivet and thanks to the GH5 and its sensitive ISO the photos turned out to be really nice.

The day after thankfully the heavy rain stopped and I had a beautiful sunny day. Some families came to visit Piotr for a horse ride. The region of “Bieszczady” is known for its peaceful and wild nature. So many locals come here to spend some time outside the village. I accompanied the horse riding group across swift – flowing stream while running after them with my camera. This was the perfect moment to shoot – in trainers and soaking trousers I ran into the knee-deep water and shoot the riders in front of me. The horses splashed water around but I wasn’t afraid of my camera because it is perfectly weather sealed. After that trip into the wilderness I understood why people love that destination for a short trip away from any civilization.

The last day of my journey began and luckily the weather was treating me well and I had a sunny day ahead of me. I planned my last day in Bieszczady to be an adventure so I decided to hike on the top of the Smerek Mountain. The paths were still squelchy from the rain but it didn’t even bother me at all while I was taking my way up to the summit. In those situations I am always happy to have a light and solid camera. Moreover I took two prime lenses with me which fit in my small belt pack. But despite of the perfect equipment and the good weather I was still not feeling really confident. The reason for that was that the evening before Piotr told me about a bear that had attacked a woodcutter in the forest a week before. I looked for a solid stick to use in case of danger but of course I knew that I wouldn’t have had a chance if the bear would attack me.

According to some information a forester gave me, this area was a habitant for around 200 bears and 2000 wolves. Thankfully on my way up I only met a handful of people who also prepared themselves with some solid sticks.

Finally, after one and a half hours I reached the summit of the Smerek Mountain and the stunning panorama waiting for me was worth every effort. The breathtaking view over the Bieszczady Mountains, the great feeling of pride and accomplishment and the unlimited freedom made me stay for over two hours on the peak of Smerek Mountain. I shot many images of the slightly bleary mountains, the high grass and the panorama before I started my way back to the village. Of course I wasn’t pleased to hike back in the darkness so I decided to run most parts. I returned to the Pine Manor at night. Happy and tired I was falling in my bed, filled with admiration, proud and appreciation. The best emotions to take home after a long, partly tiring but fascinating trip along the eastern boarder of Poland.