Food & Drink
I clearly remember the first piece of advice I was given about the local hospitality: “Never try to out-drink a Pole”! This was subsequently borne out on more than one occasion when the starting point for a celebratory booze-up – be it wedding, New Year or whatever – appeared to be one bottle of vodka per person.
However, this is a somewhat flippant view, and doesn’t do justice to what is nowadays a more refined and often excellent cuisine. Poland has long been a melting pot of cultural influences, and many of the recipes reflect this with elements from Jewish, Russian, Hungarian and German dishes often in evidence.
As with many countries and cultures across Eastern Europe, food plays a huge part in Polish tradition, hospitality and celebration. Meals are typically hearty and filling, especially in the mountain regions, and feature abundant soups and sauces, potatoes and dumplings, and meat and fish, bold flavours all well-seasoned with herbs and spices.
Some dishes, such as Barszcz (beetroot soup) and Gulasz (paprika-flavoured stew) are widely known across the region and further afield. Other soups may well be encountered, especially in the mountain huts, particularly Bigos (thick sauerkraut and meat soup), Fasolka (bean soup) and Flaki (tripe and vegetable soup, not as bad as it sounds!) – all of which are substantial and delicious.
Then there is Oscypek – pungent little hand grenades of salty smoked cheese, which can be often be found on street stalls and sometimes served grilled with cranberry jam as a snack.
You may also come across Pierogi – ravioli-like parcels usually stuffed with meat (pierogi z miesem) or cheese (pierogi ruskie). Pierogi is becoming an increasingly serious business, with more adventurous fillings tried and regular festivals held to determine the best varieties.
As noted above, Vodka plays a key part in Polish hospitality and tradition, and there are some excellent options to choose from. Besides a variety of clear vodkas of varying strengths, there are also traditional flavoured vodkas such as Krupnik (honey), Zubrowka (Bison-grass) and Wisniowka (cherry) which are all worth a try.
Beer is also popular in Poland, and major local brands include Zywiec, Tyskie and Okocim. In the main, these are decent enough lager-type beers, good for quenching the thirst after a long, hot hike, although all three brands do some more interesting brews, for example in the porter style.
Poland has more than 20 National Parks, the majority lined along the eastern and southern borders, and features a rich and diverse flora and fauna. Forests cover around one-quarter of Poland’s territory, with species varying between lowland and highland areas, and there are also areas of ancient forest and pristine wetland that are home to an impressive array of wildlife.
Animal-life is abundant. There are around 90 species of mammals, including roe deer, wild boar, hare, beaver and wild horse, a number of reptile species and 400+ species of birds – the wetlands being a haven for waterfowl and migratory species. Noteworthy mammal species include small populations of European bison, Europe’s largest land mammal, in Bialowieza and Bieszczady National Parks and a healthy moose population in the marshes of Biebrza National Park.
The mountainous areas are home to Grey wolf, Eurasian lynx, eagle, marten, chamois, marmot, wild boar and wildcat. Brown bear are also present – we have seen them, albeit from a safe distance, a mother and cubs ranging across an open hillside below Kasprowy Wierch. Although encounters are likely to be rare, especially in the busier locations, it is always worth remembering you are in bear-country if hiking in some of the off-the-beaten-track areas – just be aware, follow local guidance and perhaps travel in groups as a precaution.
There are mountain flowers in profusion, with more than 1300 identified in the Tatras alone. These are especially prevalent in July, with crocus, cowslip, orchid, gentian, and edelweiss in evidence, along with shrubs such as bilberry and wild raspberry/strawberry (please note: picking flowers is forbidden).
In terms of environmental protection, although Bieszczady NP contains a fragment of the primeval forest that used to cover a wide swathe across Europe, is home to rare species and some trees over 500 years old, and has been designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site, there are reports of illegal logging which clearly need addressing if the National Park designation is to carry meaningful weight.
Folk culture remains strong in Poland, particularly in mountain regions such as the Podhale at the foot of the Tatras, with an enduring heritage of folk arts, crafts and skills. As the people are often quite conservative and customs deep-rooted, so rites and practices change slowly and many of the “old ways” have continued.
Nowadays, folk culture is most in evidence during religious feasts and festivals. Although folk dress and traditional textiles are typically used only on special occasions, increasingly they can also be seen on show for the benefit of tourists – for example you will often see horse-drawn cart drivers and musicians wearing regional clothing.
Folk architecture still predominates in the mountains, with the wooden ‘Zakopane style’ much in evidence and indicative of the long history of woodworking. Some of these houses have been fitted out as craft museums using traditional skills, and are certainly worth a visit if you are interested in ethnography or regional crafts.