There is a village in the south of Poland, squeezed between three rivers and an old, vast forest. The village has no shop. No pub. No church. Just a cluster of houses, and even those are not in abundance. There is only one cow, a living remnant of the past, chewing away at the clover (her favourite).
That’s where I grew up.
Although, that’s a lie. I grew up in the neighbouring village, much bigger, with a church, a school, a post office, a library, and five shops. The full package, one could say. I was 15, when my family moved to Zielona. What a charming name, isn’t it? Zielona. It means, simply: green. As a child, I spent a fair chunk of time in Zielona, since that’s where my grandparents live and where my mum grew up.
I often think, how many people out there constantly find themselves, like me, going back in their thoughts to this dear place, where they spent the most (I’d hope) carefree years of their lives? How amazing, that all of us, the ones who got detached, tangled in the many roads leading to places we wouldn’t even dream of at the age of 6, find our way home. I realise, sometimes: if I had to explain to someone how to get to Zielona, it would be a pickle.
As I live in the UK now, my journey home takes a little bit longer than it used to, when I first moved out from my parents’ house to Krakow. When I go home (and I do go often), I fly to Krakow first, and then, once I reach the Krakow Airport, that’s when the real journey begins. The journey to a place hidden some 45km away, getting to which – if you don’t drive – can cause a headache: it combines a city bus, a tramway, and a two local buses, which gets you to Zielona.
Sometimes, I try to imagine other people’s journeys home. In London, a multicultural melting-pot, where everyone is different but somehow similar in their difference, people are like a colourful wave. Marching through the busy streets, shopping, going to or from work, chatting, stopping to get a coffee from Pret, always in a hurry, somehow absent. But then, the realisation comes: they all come from somewhere. All of them have a place on Earth they call or used to call, home. Where is this somewhere? How do they get there? How many aeroplanes, buses, trains it takes them to get home?
Or should I even call it home? Where is home? What do I refer to as home: the place I grew up at? the place I live in now? What if I am constantly on the move, changing locations, flats, rooms, houses? When did home become the focus of human interest? Is the need for a home instinctive? Is there a difference between being home and feeling at home? Home is more than just a place. It’s the idea, it’s where we feel at ease, where our heart belongs. For me, home does not even have to be a physically existing building or place: it’s this feeling of being at ease when the recurring feeling of anxiety of not belonging goes away and you feel that you can be yourself.
When I was growing up, I used to dream big. I would immerse myself in books, reading as if my life depended on it; dreaming of travels, studies abroad, speaking foreign languages. I couldn’t wait for the day when I will be able to set myself free. I wanted to pack my stuff and go, start my adventure, be away. And now? Now, I find myself longing for things I never used to appreciate. I long for the change of seasons, so visible in Poland. For the morning fog in November. For the frost on the grass. For the vegetables from my mum’s garden. For my babcia’s soups. For the taste of bread. The smell of the forest in the spring. For mushroom picking. For riding a bike.
Nostalgia is a funny thing. It plays with your head; the longer you’re away for, the more you find yourself idealising things, which might or might not be worth thinking about. You look back, and you reevaluate: things that never especially caught your attention, are now somehow more appealing. Interesting even. I dream about this utopian landscape I created in my head, I long for it, miss it. And when I get there, when the first awe passes, I start missing home again. I notice myself thinking: I wish I was at home, sitting in my bed, drinking tea from my cup. And it makes me wonder: will I ever find a place where I could feel fully at home?
Zielona, the little village I call home, has a charm. When I arrive, I am struck by the calmness, peacefulness, the slowness of life. Someone rides a bike, slowly, not at all in a hurry. People in the queue at the local shop don’t stress, they are not rushing. Even the dogs are barking somehow lazily, as if they knew there’s no point to overdo it. With every minute, I can feel the tiredness wearing off.
The village itself has a history dating back to 1727 when it was mentioned as a part of Mikluszowice parish. The village and the neighbouring villages belonged to the king at the time (Gmina Drwinia, in Polish).
The forest, called Puszcza Niepolomicka (Niepolomice forest) stretches over a vast area in the western part of the Sandomierz Basin, about 20km east from Krakow. The name of the forest derives from an old Polish adjective niepołomny, meaning ‘impassable’ or impossible to destroy or conquer. The forest, covering an area of 94.43 hectares, is home to many plant and animal species and consists of six nature reserves, with diverse flora and fauna featuring many species of birds, as well as European bison, wild boar, deer, wolves, lynx, and wild cats. In the heart of Niepolomice Forest, there is one of the most protected areas, inhabited by the European bison or Polish wisent (żubr) – the heaviest surviving land animal in Europe (Puszcza Niepołomicka, in Polish).
As the forest is situated within proximity of Krakow, which used to be the capital of Poland and the kings’ residency, it was the most popular hunting ground for the Polish kings and royalty, from as long ago as 13th century. The first mention of the forest comes from a document dating to 1242, which called the forest ‘Kłaj’ (which is now the name of a village near Bochnia). In the forest’s vicinity, king Casimir III the Great built a royal hunting castle in Niepolomice, which has been later rebuilt in the late Renaissance style and is often called ‘the second Wawel’ (The Royal Caste in Niepolomice, in English).
Both, the forest and the castle are easily accessible, especially by bicycle, as the forest is transversed by many bicycle paths and walking trails. a day bicycle trip to the forest is a great alternative for everyone tired of the bustling Krakow life. there is a bike trail starting in Mikluszowice, a village near Zielona, leading to Wola Batorska (a village close to Niepolomice). the trail passes by the Polish wisent (żubr) reserve, but to be able to see one of those magnificent animals, one has to be incredibly lucky. it takes about 2h of a brisk bike ride, mostly on asphalt road, to get from Mikluszowice to Wola Batorska (about 28,4km). the ride will probably be one to remember, as the pristine forest provides with an innumerable amount of animal songs and voices, clear air and beautiful sights on the way, Czarny Staw (Black Pond) being one of them. for all the bicycle lovers, I recommend Dariusz Dzięgiel’s Instagram account; he spends a fair time exploring the area on his bicycle, providing his followers with the maps of his adventures and beautiful photography.
As for Zielona, I especially like going back in May. it has always been my favourite month. when nature has awoken, but without the loud, full of life buzz of June and July. when the meadows are dotted with countless flowers, in all possible colours. when the forest is green and bursting with birds’ songs. when the days are warm, but nights still quite chilly. when you sit outside, on the porch, and listen to numerous frogs, croaking away in the night. it’s the most beautiful song, I think, the frogs’ choir. the storks are back from the voyages, busy tidying their nests on the roofs and lampposts, preparing to host new members of their stork families. everything is in full bloom: cherry trees, apple trees, all dusted with white flowers, like with icing sugar.
May, according to the Catholic Church, is also the Virgin Mary’s month. not that I am overly religious, but in Poland, culture and religion are almost inseparable. people in villages and towns gather every evening in May, to pray to Virgin Mary, to sing special songs, in church or outside, in front of the little chapels scattered around the landscape. if you ever find yourself in the Polish countryside in May, don’t be surprised if you see a consortium of (in majority) grandmas, gathered outside the roadside chapel, singing their throats out. these May songs are joyful, melodic, praising the world in bloom, sending thanks to the Virgin Mary for making the world so beautiful.
I wonder if that’s the reason for Mother’s Day in Poland being established in May, too. 26th of May marks the holiday for all mums; children from all over the world coming home or sending cards and flowers to their mothers. schools prepare special plays, dedicated to mums. the chocolate boxes and flowers are sold out in the shops, it’s celebration time. but it’s like that in many places, I bet.
one more thing that happens in May is matura. every high school student dreads it, as it marks the end of high school and new, uncertain times ahead. matura is a set of exams taken at the end of high school, which will later be a deciding factor for admission to the university. the equivalent to A-levels in the UK, I suppose. in Poland, there is a saying: when the horse chestnut trees start blossoming, it’s time for matura. it’s a big deal. this is the time when the high school kids have to decide on their future path: what subjects to take? will I do well? which university will admit me? there is even a song about matura, by a Polish band called Farben Lehre: ‘Hurra, hurra, dzisiaj matura! Marynara i fryzura, matura!’, which translates as (roughly): ‘hooray, hooray, matura today! got the jacket and the hairstyle, matura!’ (Farben Lehre ‘Matura’). I remember listening to this song in high school. I wonder if it’s still known now, amongst the students facing this dreadful exam. quite a cheerful way to approach the matura fear, I think.
nonetheless, May is a cheerful month. with fresh, crisp weather, the greenness around, the frogs, and the storks, it is a great time to find yourself in a place like Zielona.
Here’s a new gallery of photos taken this summer (2019). Enjoy!