Poland's wild woods
One of the most significant relics of East Prussia’s past was eventually chewed up and spat out by the forest – the Jagdschloss, or hunting palace, of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Today, an avenue of slanting red oaks leads to the site where the Jagdschloss once stood – trees that were said to bow down before the Kaiser as he approached for the hunt. “It’s a very sad place,” says historian Dr Andreas Gautschi. “Now, all that remains is the forest and the birdsong.”
A Swiss-born author, Dr Gautschi has dedicated much of his life to researching the history of Romincka, and he now lives with his family in a village on the edge of the forest. He shows me fading black-and-white photographs of the Jagdschloss in its heyday more than a century ago – foreign dignitaries posing in its banqueting hall, and German aristocrats with twirly moustaches standing triumphantly over fallen stags. In recent times, Dr Gautschi has scoured the forest for the ‘Kaiser Stones’ – monuments that mark the sites of Wilhelm’s greatest kills and heartily congratulate his majesty on his huntsmanship. He tells me it’s likely that there are more of these monuments waiting to be found in the forest, lost in the undergrowth and buried in moss. However, few other locals share his interest in a German emperor synonymous with bloodshed in Poland. “Kaiser Wilhelm was not a good man, but he was a great hunter,” says Piotr Narloch. “And good hunters are part of the ecosystem of these forests, just like all the other animals.”
An insurance company executive sporting a high-powered rifle and a winning smile, Piotr is one of many hunters from across Poland who visit Romincka Forest. He and his camouflage-clad companions spend cold nights in the forest waiting for unsuspecting boar to trot into their sights – sheltering at Zytkiejmy Lodge, a former East Prussian forestry office with a pair of growling wolf heads carved over the entrance.
Lunch here is served on a scale to provide ‘insulation’ ahead of cold winter nights in the forest. Neatly arranged on the table before us are steaming bowls of soup, wild boar and venison sausages, stacks of pancakes, slabs of cheese and an endless heap of sauerkraut. “Hunting isn’t just about killing or tracking animals,” says Piotr as he shovels sausages onto his plate. “I have two teenage daughters, so it’s good shooting practice in case boys ever try to sneak into my house.”
Twilight sets in and snowflakes dissolve on the windowsills of the lodge. Piotr and his fellow hunters pass dishes around as they exchange stories of their adventures in the woods, recounting a tale of one night when a wolf hijacked their hunt, ambushing a wild boar before they could shoot. Fortunately for the wolf, it enjoyed diplomatic immunity – hunting wolves is no longer legal in these forests.
We slap our bellies contentedly, before more dishes are brought in. I soon realise that we’ve only eaten the first course.
Sinclair Dunnett is a Shakespeare-quoting Scottish naturalist who has been leading wildlife tours in northeast Poland for nearly 30 years. “It’s natural to be afraid of the woods at night,” he says. “We humans are primates, and primates aren’t designed to function after sundown.” Wolf, lynx and boar, on the other hand, are all designed to work the graveyard shift. After dark, you stand the best chance of seeing these animals, and at night the forest is at its rowdiest.