In the far west of Poland along the German border, the
province of Lubuskie is like something out of a fairy tale.
It’s one of the country’s least populated regions. It’s
also the most densely forested, with half the land covered in deep green
woodland and more than a quarter reserved as protected nature parks. In between
the great expanses of green are sparkling blue lakes, medieval castles, picturesque
villages, rolling fields of wheat and the occasional vineyard. It’s a place
where clichés like charming and bucolic are appropriate descriptors.
People have inhabited Lubuskie for more than 1,000
years. Originally a part of
Poland, the land changed hands several times throughout the centuries, coming
under German rule until it reverted back to Poland in 1945. Germans and Poles have long sung the praises of its climate and
clear air as a health aid. It’s a convenient stopover on the train route between
Berlin and Warsaw. All this – yet it remains one of the least visited provinces
I started my trip in what’s known as the Pearl of
Lubuskie, the map-dot hamlet of Łagów. It looks like a setting out of one of
Grimms’ fairy tales: a string of 18th-century houses set on an
isthmus between two lakes ringed by beech and oak forest. Bordered by two
medieval gates, the hamlet is watched over by the 14th-century Castle
of the Order of St John, its tower poking up through the trees like a perfectly
shaped chess piece.
Like many of the 20 palaces and castles in the region,
the structure is now a hotel, the 14-room Zamek Joannitów. While the castle advertises itself as a luxury
accommodation, the beech furniture is simple and hand-crafted, the rugs and
tapestries well-worn and the beds predictably firm. Like, it feels like a treasured
antique that just needs the dust blown off and a little polish applied.
I got my bearings from the castle’s tower, which is
open to anyone willing to climb four flights and a vertiginous ladder to the
top, 35m above the village. Below, mist rose from the twin lakes on either sideof
the castle and plumes of wood smoke floated from the village’s red-brick
chimneys. Beyond the lakes, the forest spread as far as I could see, the
occasional red and orange flare of autumn leaves interrupting the interminable
I looked down on the town’s tiny main street, its 120m
length lined with 18th-century tenement houses and capped on each
end by 15th-century stone and brick gates that once marked the boundaries
of the centre. It has grown since then,
but not by much. The population of the
town – including the houses beyond the gates – is a mere 1,500.
The Grimm brothers lived in neighbouring Germany, but
locals say some of their famous stories have roots in this Polish region, passed
down for generations before making their way west across the border. Standing at the top of Łagów’s 700-year-old
castle tower, it was easy to see a connection to those dark and fantastical tales,
to imagine Hansel and Gretel skipping past the town’s gingerbread houses and
leaving a breadcrumb trail into the thick forest.
To explore the woods on my own, I rented a bike and pedalled
out of town, past one of the gates where a stoplight controlled the non-existent
traffic through a one-lane tunnel. The underpass was short enough that I could
see the open road on the other side. As I reached the red stoplight, a single
car pulled up to wait, forming the world’s smallest traffic jam.
Outside the gate, the road curved around the shore of
Trzesniowskie, the larger of the town’s two surrounding lakes. It is 20km in
circumference and one of the deepest and clearest of the region’s 500 lakes, many
of which are connected or close enough to portage between on the 200km-long Lubuskie Water Trail. Trzesniowskie’s visibility can reach 15m,
so divers come from around the country to explore its depths.
Like the other nearby lakes, the two in Łagów teem
with fish such as bream, pike and perch. The few small shacks along the shore
were closed the morning I was there, but advertised low rental prices for
paddleboats, kayaks and no-frills fibreglass motorboats. I imagined the lake
swarming with activity during the summer, but being early October, the lake was
empty – the still water reflecting the sky like a mirror. A lone fisherman was
casting a pole from a wooden dock; the occasional “plonk” of his lure hitting
the water was the only sound to break the silence.
I headed for the wooded trail that rings the smaller
of the two lakes, Łagowskie, and took my time on the 10km ride through sun-dappled beech, oak and pine
forest, stopping at a small pub, Pod
Lipami, on my way back to the castle for a lunch of fried perch, fresh from
The next day, a 105km-drive north took me deeper into Lubuskie and into the heart of Poland’s wine country. There
are 400 wine producers in Poland, but most plant only a few acres. One of the most
respected is at the Mierzecin Palace Wellness and Wine Resort, a renovated 19th-century
palace set on 200 acres of beech forest, farmland and lakeside vineyards near
the town of Dobiegniew.
It’s one of 14 stops on Lubuskie’s Wine and Honey Route, which offers travellers the chance to
learn more about wine and honey production, taste local products and meet with
producers. Poland is one of Europe’s larger producers of honey and most is made
by small apiarists like those found in Lubuskie. Visitors can also try Eastern Europe varietals such as sylvaner and zweigelt, which thrive in the
colder climate. In most cases,
it’s the only chance to taste the tipples made at these wineries, as their
small production means little or no distribution.
The winemaker at Mierzecin Palace, Piotr
Stopczyński, spent seven years in California’s Napa Valley perfecting his
craft. Now his wines are served to the Polish president. The winery’s rondo and
regent, both dry, tannic reds, have won multiple awards at Eastern European
“Poland is not there yet,” Stopczyński told me
when I asked how local wines compare to those from France or Italy. “But every
year we learn something.” Like the Lubuskie region, the wines of Poland need a
little bit of polishing to shine.
In addition to 66 guest rooms, a wine-themed spa,
sprawling gardens, a winery and a restaurant, there’s a large equestrian
facility onsite that houses the palace’s breeding studs. Horseback riding has
always been a part of rural life in Poland, but now it’s becoming part of
tourism as well, with a growing network of riding trails crossing the
countryside. The palace’s horses lead guided rides through the woods and tours of
the palace property in beautifully restored antique horse-drawn carriages. I chose to spend my final hours in
Lubuskie on the back of a stately dark brown horse named Grand, riding through
the shady forest, up gently sloping green hills and through the carefully
Out in the woods, it was easy to forget that I
was a short train ride from two of the largest cities in Europe. Despite the
ease of the trip from Warsaw, Lubuskie, felt worlds – and centuries – away from
Poland’s capital, and with the thick forest obscuring most of the sunlight over
the trees, it was just as easy to imagine something magical in the shadows of
the Polish countryside.
By train, Świebodzin is
three hours from Warsaw (400km) or two hours from Berlin (175km). There is no car rental option in town, but taxi
or a guide and driver can be arranged for comparable cost through local hotels.
Łagów is 21km from Świebodzin and Dobiegniew is an additional 105km from Łagów.
The Mierzecin Palace will
arrange transit for hotel guests.