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Understand Podlaskie

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Does “Podlasie” mean the same as “Podlaskie”? Why do we celebrate Christmas twice a year? How come Poland’s lowest temperatures are noted right here? Read on to understand Podlaskie!

1. What does "Podlaskie" mean?

The name “Podlaskie Voivodship” derives from “Podlasie” – the name of a historical region in eastern part of Poland. The voivodship of today covers most of Podlasie, but not all of it.

The origin of the name “Podlasie” is twofold. According to the first interpretation the name describes location and means “a land by the forest”. The second one relates to a certain period in history when these lands belonged to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania but were ruled by the Polish law of the land (“pod Lachem” meaning “under the Polish rule”).

Biebrza National Park / photo: Agnieszka Henel

2. "Podlasie" and "Podlaskie" – why is it not the same?

Although the names “Podlasie” and “Podlaskie” look similar, they should not be treated as synonyms. Podlasie is a historical land which constitutes only a portion of Podlaskie Voivodship. Podlasie covers the south-western part of Podlaskie Voivodship, eastern part of Mazowieckie Voivodship and northern part of Lubelskie Voivodship. The historical capital of Podlasie is Drohiczyn.

Besides a part of Podlasie, Podlaskie Voivodship also includes the Suwałki Region and a fraction of Mazovia. The capital city of Podlaskie is Białystok.

3. Why is Podlaskie "fuelled by nature"?

Podlaskie flows with the rhythm of nature. The rhythm, which constantly beats in the region’s culture, traditions, architecture and art. There are more protected areas in Podlaskie than in any other Polish region. Its 4 national parks – the Białowieża, Biebrza, Narew and Wigry – are the enclaves of biodiversity, unique on European scale. The Białowieża National Park protects Europe’s last remaining deciduous primeval forest, untouched by human activity. The Biebrza National Park – Poland’s largest national park – is a pristine land of marshes and home to a rare wealth of animal and plant species.

Nature is the base for leading sectors of the region’s economy: dairy processing (Podlaskie is the largest milk producer in Poland), wood and furniture industry, as well as organic food and cosmetics. If a product was “made in Podlaskie”, you can be sure it is of high quality and natural origin. Podlaskie is also known for a rapidly growing IT sector, and is nicknamed… the “Silicon Forest”!
Czarna Hańcza river / photo: Maciej Nowakowski

4. What is the history of Podlaskie Voivodship?

Podlaskie Voivodship has always been a borderland region. Its formal “birth” dates back to 29 August 1513. Until then, these lands had been under the influence of Mazovia (the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland), Lithuania and Kievan Rus’.

In 1569, the Union of Lublin, i.e. the treaty between the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, created a single state – the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. As a result of that, Podlaskie Voivodship was administratively transferred to the Polish Crown.

After 1600, in consequence of numerous devastating wars with the Cossacks, Russia and Sweden, the land was ravaged, many towns destroyed and population decimated. Several new towns were founded during that period though, including Białystok and Suwałki.

During the third partition of Poland in 1795, the area of Podlaskie Voivodship was divided between Prussia and Austria. In 1807, by virtue of Napoleon Bonaparte’s victory over Prussia, a portion of these lands was incorporated in the newly created Duchy of Warsaw. The largest area, however, became part of the Russian Partition.

World War I left Podlaskie Voivodship devastated, with its population shrunken by 40%. Poland’s declaration of independence in 1918 sparked a gradual comeback of these lands within Polish borders.

Nazi German troops invaded Podlaskie with the start of World War II. Then, as agreed in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, nearly all of the voivodship’s area was annexed by the Soviet Union. Nearly all, because the Suwałki Region remained under the German rule. In 1941, the whole Podlaskie got occupied by the Germans, only to be retaken by the Soviets in 1944.

After the war Poland lost the eastern part of Podlaskie to the Soviet Union. The voivodship however gained some territories to the west and north – the Łomża, Ełk, Gołdap and Olecko Districts.

Following the administrative reform of 1975, the voivodship was divided into three smaller ones – Białostockie, Suwalskie and Łomżyńskie Voivodships. Subsequent administrative changes were introduced on 1 January 1999, dividing Poland into 16 voivodships, with Podlaskie being one of them. The situation has remained so ever since.

Tykocin Castle / photo: Maciej Korsan

5. What kind of landscape to expect in Podlaskie Voivodship?

Most of Podlaskie is a densely forested lowland crossed by extensive river valleys.  However, to the north of the region, the terrain gets a bit hilly. How come this diversity?

Mother Nature laid foundations for the landform of Podlaskie some…  300 thousand years ago. Back then, during the so-called Mid-Polish Glaciation, the ice sheet covered almost the whole area of today’s Poland. It retreated some 170 thousand years ago, leaving a typical post-glacial landscape full of hills and lakes.

Over the next hundreds of years, erosive processes had gradually smoothened the landscape. This process continued until about 115 thousand years ago when the northern part of the voivodship (the today Suwałki Region) was hit by Scandinavian ice sheet. This period, known as the North-Polish Glaciation, ended about 11 thousand years ago.

In consequence, the southern part of the voivodship has an old-glacial landscape with hugely smoothened post-glacial landforms. The northern part of the region, however, presents a young-glacial terrain dotted with hills, deep lakes and tonnes of boulders.

Suwalszczyzna / photo: Paweł Tadejko

6. The lowest winter temperatures in Poland are noted in Podlaskie. Why?

Poland’s “Pole of Cold”. This is the nickname of the northern part of Podlaskie Voivodship – the Suwałki Region. It stems from the fact, that it is the place with the highest number of days a year with temperature below 0°C and the lowest average temperatures in summer. The record low temperature was noted in the village of Wiżajny and reached -36°C.

What is the reason behind that? Due to its location, the Suwałki Region lies within reach of both the cold air from the Scandinavian Peninsula and freezing masses of air coming from continental Siberia. Thanks to this, even when there is little or no snow in other parts of Poland, you can still enjoy a true snowy winter here. Put your skis on and hit the slopes or cross-country trails!

Winter wonderland / photo: Tomasz Tomaszewski

7. Why are there Tatars living in Podlaskie?

Tatars come from north-western reaches of Mongolia and the region of Lake Baikal. What might have brought them as far from home as Podlaskie Voivodship? In 13th century, the Kievan Rus’ was conquered by the Golden Horde, the historical Mongol state, making Tatars immediate neighbours of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

In 14th century, Vytautas, the Grand Duke of Lithuania, offered asylum to Tatar refugees, granting them religious freedom and lands to settle in exchange for their military service. Tatars were widely recognised as skilled horse riders and excellent warriors.

At first, the situation of Tatars in the Polish Crown was far worse than in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania – they were not allowed to build mosques and were bound by much tighter religious restrictions. That is why Tatar settlements in Lithuania are much older than those in Poland. Years passed and in 17th century King Jan III Sobieski equalled the privileges of Tatar nobles with those of the Polish ones, granting them lands to settle in the eastern part of today’s Podlaskie Voivodship.

Bohoniki and Kruszyniany are the only Tatar villages to have remained within Polish borders after World War II. They both are located in Podlaskie Voivodship and feature strong Tatar communities which follow their rites, customs and culinary traditions.

Mosque in Kruszyniany / photo: Agnieszka Sulik, Artur Pachałko

8. Why do we celebrate Christmas twice a year in Podlaskie?

In Podlaskie we celebrate various festivals, e.g. Christmas or New Year’s Eve, twice a year. In order to understand why, you have to take a look at the religious composition of the region. On average about 15% of the population declare themselves as Orthodox Christians. In south-eastern part of the region this percentage soars and reaches as high as 70% in Hajnówka District.

The order of religious festivals in the Catholic Church is determined by the Gregorian calendar, while in the Orthodox Church it is fixed according to the Julian calendar. New Year in the former is on January 1, while in the latter – on January 14. Christmas in the Julian calendar comes in January – on 6, 7 and 8. While in other parts of Poland Christmas is long gone, you can still meet carollers in the streets of Podlaskie.

Carol singers / photo: Paweł Tadejko

9. Why is the European bison a symbol of Podlaskie?

At the beginning of 20th century there were no European bisons in Podlaskie, not a single one. Today the region boasts the largest population of free roaming European bisons in Europe. Here is a short story of the bison which became a symbol of Podlaskie.

Some 2 thousand years ago, the forests, which used to cover larger parts of Europe, were full of European bisons. As humans expanded their settlements, cut down forests and hunted the animals, the number of bisons decreased dramatically. In 19th century, the only free-ranging herds were to be found in the Białowieża Forest and in Caucasus.

All of the European bisons living in Poland had been killed during World War I. The remains of the last free roaming lowland bison was found in 1919. How is it possible then, that it is so very easy today to spot a European bison in Podlaskie?

First efforts to reintroduce European bisons into the Białowieża Forest were undertaken in 1924. A male and a female had been bought from private owners and imported to Poland. Unfortunately their young did not survive long enough. Other specimens were then brought and put in the breeding pen in the Białowieża Forest.

Following the success in breeding and raising the bisons, they started to be let out from nature reserves into the wild in various parts of Poland – the Białowieża Forest, the Knyszyn Forest, the Borki Forest, the Bieszczady Mountains and in the vicinity of Wałcz in Zachodniopomorskie Voivodship.

The colourful European bison, which makes the official logo of the region, has been designed by Prof. Leon Tarasewicz – a famous Polish painter who was born near Białystok and still lives there.

Logo of Podlaskie Voivodship

10. Why is Podlaskie always on your way?

Podlaskie Voivodship lies at the crossroads of many transport routes. Several important railway lines used to go through the region, connecting Warsaw and St. Petersburg, Brest and Grajewo, as well as Grodno, Suwałki and Varėna. Today Podlaskie is crossed by 2 pan-European transport corridors.

Via Baltica, the first of them, is a road which links Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland. The second one is Via Carpathia which connects Klaipeda in Lithuania with the Greek city of Thessaloniki, and runs through Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Greece.

If you wanted to go from Greece to Finland without leaving the European Union, you would have to go through Podlaskie. It simply is on your way!

Biebrza National Park / photo: Piotr Tałataj
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