Friday 12 June 2015

Hajnówka, Poland: Lunch off the Beaten Track

Even when researching for Lonely Planet, it's rare that I'll visit a place without already knowing something about it. 

When updating for LP, I always have the previous text about that town to refer to, and maybe a map. Like Newton, though on a less serious topic, I can see further because I'm standing on the shoulders of giants... er, well, on the shoulders of colleagues who've been there before me.

This was not the case last Tuesday when I visited Hajnówka, a town of 20,000 or so in the far east of Poland. I was on my way to back to Warsaw from Białowieża, a village on the Belarus border which is the focal point for the national park which bears its name (and contains wild bison).

Though Białowieża is an attractive place, it's notoriously fiddly to get to and from by public transport. In this case, I had to catch a minibus to Hajnówka, from where I would get a mid-afternoon train to Siedlce, from where I would catch a final train to Warsaw.

I already knew that Hajnówka's train station was slightly out of town and had no cafes or restaurants where I could kill time before the train. So instead of hanging about my hotel in Białowieża, I decided to take an earlier bus to Hajnówka and have lunch there.

The minibus dropped me off on ul 3 Maja, a long commercial street near an old church. I recognised the street as I'd changed buses there a few days before on my way to Białowieża from the city of Białystok; they sometimes terminated there rather than at the lonely train station. And I knew from walking up and down it that day, that it had few or no restaurants.

So I was back to basics. I'd noticed on Google Maps that there was a shopping complex, prefixed with "Galeria" nearby, so I walked to that. In bigger Polish cities this woud be a full-blown mall with cafes. Here, it turned out to be one of those "big box" centres you find at the edge of country towns, specialising in furniture and hardware and not much else.

So I walked on with my eyes open, completing a triangle by following a cross street back toward the old church. And it was here that I found the Restauracja Starówka:

Judging from its signage, this was one of those Polish restaurants that specialise in regional dishes, which was fine with me. I could tell though, that they didn't have many - if any - international visitors at their tables. 

For a start, the waitress seemed a little startled to have a non-Polish speaker to serve, though we got on all right with my basic Polish. It was lucky I had that and a translate facility on my phone, because the menu was entirely in Polish:

To make things even more challenging, I was trying to order vegetarian. But that's not as hard as it sounds - if you point at the menu and politely ask "Który jest wegetariański?" (note: bad grammar), the waiter can help you out.

So I ended up having this soup, which translated as "Lentil soup with red lentils. The base is the tomatoes, onion, vegetarian. Aromatic, dense, garlic, thyme. Served with sour cream":

It was delicious, as was my main course - pierogi, the classic Polish dumplings. If you want a vegetarian main in a formal restaurant, this will often be the only vegetarian thing on the menu. 

Luckily, they're great. These were pierogi ruskie, a common variant to find on a Polish menu, translated here as "Potato dumplings topped with cheese sauce with butter." Sometimes they have bacon bits scattered over the top, but that was optional here:

For dessert, I selected something which translated prosaically as "Chocolate cake with a scoop of ice cream." But what arrived was this:

It was quite spectacular.

Adding a coffee to that, the bill came to a total of 44 złoty, about A$15 at current rates. For an excellent three-course lunch in the middle of nowhere, this seemed great value.

After that, I walked off some of the calories on the 15-minute stroll to the train station, where this was waiting for me:

I enjoyed my brief culinary foray into Hajnówka. 

It reminded me that, no matter how useful are guidebooks and online travel resources (and I use both all the time), it's good to maintain your own travel skills and go off the beaten track from time to time. 

The little personal discoveries make your visits to the big, well-known sights even sweeter.  

Note: I paid for my own travel while researching for Lonely Planet in Poland. If you're ever passing through Hajnówka, you can find the Restauracja Starówka at ul Wierobieja 21.

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