He stood there, dark, implacable, head lowered as if ready to charge. My Polish brother-in-law stopped the car and turned off the engine. We waited. The enormous beast pawed the ground but must have had second thoughts because he turned and slowly lumbered off to a grassy area at the side of the road. Misty sunlight streaming through the trees dappled his coat as he moved slowly away. He no longer looked menacing, but rather friendly with his thick mane and long beard, although I wouldn't want to come face to face with him while on foot. As we looked around a few more of the primeval animals came into view, varying in size from the giant male which we first laid eyes on, down to a couple of smaller younger ones, clustered around their mother at the far end of the enclosure.
The Polish (European) bison or wisent (Bos bonasus), is a protected species inhabiting the Polish Bialowieza National Park, part of the Bialowieza Forest which actually straddles the Polish-Belarus border. It was the only walking animal which could freely cross the border until 1981, the year of the Solidarity uprising. The border is now intermittently guarded and divided by a 2 meter high fence. A distant relative of the bison which once ranged the plains of the midwest of America in huge numbers, having made their way across the land bridge connecting Asia and the American continent thousands of years age, it weighs about a ton, is 11.5ft long and stands 6.5ft high at the shoulder. It roamed though Europe and England until the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries but remained in isolated wilderness areas in Poland and Russia. Called the zubr in Polish it was almost wiped out by hunting, poaching and the havoc of World War One, and in 1919 the last one left in the Bialowieza Forest died and in 1925 the only one remaining in the Russian Caucasus was killed. Luckily a few were available in zoos and private reserves, and an International Society for the Preservation of the European Bison was established. Today there are thousands of these animals living in protected areas in Eastern Europe.
Buffalo, as they are known in the States, is the popular name used to describe the North American bison. However, buffalo is a distinctly different animal from bison. Although they both belong to the same family, Bovidae, true buffalo are native only to Africa and Asia. Of course they can still be seen roaming the plains of the Midwest, and for a local connection can be seen on the island of Catalina off the coast of Southern California, brought over by a film company in 1924 to be used in the filming of a Zane Grey story - either the film was never made or it is lost, but a small herd of bison remains.
The Polish bison has a special liking for buffalo grass, which flourishes in the Bialowieza Forest. This grass not only serves the bison as its main source of nourishment but has brought fame and fortune to Polish distillers in the form of Żubrówka, a genuine Polish vodka specialty, the result of a tradition dating back to the 14th century. It owes its name to this aromatic grass. Each bottle of the liquor contains 2 or 3 blades of the grass, which imparts a vanilla scent and slight flavor and color to the contents. Not to seem too airy fairy, but most Poles know that directly under the cap of every bottle of Zubrowka is a warm Bialowieza Forest breeze, and further down in the bottle is a loud snuffling from the underbrush (this is probably experienced only after imbibing a few shots of the liquor!). It is best when served straight from the freezer, in order to enhance the taste of such delectables as caviar and smoked salmon.
Of course I only learned these details after the visit to the forest. I was lucky in that as we were ready to leave, on the edge of the forest was a man busily carving souvenir bison. I immediately picked one out, still in its raw state, but the carver wanted me to wait while he applied a coat of varnish. I wasn't fond of the appearance of those which surrounded him - they looked simply cheap and tacky - so I refused and took the carving in its unvarnished state. Later at home I applied a dye myself, which to my eye looks much more authentic. Poor thing, in our many moves he has lost half of his horns, but he still reminds me of that wonderful sight of the massive beast, approaching us through the mist!
Eyewitness Travel Guide to Poland (Eyewitness Travel Guides) by Teresa Czerniewics-Umer, Malgorzata Omilanowska, Jerzy S. Majewski, DK Travel Writers