MASURIA AND THE SUWALKI REGION
Masuria (Mazury) is a historical and ethnographic region in northern Poland, encompassing the Masurian Lake District, a vast land subdivided into several smaller lake districts like the one around Suwalki and Augustow.
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The area is often dubbed “a land of a thousand lakes”, which hardly does it justice as the actual number of its lakes is about four thousand. The largest of them are the Sniardwy (113.8 sq km) and the Mamry (104.5 sq km) in the so-called Land of the Great Masurian Lakes. The deepest lake is the Hancza (108.5 m) in the Suwalki Lake District, and the longest one is the Jeziorak (27 km) in the Ilawa Lake District. Most lakes are linked by rivers and canals of which the main tourist attractions are the Augustow and Elblag canals. Very popular is also the Route of the Great Masurian Lakes (88 km). Masuria and the Suwalki region (Suwlaszczyzna) are a paradise for yachting enthusiasts, canoeists and everyone who loves quiet and forest walks.
During the Second World War Hitler’s main headquarters, called the Wolf’s Lair, was near the Masurian village of Gierloz. Today the ruins of this huge complex of heavy bunkers are open for visitors.
There are extensive forests including the Puszcza Piska and the Puszcza Augustowska, with a network of trails ideal for hiking, biking and horse-riding. Another great attraction is the numerous Gothic castles and churches built by the Teutonic Order that once ruled this land.
Masuria is extremely popular with Polish holidaymakers so it has well-developed accommodation, restaurant and water-sports facilities. In summer, major resorts (Mikolajki, Mragowo, Gizycko, Augustow) hold many sports and cultural events.
The Masurian landscape is extremely diversified, with steep-sided hills, rocky valleys, troughs and large synclines carved by the Scandinavian glacier.
In the early Middle Ages the entire lake district was covered by impassable woods. As a result of human settlement, the forests have shrunk substantially over centuries, yet Masuria still has more wooded terrain, water and lakes than any other region in Poland. The most valuable fragments of the forests are protected by several landscape parks and one national park. The biggest forest is the Puszcza Piska. Nearby lie some of the most beautiful lakes – the Sniardwy, the Nidzkie, the Beldany, and the Luknajno, which is one of the largest breeding grounds of the mute swan in Europe. The forest is cut by the scenic Krutynia River, a popular canoeing route (86 km). In the woods you can see elks and Polish horses, either roaming freely or bred in fenced research stations and reserves. Lakeshores abound in herons, grebes, black storks and cormorants living in large colonies.
The Luknajno Reserve (710 ha) has some 1000 couples of mute swans and is one of the largest breeding grounds of this species in Europe. In 1977 Luknajno was inscribed in UNESCO’s list of Biosphere Reserves and in the following year it was embraced by the international Ramsar Convention which protects wetlands of great natural value and important as waterfowl habitats.
North-east of the Great Masurian Lakes lies the Suwalki region stretching to the border with Lithuania and Belarus. The area stands out for its scenic postglacial landscape. A highlight here is boat trips along the 80-kilometre Augustow Canal built between 1824 and 1839, running through the Augustow Forest (Puszcza Augustowska) and many lakes. Another excellent kayak route is the Czarna Hancza River. Both the river and the nearby Lake Wigry (2187 ha), the largest and most beautiful lake in the Suwalki Region, are protected by a national park. This is an area where you can easily spot a beaver as well as a mud turtle, rare in Poland.
Further to the north lies the Suwalki Landscape Park. This wild area of hills, lakes and extensive meadows has only recently become popular with visitors. The climate is harsh and the views simply take your breath away. Here you will find Lake Hancza, which, at 108.5 metres, is the deepest lake in Poland and one of the deepest in the Central European Lowlands. There are also many interesting geological reserves with huge boulders left by glaciers as well as rare boreal (northern) species of plants and animals.
The region has no big cities, but there are many attractive small towns and villages. The most popular resorts include Mikolajki, Gizycko and Augustow. Dubbed “the Pearl of Masuria”, Mikolajki has the busiest waterfront in Masuria. Along its quay, over one kilometre long, there are hundreds of colourful yachts, motor boats, and pleasure boats that take tourists for cruises on the nearby lakes. The famous Sailing Village attracts visitors with its cluster of lively tavernas. In summer there are plenty of events including the Shanties Festival as well as prestigious regattas (notably the Journalists’ Sailing Championships of Poland). A major competitor of this increasingly popular holiday resort is Mragowo, which plays host to the summer “Piknik Country” International Festival of Country Music.
Occupying a narrow strip of land between the Mamry and Niegocin lakes, Gizycko is another popular holiday and sailing centre, which prides itself on offering the best entertainment in Masuria. In July and August you can enjoy yourself at night-long discos, music gigs and other performances on the shores of Lake Niegocin. Many events (like the summer Championships of Poland in Sailing on Anything) are also held in Augustow. The town, situated in the Augustow Forest, with three lakes nearby, has a healthy microclimate and the status of a spa. There is a lively waterfront and a beach; a great draw here is kayak trips along the Augustow Canal.
Yachting and kayaking lovers must not miss Sztynort, a pretty peninsula village with a big waterfront and a crowded Sailing Village. The local Zeza taverna has acquired something of a cult status among sailing aficionados who flock there every night to drink, sing and have a good time.
An entirely different Masurian attraction is the Wolf’s Lair (Wilczy Szaniec), the Nazi main headquarters during the Second World War. With only short breaks, Hitler and his commanding staff stayed there from June 1941 to November 1944. The perfectly camouflaged bunkers, linked by a system of tunnels, had concrete walls up to eight metres thick. In 1944 the Wolf’s Lair witnessed the most nearly successful attempt to assassinate Hitler. In January 1945 the retreating German army blew up the whole complex, but some of the bunkers and shelters survived. Today you can visit the site by following a marked trail.