So spring sprung last week – at least for a couple of days. The clouds rolled away, the sun came out into a fine blue sky, and the temperature reached the high ‘teens. And about time too. After a cold and damp winter with not a lot of snow, the view outside my windows improved and green grass instead of brown mud and puddles became the order of the day. The trees scattered around the grassy spaces between the blocks across the road, that had been sprouting green shoots for a while, suddenly had leaves instead. All very nice.
And time for a walk. Somewhere other than the surrounding neighbourhoods, somewhere there is more greenery than grey concrete.
Las Kabacki then.
Rezerwat przyrody Las Kabacki im. Stefana Starzyńskiego – in English, the Stefan Starzyński Kabaty Woods Nature Reserve, more colloquially known as Kabaty Forest – is a sprawling woodland on the southern edge of Warsaw, its closest entrance perhaps 3km from my flat. It sits close to the location of the pre-War village of the same name, swallowed by the city’s growth into the suburb of Ursynów, where I live. It’s a lovely place that I’ve been to often, both biking and hiking, with a plentiful supply of rough-cut wooden benches, some with log shelters, kilometres of cycling and hiking paths, a picnic field with several bonfire pits for grilling, adjoining a sports and cultural centre and botanical gardens complex. In summer, it’s a very popular day out.
The park is no Ashdown Forest or Peak District, certainly no Joshua Tree, in size or scope, but it holds a wide variety of trees, including oak, pine, aspen and elm, some of them well over 100 years old, and an abundance of wild life. Birds include buzzards, kestrel, tawny owl, green and black woodpeckers, and animals number deer, wild boar, badgers and hedgehogs, as well as tree frogs and grass snakes – at least, according to the authority that is Wikipedia. I’ve seen nothing myself, except vast numbers of dogs, most of them on leads, but heard plenty of different bird calls and scuffles in the thick undergrowth between the trees.
I’ve checked a number of sources other than Wiki, and interestingly nowhere have I found any information about the size of the park. Walking from east to west, in no particular hurry, has taken me the best part of two hours, suggesting possibly 8km, while going north to south has taken me at the same kind of pace about half that – but of course the wood is not a regular shape and I don’t think I’ve used the longest axes either way. In any case, given its proximity to suburban Warsaw – in many places there are blocks of apartments within 50 or 100m from the trees, and on other borders villas are under the eaves of the forest – it’s not a bad size. The nearest Metro station, Kabaty at the southern end of the M1 line, is within sight of the forest, and about a 400m walk from the nearest entrance, skirting the train maintenance depot that at its southern side is overhung by the forest.
The park was once much bigger, a wild wood topping at its eastern edge an escarpment running down to the Wisła river, so once must have been most impressive, but the inevitable growth of Warsaw has swallowed a good portion. What’s left was purchased on behalf of Warsaw from private ownership in 1938 by the city’s mayor, after whom the park was subsequently named. When the Nazis took control after the 1939 conquest that sparked World War 2, Starzyński was captured and executed. The Home Army used it as a hiding place for much of the conflict, but their oppressors conducted massacres and mass burials of Poles during late 1939/early 1940 as part of a brutal campaign to exterminate the Polish intelligentsia: over 200 victims were claimed.
As a result, when strolling carefree along the paths it’s not uncommon to come across a small plaque and cross marking a burial site, often to this day decorated with fresh flowers or candles in honour of the dead. It’s the Polish way. The majority of walkers or cyclists probably don’t even notice them: I had passed several by over the years on family walks or bike rides, but only discovered them on similar solo wanders over the past few years.
The numerous entrances to the forest have a variety of barriers, or none at all, but the one nearest home is unique in having a single track railway line, complete with a red STOP sign, perhaps 10m from the usual red-and-white striped level crossing style pole. It runs from the direction of the Metro maintenance depot at Kabaty, then swings right just beyond the forest gate in the general direction of the main lines that run close to the aiport, but I have no idea whether it remains in operation. The tracks are in good repair, there is little in the way of grass and weeds growing between the sleepers, suggesting regulat traffic, but in the times I’ve been across the track or in its vicinity along the forest border where it runs I’ve never seen any sign of activity.
On this day, the sun shone on a swathe of green grass (there is a small meadow used for picnicking and playing frisbee or some other game next to the crossing on the forest side of the rails) and onto the broad path leading under the trees. Usually when I’ve been there it’s been quite crowded, but not this time. A couple of cyclists had passed me a few metres back, and I could see them both disappearing about a kilometre ahead, well into the wood, and a young mum was sitting on a bench a few metres in, feeding a baby. I ambled in, following the cyclists.
Within a few metres, all the city sounds, faint already since the entrance is perhaps a kilomtre from the nearest busy street, had faded completely away, and all I could hear was birdsong and the faint rustle of the leaves in the light breeze. Now and again, the muted roar of jet engines signalled an arrival or departure at the nearby Warsaw airport. Living, as I do, on a main road from Kabaty to the city centre, right next to one of the Metro stations and with a Park&Ride-cum-bus terminal next to the block, the traffic noise, even on quiet Sundays, is more or less constant from about 5a.m. to well past midnight, so I relish the silence in the forest. This day was exceptionally quiet, because there were so few people about.
I strolled through the woods, happy in my solitude, and in the whole hour or so the walk took me I encountered no more than about twenty other people. Three or four cyclists barrelled past at speed, in both directions (as I’ve done myself), and of the rest most were men and women, in pairs or solo, mostly my kind of age, and the majority with Nordic Walking poles, striding along in the approved manner. I’ve often wondered why the addition of ski poles should make such a difference to a hike, but apparently it does – swinging both arms to operate the poles forces you to keep your body more upright, and the arm movements flex the arm and shoulder muscles to make them work harder. In conjunction with your leg movements, you’re essentially giving yourself a full-body exercise rather than just the legs, building muscle, keeping the joints in legs and arms more supple, and burning more calories. Maybe I should invest in a set and give it a go……I don’t see it could do me any harm!
After perhaps an hour ambling along, I came across a particularly poignant monument. This one is not a simple small wooden cross with a couple of candles and a small commemorative plaque: it’s a full scale shrine, almost an open-air chapel, and has nothing to do with the War. It marks the site of Poland’s worst air disaster.
The crash happened on 9 May 1987, and claimed the lives of 172 passengers and 11 crew. The plane was a Russian Ilyushin IL-62M, the type that at that time, only a few years after Poland broke away from its Soviet domination after the Solidarity revolution, still formed the backbone of the LOT Polish Airlines’ international service. It was a lumbering narrow bodied jet, with four tail mounted engines, looking not unlike the British VC-10, and was en-route to New York JFK. The doomed flight suffered an uncontrolled fuel leak that led to an engine fire and catastrophic loss of all control. The fire broke out shortly after take off, and the flight was diverted back to Warsaw, rather than to the closer Modlin and Gdansk airports, because it offered better firefighting facilities as Poland’s main airport. The crew dumped fuel, but on its approach to the airport, all control was lost and the plane crashed to the ground on the edge of Kabaty Forest, perhaps 4km short of the runway – which must have been clearly visible from the flight deck – 25 minutes after take off.
The spot is now marked by a fenced off clearing perhaps 50m across, right next to a main foot- and cycle-path leading to one of the park’s entrances about 200m away. Right by the back fence stands a simple wooden cross, perhaps 15m high, with a stone plaque at the base. On this day there were seven or eight votive candles burning in ornate glass jars. A couple of metres to the right there is a larger stone plaque engraved with the names of all 183 victims – it too was surronded by candles in their glass jars. Another granite monument by the chapel entrance has a marble plaque engraved with the crash details. Within the site there are perhaps a dozen simple rough-cut wooden benches, allowing visitors somewhere to sit for a while in quiet contemplation.
I sat at one facing the block with the victims’ names, and it was incredibly peaceful. The birdsong was still there, but somehow muted, and the wind had dropped so the leaf rustling had stopped. I tried to imagine what it must have been like for the poor souls sitting in the cabin of that airliner, and wondered what kind of message (if any) had been given by the crew: the passengers must have been aware something was wrong. And what of the pilots, wrestling to control the plane, and seeing the airport runway coming closer…… And then that headlong plunge into the trees…… But my imagination failed me completely: probably a good thing.
I don’t know whether the shrine has been built and funded by the Polish government or the city’s, or perhaps by public donation. But I do know that, especially in the summer when the sun is brightly shining and the trees are green and the birds in full song, it’s a beautiful and peaceful place and a fitting monument to the poor souls who lost their lives that early summer’s day. I hope the friends and relatives they left behind can take some comfort from that.
I sat there for perhaps 15 minutes, listening to the quiet, and munching a sandwich, thinking how transient life is, and how precious each day, and how fortunate I am to be still hale and hearty and surrounded by a loving family and good friends. Then I wiped away a tear or two, re-packed my bag, and headed happily home.