It’s not often that I hear common sense spoken in a bar, but I’ll give credit where it’s due, for that’s where I was when I heard these words of wisdom: “Hotels shouldn’t be judged by their stars or facilities,” opined my comrade for the evening, “but by whether or not they speak to your soul.”
Now barring the sheer pomposity of the phrasing, there’s not a lot wrong with the overall statement. A five star glass tower is all well and good, but after Day Three you begin to feel like a corporate droid. No thanks, gimme’ somewhere special.
Carska is precisely that.
Buried in the depths of Białowieża, it is nothing if not unlike waking up trapped in the pages of a novel by Tolstoy – and who doesn’t want that?
But unlike a work by Tolstoy, the Carska story is quite simple to follow (or at least simple-ish).
Back when this chunk of Poland fell under Russian dominance, the surrounding primeval forests became the hunting grounds of choice for the Tsars and their lackeys. So bewitched were they by it, that in 1894 work was completed on a sumptuous 120-room palace – not bad for a holiday home. The problem, and it was seen as a biggie, was that getting there meant a bumpy horse carriage journey from the station in Hajnówka.
The answer to this first world problem was the construction of an elegant private station in Białowieża itself. Later, that was joined in 1903 by Białowieża Towarowa, a sister stop built to handle the incoming luggage of the travelling royals.
In all, Tsar Nicholas II is said to have visited six times, a run curtailed by the Russian Revolution and his family’s subsequent slaughter, and in 1944 the hunting palace was torched to the ground by retreating Hungarian troops – what little remained was cleared in the 60s with the one bridge to the past being Białowieża Towarowa.
Allowed to slide into disrepair, it was only at the start of the millennium that a visionary benefactor trundled along and had a lightbulb moment: why not revive the rotting station as a Tsarist-themed hotel? Why not indeed.
From this emerged the magical world of Carska.
Unique on every level, what has developed is accommodation contained within a vertiginous water tower and picturesque wooden cabins straight from Hansel & Gretel. But it’s the train carriages that are by far the most coveted.
Perched on a disused railway siding sit four saloon wagons, each lovingly reinvented as an opulent suite.
Now for me, one of the biggest thrills of travel is that teasing sense of intrigue that comes with opening a door to see what lies beyond. What guarded, secret pleasures await on the other side?
In the case of the wagons, the pictures don’t prepare you.
Pushing the door open with a hefty thwunk, the sight that greets you is one of spellbinding beauty. Deliciously decorated with dark, rich colours, sunlight spills in from the windows casting portraits of imperial nobility in an ethereal glow.
Taking in the scene, I’m disappointed only by the fact I have not travelled alone. At one stage, I realize, I will need to extract myself from this timeless scene to meet other people.
As irritating as this realization is, it transpires to not be an entirely bad thing. The nearby town is a joy of scenic timber lodges and onion-domed churches. From each house, smoke rises from the chimneys to become one with the twilight.
Life-affirming as it is, instinct pulls you back to Carska – you don’t want to miss a minute by being somewhere else. And why bother with town when, come darkness, the station building is the place to be.
Surrounded by hunting trophies and oil paintings of monocled, sash-wearing gentry, it is here that we dine on important sounding game dishes delivered by waist-coated staff that glide like ghosts. Good food, cold drinks and rambling conversation, it’s the kind of pleasing night that fills the memory with warmth. But the best is yet to come.
Swapping cursory salutations of “see you in the morning”, it is the walk back to my wagon that I remember the most. All stars and silence, it’s a fleeting, passing moment of complete and utter peace. This is not a hotel, I think to myself, but a portal to another time.