Moominvalley In November

Have you ever been on your own in a hotel? A big hotel, a hundred rooms – and no other guests but you?

We arrived in Bialowieza on a Tuesday, to stay four nights. It was early November, the night came on early and the village was almost entirely in darkness. A pool of light by the single coach stop, dots of houses further down the road, nothing else. The town sits a few miles from the Ukranian border, with a single road linking it to the rest of Poland – eighteen miles through forest. It has about 500 people, and two large hotels.

The hotels serve the Bialowieza National Park, the largest area of primaeval natural forest in Europe. If the Nazis had won it would have been Goebbel’s private estate – they kept the bison alive so he could hunt them after the war, but then things went badly and the retreating German armies killed and ate the poor beasts. The forest has been repopulated. They are – unsurprisingly – mistrustful creatures and we didn’t see any.

In the Summer the National Park is a big deal and the hotels are full. In November, in midweek, the tourists aren’t so keen. We walked to the edge of town and saw the Hotel Bialowieza – well-lit, welcoming, quite silent. The receptionist looked up at my wife as we walked in – “You must be Miss Smith?”

We put away our bags and had a look around. There was piped music in the corridoors, so low that it always seemed to be coming from around a corner, even when you stood next to a speaker. Nobody on our corridoor. No windows lit in the rooms across the courtyard. The games room, empty: I rolled a solitary white ball from side to side across the pool table. There was a lower level, half-dark, the corridoors lined with bristling pelts. We walked back into reception – even that was empty now.

The hotel still smelt new – it wasn’t in the guidebooks, we’d found it on the web. Outside there was a climbing frame, a swing, a little artificial brook, all floodlit and untouched. A line from an ABBA song came into my head – “In these once familiar rooms, children would play…”. It was a good hotel, designed carefully and built well. But there’s nothing lonelier than an empty playground. We went to bed early that night.