Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Poland's hidden oddity: A mini Sahara desert

By Paula Newton and Laura Chubb, for CNN
June 5, 2014 -- Updated 0938 GMT (1738 HKT)
  • The Bledow desert was created by humankind's destruction and natural deposits of sand
  • Multi-million dollar financing has been provided to help safeguard the Polish desert
  • During World War II, it was used to train occupying German troops before they went to Africa

Editor's note: 25 years since Poland's first partly free elections, CNN's On the Road series visits the country looking at how it has been transformed since the fall of communism while taking a deeper look at its customs and culture. Watch reports on CNN TV from June 2

(CNN) -- No, it's not a mirage: there really is a desert in the middle of Poland.

The Bledow desert -- or, as some prefer to call it, the Polish Sahara -- has been flummoxing visitors for centuries. Its sprawling sands are entirely at odds with an otherwise verdant country that boasts four lush lake districts, and 30% of which is covered by thick forest.

More bizarre still is the conservation project funded by the EU to preserve this barren anomaly.

Multi-million dollar financing has been provided to help safeguard the Polish desert, through deforestation and the eradication of native plant life. The desert is shrinking, thanks to the return of native fauna, such as pine and fir trees. Money from Natura 2000, a European Union-wide initiative to preserve fragile ecosystems, is trying to stop it.

How Poland's pope transformed his country
How power of football changed Poland

"Some people would say why bother? Just let it grown green, let the vegetation grow, let the trees grow. Why not?" says Magdalena Moroń, of the Desert Rejuvenation Program.

This place is worth fighting for. It's worth working on it to make sure it doesn't disappear off the map.
Magdalena Moroń, of the Desert Rejuvenation Program

It's a good question. But far from being man made, the Bledow first came to be via a combination of natural and unnatural factors. In the 13th century, the forest here was felled to foster silver and lead mining.

It revealed a hitherto hidden deep layer of sand, deposited by waters flowing from melting glaciers perhaps a century before. Humankind's destruction of native plant life, in league with the natural deposit of sand, created the desert.

In the beginning, this dusty expanse measured 150 square kilometers. Today, thanks to the encroaching trees planted in the 1950s by neighboring locals fed up of sweeping sand from their villages, it now commands a dinky 32 square kilometers.

But while it might not quite be the bona fide Sahara, Moroń insists: "This place is worth fighting for. It's worth working on it to make sure it doesn't disappear off the map."

It's true that Bledow has carved a unique place in its home country's history. The desert's eerie emptiness on the fringes of Chechlo village, southern Poland, has long fascinated passers-by (in 1924, a tourist even reported seeing a mirage here). During World War II, it was used to train occupying German troops before they went to the North African front.

For Moroń, the desert's future rests on it remaining a unique part of Poland. "It's the only natural desert in our area, (so it's) a very big attraction for Poland and Europe," she says. "We are planning to have a lot of tourism here."

The conservation project's objectives are to stabilize the desert, establish nature trails, produce a guidebook and attract 1,000 visitors to this sandy oddity a year. But, unlike the camels that this desert doesn't have, it remains to be seen whether the idea of the Polish Sahara as a major tourist attraction will hold water.

25 years of change: How Poland and its pope made it look easy

The Best of Poland

Read more about CNN's sponsorship policy

Part of complete coverage on
June 6, 2014 -- Updated 0715 GMT (1515 HKT)
The former president of Poland prefers to look to the future than dwell on his place in history.
June 5, 2014 -- Updated 1409 GMT (2209 HKT)
Warsaw's architecture tells the story of Poland's communist past. CNN's Paula Newton reports.
June 5, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
It's the land of Pope John Paul II, Frederic Chopin and really good cheese.
June 4, 2014 -- Updated 0621 GMT (1421 HKT)
One football match in 1983 helped put Poland on the path to democracy.
June 3, 2014 -- Updated 1620 GMT (0020 HKT)
Poland is home to one of only five natural deserts in Europe. CNN's Paula Newton meets those trying to preserve it.
June 3, 2014 -- Updated 0630 GMT (1430 HKT)
John Paul II family house in Wadowice, Poland
Pope John Paul II called Wadowice, the small Polish town in which he was born, "the place where it all began."
May 29, 2014 -- Updated 0347 GMT (1147 HKT)
CNN's Paula Newton on the "pope effect" and how the country has dealt with huge changes.
May 28, 2014 -- Updated 1152 GMT (1952 HKT)
A 'vampire' burial has unearthed a long history of myth making in Poland.
November 22, 2013 -- Updated 1423 GMT (2223 HKT)
Polish cities, attitudes and styles: they've all developed their own distinct identities. But can the same now be achieved with Polish cuisine?
November 21, 2013 -- Updated 1559 GMT (2359 HKT)
CNN's Paula Newton travels to Warsaw to visit the Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
November 20, 2013 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Paula Newton explores the Chapel of St. Kinga, which three Polish miners took 67 years to carve from salt.
November 20, 2013 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
A series of photos from Wroclaw's Market Square are stitched together to create an alternative perspective of the Polish city.
In this creative age of camera phones and photo apps, what better way to learn about a city from afar than through the lenses of its eagle-eyed street photographers?
November 19, 2013 -- Updated 1020 GMT (1820 HKT)
For Poland's National Ballet, the present no longer means reveling in the fleet-footed legends of past stage glories.
November 18, 2013 -- Updated 1101 GMT (1901 HKT)
Poland has become the land of the giants with a recent spate of colossal street art.
November 18, 2013 -- Updated 1059 GMT (1859 HKT)
Polish authors might be little known outside the country, but there are reasons why you should discover them.
November 18, 2013 -- Updated 1114 GMT (1914 HKT)
From vast salt mines to gothic castles, Poland has some surprising and spectacular heritage.
November 18, 2013 -- Updated 1100 GMT (1900 HKT)
Herds of Europe's largest land mammal are doing well in the country's forests, maybe too well.