Walking and trekking
Poland is a dramatically surprising walking destination. While France, Austria and Switzerland get all the buzz when it comes to splendour, Poland is often sidelined as a grim alternative if you can’t afford the more illustrious resorts of Western Europe. This perception could not be further from the truth, in the best possible way: Poland is outstanding, and affordable. Almost circular in shape, Poland’s vast borders enclose the cold beauty of the Baltic coast, thick forests and glacial lakes in the north-east and thrusting mountains in the south, where the country’s borders are walled by the Karkonosze, Bieszczady and Carpathian mountains, and dominated by the country’s highest range: the Tatras.
Climbing in the Tatras is all you need to explain Poles’ reputation as mountaineers of considerable note: Jerzy Kukuzcka, Ryszard Pawlowski and Leszek Cichy are all Polish climbers of whom few in the UK have heard but really deserve recognition for their towering achievements in the world’s great ranges: and it all started in the Tatras. The most impressive of the mountains lie within the Tatra National Park, which operates a network of trails and huts called schroniska gorskie, where despite simple conditions, you can find great atmosphere and usually a number of fellow walkers to share a vodka. Information on both can be found at the National Park offices in Zakopane. The Tatras themselves are high, Alpine peaks of moderate heights (2,000 – 2,500m) but great impact, rising from the forests and harbouring many challenges to serious climbers and day-walkers alike. It is a very important conservation area, positively teeming with wildlife such as bears, wild boar, wildcats and white and golden eagles, so there is a high emphasis on conservation and a small charge to enter the park. Assuming you want to go for the highest point, Rysy, you’ll want to base yourself at the hostel of Morskie Oko hostel, which is conveniently situated at the mountain’s base. The mountain is shared between Poland and Slovakia, but Poland gets the lion’s share of the good routes, and has the steeper, north-facing side of the mountain. This is a very steep ascent, but it isn’t technical. There are many other fine climbing routes on the mountain if your grade goes a little harder, and the summit offers great views into the Slovakian Tatras.
Other good walking routes in the Tatras include a traverse between the summits of Kasprowy Wierch (1985m) and Giewont (1894m), often assisted by cable car from the village of Kuznice, near Zakopane. Harder is the path from the summit of Swinica (2,300m) along the Orla Perc (Eagle’s Path), an exposed ridge which leads to a hostel at the end called the Piec Stawow (+48 18 2077607), where you can spend the night in a truly spectacular location.
The mountains of the Bieszczady, Beskid Sadecki, Karkonosze and Pieniny are the beskidy (lower ranges) and are much quieter mountains than the Tatras, giving you fine solitude amongst still impressive mountains with views of their higher neighbour. Base yourself in Szczawnica for explorations of the Pieniny, which include the Dunajec Gorge. These mountains are good, robust mountains for hillwalking which lack the oblique technicality of the Tatras and make good, rounded hiking for those who want to lower their challenge level and just enjoy the scenery.
Of the non-mountainous areas of Poland, special mention must be given to Slowinski National Park, close to the town of Leba in the far northwest of Poland at the coastal lake of Leba. Here, bewitching sand dunes lure walkers seeking enchanting views of the Baltic and walking of a very different nature. Also in the northwest is Weilkopolska National Park, (another of the 23 tiny national parks Poland has to its name) where glacial lakes and forests lead to the Baltic Coast through one of the most culturally rich areas of the entire country. In the northwest, you may want to have a wander in Bialowieza National Park, Europe’s largest area of primeval forest, which garners fame from its healthy population of bison.
Other parts of the country are accessible most year, and includes the extraordinary volcanic terrain of the Tongariro Crossing, which has been auspiciously described as the world’s best day walk. It’s certainly one of the most unique, and includes the summits of active volcanoes Tongariro and Ngauruhoe. The northern circuit of this walk is listed as one of the Nine Great Walks (nothing to do with the Nine Rings of Power) which traverse the country in convenient, varied and challenging manner, and include the iconic views of New Zealand, including Milford Sounds and Routeburn. These walks aren’t a secret, though, and numbers are controlled. You can book a place between October and late April each year. The Great thing about New Zealand is its variety – it’s an odd shape, and covers lots of latitudes at an extreme position, and its position on the Pacific Ring of Fire guarantees an entertaining topography of burping sulphur cones, fertile green dales reminiscent of Yorkshire, sprawling wildernesses and snow-plastered mountains twisting for the sky that would rival (almost) anything in Switzerland.
Watersports are big in Poland: the country is second only to Finland in the numbers of glacial lakes within its borders, and this hasn’t gone unnoticed. Yachting is popular in the lakes of the north-east, especially in the areas of Mikolajki and Gizycko. Here you can also hire canoes and kayaks and go for an explore. If you are basing yourself in Zakopane there is some great rafting on the Dunajec river, or if you prefer wheels, as well as a number of mountain trails, much of central and northern Poland offer great (though slightly uninspiring in the middle) cross-country cycle routes.
Also, Poland’s rich and occasionally horrifying cultural history is well worth a pilgrimage. Auschwitz is a deeply affecting place to visit for travellers of any culture, and a place everyone should visit at least once if only to catch a glimmer of what happened in Poland so terrifyingly recently. Less recently, Poland spawned Chopin and Copernicus, born in the towns of Zelazowa Wola and Torun respectively.
The Polish invented lager. FALSE. It was the Czechs, though Polish beer is excellent, especially the dark, malty varieties.
Must see and do
- Climb Rysy in the Tatra Mountains Visit www.summitpost.org for routes and info.
- Walk a sand dune in Slowinski National Park Check out the national parks page at www.mos.gov.pl/bip/index.php?idkat=195
- Dig for bargains in Krakow’s markets.
- Visit Auschwitz-Birkenau Read up on the horrifying history of this placeat www.auschwitz.org.pl
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