The natural border between the nations of Poland and Slovakia, there are ample opportunities to literally walk across the border while hiking the mountain trails (thanks to the EU, this is all okay). The Tatras are a little-known mountain range in southern Poland, but offer some of the best hiking in Europe. Compared to the Alps, the Tatras may seem small – but they are also a road not taken by many. Zakopane, Poland’s capital of the Tatras, is the busiest town in the region (also known for skiing), but most of this mountain range is woven with rustic trails that meander through quiet forests and quaint villages. The Tatra Mountains eke a sort of majestic silence – hiking through their quiet backcountry transports you to another world where villagers still organise outings to go mushroom-picking, celebrate local traditions, song and dance, and bake traditional dishes with little influence from outside the region. Here, timeless landscapes nearly untouched by modern times abound. The bustling Zakopane is an easy starting from, as it’s the most well-known city in the Tatras, but it’s also the most crowded and least authentic. Consider instead starting from one of the a smaller towns far off the beaten track – one example is the Rajcza, a little south of Bielsko-Biala. Of note, the town of Zywiec (home of Zywiec Brewery) isn’t far. Near Zakopane is the amazing mountain fortress Niedzica Zamek. Small towns like Poronin or Nowy Targ are also lovely! No matter where you head into the Tatra Mountains, you won’t be disappointed; every inch of the Polish and Slovakian Tatras is magical.
Snuggled along Poland’s southern border (and spilling over into Slovakia) is an impressive range of mountains called the Beskids. Though no competition for the Alps, the Beskids, which are approximately 600 km in length and 50–70 km in width, comprise part of the massive Carpathian Mountain range (stretching across a large portion of Central and Eastern Europe). Dotted with villages, small farms and wooden houses, they are also crisscrossed with narrow, never-ending trails dipping in and out of the deeply-wooded region. The mountains are big enough that a few minutes after heading into them, you lose track of the 21st century. In fact, borders don’t seem to mean anything, as a glance at the map will tell the surprised hiker that they crossed the border to Slovakia 45 minutes ago (good thing they didn’t ask for our passports!) It is all very rustic. And when you stumble into the brightly-lit clearing overlooking a pretty, wooden chalet–your destination, of course–you drop your heavy backpack and settle down for some roasted kielbasa (Polish sausage) over a fire and cold piwo (Polish for beer, though watch out–consumed at higher elevations, that single beer will have a much greater effect on you than you’d expect!). Dinner finished, you head inside to discover the reason you hiked for a solid 8 hours that day and 8 more the day before–a traditional Polish folk music concert in the mountains! Inside the simple, barely-lit room, there are two men sporting impressive beards and dressed in threadbare (possibly handmade) outfits, sitting on tree stumps and thrumming fiddles. It can’t get any more adventurous as this!
Szlak Papieski (Papel Trail), Beskid Mountains, Poland
These szlaks, or trails, are named so in honour of the most famous man to traverse them: Karol Wojtyla, later to become Jan Paweł II, more commonly known as John Paul II. The main trail is 230km long, but similar trails meander all over the beautiful Beskids, marking the places where Jana Paweła trekked, first as a priest, then bishop, cardinal, and finally, pope. This rustic building, at the Bacówka PTTK na Rycerzowej, is a mountain chalet, a place of convergence for hikers all through the Beskids, from Poland, Slovakia and abroad. In places such as this, locals hold mountain concerts–jolly old men playing on banjos, reminiscent of Laura Ingalls-esque prairie life on what was the American frontier. And when mountain concerts do happen, the chalet is flooded with visitors–propping up colourful mounds of tents if they brought them, and if not, swarming the tiny chalet, paying $5 for a bed, and, when those fill up, $3 for a spot on the floor. Rough as that may sound, the chance to experience a Polish mountain concert deep within the Beskids, one of Poland’s best-kept secrets (Poland has many), with an entirely Polish (speaking) group of companions is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
So maybe the Beskids don’t have much on the Himalayas, the Alps, the Andes or the Rockies, but don’t underestimate the beauty of these mountains that divide Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. While the range is 600km long, the highest point is only 6,762 ft high, less than half the height of Mont Blanc (15,782ft). But that’s okay because in a way, the fact that they are smaller and more unknown makes these mountains more beautiful, more unexpected, and more wonderful to explore from both a natural and a cultural standpoint. Along their paths you might find flowers, small animals, game, mountain concerts, hikers from all over Europe, villages, farms, historical monuments, wild mushrooms, collections of tents in the meadows, rolling fields, strange plants, a lack of border patrols…and many other wonders. Go hiking out in Poland’s Great Outdoors and see for yourself!