Discovering our own backyard: Bieszczady, Poland

I'm guilty of it. 

Whenever a long weekend comes around, I check Google Flights for cheap tickets from Krakow to another close-by European destination. After all, you can get from Krakow to Stockholm direct in under 2 hours for under $50/person round-trip. And when we were looking for a place to spend our fall break, we settled on Italy because flights to Bologna were only $75/person round-trip. Stupid cheap airfares, short flights - and just like that, you are in eating the most amazing kannelbular in Sweden or dancing in the medieval squares of Tuscan hill-top towns. We did this for our first two years in Krakow - nearly every break the kids had, we jetted off to another country. And it was fantastic.

But, then reality set in. Only one more year left in southern Poland. We had visited the Tatra mountains (a few times), Warsaw (a few times) and Wroclaw (formerly Breslau, Germany), but other than those well-known destinations, we had not spent time exploring some of Poland's most special places. Thus, after a kind invitation from a friend, we used the next long weekend to go off the beaten track and explore what many Poles consider one of the most beautiful parts of their country (and a place unknown to many expats and visitors): Bieszczady National Park in southeastern Poland.

 Hiking with my buddy in Bieszczady National Park

Hiking with my buddy in Bieszczady National Park

Oh, and how glad we are that we got to see this amazing place - a place untouched by modern civilization, and as a result - pristine, quiet, natural, and wild. It was early October, the leaves were changing, and the forest canopy was an explosion of yellows, oranges, and reds. We hiked to the top of lookout towers to take in the view - rolling hills to the left, rolling hills to the right, and forests as far as the eye can see from Poland to Slovakia, Ukraine and beyond. We stayed in a cozy log cabin heated solely by a fireplace. We hiked through the forest, the dog bounding through streams, energized by the unbridled freedom of the great outdoors. We met with a local Bieszczadian - a rugged mountain man with huge hands who had a mean knack for finding non-poisonous mushrooms in the forest, and who, incidentally, had survived a bear attack. Talk about badass. We hiked within the national park, watching the forest canopy change as we ascended to one of the peaks, met with other hikers, and indulged in mugs of steaming hot chocolate. We explored beautiful wooden churches, and began to understand the history of the area, which has changed hands and inhabitants many times over the years. We ate in a restaurant, Wilcza Jama, that bears an uncanny resemblance to the tavern in Beauty and the Beast, the walls filled with taxidermy and the menu reflecting only what is currently in season. For us, it was rosol with pheasant and wild-boar pierogis. We roasted marshmallows, took in rainbows after a sunshine-filled downpour, played games by the fireplace, learned how to dehydrate mushrooms. We paid a visit to the Bieszczady Wildlife Museum and saw replicas all of the animals including wild bison, deer, bears, owls, and wolves that live in the national park. We spent time together, good old-fashioned quality time, enjoying nature and discovering a whole new side of this beautiful country. I will forever be grateful for that weekend with friends and family, and the ability to experience a place many people will never have the chance to visit.

 

The drive from Krakow to Bieszczady is five hours. To break up the trip, you can stop in the charming town of Krosno and take a tour of the Krosno "Glass Heritage Center". I'm going to be honest here and say that I didn't even know this factory existed - and what I expected was a tour of a small glass manufacturing plant. What I got? What I got was a new appreciation for this little town as the glass manufacturing capital of Poland with beautiful international exports and the realization that this is a really, really awesome museum. We booked a private tour and were able to watch - and participate in - glass-blowing (kids included). We saw the whole process of how glass is made, shaped, cooled, painted, etched . . . it was fascinating, and well worth the time. Visiting Krosno is a side bonus to your long weekend trip to Bieszczady. 

So, if you, like me, live in Krakow, think about taking your next long weekend and explore your own backyard. And not the places that are easy to get to and well-trafficked. The ones that require some effort to get to. The ones that are not necessarily internationally-known. You just might find your next best travel secret, as well as some much-needed tranquility.