This is “no country for ordinary people” – this way, travesty the title of a popular Coen brothers movie, you can tell about Bieszczady, a mountain range lying in the south-eastern Poland. Seemingly innocent and friendly, in winter – and snow is present there from November to May – becomes a real school of survival.
As one of the last European non-urbanized mountain areas covered with natural forests (what is a natural phenomenon), Bieszczady mountains have always attracted people seeking freedom, sensitive men, loners, homeless, survivors and finally tough guys wanting to face life difficulties.
Some stayed only up to the first winter, and then – discouraged with freeze and impassibility of the roads covered by a deep snow – run away. Others have stayed forever, no one time cursing this decision, living in poverty and seeking solace in alcohol. But few have found here a sense of life. Many of them became legendary guys. Bieszczady are unusual also for having intertwined its rich, “wild nature” with one of the big basin of art. Many of its inhabitants are painters and especially sculptors. They are artists for the wish of the heart or because of necessity: to earn money for living or simply to do something in the long winter evenings, far away from civilization. Larger or small and modest art galleries are located in cities, in villages or in roadside huts, and the value of these works is sometimes considerable.
Geography and Nature
Bieszczady mountain ranges are located on the south-eastern part of Poland, on the border with Ukraine and Slovakia. They are part of a great arc of the Carpathians, and more specifically – the Eastern Carpathians. Uplifted during Cretaceous period, they are young mountains. To Poland belongs only a part of the Carpathian Mountains – Western Bieszczady and the western part of Sanocko-Turczańskie Mountains. Sanocko-Turczańskie Mountains are low and their ridges, of regular and parallel system, reach a height of 600 to 700 m above sea level. The landscape is dominated by these long ridges with a regular pattern, extending parallely to each other from the northwest to the southeast. The highest peak is Tarnica (1346 m).
Between Połonina Caryńska and Wetlińska
The most valuable natural and scenic areas are protected in the Bieszczady National Park and three landscape parks: Mountains Słonne, River San Valley and Ciśniańsko – Wetliński Landscape Park. Bieszczady National Park – the third largest national park in Poland, with an area of 292 km2 – is located in the Eastern Carpathians and includes the highest parts of the Polish part of the Western Bieszczady Mountains. It belongs to the most interesting European national parks, which is due primarily to the presence of natural ecosystems of Carpathian forest (beech forest with sycamore and fir). In the forests dwell numerous large herbivores and prey including: Carpathian deer, brown bear, wolf, badger, lynx, wildcat; the park is also a nest for birds of prey. The peculiarity of the park is pastures (in Polish: połonina) – Alpine and subalpine grasslands located above the upper border of the forest. In the picture: lynx / Wikipedia.
Annually this protected area is visited by about 200,000 tourists who can enjoy hiking trails with a total length of 206 km.
Forests are the main natural wealth of the Bieszczady Mountains. The characteristic
feature of this region is not only the felling of the forest, but also production of charcoal. BNP charcoal is exported to many countries in Western Europe.
Bystre, a factory of a charcoal
Bieszczady is a region with a very complex past. The civilization which developed there for centuries was exterminated by the World War II and the years 1945-1947. Up to 1947 Bieszczady were inhabited by Ruthenians, Ukrainians, Poles, Jews, Gypsies and other populations. Between the 10th and mid-14th centuries this area was a part of the Red Ruthenia; since the mid-14th century to the end of the 18th century this region belonged to Poland. Later, until 1918, it was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and then returned to Poland. After World War II it was divided between Poland and the USSR. In the picture: Boykos, 19th century / Wikipedia.
The most tragic period in the history of Bieszczady area belongs to the first half of the 20th century. World War I resulted in massive destruction of these lands as the bloody battles of Russian and Austro-Hungarian armies were fought there. Next dramatic events took place in years 1918-1919 – a time of Polish-Ukrainian War. During World War II Germans murdered Jews while Ukrainians murdered Poles en masse. In the years 1945-1947 Poland fought (and won the battle) against the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, which was trying to develop there independent, ethnically pure Ukrainian state.
In the years 1944-1946 a part of the Ukrainian population was deported from Bieszczady to then Soviet Ukraine (USSR), and next year during so called Operation “Vistula” also to Polish Western Pomerania and Lower Silesia, where they replaced Germans (deported to Germany).
Deportation of Ukrainians to USSR, 1946 / Wikipedia
The result of these deportations was depopulation of the area and secondary savagery of nature. Dozens of villages ceased to exist and technical infrastructure was destroyed. Another consequence of that displacement was a total change of national and religious structure of the population. Poles started to settle down there – in a modest number, however – in the mid of 50s. of the 20th century. Today these mountains are inhabited by just slightly over 50 thousands people (the vast majority of them are Poles), of which 21 thousands in three small towns: in Ustrzyki Dolne, Lesko and Zagórze.
Pogórze Bukowskie, near Tarnawa
Density of Bieszczady population is very low – about 25 people/km², and in the area close to the border the number does not exceed 5/km².
People who are no longer there
In the thirties of the 20th century mountain villages were inhabited mainly by Boykos (Ukrainians) – 84% of the population. (Poles consisted only 6%, but at a lower-lying areas this percentage was higher). Boykos (called Ukrainians from the end of the 19th century), Carpathian highlanders, were Greek Catholics (Uniates) or the followers of the Orthodox Church and formed a distinct culture with different clothes, dialect and customs. Their folk culture was strongly archaic what was visible among others in the way of management, in beliefs, burial and in folk costumes.
Ukrainian farm, Hołowiecko (present Ukraine) / Wikipedia
The most visible feature of Boyko material culture was a rural architecture (their farms consisted only of one house) and characteristic wooden churches of the tricuspid valve block, covered with slanting roofs.
Boyko church, Lutowiska, destroyed in 1980 / fotopolska.eu
Today there are not many leftovers of this culture: a few churches and old cottages, which slowly vanish one after one. The only traces of them are ruins of temples and remains of the farms, overgrown with wild plants. In the picture, ruins of the Orthodox church in Żernica Wyżna.
Bieszczady for tourists
Bieszczady is a very attractive region for tourists, especially for those who enjoy hiking away from civilization. Tourists will find there dozens of marked trails, natural and historical paths, as well as horse riding, mountain angling on the river San, and in winter time – skiing. A big attraction is the Forest Railway (in the Western Bieszczady), offering several kilometers tour by the old narrow-gauge forest railway line. It begins in Maidan.
The Forest Railway
One of the biggest tourist attractions in the Bieszczady is the Solina Lake – the largest artificial water reservoir in Poland with an area of 22 km2 and a capacity of almost 500 million m³. The tank is of an outstanding landscape value. Built in 1968 in the valley of the San and Solinka, has a length of 27 km and varied coastline consists of almost 166 km in length. You can sail there on boats, take a cruise ship or walk on the massive concrete dam of the reservoir with a height of over 80 m. Or visit the hydroelectric power plant. Accommodation can be found, inter alia, in the small city Polańczyk.
Solina Lake, a view from Polańczyk
Pictures presented in the article show western part of Bieszczady and western part of Sanocko-Turczańskie Mountains. These are the rarest populated and least developed mountains in Poland.
Hiking: Połonina Wetlińska, Połonina Caryńska
Other: Wooden Architecture Route (read also: Karpaten: Houten Kerken)
Important places: Ustrzyki Górne, Ustrzyki Dolne, Cisna, Polańczyk
links: accomodation (Polish)
Aktywne Bieszczady – accomodation, guidance, sport (English)
Marek Angiel (text, pictures), Renata Głuszek
Pictures: Marek Angiel, Wikipedia
Marek Angiel – geographer, traveler, explorer, actively cultivating his profession; born in Gdańsk, Varsovian of choice. He photographs light and color of nature, cities, towns and villages. He meets and discovers the identity of the Polish regions seeking order, harmony and beauty in the cultural landscapes of his homeland. He loves Polish Carpathian Mountains, Sudety Mountains, Polish sea coast, Pomeranian Lake District, the spaces of the Arctic, the interior towns and cities.