The giant bird stays obediently still while I snap a couple of distant shots, but as I attempt to creep a little closer, he spreads his enormous wings and takes off, low at first above the marsh before rising effortlessly over the distant hills.
“It’s not the end of the world, but you can see it from here,” a local musician with a gift for words tells me. Sitting at the southeastern corner of Poland, bordering both Slovakia and Ukraine, the Bieszczady Mountains are home to an area of wilderness that’s hard to find anywhere else in Europe, and while the highest peak is a modest 4,609ft, the range is part of the greater Carpathians that spread across a major chunk of central and eastern Europe.
Yet look beyond the striking natural beauty and there’s a human story to this mountainous region that is every bit as remarkable. Border changes, massacres and mass expulsions in the years during and immediately after World War II, have left an indelible scar on the physical and cultural landscape.
The Bieszczady area was once a lively centre of agriculture and commerce. For centuries, the towns and villages on the slopes and plains were home to a Polish, Ukrainian and Jewish population. Synagogues stood alongside Roman Catholic and Ukrainian Greek Catholic churches, and people lived in relative peace and modest prosperity until the war. The arrival of Russian, and then German troops, caused displacement and death for many.
But while 1945 brought peace and the beginnings of reconciliation to much of Europe, the horrors were only just reaching their climax in the Bieszczady. For two years after the end of World War II, a new wave of atrocities took place in the region, as Ukrainian insurgents and the Polish army fought for control. Finally, in 1947, the Polish government decided to remove the Ukrainian nationalists and their support base by depopulating large swathes of the Bieszczady, the result of which was the forced expulsion of thousands of people whose families had lived in the region for many generations. While wilderness areas elsewhere in the world have become populated over the last 100 years, the Bieszczady was emptied on purpose.
I wander along trails where fruit trees are the only evidence that people once lived nearby. The wood and stone from the abandoned homes has long gone, but the occasional shell of a Greek Catholic church stands as a reminder of another time, when the songs of the countryside came not only from the birds.
The changes in the region’s boundaries are hard for an outsider to follow. I stand on a roadside high above the River San with Edward Marszałek, a spokesman for the local forestry organisation and an expert on the region’s history. We look across the landscape of recently planted fir trees and Edward tells me the river had, until 1951, been the border. He explains that where we’re standing was in the former USSR, before the Soviet Union proposed an exchange of land and population, and gave this wild region to Poland as part of the deal.
The waters of the San are low enough for our Land Rover to cross without difficulty, and on the other side we rummage through the long grass to reach the walls of a long abandoned village, where a pile of earth has become home to a nest of non-venomous Aesculapian snakes. Regarded as the symbol of healing, and used in the design of logos for medical societies around the world, they can grow up to 9ft in length, though the babies we find here fit easily into the palm of a hand.
A while later, we climb to the hilltop site of an abandoned church, one of the many Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church buildings. The roof has long perished and only the crumbling stone walls remain, covered by a spread of moss and plants — all that’s left of this once sacred site. We watch a small frog as it makes its way lazily up a tree bark, guarding the shell of the doorway.
Back by the jeep, a bottle of bimber is being opened. This is a home-distilled brew, guaranteed to provide instant warmth even on a winter’s day, and a single shot glass is constantly refilled and passed around, along with an optional chaser of fruit juice. Only our driver Rafał is excused when the brew is brought out at every stop along our route. I’m accompanied by Mariusz Strusiewicz and Czarek Konieczyński, a woodsman and motor mechanic by trade — and both passionate wildlife photographers.
Mariusz stops to pick mushrooms (that most Polish of pastimes). “Hand these in when you get to your hotel tonight,” he says, stuffing eight large kania (parasol) mushrooms into my hands. “They can cook them up for breakfast.” I oblige and they are truly delicious, with a solid meaty flavour that tastes like no mushroom I’ve ever encountered before.
I head out again in the late afternoon gloom with Olaf Jóźwik, a local hunter and gamekeeper whose job is to manage the park’s wildlife populations. He greets me with a broad smile and takes me down to the local shooting range, where I’m given the chance to fire his 308-calibre rifle at a distant deer. Thankfully, it’s only a paper target, although even a real deer would have nothing to fear from my accuracy.
Olaf packs his rifle and we take a drive in his 4WD through a dense area of forest along one of the worst roads I’ve ever seen. I ask him why the road is so bad and Olaf says with a grin, “The track leads to my hunting platform. This is one of the only vehicles in the area that can tackle such a bad road, so I don’t need to worry about anyone else coming onto my patch.”
I climb the rickety wooden ladder to sit with Olaf 49ft above the forest floor on a makeshift seat, looking down on a clearing. He sees many animals pass through his patch — deer, boar and foxes are considered fair game as part of the wider efforts to manage the park’s wildlife; bears, however, are strictly off the menu. Olaf has thrown lumps of salt on the grass, which serve as bait for the deer roaming the forest.
We sit in deathly silence as dusk descends through the mist, Olaf with loaded rifle and me with camera in hand, but nothing comes. A high-pitched buzz is heard through the treetops, and Olaf whispers to me that it’s the sound of bees preparing to sleep. When it’s near-darkness, Olaf finally calls it a night — and I’m quietly relieved that an animal has been spared a bullet this time. I make my way down the makeshift steps and it’s only at the bottom that Olaf tells me with pride that he built the ladder in two afternoons without using a single nail.
While spotting wildlife in such difficult terrain is never easy, one of the more popular ways to get close to Poland’s wildlife is on horseback. The stables at Wołosate, at the end of the road to the Ukrainian border, offer horse rides through the rough terrain and into the surrounding wilderness. It’s certainly not for beginners, as I discover on a short adventure when my aptly-named steed, Reverse, decides I’m not worthy of his efforts and heads back to the stables, ignoring my feeble attempts to exert my authority. For those with riding experience, the area offers a great chance to go into an environment where bears, wolves and even lynx can occasionally be spotted.
By the campfire later that evening, a group of eight gathers to share stories. These are woodsmen, carvers and hunters — and all of them are first-class storytellers. One man, known by the nickname Łysy (pronounced wyssy and loosely translated as ‘baldy’) has brought his guitar, and as the food and drink are shared out, he begins a repertoire of his own blues songs. Sausages are smoked on long sticks over the open fire, and as the bimber and beer flow, the stories go on late into the night.
A local journalist, Krzysztof Potaczała, has spent years researching the history of the park during the communist era, and he tells us about the famous international dignitaries who were invited by the Warsaw government to go hunting there. Nothing was safe, and several bears were shot by these high and mighty trophy-hunters.
The high point
Olaf wakes me at 4.30am the next morning, and we head bleary-eyed into the fields. It’s in the pre-dawn light that we’ll have the best chance to see red deer and soon enough, through a thin veil of morning mist, we spot a stag. He bellows, head back, into the air, letting his rivals know he’s awake. It’s the start of the rutting season and these cries are part of the ritual of establishing male dominance and mating rights.
Olaf, dressed in camouflage gear, leads the way, taking care not to snap any twigs underfoot, while urging me to stay silent and avoid rapid movements. I’m relieved he’s only armed with binoculars this morning, until I remember that creeping around silently might not be the best approach if there’s a bear nearby. As the darkness lifts imperceptibly, we crouch in the long, dew-soaked grass and I spot the antlers of another stag and behind him, his harem of hinds skipping in the half-light.
There’s no better way to appreciate the drama of the landscape than from above. I take a hike up to the Połonina Wetlińska, an area of pasture straddling a ridge around 1,200ft above sea level, with 360° views across the mountains and valleys of the Bieszczady. I’m hiking up with local guide Magda Sudacka, who likes to spend every waking moment in the mountains. She forces the pace as we climb to the ridge, conscious of the sunset and the spectacular views awaiting us if we arrive on time.
When we reach the small refuge on the ridge — Chatka Puchatka, which translates as ‘Pooh’s Hut’ — the sun is already slowly dipping in the western sky and a group of around 20 onlookers stand on the ridge in a silence broken only by the sound of camera shutters rising above the wind.
Darkness soon falls and we drop our bags in one of the two dorms in the hut. Chatka Puchatka is certainly not a place for home comforts. With no running water and no electricity, there’s little reason to hang around in the room, so those who do spend the night there come together in the cosy bar to share stories over a beer or two. Some guests sit and pore over maps, while others share jokes and play drinking games. I ask the barman Mariusz about winters in the shelter.
“You should come here for New Year’s Eve,” he tells me. “It’s the best night of the year to be here. People come up from the villages, and we have a big party on the mountain.” He points to pictures showing several metres of snow covering the building well above the tops of the windows.
Despite its lack of basic comforts, the big draw of Chatka Puchatka is watching the dawn as the sun appears above the Ukrainian hills. I rise at 5.30am and the majority of the night’s residents are already settled on the hillside, some wrapped in blankets, staring silently to the east, while others are assembling their camera equipment to capture the dawn sky.
As the sun rises, I hear a distant stag bellow a grunting cry at the light of the new day. I take a pre-breakfast walk along the ridge to investigate. The paths are bordered with faded wild flowers. Chatka Puchatka has a special place in the local folklore — it’s even mentioned in romantic Bieszczady folk songs. Meanwhile, a girl in a flowing wedding dress sits shivering back in the hut, waiting for her groom as he gets dressed in the cramped space. They’re newlyweds, here to have their photos taken in this most spectacular setting — goose pimples and all.
The next day I pay a visit to Łysy in his wood workshop. He shows me his work with a degree of modesty, the smell of wood chip and the hand-crafted icons hanging on the wall a testament to his skills. Soon the guitar is out again and the bottle of bimber is doing the rounds, and when a couple of local musicians stop by to say hello, an impromptu party begins. “Here you see a perfect example of how we live life in the Bieszczady,” Czarek tells me. Łysy is a designated zakapior, a word that translates roughly as ‘character’, someone who can tell you a dozen stories for every drink, and whose trade preserves and develops the local culture.
Visitors come to the Bieszczady to enjoy the wildlife, the activities and the hospitality of those who now inhabit the region. What makes this region so remarkable, however, is that these attractions are themselves a legacy of the often tragic story that has made the Bieszczady people what they are today.
Ryanair flies to nearest airport Rzeszów from seven UK airports, including Luton, Birmingham, Glasgow, Stansted and Manchester. ryanair.com
Average flight time: 2h.
Buses run from Rzeszów to Lesko, a town at the edge of the Bieszczady. Hiring a car is the most reliable way to get around the remote areas of the region. Although distances appear short on a map, travel along mountain roads can be very slow.
When to go
Summers are short in the mountains, and for hiking: June to September are the best times to visit with temperatures around 25C. Wild flowers are abundant in the spring, while the deer-rutting season begins in late September. Visit in the winter for winter sports.
Need to know
Visas: Poland is a member of the EU and no visas are required for UK citizens.
Currency: Złoty (PZL). £1 = PZL5.00.
International dial code: 00 48.
Time difference: GMT+1.
Where to stay
In the mountains: Chatka Puchatka. bieszczadypttk.pl/schroniska
Bieszcady: Bukowy Dwor. bukowydwor.pl
Bieszczady: Hotel Perla Bieszczadow. geovita.pl/pl/Hotel-Perla-Bieszczadow
Myczkowce: Hotel Solina. hotelsolina.eu/en/strona-glowna
Rough Guide to Poland. RRP £15.43 (new edition 2014)
How to do it
Regent Travel offers a seven-night fly-drive itinerary, starting in Kraków and ending in Lviv, including a visit to the Bieszczady region, from £965 per person, based on two sharing and including flights. regent-holidays.co.uk
Go Poland offers seven nights’ accommodation in a three-star B&B near Bieszczady, including private transfers between Rzeszów, from £800 per person, based on two sharing and excluding flights. gopoland.co.uk
Published in the June 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)