It’s early morning and I am ready to start a discovery trail in the far-flung corner of Poland’s   Bieszczady Mountains.

This rugged and isolated terrain bordering with Ukraine and Slovakia is full of gentle peaks with sweeping pastures known as “Poloniny” at the top, dense beech forests and fast flowing rivers in the valleys.

This is a wild landscape with great views and home to brown bears, lynx, European bison and quite a few artistic souls.

It is a perfect place to try hiking and horse riding or exploring an authentic and picturesque trail of old wooden Orthodox churches and chapels.

The whole region is dotted with these pretty timber churches that have been the part of this landscape for over five centuries.

This area has always been an ethnic and religious borderland where Poles, Jews, Ukrainians and Russians have lived together. But the 20th century history has been a turbulent one especially the Second World War and its aftermath when all the Russian ethnic groups called the Lemks and the Boyks were forcibly removed from the region. You can still discover some abandoned villages , nowadays, half hidden in high grass and bushes and 59 Russian and Greek Orthodox churches.

Most of them concentrate around a little town Sanok known as the “gateway to Bieszczady”.

Sanok with its attractive old town is a starting point of the wooden architecture trail and a place where you can find the biggest Open-air Museum of Folk Architecture in Poland.

The museum is vast and situated on a high hill by the San river.

It’s many picturesque trails lead through the perfectly preserved 19th century Galician town with its Polish and Jewish workshops, a post office, a fire station and townhouses. From there you climb forested slopes until reaching the 18th century orthodox church and then down again to open fields running between whitewashed houses and flowery gardens.

Walking through the park you will encounter tiny shrines and farm houses, wells carved out of massive tree trunks, small windmills and farm enclosures with curious goats and placid sheep. It is fascinating to wander around among old cottages, sit down on the porch or look inside the old shops. Most of interiors are furnished and decorated as they were 200 years ago.

Some manor houses boast good quality furniture in stark contrast to poor rural cottages where people and farm animals shared the same big and smoky room with animals huddled together in one corner and people sleeping on long wooden benches.

There are over 150 wooden buidings to explore dating from the 17th to the 20th century. There you will find public buildings such as rural schools, shops, farm houses, animal sheds and even industrial structures such as the 19th century petroleum machinery. All buildings are dedicated to different ethnographic groups such as the Lemks, Boyks, Western Pogorzans, Eastern Pogorzans and Dolinians and are segregted into separate sectors.

I particularly liked small orthodox churches from the 18th century and the 17th century wooden Catholic church. You step into the dark not knowing what to expect and then suddenly lights are switched on and you are simply dazzled by golden interiors and very colourful wall murals. The central part is always taken by the impressive “ikonostas” - a golden wall with row upon row of beautiful icons.  It is a symbolic border between a real and a mystical world with the altar hidden behind the “ikonostas” and never visible to the congregation. There are always a few rows of icons starting from the lowest representing the Christ, his mother and the saint patron of the church. The next row shows twelve saints and the scenes from the Christ’s life. Above there will be Jesus Christ with his Apostols and the highest level presents Old Testament Messiahs around the Christ on the cross. It’s a place to reflect, full of beauty and melancholy.

There are many more of these architectural pearls to discover around Sanok where roads  wind up around hills passing sleepy villages, scattered shrines and hidden cemeteries. Some of the Orthodox churches are still in use but many have been abandoned. They stand alone and forlorn usually perched on the top of a hill.

One of the most valuable is the monastic Orthodox church in Ulucz from 1510 with the unique polychromy. It’s only 20 km from Sanok but the place feels very isolated. The church is on top of a forested hill and surrounded by a very old Ukrainian cemetery- an atmospheric but somehow unsettling place. A legend says that villagers three times tried to build this church at the bottom of the hill but three times all their building materials have been mysteriously moved to the top. At last they understood that the hill is a sacred place and moved the church there.

Another beautiful Russian orthodox church still in use is in a tiny village of Hoszow. It is also built on a small hill and surrounded by ancient oak trees named after the Russian saints Cyril and Metody. We were lucky to meet an elderly villager who kindly let us inside the church where we could admire elaborate wall paintings and the golden “ikonostas”. He sadly stated that this place will soon share a fate of other abandoned churches as there are only eight elderly families left in the village.

Nearby, there is a big Boyks church in Rownia village and an abandoned church in Liskowate from the 17th century. Only remnants of the bell tower remain and some of its onion domes are lying scattered in the grass.

Other notable examples of orthodox churches are in SmolnikKroscienko, Radoszyce and Komancza.

And for all of you who do not have time to travel long distances there is a special place in a village called Myczkowce where over 140 orthodox churches have been lovingly recreated in the Miniature Park.

All miniatures stand together on ten little hills and grouped according to geographical and cultural heritage representing Polish, Ukrainian and Slovakian Orthodox architecture. You can unwind there and listen to old orthodox choir singing. A perfect place to start or finish your trail of discovery.

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