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Text by Helen Korpak
Photos by Jussi Särkilahti.
It starts as quiet drizzle after dusk falls rapidly over the Beskids in southern Poland. The tall grass rustles as cold raindrops pound the ground with increasing speed. Before long it’s pouring down in buckets. A low rumbling noise sweeps over the landscape, and suddenly the inky sky is alive with flashes of lightning.
For the lonely hiker backpacking through the lengthy Beskid range for the first time, the storm comes as a dramatic reminder of nature’s power. The hiker scraps his plans to sleep in his tent, reasoning that there has to be a homestay along the trail sooner or later.
Suddenly, a valley opens up before him. There’s a house with cosy windows glowing with soft orange light. The hiker has stumbled upon the Chrobak family’s home in the hamlet of Studzionki – one of the few traditional mountain homestays surviving in the Beskids.
Ela Chrobak smiles as she retells the story of the rain-soaked, shivering surprise guest who knocked on her door some years ago. For all its drama, the anecdote is a realistic rendition of how most people find the idyllic homestay in the village of Ochotnica Górna.
Located along South Poland’s “red” hiking trail, the Chrobak family’s big wooden house is very inconspicuous. There are no big signs, and perched almost 1,000 metres above sea level, the location defies modern technology. GPS navigators usually show the route to Studzionki with vertical tractor tracks going up one side of the mountain. It takes determination or good luck to find this place, but the effort is certainly rewarded.
“I’m originally from the lower valley, but I wouldn’t go back to that life for anything,” says Ela Chrobak, standing in the doorway of her kitchen. Her in-laws, Bronislaw and Anna Chrobak – married almost 60 years – were the ones to start hosting hikers decades ago.
Ela has been running the homestay for a good 20 years now, with occasional help from her daughter and a neighbour during peak season. It’s hard work, especially as she insists on cooking all meals on the old wood-fired stove.
“I absolutely despise cooking on the gas stove,” she says, feeding small splinters of wood into the fire. The extra work is apparently worth it: many visitors have been known to extend their stays just on account of her cooking. “The hiker I talked about earlier – he ended up staying a week,” she says with a jovial smile.
Tatras vs. Beskids
As foreign travel was restricted during communist rule in Poland –which ended in 1989 – the Poles embraced a strong tradition of touristing in their homeland.
With the seaside and the Masuria lakes in the north, the Bialowieza forest in the east and the Tatra Mountains in the south, there’s no shortage of great places to explore.
Among the most popular tourist attractions are the Beskids, forming part of the 1,500 kilometre-long Carpathian range stretching across central and eastern Europe. Locals are slightly amused by the popularity of the Tatras, some dozens of kilometres further south. The spiky Tatras might be more dramatic than the smooth, undulating Beskids, but the consensus among hikers is that the beauty of the Tatras is best admired from afar.
Sure enough, watching the sunset from one of the summits of the Beskids and seeing the looming Tatras soak up the last soft rays of sunlight, one is inclined to agree. It’s like a breath-taking fantasy scene from The Lord of the Rings.
The South Polish mountains are home to the indigenous Gorals (Górale literally meaning “highlanders”). The Chrobak family cherish their Goral heritage and take pride in preserving tradition. Attesting to this is a diploma of merit hanging on the wall of the dining room and the elaborate wooden carvings decorating the space.
Goral woodwork trinkets are wildly popular among tourists, but the woodwork in a real Goral house is on a much grander scale. The carvings in the Chrobak house are by Ela’s husband Waldemar Chrobak, who likes big projects: “Around here, the main beam of the house is usually decorated, or else a separate carved pine beam is suspended right under the ceiling. I do them on commission, all by hand, with nothing but a knife,” he says. The Chrobak family also runs a small-scale farm. “It’s tradition,” Waldemar explains. Here the local farmers still stack hay by hand and collect eggs from their own hens. Waldemar’s mother Anna attends Sunday mass dressed in traditional Goral dress before leading the cows Milka and Jagoda out to pasture – and not as a tourist gimmick. For the urban visitor, Studzionki is like a parallel universe, combining small-scale farming and self-sufficiency with the gifts of the modern world: free wifi and a huge satellite dish.
The red trail
The Beskids consist of multiple small mountain ranges stretching through the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Ukraine. The Polish Beskids are divided into nine areas, from the Silesian Beskids in the southwest to the Bieszczady Mountains in the southeast.
The main hiking trail through the Beskids is the Kazimierz Sosnowski Main Beskid Trail, colloquially known as the “red” trail due to the red signs marking it. About 500 kilometres in full length, the red trail is usually hiked in shorter sections.
Studzionki is located in the Gorce Beskids, about 100 kilometres south of Kraków. It can be reached via the red trail, by car or by local bus from the nearby town Nowy Targ (it’s a 45-minute walk from the nearest bus stop).
This article was first published in the April 2015 issue of Finnair's monthly in-flight magazine Blue Wings.