Dates 2017: July 16 – July 22
Krakow acts as a magnet for over 7 million tourists each year and is the most visited city in Poland for many reasons. Sitting royally in the region known as ‘Little Poland’ it epitomises the grandeur, romance, and history of one of Europe’s greatest and most beautiful medieval cities and encapsulates the legends, heritage, and culture of Poland as a whole. From the ‘Cloth Hall’ which has dominated the centre of the Old Town since the 14th century, to the imposing Gothic presence of the St Mary’s Basilica which is home to the breathtaking ‘Altarpiece of Veit Stoss’, to the ancient Wawel Castle built upon the cave of the dragon – Smok Wawelski – on the limestone banks of the Wisla River, it soon becomes obvious on visiting why UNESCO listed the ENTIRE town way back in 1978.
You absolutely must add two or three days to your holiday in order to immerse yourself in what was once the seat of Polish Kings but also to explore the 500 year old Jewish district of Kazimierz, the Podgórze district which was the Jewish Ghetto, the immortalised factory of Oskar Schindler, and the Orwellian dystopia of Nowa Huta with its distinct Social Realist architecture. Moving further afield, once you leave the grid-based town centre and escape the largely intact fortifications, the two main attractions are the incredible UNESCO listed Wieliczka Salt Mine and the more moving Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum and memorial site.
On leaving Krakow, and in the shadow of the impressive Tatra Mountain range, we travel through the dramatic landscapes of the Pieniny National Park, the timeless traditional villages of the Malopolanie people, the tranquil beauty of the Wisla River valley, and the 16th century grace of the wooden gothic churches. This is a jewel of a cycle tour, a cycling holiday that is unparalleled in its scope, breadth, and depth of feeling.
Kraków via Brzesko to Tarnów ~ 34 miles (55 km)
Arrive in Krakow. To really soak up the atmosphere in this charming city, find a stylish hotel in the old town itself and you’ll open plenty of doors to fine food, trendy bars, and a buzzing energetic vibe.
Post bike setup we steer ourselves through the medieval barbican fortifications and down to the gently flowing Wisla River which we’ll follow east towards Brzesko with an optional tour of the Okocim Brewery which was founded in 1845. We continue east towards the town of Tarnów (established in 1125). Before WWII, the town had a Jewish population of 25, Sept 09-15000 but many deported to various concentration camps around the area. We visit the only existing remains of the synagogue before relaxing in the quaint renaissance inspired Rynek (old town). Staying in a comfortable hotel close by, we settle down for the night as Tarnów returns to its own unique peace.
Tarnów via Binarowa to Gorlice ~ 38 miles (60 km)
Cycling into the warm morning sun, we leave Tarnów and pedal towards Binarowa where we visit St Michael’s Archangel church. It was first built in the 15th century but after a destructive fire it was rebuilt over one hundred years later in a late Gothic style. The sacred folk art that adorns the walls show images of a Biecz (nearby town) which no longer exist, and the baptismal font dates back to 1522.
After marvelling at Binarowa’s UNESCO listed wooden church we turn south towards Gorlice, the Tatra foothills, and the Pieniny National park. It was in 1354 that Gorlice was founded during the reign of Casimir the Great. Its turbulent history of establishment continued into WWI when it was the site of the Gorlice-Tarnów Offensive which saw the German forces push their Russian counterparts deep into Russian territory. There are three WWI cemetery’s in Gorlice which are testament to this past.
Gorlice to Krościenko nad Dunajcem ~ 28 miles (45 km)
Sitting comfortably we first head south-east through the Ropa River valley towards the 14th century village of Sękowa with its 15th century UNESCO listed wooden church the Apostles St. Philip’s and St. James. As we approach we see the tapered shingle roof emerge for the surrounding vista of poplar trees. Prior to restoration 1918 the church was used as a stable and some of the wood used as fortifications. The Gothic portals, the font from 1522, and the late Renaissance altar are still intact and are breathtaking in their ornamentation. A short distance from Sękowa is the hamlet of Pętna which is home to a 17th century Eastern Orthodox church.
Skirting the Slovakian border, we are deep inside the Carpathian Wilderness Area that is replete with crystal clear rivers and streams plus the rich flora and fauna which inhabit it. If you keep your eyes peeled you may see a number of animals as Europe’s largest an populations of brown bears, wolves, chamois and lynxes live in the area. The quaint mountain village of Krościenko nad Dunajcem, in the Pieniny National Park is our destination for two nights, and as the night draws in the cool mountain air carries the sound of the Dunajec River into our dreams.
Krościenko nad Dunajcem Circuit ~ 35 miles (55 km)
Waking in the morning, today is a scheduled rest day and a great opportunity to take in the amazing scenery. You can sleep in, lounge around in the hotel, take a raft ride down the rapids of the Dunajec River Gorge with Gorale Highlanders in traditional mountain clothing navigating. You can even hire a kayak and make the 18km down river journey even more adventurous! The river itself is the Polish/Slovakian border and there is a brilliant cycling path alongside the river which is exhilarating! This unique limestone and dolomite landscape is full of rare and endangered species is on UNESCO’s Tentative List of World Heritage Sites. For example, there are numerous colonies of bats (14 species), of which the most interesting is the Miniopterus schreibersi (otherwise known as Schreiber’s Long-Fingered Bat), the only animal common to both Poland and Australia!
It’s difficult to do justice to this area of weathered limestone rocks and dramatic high cliffs of the Dunajec Gorge. An unmissable aspect of the day is a hike to the Trzy Korony (Three Crowns): three peaks that impress with their vistas of the Tatra mountains and the park itself. Other spectacular peaks include Sokolica (Falcon Cliff), Ostra Skala (Sharp Cliff) and Grabczycha, all of which tower over the Dunajec River and its carved out gorge. The days we relax and enjoy here are a standout of the trip and a beautiful and peaceful juxtaposition to thriving metropolis of Kraków.
Krościenko nad Dunajcem to Lipnica Dolna ~ 28 miles (45 km)
Following breakfast, we jump on our bikes and pedal along the gently undulating paths through pristine forests and mountain valleys northwards towards the village of Lipnica Dolna. On the way we stop at Dębno where we visit the Church of St Michael which is a masterpiece of medieval wooden architecture and wonderfully decorative folk art. After viewing this amazing example of craftsmanship we continue in such a beautiful and scenic landscape, we weave our through to the riverside mountain village of Limanowa that was first mentioned in 1496 as rural estate that belonged to the local Szlachta (Polish nobility). City rights were granted in 1565, it was mostly destroyed during the Swedish Deluge in 1655, and a fire raged through in 1759. Our next stop is Lipnica Dolna and the delightful 15th century St. Leonard’s church. History suggests that the current church replaced an 11th century pagan temple – the only remnant of which is a an ancient oak totem in the image of a pre-christian god. Still a functioning church and cemetery, the worshippers are reminded of the Decalogue (10 commandments) every time they enter as the interior is decorated with folk paintings typical of the period. Another great day of sights, sounds, and scenery is capped off by our traditional Polish dinner and comfortable lodgings.
Lipnica Dolna to Kalwaria Zebrzydowska ~ 45 miles (70 km)
With the morning sun on our backs after a hearty breakfast we adjust our cadence and trace a route to Dobczyckie Lake. Yes, you can have a swim in the cold waters if you’re so inclined! We’ve left the mountains now and the Beskidy National park landscape is slowly changing as we head west from foothills to excellent undulating terrain. We are on an age-old pilgrimage route to Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, or to provide its full name, “Kalwaria Zebrzydowska: the Mannerist Architectural and Park Landscape Complex and Pilgrimage Park”. Added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 1999, this 17th century monastery was built during the counter reformation period for Franciscan monks and was designed around a 1584 map of Jerusalem.
The sanctuary is described by UNESCO as “a breathtaking cultural landscape of great spiritual significance. Its natural setting – in which a series of symbolic places of worship relating to the Passion of Jesus Christ and the life of the Virgin Mary was laid out at the beginning of the 17th century – has remained virtually unchanged. It is still today a place of pilgrimage”. With over 42 churches and chapels, a central basilica, and a Franciscan monastery, it is a massive complex (the biggest in Europe) of exceptional cultural/religious monuments built amongst woodlands. Pilgrims visit from all over the world to view a 17th century painting, Our Lady of Calvary” (or the Weeping Madonna), which is situated in a shrine. According to religious history, the painting wept in 1641 and was venerated in 1656.
Kalwaria Zebrzydowska to Kraków ~ 32 miles (50 km)
You’ve cycled from the royal heart of Poland in Kraków, through the cultural home of the Gorale (mountain people), and visited churches and sanctuaries that are core to Polish religious identity. The Beskidy, Pieniny, and Tatra mountain ranges are spectacular and cycling through their grandest valleys is absolutely life affirming. It’s impossible to not be taken away by the scope and scale of this trip. With Kraków slowly coming into view on the horizon we’re reminded of the landscapes we’ve seen, the people we’ve met, and the traditions we’ve encountered. All journeys come to an end, but the end is a new beginning as the medieval streets, architecture, and soul of Kraków beckons you to take one last yearning look into the past, a past which all our futures are built on. Welcome back to Kraków.