These articles were published in the Spectacular Slovakia travel guide, published annually by The Slovak Spectator since 1996. The latest editions can be obtained from our online shop.

Poloniny: A walk in the woods

By James Thomson

    Slovakia and Ukraine meet in the Poloniny National Park, the border marked by coloured posts.
 Slovakia and Ukraine meet in the Poloniny National Park, the border marked by coloured posts.
 Photos by James Thomson

It doesn't get much more remote than this. The Ulič valley is the north-easternmost corner of Slovakia, for whose Ruthenian inhabitants Slovak is a second language and Slovak citizenship something of an accident of history. Its hills are green and pleasant and its villages dotted with pretty wooden churches.

But there is more than ethnographic curiosity, cute churches and a delight in out of the way places to draw visitors. The valley is also the gateway to one of Slovakia's best natural attractions, at least for those who don't mind getting their shoes dirty.

The Poloniny National Park, accessed via the valley, is one of the country's biggest and contains a UNESCO World Heritage site to boot. The so-called 'primeval' beech forests Slovakia shares with Ukraine, across the eastern border, are some of the last in Europe never to have been cut or managed by their human neighbours. There are actually several patches which have attracted the UNESCO listing. One of them, the Stužica valley, is a curious illustration of the chequered history of this region (see next articles).

To get to Stužica, visitors can drive, cycle or, if they really enjoy smelling the roses, take one of the very occasional buses to Nová Sedlica, which enjoys minor fame in Slovakia as its most easterly settlement. There, at the end of a village which straggles even by Slovak standards, is a national park office with helpful forest rangers, information about accommodation or, if you feel you've already travelled far enough, hostel-style facilities for 27 people. As an indication of how relatively undeveloped the area is, this makes it the largest place to stay in the park. (More luxurious rooms, and a good pub-restaurant, are available at the Penzión Kremenec in the village.)

From the park office, a marked track leads up into the heavily wooded hills towards Ukraine. Signs give times for walkers, but take these with a pinch of salt since even the forest rangers (who, unsurprisingly, are no slouches when it comes to hiking) seem at a loss to work out how they were calculated. "Only if you sprint" was how one assessed the accuracy of the times; which is not really advisable given the gradients.

After another couple of kilometres on a forestry road the hills crests and there is a sign on the right marking the start of the Stužica area. By now you are already deep in the beech forest; beyond the sign, it gets 'primeval'. Freaky-looking mushrooms aside, you would need the trained eye of a ranger to tell the difference. But 660 hectares of the valley below are, in natural terms, completely untouched.

The track descends into the Stužica valley, and then follows the stream along its bottom, through a series of sylvan glades. But the feeling of remoteness is deceptive: this part of the valley is not untouched. Beneath your feet for some of the way are wooden railway sleepers, part of an abandoned track built during the war. The navvies made a fine job of the embankments along the stream, which are still in good shape, but the bridges are long gone and there are a few streams to jump across.

PICT g177.jpg> Finally, the valley reaches the Ukrainian border, marked by a five-metre wide clearing cut through the forest, and coloured Slovak and Ukrainians border markers. There is no fence, but it would be unwise (as well as illegal) to venture into Ukraine since the area is patrolled and the zone on the Ukrainian side is a restricted area.

From here, you can turn left and up to Kremenec, the highest peak in the area, where Poland, Slovakia and Ukraine meet. From there, a path runs along the ridges, some of them featuring the area's characteristic unforested meadows. These are the so-called poloniny after which the park is named. This route can be used to return to Nová Sedlica via a long circuit (allow a full day) or as the start of a multi-day walk along the Polish border. Alternatively, you can turn right and return to the original path. Both routes involve a steep climb out of the valley and, since signposting in the area is sparse, it pays to have a map or guide.

The valley is surprisingly well-policed, with Nová Sedlica's finest riding around in new Land Rovers and Mercedes four-wheel drives. This is not in response to a local crime wave, but rather to the area's relatively recently acquired status as the European Union's new 'front line'. In December 2007 Slovakia joined Europe's borderless Schengen area, which means that in theory anyone crossing this frontier would not have to produce papers again until they got to the English Channel. As a result the EU has spent a lot of money making sure everyone enters at official border crossings and produces a passport.

Perhaps the new-found attention, or maybe wider car ownership in Slovakia and the surprisingly good quality of the valley road, seem to be having an effect on this previously forgotten corner of the country. The Poloniny area was once renowned for rural depopulation and economic depression. But in summer 2008 there appeared to be plenty of young people around, both locals and visitors. As an illustration, a previous edition of this guide reported that the wooden church in one village, Uličské Krivé, recorded only a handful of visitors each day; when this author visited, people were stopping to take photos every few minutes.

The valley would make an excellent cycle ride. Apart from a stiff climb at the valley entrance to get around the Starina reservoir, it's fairly easy-going and the traffic is light. However, unless you're properly set up for long-distance mountain-biking you will have to ride out the way you come in. But it's a very pleasant ride. The nearest railway station with passenger services (and hence easy bike transport) is Stakčín, where the valley road starts (turn left at the T-34 tank).

Make no mistake; this is not a luxury destination. And Slovakia's eastern most corner may not have the high drama of the High Tatras. But nor does it have the crowds or the high prices.

The luxuriant greenery here comes at a price: rain, and plenty of it. But on the days when the sun shines this is among the best destinations in Slovakia.

These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2009, which you can obtain from our online shop.

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