Hiking to Heaven: Walking Through South-Western Poland

Updated: Jul 30, 2019

While staying in the mountains of Duszniki-Zdrój, it would be a shame to miss an opportunity to explore the natural beauty of Poland in nearby towns. Along with two incredible hikes, I've also included a few other attractions you can see nearby.

A close-up of one of many stunning plants growing in Jarków's Japanese Garden (Ogród Japoński). Photo by Emily Fata.

While staying in Duszniki-Zdrój last spring with my best friend Marta (also our magazine's technical editor) at her grandparents', we ventured around not just the beautiful mountain town, but also in neighbouring localities to seek out the natural beauty of the surrounding area. Not only were there seemingly endless opportunities to find peace in the stillness of the environment, but also the loveliest man-made small-scale attractions as well.


From the hikes along both the Errant Rocks (Błędne Skały) and the Great Crevice (Szczeliniec Wielki), to exploring the pathways of the Japanese Garden (Ogród Japoński) and eerie tranquility of the Skull Chapel (Kaplica Czaszek), there is something for everyone in the region to see and admire.





My best friend (and Wanderous Affair's technical editor) Marta Kocemba, her grandmother, and me traversing through Błędne Skały.

The Errant Rocks (Błędne Skały)

Stołowe Mountains National Park, Kudowa-Zdrój

Entry fee: 10 zł

Car parking: 20 zł


Called the 'Errant Rocks' in English, Błędne Skały is located in the town of Kudowa-Zdrój, high up in the stunning mountains of western Poland near the Czechia border. Of the various hikes that we did during our time in south-western Poland, this one was my favourite. Thanks to the sheer fact that you're kept on on your toes — though not literally, as you can see in the photos below! — for the duration of the adventure, I loved being unsure of what to anticipate next as we moved through the trail.



Though through most of the walk you can stand (relatively) erect, there were points where the spaces in which I had to crawl through were so narrow that I had to remove my backpack and push it forward in front of me, while I wiggled through on my stomach like a seal. All the while, you're following a thin pathway, as seen in the images above. It's even more interesting when you take into account the area's colourful history.


During the seventeenth century, the labyrinth of these very caverns and nearly 11 metre (35 foot) high boulders allowed smugglers to discreetly slip into modern-day Poland from the Czech Kingdom. Evidence of this illegal behaviour can be seen even to this day, memorialized on the smooth sandstone rocks of the area, where engraved dates take note of the day that smugglers were supposedly caught. As time moved on and fewer criminals passed through the area, Błędne Skały's nearly 22 hectare (54 acre) preserve began to be frequented more often for the purposes of recreation. Each major rock formation came to take on a personality, so to speak, of its own; landmark formations were named after the shape that they seem to appear as, often that of an animal.


In fact, Szczeliniec Wielki is visible from here, which I'll talk more about in the next section, below!


Straddling the Polish-Czech border, with our torsos in the Czech Republic and our legs in Poland. Photo by Krystyna Kocemba.

As your escapades at Błędne Skały come to an end, you have the chance to veer off the designated path — not necessarily recommended — to straddle the Polish-Czech border, as the Sudetes (of which Stołowe Mountains National Park is a part of, on the Polish side of the border) reaches into its neighbouring nation. These border markers are visible as painted white cement cubic structures emerging from the ground, with a bright red top; they're seen in the photo above. As well, in this photo, you can see how this can be a cool opportunity to 'be in two places at once,' but be careful — right behind us was a frightening drop that was hundreds of feet. One wrong step, and you could fall to your death.


(Fun fact: Błędne Skały was a filming location for both the films The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian and Spellbinder)


Though taken in Poland, this panoramic shot (featuring Marta) overlooks the rolling hills and mountain range extending into the Czech Republic. Taken at the top of Szczeliniec Wielki. Photo by Emily Fata.

The Great Crevice (Szczeliniec Wielki)

Stołowe Mountains National Park, Kudowa-Zdrój

Entry fee: 10 zł

Car parking: 20 zł


The highest peak in the Table Mountains (Góry Stołowe), this 919 metre (3015 foot) mountain is an adventure to climb. The ticket office for admittance on the trail is located a few hundred metres after the start of the walk, so you can technically see some of the breath-taking views and rock formations before having to pay. In fact, to give you an idea of how the mountains and landscape of the area look, John Quincy Adams once wrote about Szczeliniec Wielki by saying, "This range of rocks extends about eight or ten English miles (about 15 kilometres), and begins and ends so abruptly, that it looks as if it were a crown upon the head of the mountain on which it stands..."


For someone less active like myself (yes, I'll admit it), I thought I was going to perish between fifty and one hundred steps up the stairs... that is, less than two embarrassing minutes into our hour-long hike. However, in my defence, the beginning of the hike consists solely of super steep steps, which are quite possibly the worst obstacle that a beginner hiker can take on.


Descending lower into the mountains on the trail (before having to climb back up). Photo by Emily Fata.

Throughout the skyward expedition, there are various changes in elevation on the trail. As an example, as in the photo above, you can see that as walked into this 'dip' in the trail, temperatures dropped and we found ourselves walking past piles of snow and slush. However, after climbing back up from the valley (using a chain mounted to the rocky wall of the mountain for balance, while ascending steps carved right into the mountain face), the blazing sun began to warm us once again. Once again, there was no snow in sight.


However, after the whole seemingly near-death experience — for me, not for Marta and her grandmother, the latter of whom does treks like these on the regular — you're met with the most astounding view. Honestly, despite all the drama I created on the way up, seeing the vibrantly coloured landscape surrounding the mountain from the viewpoint (a panorama of it can be found above) made it all worth it. As if by magic, my body finally felt okay again as I drank in the view and cooled off with the gusts of wind sweeping in over the mountaintops.


As well, if you need to take a break for whatever length of time, a small cabin-like pub can be found at the top of the mountain, where you can stop for lunch, dessert, or even just a coffee or hot chocolate before continuing on through a small section of rock formations you must pay admittance to enter, or skipping over it entirely and returning back down the mountain to ground level.


Completely relieved to be finishing up the hike... my out of shape legs were not happy with me. Photo by Marta Kocemba.

If you opt to enter this section of Szczeliniec Wielki as we did, you'll have the chance to see some incredible rock formations which, like the ones aforementioned in Błędne Skały, appear to be shaped as such things as animals and objects (i.e., a camel, an ape, or even Great Grandfather's Armchair). For the most part, you can easily see the shape of these figures visually pop out at you. In this section of the hike, there are also some additional vantage points that offer even more awe-inspiring views of the area.


Even if you decide to bypass this mini adventure to return down the mountain, you'll still find yourself with the opportunity to see quite a few of these rocky 'landmarks' highlighted on little plaques along the trail, as well as more breath-taking views as you descend the pathway steps.


Ultimately, regardless of whether you're severely out of shape or extremely fit, the views at the top of Szczeliniec Wielki are without a doubt worth every second of the climb heavenward. The landscape that you can witness first-hand when you reach the peak is one of the best rewards imaginable.


Inside the Skull Chapel. Photo courtesy of Atlas Obscura.

Skull Chapel (Kaplica Czaszek)

Kudowa-Zdrój

Entry fee: 5 zł


Giving your body a rest from all the incredible hikes in the area, you can take an hour to see the magnificent Skull Chapel in Kudowa-Zdrój. Similar to the Catacombs of Paris, Kaplica Czaszek's small chapel features the skulls of three thousand victims of the Thirty Years War, the Seven Years War, and numerous other battles between Catholic, Hussite, and Protestants, as well as Poles, Czechs, and Germans that bordered the area. Of course, there were also cholera epidemics and countless diseases that had easily killed hundreds, adding to the number of people's bones housed in this sanctuary.


Prior to entering the chapel itself, we bought our admission tickets and were made to wait outside of the chapel for our turn. Because of its small size and the delicate skulls lining the ceiling and walls, only a set number of people are allowed into the chapel at once. Thanks to this wait however, I had the chance to take the following photos (left: the details of the on-site church, St. Bartholomew's; right: the sign welcoming you to the chapel):



Once inside this solemn space where you are forbidden from taking photos, you slowly take in the small area, which is the only one of its kind in the country. Here, a tour guide shares the history of this building (albeit in Polish — thankfully, I had two translators there with me), as well as how the bones of these people came to find their final resting place here.


In 1776, in the small Polish town of Czermna [about a kilometre (0.6 miles) away from the chapel], a Czech priest named Vaclav Tomasek and J. Langer, a local grave digger, began an eight-year endeavour to collect, clean, and arrange nearly 24,000 human skulls. Although most of the skeletons are stacked in the five metre (16 foot) deep crypt beneath the chapel, the rest are designed, mostly as cross-bones, in what Tomasek dubbed a “sanctuary of silence.” In fact, at the end of our time in the space, the tour guide walked over and opened up a trap-door in the ground to allow us a peek into the crypts below, filled with human remains.


Thanks to many contagious diseases, as well as the Silesian Wars from the eighteenth century, there were mass graves aplenty. As they picked through and cleaned the skulls to prepare for display in the above-ground chapel, they decided upon three thousand in particular, including a Tartar warrior’s skull, the Czermna mayor and his wife, skulls littered with bullet holes, a skull Swiss-cheesed by syphilis, and even the skull of a "giant" (who was really just a very tall person for the time). When Father Vaclav Tomasek passed away in 1804, his skull was also placed on the altar.


Inside the Japanese Gardens in Jarków. Photo by Emily Fata.

Japanese Garden (Ogród Japoński)

Jarków

Entry fee: 8 zł


Though not massive in total size, the Japanese garden in Jarków is so full of stunning greenery, flora, statues, and small ponds and creeks, that it takes a while to make your way through the small pathways to thoroughly admire it all. The garden first came into being in 1980, when gardener Edward Majcher erected this 120 square metre (1290 square foot) slice of paradise. As the second Japanese garden in Poland after Wrocław, it was made available to tourists in 2003.


Unsurprisingly, in the year 2000, it was the winner of a prize from the monthly magazine "Ogrody" (meaning "gardens" in Polish). Indeed, every inch of this property looks as if it belongs on the front cover of a horticulture publication. Curious to see some more photos for yourself? Here are a few pictures that I took while exploring the intertwining pathways of the ogród japoński:


Depending on when you visit in the future, you may the the chance to view its upcoming additions: the latest project includes enlarging the garden by 80 square metres (860 square feet), adding in a small pond, a waterfall, as well as a roof over the pavilion in accordance to the construction rules of Japanese buildings.


South-western Poland, with all of its natural beauty and lush greenery, is a piece of the nation that everyone should take the chance to savour. Though it wasn't until my second time in the country that I finally had the opportunity to see it, I don't think that going forward, I could ever return to Poland without spending at least a handful of days in the mountains.


Where are your must-do hikes around the world? Your favourite natural wonders? Let me know in the comments!


X,

Emily


To read more of our posts on Poland, click here.

#Poland #KudowaZdroj #Jarkow #hiking #Europe #EasternEurope #attractions #nature #church #garden

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