Podkarpacie (Carpathian Foothills) is a region encompassing the south-eastern fringes of Poland, at the foot of the West and East Carpathians.
Touristically, it is one of the country's most attractive parts. Visitors come here mainly for the mountains - the Bieszczady and the Beskid Niski which make up the East Beskids. The Bieszczady is more popular, having most tourist trails in the region.
These lands were colonized in the 15th-16th century. This was done by the Boyks and Lemks, descendants of Vlach shepherds who, wandering slowly from the Balkans along the Carpathian arch, adopted elements of the language and culture of East Slavs, developed into two intriguing peoples and eventually settled in this part of the Beskids. Nowadays they are regarded as distinct ethnic groups related to the Ukrainians. Little has remained of their culture in Podkarpacie as soon after the Second World War Poland's Stalinist authorities, in order to destroy armed groups of Ukrainian nationalists active in this area, deported all locals of the Orthodox creed (this infamous operation was code-named Vistula).
In this way, almost all native inhabitants of the Beskid Niski and Bieszczady had to leave their homes. Few of them have managed to return. Once overpopulated, the Bieszczady suddenly became desolate.
After the fall of communism in Poland, Operation Vistula was officially condemned. An open letter on this issue was signed by nearly 500 Polish intellectuals and artists. This does not change the fact that a highly original culture was destroyed and the whole region became dramatically depopulated and underdeveloped. Today the main source of income for the locals is tourists, who can take advantage of the area's numerous hotels, campsites, restaurants and agrotourist farms.
The main attraction of the region is the mountains: the Beskid Niski and the Bieszczady. The Beskid Niski (Low Beskid) is the most extensive range in the Polish Carpathians and also, as its name implies, the lowest (the highest summit, Lackowa, is 997 metres high).
Crisscrossed by trails, paths and dirt roads, it is ideal for both easy walks and cross-country hikes. Gently undulating hills, the scenic Wisloka Valley and fir-beech forests provide a true respite from civilization. The most valuable area has been encompassed by the Magura National Park.
Much more popular with visitors, however, is the Bieszczady. This is the only area of this size in Poland where nature has managed to regain its original form and balance. Almost everywhere in the High Bieszczady there live sizeable populations of bears, European bisons, wolves, deer, goshawks and eagles which once inhabited the Carpathian primeval forests. You can also spot the occasional elk, lynx or wildcat. This is a place to marvel at the power of nature.
The highlight of the Bieszczady is high-mountain meadows called poloniny, abounding in alpine vegetation and partly protected by the Bieszczady National Park.
The Bieszczady National Park is part of a UNESCO-sponsored tripartite (Polish-Slovak-Ukrainian) biosphere reserve "Karpaty Wschodnie" (East Carpathians). The reserve has been created to protect Europe's largest natural beech forests, their wildlife (bears, wolves, European bisons and lynxes) and the unique mountain pastures called poloniny.
In 1998 the Council of Europe awarded the park with the European Diploma for protecting particularly valuable natural resources.
The park, like the entire Bieszczady, is crisscrossed by a dense network of hiking trails.
Vast open terrain is also ideal for horse-riding. On dirt tracks, there are no cars to frighten your horse and you can always water it in a clean stream. Many private stud farms have been established in the area mainly to breed the gentle, friendly and sturdy Hucul horses that make perfect companions for mountain trips. The national park also offers 4WD rides combined with bird and animal watching.
The region's major cultural, industrial and transport centre is Sanok. Its castle, located in a scenic place on the bank of the San, houses the biggest and most precious collection of icons in Poland. At Biala Gora, on the opposite river bank, there is Poland's biggest open-air museum of traditional wooden buildings from the Bieszczady area. Sanok is also the starting point for the Icon Trail, a 70-kilometre loop taking in several villages in which old wooden Orthodox churches have been preserved, the oldest of them dating from 1510. The trail can be travelled on foot, by horse, bike or partly by boat up the San Valley. On forested slopes around, there are also well-preserved ancient forts, burial mounds and cemeteries of various peoples that lived here centuries ago.
Straddling the banks of the San, Przemysl is a pleasant historic city situated on the borderland between Poland and Ukraine, where East meets West.
Its major attraction is an enormous complex of First World War forts (at that time Przemysl was one of the largest fortresses in Europe) and the delightful Renaissance castle in the nearby village of Krasiczyn.
Interesting monuments of the past can also be seen in smaller towns. Komancza boasts fine old Orthodox and Uniate churches. The picturesque Lesko, which makes a great base for trips to the Bieszczady, boasts a fortified Mannerist synagogue ranked among the finest examples of Jewish architecture in Poland. On a hill nearby is an extensive Jewish cemetery, one of the most impressive in the country.
Lake Solinskie, in the heart of the region, is a strikingly beautiful large artificial reservoir immensely popular with tourists. Resorts such as Solina and Polanczyk provide excellent opportunities for water sports. Along the 160-kilometre shoreline, dozens of rentals offer all kinds of boats, canoes, kayaks, yachts and pedal boats. Polanczyk is also a spa. Located on a jutting peninsula, it is renowned for its gentle microclimate and mineral springs which are used mainly for treating respiratory problems.
The Beskid Niski is the cradle of the world's oil industry. In 1854 Ignacy Lukasiewicz drilled the world's first oil well at Bobrka near Krosno. Today you can see there the original shaft from the 1860s and visit a museum of the oil industry.