In the parade of the mountains bordering Southern Poland, The Pieniny (Sometimes translated "The Pienine") occupy a special place. This is neither the largest range in size neither in area, but Poles and Slovaks talk about it with passion, and the little hooked pine on Sokolica appears on each possible calendar!
One of the reasons why Pieniny facinate us so much lies perhaps in their look. The bright white chalky rock that their dolomite walls exhibe, dominated by pine trees and other heliophilous plants, make it some kind meridional mountains, at least in our imagination...
The Pieniny mountains are made mostly of limestone rock, from the Jurassic era. However, some hills of the northernmost regions are of volcanic origin. The Pieniny make the junction with several other mountain ranges, connecting Gorce on the NW, opposite the Dunajec river in Krościenko, the Beskid Sadecki opposite from pass Przełęcz Rozdziela in upper Szczawnica, NE, and Spišská Magura, a wild and interesting area on the south, sometimes mentionned as the continuity of the Pieniny.
The area is usually divided into the following sub-regions:
- The Pieniny Właściwe (or Środkowe), in other words, the heart of the Pieniny. Their top are not the very famous Trzy Korony ("three crowns"), more precisely the rock named Okrąglica (982m).
- The Małe Pieniny, "small pieniny", described below, paradoxally the tallest part.
- The Pieniny Spiskie (Żar, 879m), far less visited (the lack of material on SP about this area witnesses it...), perhaps because of their lack of features, except perhaps the Przełom Białki Reserve in their westernmost end.
Since it is the star of the region, let's start with her presentations: The Dunajec, river which makes almost all the celebrity of the Pieniny. Tributary of the Vistula, it collects all waters of the Podhale region, as well as the Poprad in Nowy Sącz. It has no precise source for the simple reason that it is the result of three merging rivers: the Czarny Dunajec, the Dunajec Biały, and Białka, all of them in the Polish Tatras. The three join above the large reservoir of Czorsztyn.
The romantic view of the Niedzica castle that overlooks made it famous. An all artificial aesthetic in fact, that barely offsets its liabilities: the building in 1994 engulfed many villages and took away some of the local architectural heritage. Warming also the water, altering the ecosystem of species who live there.
The Dunajec does not freeze anymore in winter, say local fishermen. A real shame !
Downstream of the lake is the real beginning of the "geological" Pieniny. The existence of this range and these gorges is due to a complex geologic process, which could be summarized as follows: The Dunajec traced its route while erosion, eliminating softer rocks around, isolated the Pieniny mountains where they now stand.
Describing the action that sculpted these mountains cannot be summarized in only one stage. More information about this complex process is to be found here (National park's page).
Let's go to one of the tributaries mentioned earlier to understand more concretely: the Przełom Białki Natural Reserve, near Krempachy. The river, still flowing freshly at this stage from the Tatras (its bed is loaded with granite peebles), wends its way between two steep rocky outcrops, like sentinels. Just like having chosen its route in advance!
The place, photogenic, is equally popular amongst swimmers for the emerald water, than geologists of all sorts, and climbers who appreciate the cliffs quality.
The Dunajec gorges, in the heart of Pieniny, have seven turns, describing a wide "S". The imposing mass of the Trzy Korony and the "eagles pinnacle", Sokolica, belong to the reliefs that make the celebrity of the Polish shore. Sporty and exhilarating route, rewarding the hiker by unforgettable views.
Let's also mention the "rock of the Seven Monks" ... which are actually six in number. The legend says that the seventh, escaping a fate that would have petrified his colleagues, has been caught later up to Morskie Oko, to suffer the same fate, creating the famous corniche "Mnich" on the side of Rysy.
The Slovak side of the Dunajec, apart from the bike path that allows a visit on the ground, also gets its lot of curiosities like the ravine of "Lesnický potok", leading to the eponymous village of Lesnica (and mountain pass).
South, near Červený Kláštor are rising the cliffs of Haligovské skaly, whose top is Rabsztyn (Rabštin). They extend also in Slovakia and its own national park, where the path of the summit Plašna.
Červený Kláštor has a fourteenth century monastery, which can be visited.
Visit now possible from Poland thanks to a pedestrian bridge linking the two countries, built just before the Schengen era, connecting the town of Sromowce Niżne.
In this village, as well as in Sromowce Średnie (adjacent), one will admire beautiful houses and traditional wooden farmhouses, especially in "Ulica Flisacka", the raftmen street, away from the main road.
This leads us to the great tradition of the Dunajec rafting.
Since immemorial times, the technique of floating is the cheapest mean of conveying wood.
There are several techniques, like "floating lost logs", random, and the "rafting" technique, where logs are connected together, and if the stream allows it, a raftman leads it in order not run aground.
In Europe, industrially, this technique has disappeared during the twentieth century, except in Finland.
It survives only as a folklore in some places like the Dunajec, but not only: in the French Alps, where the "Radeliers of the Durance" are well known, or in Spannish Pyrenees, where the "Nabateros" descend Río Gallego and Río Cinca, making a colorful annual festival.
Raftmen of the region, both Poles and Slovaks, realized early the aesthetic of crossing the Pieniny and already organized tourist raids some 200 years ago ! Does know why the black hat that comes with the "Goral" costume includes shellfish, sewn around the red tape? The raftmen often flew down the Vistula to deliver any timber used for ship building ... pushing the trip to the beaches of the Baltic ! (story told by a raftman)