Poland is All About the Bicycle

VeloMałopolska is eight routes, leading, among other places, through the Pieniny Mountains, the Tatra Mountains and the Niepołomice Forest. Local paths and bicycle routes connect to them. There is also infrastructure for mountain biking, including its extreme Enduro and Downhill variants. The region can also be crossed from south to north on the VeloDunajec, over more than 230 kilometers (km), which goes to the Slovak side and there it joins the Aquavelo trail – calculates Marek Ryglewicz, a teacher from Nowy Sącz, author of bicycle guides for the southern Małopolska region. They include descriptions of mountain routes in the Beskid Sądecki, the Low Beskids and the Ciężkowicko-Rożnowski Foothills.

TVP WEEKLY: How many kilometers have you cycled?

I never counted it, but I think at least a few thousand. It may not seem like much for a cycling lover, but remember that we are talking about trips into the mountains. If you live in a region where the mountains are at your fingertips, you can plan such outings almost every day.

It wasn’t like that from the beginning however because, I have to mention here, that I was born and raised in Mazovia, and as you know, there the terrain is flat. My first adventures with the mountains didn’t start until my studies in Gliwice. I was studying computer science and specializing in “electronic medical equipment”. At that time, a lot of road races and camps were organized, mainly in the Silesian, Żywiec and Sądecki Beskids. The latter particularly captivated me and when I finished my studies, I decided to start a new phase of my life in Nowy Sącz – I worked in the Provincial Hospital Complex.

I didn't have a car at the time and decided to cycle on the roads. With my first paycheck, I bought a so-called folder. It was the 1970s and you could only dream of mountain bikes back then. However, it didn’t bother me, because I preferred slow riding more than bike races. You could get to know new places and admire the views in an economical way. In those days, there weren't as many cars on the road as there are now, so it was quite safe.

In time, I got into such good shape that I set off on increasingly longer and more demanding routes, such as from Nowy Sącz to Szczawnica or Nowy Targ. When I was able to buy a mountain bike, there were almost no limits for me. The adventure with exploring the mountains on a bike began in full. And the Nowy Sącz region was a perfect place for such escapades.

You mentioned once that the Nowy Sącz region is a paradise for cyclists. Why?

We have a varied number of routes here, intersected by rivers and streams that lead through hills and mountains, sometimes exceeding 1,000 meters (m) above sea level. If we add to this the opportunity to admire the magnificent landscapes, unique monuments of wooden architecture, communing with unique mountain nature, I have no doubt that the Nowy Sącz region is one of the best places for cycling.
Marek Ryglewicz’s bike and the Lake Rożnów in the background. Photo: MR
One of the most beautiful routes that I like to come back to runs by Lake Rożnów. It is an unforgettable experience: to admire the largest reservoir of the Nowy Sącz region from a height of several hundred meters, with a beach there and a marina for boats and sailboats. The lake is about 20 km long, 1-2 km wide and about 30 m deep. It has a fairly developed coastline and a varied landscape with steep and wooded shores. There are several tourist and summer resorts by the lake. In the middle of the water is so-called Monkey Island, where there is a bird sanctuary. There are over 160 species of birds in the area, including the rare black stork.

The route along the water has three exhausting climbs, and the same number of descents. It leads through the surrounding mountain towns. Finally, you can enjoy a swim in the lake. And all this can be experienced on a 33-km trip.

Therefore, it is not surprising that you decided to inspire your students with your tourist interests, as a teacher at the Electrical and Mechanical Schools in Nowy Sącz. As part of running the Bicycle Tourism Section for over 10 years, over 150 young people have participated in bicycle trips around the most beautiful corners of the Nowy Sącz region.

The Bicycle Tourism Section was established in 2006 as part of the Polish Tourist and Sightseeing Society School Tourism Circle. Over the period of its activity, it has managed to organize over one hundred bicycle trips and travel over 2,000 kilometers. The longest route was almost 100 kilometers.

The beginnings, however, were not easy. Only two students went on the first trip, and only one on the second. I figured it was a complete flop and the operation should be shut down. However, when reports and photos of the trips appeared in the school display case, interest in the trips began to increase among students. After a year, 20 students belonged to the section. And that number kept growing. How did they perceive it? Here I can quote some of their reminiscences. They shared them years later, when I was preparing a report on the section’s activities.

One of the students, Daniel, wrote: “I especially remember the trip to Jamna – because of the long stretch through the forest in knee-high snow; and all other trips where unexpected rain made you feel discomfort – these trips gave special joy, and also distanced you from everyday life”.

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Another student, Jakub, recalls: “As a graduate of Electrical [School], I have very nice and sentimental memories of trips with Mr. Marek and the rest of the gang. Bike trips were not only a break from the gray everyday life of high school, but also gave us a chance to commune with mountain nature during trips to the Beskid Sądecki (oh, the smell in the air when deer ran across the road on the way to school in Maciejowa), or in Pogórze Rożnowskie. It should also be mentioned that we got to know the culture and monuments of neighboring towns and beyond, such as Orthodox churches near the Polish-Slovak border. I think many of the former members of the section still carry on with their passion. Of my own example, I can say that I decided with my brother and friend in summer 2009 to travel from Nowy Sącz to Hel [at the tip of the Hel Peninsula, on the Baltic Sea], along the eastern border. We covered 1,300 km in 10 days. This year we plan to travel around all of Poland along the borders”.

And maybe finally Mateusz’s memories, which touched me especially: “Hmmm... It’s hard to fit in a few sentences all the emotions that accompanied these two-wheeled trips... It’s impossible to forget! Fog, morning chill, sometimes over a thousand meters above sea level and a group of friends traversing through the forest along the winding and narrow paths of the Beskid Sądecki Mountains. I remember that I always delayed the group, closing our peloton, but I always explained that it was wind resistance, which I had much more of than the others, lugging a huge guitar case on my back ;-) Some of the places we visited were breathtaking, they are ingrained deep in my memory. The moments we spent resting, playing, singing, joking and fooling around created an atmosphere that made me forget about reality, tests and problems. These were amazing experiences. And now I miss it all so much! I am a second-year law student at the Catholic University of Lublin. Daily of course ;-) I rarely come home because of the distance. Besides, probably nothing has changed... I just hope that Electrical is still a school that, in addition to a high level of education, tries to develop the passions and interests of students as it did a few years ago :-) .... Then, I didn’t always appreciate and notice it... ”

I will summarize the above reminiscences with the golden thought of the Polish philosopher Tadeusz Kotarbiński: “It’s good to have motorways, but only paths that can be deviated from give flavor to life.” So riding a bike gives you an extraordinary feeling of freedom and ease.

Has anyone in your family caught the bicycling bug?

The whole family. I have three daughters and each of them rides a bike – whether it’s in the areas around their home, or exploring more interesting parts of Poland, such as Roztocze National Park, the Bieszczady Mountains, the Low and Island Beskids, and the Gorce and Sudeten Mountains. There are also trips abroad to Italy, Slovenia and Croatia. One of my three daughters, Agnieszka, together with her husband Maciek, even decided to go on a bicycle trip along the western, Pacific coast of the island of Taiwan. It made a special impression on me. I, on the other hand, together with my wife Krystyna, explored the island of Bornholm [Denmark] by bike a few years ago. There are 200 km of such routes there. They are very well marked. It was impossible to get lost.
The vicinity of Dąbrowska Góra. Photo: Marek Ryglewicz
In recent years, I also have a lot of satisfaction from cycling with my grandson Tymon, who spends his holidays with me. He is 12 years old and in pretty good shape. Once he went with me on a two-day trip to Przehyba, sleeping overnight in a mountain hut. The route was not easy, because we went from Stary Sącz along the yellow trail to Przysietnica, and from there through the hamlet of Ogorzałe and, only along the paths known to me, we reached the slope running at an altitude of about 1,000 m above sea level, below the ridge, along which the blue PTTK trail leads, and finally to the asphalt road from Gaboń to Przehyba, right next to the Rock of St. Kinga.

We reached the mountain hut. After a night of sleep, we went back down the red PTTK trail through Skałka to Przysłop, from there we went down to one of the longest valleys of the Beskid Sądecki, Obidza, and take it to Jazowsko. From there, we took the VeloDunajec route back to Stary Sącz. My grandson was enraptured with this trip. As you can see, there is great potential in cycling tourism.

And this is how you thought to write cycling guidebooks? Eight of them have already been created, including along the Beskid Sądecki, Rożnów and Czchowskie Lakes, and Krynica-Zdrój and Muszyna.

Spending time actively like this not only brings a lot of pleasure, but also broadens the knowledge of the extraordinary place that is the Nowy Sącz region. That is why I decided that it is worth describing and systematizing it. And that’s how the guides came to be. There are over 100 suggestions for trips, the routes of which are at least 3,000 km long. Each of them is different, some, for example, feature nature and landscapes, and others, unique places and historical monuments, and yet others include the ascent of a given summit. Typical mountain routes mean numerous climbs, during which you have to overcome elevation differences, from several dozen to several hundred meters. In this way, I tried to minimize riding on roads with heavy vehicle traffic. The most frequently proposed bike routes lead along local, good-quality asphalt roads, but it also happens that they run along a dirt road, along a forest path, or along a mountain trail. Sometimes, and this applies to riding on certain parts of the trail, it is necessary to walk your bike.

However, not everything could be described. I remember my trip to the vicinity of the Grybowski Mountains. It is a mountain range of the Low Beskids, located between the Sądecki Basin and the Biała River Valley. On one of the peaks the slope was so steep that it was impossible to go down, let alone ride down from there. It’s a miracle that nothing happened to me. I didn’t include a description of this route because I didn’t want to encourage dangerous bike trips.

There are plenty of demanding mountain routes in the guides, however. Which of them might be the greatest challenge for cyclists?

It will definitely be a trip from Stary Sącz to Szczawnica through the mountains and valleys. I have traveled it several times. This is a very demanding route, it’s mainly for hardcore riders. Undoubtedly, you have to be in very good shape. But in my opinion, it’s worth overcoming your weaknesses, getting tired and pouring out liters of sweat. Because, after all, beautiful views are the reward.

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This route is less than 60 km long. It has two steep approaches and, at the end, even climbs. I needed eight hours to cover it, including stops. But it can be spread over two days, for example, overnight in mountain huts on the way. Then we can observe sunrises and sunsets in the mountains. Something that’s unforgettable.

I’ll give you a broad description of such a route, which I included in one of my guides:

We set off from the Stary Sącz square towards Nowy Targ. We cross a few streets and start pedaling along the wide Piłsudski Street, with the forested slopes of Miejska Góra on the left, and the wide valley of the Dunajec on the right. We pass the town of Mostki and enter Gołkowice with its very characteristic old buildings, the remnants of the German settlement. In the center of the village, we turn left into the local road leading to Przehyba through Skrudzina and Gaboń. A few hundred meters further, at the fork, we turn right towards Łazy Brzyńskie. The local road now runs along the Dunajec River, parallel to the national road on the other side of the river. Minimal car traffic and a good road enable safe riding, which is why the last section of the Royal Bicycle Trail, marked in green, has been led here. The road passes through farmland and past sparsely scattered houses and farms. A forested area begins in Gaboń, covering the steep slopes falling to the Dunajec. At the edge of the forest, on the left, it is worth stopping by the large chapel with a wooden statue of Christ. The local people believe that a nearby spring heals various diseases. How much truth there is in this is unknown.

Then we start a fairly long, almost two-kilometer climb, during which we ascend about 100 meters. A larger cluster of houses is the hamlet of Łazy Brzyńskie. And then again, through the forest, we start our descent into the Obidza valley. While riding, it’s worth stopping in an unforested place with a beautiful view of the Dunajec flowing below with the bridge in Jazowsko. We find ourselves above the Obidza stream. You can turn right to Jazowsko, straight to Brzyna, but we turn left and start riding up one of the larger valleys in the Radziejowa Range. The valley is quite wide, buildings are sparse along the road, small plots, meadows, and most of the steep slopes are covered with forests. They are mostly mixed, with a lot of birches, and when the weather is favorable, there are loads of mushrooms. We reach a larger group of houses, this is the village of Obidza. There is a new church in the center, and the asphalt road on the left leads to the hamlet of Majdan.

Going further, on a dirt road, we would reach the Herślowa Pass and then Przehyba. There could be a second variant of the route here, but we continue our journey through the main valley. Right behind the church, we pass a large primary school building and a little further we cross the bridge over the Obidza stream, which from then on will accompany us on the left side for a long time. The road continues to go upwards, quite steeply in some places. The wide valley narrows significantly, there are more and more trees and so we reach the last hamlet of Sutorze before Przysłop. This is where the asphalt road ends and the forest road, which is quite well-maintained, begins. After a few hundred meters we reach the place where timber is transported, where two streams and two roads meet.
On the way to Radziejowa. Photo: Marek Ryglewicz
We choose the one that slightly turns left and upwards. The last section has a steep enough gradient that I decide to cover it on foot. And when you already see the first farm, you know that the pass is a stone’s throw away. We are located at an altitude of 832 m above sea level, there are several houses and a monument commemorating tragic events from World War II. It’s a beautiful place to relax and enjoy the amazing views. This is where the red PTTK trail runs from Krościenko through Dzwonkówka and then through Przehyba to Rytro.

During another trip here, we turned left to follow the red trail towards Przehyba, but now we turn right, because our destination is Szczawnica. I will just mention that the fastest way to Szczawnica would be the road going down to the valley of the Sopotnicki Potok, but then we’d be consciously giving up the beautiful views that will be given to us while riding the red and then the yellow trail. The climb starts slowly, it’s steep, the path is bumpy, so I decide to hike it.

It's not easy, because you have to overcome a 150-meter difference in elevation over the course of a kilometer, but maybe this is also the charm of mountain biking. The compensation is a splendid view of the Przyslop Pass and the following peaks rising above it, and Przehyba at the end, easily recognizable by the relay mast. We are located right next to the Dzwonkówka Peak, 983 m above sea level. This is where the yellow PTTK hiking trail from Szczawnica to Łącko appears. We turn left. The route descends quite sharply, so, you just have to get off the bike on some parts of it without risking it. We ride southwards, down a sloping ridge. The mountains visible in the foreground are of course, the Pieniny Mountains, and those sharp, jagged, barely visible in the fog rising above them, are the Tatra Mountains. We climb successively lower and lower peaks, Kotelnica 847 m above sea level, Cieluszki 811 m above sea level, we climb slightly to Bereśnik 843 m above sea level, and after a few minutes we find ourselves next to the second mountain hut after Przehyba, or rather Bacówka near Bereśnik.

A short rest, combined with tasting the delicacies served in the hut, and we’re off. The road is first paved and then paved with slabs, it descends very sharply and after a while, passing more houses and guesthouses, we go to Dietl Square in Szczawnica, beautifully revitalized recently, around which we can admire the pump room, the natural history museum, and in the middle, a beautiful a fountain.

Now we go down Zdrojowa Street and reach Main Street. Here we turn left and along Szalaya Street, and then via Szlachtowska Street we go up the Grajcarek River valley. We pass the slightly elevated neo-gothic style Church of St. Wojciech. We reach the bridge on the Grajcarek, and we continue straight ahead along Samorody Street, perpendicular to Sopotnicka Street. The name comes from the stream, the valley of which we begin to ride in, it has its source on the southern slopes of Przehyba.

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We continue slightly uphill all the time. On both sides of the street, we are accompanied by compact buildings, numerous private accommodations and guest houses. From the left, there is a blue pedestrian PTTK trail, the valley narrows, and we reach the beautiful Zaskalnik waterfall, which attracts crowds of tourists and holidaymakers. We pass the Czarda Inn, and right behind it, the local red trail turns left to the Pod Bereśnikiem mountain hut. After a moment we cross the bridge, the blue trail turns right and we continue straight ahead. After a bit, we pass the last houses of the Sewerynówka hamlet and reach the fork in the road where the historic Sewerynówka chapel is situated. Two bicycle routes lead from here, one continues straight along the Sopotnicki Potok (longer and easier), but we choose the shorter one, which climbs very sharply to the ridge along the Jastrzębi Potok.

The road is of good quality at first, it allows you to ride, but when its condition worsens and the slope is still steep, I decide to hike along. Maybe it is better, because there is time to admire the rich flora, soaring firs and dignified beech trees. And again, we join the blue trail, reaching the place where both bicycle routes connect, and after a while the green PTTK walking trail connects from the right. We are on the ridge. The forest here is much more sparse, and we are heading along a comfortable forest road to our nearby destination. We ride through the peak of Czeremcha 1,124 m above sea level, and soon we have the relay mast of Przehyba practically within arm’s reach. We go to the main ridge and, along with the red PTTK hiking trail, we cover the last several hundred meters, we go to the vast summit pasture in the middle of which there is a mountain hut in Przehyba. A longer stop for regeneration and we can start the last stage of the trip, so the return. Initially, we go back as we arrived, but after a while we turn right along with the green trail and begin our descent. The road is not easy, because it is covered with thick gravel, so we are going slower, but already a few hundred meters further the asphalt road begins. We continue our journey slowly, because thanks to this we will not miss “St. Kinga’s Seat”, where, according to legend, the abbess of the Order of St. Clare convent rested during her escape from the Tatars in the Pieniny Mountains.

A bit further and we are on a fairly large square, the so-called crossroads. The green trail turns left and we ride quickly down the valley along a good quality asphalt road. On the way, we pass subsequent information boards prepared by the Stary Sącz Forest Inspectorate, but also a right turn onto a forest road, which can be used to get to the Przysietnica valley (we will use it during another trip). Then the road traverses the Wyżne Peak until we reach a small stream. It is Jaworzynka with its springs on the slopes of Przehyba, the valley of which we will now ride through. Years ago, a freight lift led straight to the mountain hut from this place, and tourists took a half-wild path underneath it as a shortcut to the top. Then we start the long descent down into the valley. A good asphalt road eases fast riding, but I advise you to be careful as sand and gravel on the turns can be very dangerous, especially in the rain. We get to the barrier, next to the forester’s lodge, and right next to the road, on a boulder, there is a plaque commemorating the tragic death of Jan Bielak, a long-time manager of the mountain hut in Przehyba, and a promoter and organizer of tourism in the entire Beskid Sądecki region. Jan Bielak died there, because on December 17, 1994, someone closed the barrier at the entrance to the forest road just as he was just riding down from the mountain on a scooter.
We pass a car park on the right, the first buildings begin. We arrive at the bay and the last public transport stop. We are in Gaboń, a fairly large village, with houses stretching along the ridge to the left, all the way to the Gołkowice-Łazy Brzyńskie road. The next village is Skrudzina. We pass the primary school building and the right turn to Moszczenica (we get to know it during another trip) and enter Gołkowice Górne. The Jaworzynka valley ends, and the vast flat area is the Dunajec valley. Typical urban development begins, on the right we pass a large, modern building of a primary and middle school and we reach a well-known fork from where we set off for Łazy Brzyńskie a few hours earlier. The loop is closed, and we can return to the starting point along the known route.

Cyclists really have a lot to choose from. Just in the Małopolska region there are 900 km of routes available, mainly as part of the VeloMałopolska bicycle project, and routes such as: the Polish section of the Trail Around the Tatras, the Route around Lake Czorsztyn or VeloKrynica.

It is indeed heartening, but also not surprising. Year by year, cycling tourism is becoming more and more popular. It can be done anywhere and at every time of year.

VeloMałopolska is a total of eight routes that reach the most important places in the region. Among other places, they lead through the Pieniny and Tatra Mountains and the Niepołomice Forest. Local paths and bicycle routes connect to these routes. Most importantly, the majority of the routes are on roads with little or no car traffic. There are also mountain bike trails of varying degrees of difficulty. There is also a fairly well developed infrastructure for mountain biking, including its extreme Enduro and Downhill variants.

Bicycle routes in Małopolska have already connected such important centers as Oświęcim, Kraków, Tarnów, Nowy Sącz, Nowy Targ and Zakopane. The expansion is still ongoing, so you need to check current maps.

For example, you can ride across the region from south to north along VeloDunajec. The length is over 230 kilometers. The route starts in Zakopane, then it runs almost entirely along the Dunajec River. On the way, it crosses the trail around the Tatra Mountains, traverses Nowy Targ and reaches Lake Czorsztyn, where it partially overlaps with VeloCzorsztyn (about 45-60 km of the trail) – a loop around Lake Czorsztyn, where there is a view of the reservoir, Czorsztyn Castle, Niedzica and the dam. Further, in Sromowce Niżne, the route runs across the border bridge over the Dunajec River and heads to the Slovak side through the Dunajec River Gorge, where it joins the Aquavelo trail for several kilometers. Then it leads to the Pieniny National Park, where you can admire rafting trips and peaks while you’re riding: Trzy Korony and Sokolica. From Szczawnica, the bicycle trail runs past Beskid Sądecki, towards Stary and Nowy Sącz. The trail officially ends in Wietrzychowice, a small town near Tarnów. There it connects with the Vistula Bicycle Route, which enables further cycling. The Małopolska section is over 200 km long, at the European EuroVelo standard, so an international bicycle route. This is the highest standard of bicycle paths. There is a hardened surface, wide enough to allow the passage of bicycles with two-wheeled trailers. It’s very comfortable, with clear markings. The entire route along the banks of the Vistula River to the Baltic Sea will ultimately be 1,200 km long.

As you can see, the cycling infrastructure is growing quite fast. I believe that one day we will be able to say: “Poland is all about the bike”.

- In conversation with Monika Chrobak, Polish Radio journalist

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and journalists

–Translated by Nicholas Siekierski
Main photo: The vicinity of Miłkowa in the Rożnów Foothills, a view of the Tatra Mountains. Photo: Marek Ryglewicz
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