It Was a Ghost Town, Today It’s a City of Gardens, Rafting and Bicycles

I told the council members that I was going to make this place a real resort that would begin competing with Polish health resorts, and then with foreign ones. They later admitted that on the inside they had a good laugh at my dreams. And now we want to build the first indoor ski slope in Poland, a unique undertaking in all of Europe – says Jan Golba, the mayor of Muszyna and president of the Association of Health Resort Communities of the Republic of Poland.

TYGODNIK TVP: You’re one of the longest-serving mayors in Poland and a “triple-mayor,” as you’ve been called in connection with the management of three health resorts in the Małopolska Region: first Krynica Zdrój, then Szczawnica, and now Muszyna. And you are known for your quite wild visions, such as the construction of a gondola lift to Jaworzyna Krynicka – in the early 1990s, ski-lifts reigned in the Polish mountains, it seemed like a utopian idea.

I started to manage the city as a 32-year-old, in 1988, so just before the political breakthrough in Poland and the economic transformation. Therefore, at the beginning, people thought more about saving Krynica than about development. The appearance of the health resort itself left much to be desired. Decrepit, shabby buildings, potholed asphalt on the promenade, collapsing footbridges, companies failing overnight, liquidation of preventive and therapeutic centers, sanatoriums, agricultural cooperatives and state farms (PGRs). In addition, almost 40% of the residents were unemployed. The situation was so dramatic that there were no resources to maintain flower beds and councilors debated how much to spend for sowing grass. You had to risk a lot to improve Krynica’s image and make it more attractive for tourists. So I took a risk.

I’ve traveled a lot around the world and observed how Western resorts were developing. I was also looking for my own, innovative solutions to attract tourists. I started by looking for investors to build a mineral water bottling plant, because we had fantastic waters of the “Kryniczanka” type, which flowed calmly down the streams, instead of curing people or quenching their thirst. When the entrepreneur, Zbigniew Jakubas, decided to build a hotel in Krynica, I convinced him to build a bottling plant instead of a hotel, because there were plenty of those in the resort already. At the beginning, I was met with great reluctance from the inhabitants. They had resentments about water being a national good, and here I was entrusting it to some privateer who wanted to earn money from it. On the other hand, they didn’t mind the lack of jobs and the fact that the water was flowing down the stream, unused for centuries. However, the investment turned out to be a bull’s eye – it created many jobs, water became widely available, and two more bottling plants were opened in Krynica.
Gondola carriages to Jaworzyna Krynicka, September 2013. Photo: PAP / Grzegorz Momot
Coming back to the gondola lift, the idea to build it had already appeared in pre-war times, and later in the 1960s. It was supposed to connect Jaworzyna Krynicka with Góra Parkowa in the city center. A chairlift was considered. However, the undertaking didn’t come to fruition because there was no determination to implement it, and the idea was treated as too bold. In the early 1990s, I came back to it. Initially, we were concerned only with the development of skiing, and sightseeing wasn’t even a subject of discussion. I abandoned the idea to connect Góra Parkowa with Jaworzyna due to the lack of car access to the bottom station of line and the inability to build a large parking lot.

Why did the idea of building a gondola to Jaworzyna cause controversy?

Some residents and council members believed that the investment would never pay off and the township would have to cover the costs of its operation. Banks also expected a quick return of capital. Nobody was interested in what economic benefit this could bring to the entire region. In addition, there were protests by environmentalists related to the planned forest clearing. I remember one of the offensive inscriptions on a sign: “Golba Platz [square] – formerly Jaworzyna Krynicka, the height of arrogance and stupidity towards native nature.” However, you need to know that all areas here are beautiful, because we have mountains covered with forests. Therefore, clearing out such a small space would not disturb the forest ecosystem or threaten nature.

  Despite difficulties, the gondola lift was built in eight months in total. It was officially opened in September 1997. At that time, it was one of the longest and most modern facilities of this type in Poland and Europe. It is 2,211 meters long. It runs between the lower station located in the Czarny Potok valley and the summit of Jaworzyna Krynicka at 1,114 meters above sea level – the highest peak in the eastern part of the Sądecki Beskids.

The benefits of its creation turned out to be huge. Hotels, restaurants and ski infrastructure began to grow around it. New workplaces cropped up. The Austrians explained that the profits from the operation of such a facility are on the order of about 8%, and the economic environment grows from 100-200%. Our line, on the other hand, brought in revenues of 25-30%. And the economic environment in the region grew 500 to even 800%. It was undoubtedly a driving force for the development of Krynica, but also of the surrounding towns, such as Muszyna, where I took office in 2009. It’s a pity that the first section of the line from the center of Krynica was not built, because then no one would have to go by car to Czarny Potok through all of Krynica.

Years ago in Muszyna, you pushed another brave idea – to build an indoor ski slope. It was supposed to be a unique project on a national scale. However, it was put on hold, why?

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As it sometimes happens with your plans and your life. It was supposed to be the first indoor ski slope in Poland, in the Złockie-Jastrzębik area, at the foot of Jaworzyna Krynicka, with a ski and snowboard trail from Jaworzyna and a trail for instruction. Next to it, we were going to build: a hotel with a service and restaurant complex with 250-300 rooms, an amusement park and an outdoor winter slope. On the roof of the covered slope there were going to be solar panels and batteries generating the electricity necessary to operate devices and artificial snowmaking systems. It was a very bold and unique undertaking on a continental scale, because in Europe there are many covered slopes, but no covered slope with an additional external route, de facto connecting to another ski station (in Jaworzyna). This option guaranteed the success of this undertaking.

When I submitted the idea to the list of regional projects for 2013-2020, the Regional Directorate for Environmental Protection (RDOŚ) decided that there was no chance of building such a slope, because endemic grasses grow there and the investment would be harmful to nature. The project was therefore rejected at the time.

Too bad…

But nothing is lost yet! I have good news from the last few days: we have recently received a positive opinion on our investments, which we are planning within the framework of the Union of Krynica-Poprad Townships. There is also an indoor ski slope. RDOŚ partially changed its position! Which may mean that perhaps not me, but my successor, will implement this project. Investors are very interested in it, because it is a truly innovative undertaking in Poland and Europe.

Currently, a bigger problem for me is the suspension of the construction of another part of the Muszyna beltway. The investment is important for the further development of transportation and tourism in the region. Environmentalists are protesting, emphasizing that its construction may have a negative impact on nature: bats that live nearby, on the habitat of wolves or even... fish in the Poprad River. However, we are waiting for a positive settlement of this matter.

I’m still not discouraged by adversities and I’m constantly thinking about the implementation of new projects, such as the construction of a gondola lift to the top of Malnik Mountain and an observation tower.

There is a big difference between the Muszyna in which you first took office, and today's health resort. At the beginning of the 21st century, the town still had the strong scent of the atmosphere of communist Poland. Didn’t it scare you that you had to start all over again?

The township was indeed in quite a lamentable state. The sanatorium buildings, hotels and boarding houses were barely making ends meet, some stood empty and were a scary sight, and public buildings required immediate renovation. The inefficient, old sewage treatment plant, leaky sewage and water supply system and no outdoor sports infrastructure. It was similar with the municipal, resort and tourist infrastructure. In addition, there were hardly any tourist attractions here, so people went out of their way to avoid this place. The guides taking tourists towards Slovakia only stopped at the market square in Muszyna to buy a newspaper or cigarettes at the Ruch kiosk. You just drove through Muszyna, you didn’t come there. In the summer or winter season, there were of course campers and skiers due to the nearby ski lift in Szczawnik, but not many. They were drawn only by the attractive price of accommodations. At other times of the year it was a ghost town.
However, I enjoyed the challenges, so I was not discouraged by what I found there, and it even motivated me to hard work. At a meeting with council members, I said that I was going to make this place a real resort that would begin competing with Polish health resorts, and then with foreign ones. They later admitted that on the inside they had a good laugh at my dreams and vision. However, I never think in terms of today, but in terms of the future, so I slowly started bringing my plans to life.

What was most difficult to accomplish?

When I started my work, most of the land was privately owned and the municipality didn’t have any land for investments. The first thing that had to be done was to buy or buy out privately held areas for future attractions. I received documentation left by my predecessor for the construction of swimming pools and I carried out this investment as the first one, but also added additional attractions and a restaurant to it. We built an artificially frozen ice rink very quickly as well. New schools and numerous Orlik (Eaglet) sports fields were built.

We reconstructed the Regional Museum and renovated the Starost’s (District Governors) Manor, which now also houses the Cultural Center. We started organizing concerts and meetings with authors there. The first ideas then appeared to enrich the city’s offerings, such as rafting on pontoon boats and kayaks on the Poprad – today it’s one of our major tourist attractions.

We’ve built a town hall on the market square. It was erected on the ruins of cellars where, hundreds of years ago, wine and goods imported along the Hungarian route were stored. There is a reconstructed prison there, that archaeologists found during their research in 2015, complete with a torture chamber and a rich display of torture tools. The facility has a Tourist Information Center, a mineral water pump room and a café. We have built an extensive network of Euro-Velo 11 bicycle paths on the Polish and Slovak side, Aqua Velo connecting us with Krynica and Bardejów, and the Mineral Water Bike Trail. The Recreation Park on the Szczawnik was established, with an outdoor gym, bicycle and walking paths and a playground.

EU funds help us in these investments, without them we wouldn’t have built, for example, the Gardens, which have become the city’s calling card.

Exactly, Muszyna is called the City of Gardens. There are sensory, biblical, love, health and thematic gardens, referring to ancient Greek or Roman gardens. Every year, thousands of tourists from all over the country are drawn here. The attraction probably surpassed your wildest expectations?

Tourists are hungry for spacious and scenic places where they can rest and gather themselves. And the city met their expectations. We started with building sensory gardens. They are designed to affect all five senses: smell, sight, touch, hearing and taste. Information boards for individual zones are also available in Braille for the blind.

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They have been divided into eight zones. The health zone is an outdoor gym with a variety of outdoor exercise equipment. In the aroma zone, we have plants with an intense aroma and unique aromatic compositions. Growing there are, among others, are: hyacinths, spruces, lilies, thyme, sage, garlic and mint. You can touch every plant and rub leaves or petals in your hands to discover their fragrance and essential oils. In the sound zone, there are trees and shrubs that are supposed to attract birds. You can listen attentively to their singing, the rustle of trees, the murmur of water from the stream or the crunch of the gravel underfoot. In the scent-touch zone, the flowers have been selected to be attractive with various shapes and textures, as well as with the richness of their aromas. Various shrubs and fruit trees grow in the flavor zone. You can enjoy the flavors of fruit: currants, cherries, apples, raspberries and chokeberries.

In turn, the visual zone creates a mosaic of the beautiful, natural scenery of the Poprad Landscape Park. Flowers attract butterflies, bees and other insects. From the top of the observation tower stretches the panorama of the ruins of the Muszyna Castle, a Baroque church, magical gardens with recreational ponds and the Antoni mineral water pump room.

The seventh, the zone of Aphrodite, is the garden of love. The figure of the Greek goddess symbolically waters the apple trees of paradise, planted here by newlyweds. Each tree is padlocked with their initials.

The last, eighth zone ties to fairy tales and legends about Muszyna, referring to the times and beliefs of the inhabitants of the former Muszyna State. There are huts of witches and herbalists, townspeople and millers. You can learn the history of coin minting at the Muszyna Castle, the story of a hidden treasure or the legend of the devil Boruta.

The planting of trees by newlyweds is very popular. Below, among the sculptures and ponds, they also have photo shoots and record videos.

In the lower part we have a themed garden reminiscent of Greek or Roman gardens. On an area of over 17 acres there are sandstone figures depicting the Greek gods as well as the seasons. For example, we have an autumn sculpture resembling Dionysus – the god of wine, good fun and attractions. We also have, among others, the statue of Adonis – the beloved of Aphrodite, Talia – the daughter of Zeus, or the goddess of youth, Hebe – the wife of Hercules. The entirety is surrounded by rich vegetation, recreational ponds and streams.

In this part you can also admire exotic birds brought to the resort from every corner of the world. We have, among others, black swans from Australia, which have a record number of feathers, as many as 25,000, the Manchurian Crane and colorful parrots. There are also mammals like alpacas and white fallow deer. This is called the Living Garden. We focused on the aesthetics, maintenance and appearance of walking areas. An additional attraction was the planting of two million crocuses in this area.

The Bible Gardens, which are one of the largest facilities of this type in the country, are also very popular among tourists. Through plants or architectural installations, they show scenes related to the Holy Bible.

The Bible Gardens cover 3 acres. They refer to the scenes of the Old and New Testaments. Here you can admire plant compositions known from the pages of the Bible and found in Jerusalem or Palestine.
These are also divided into themed zones – there are five of them. The first is the Garden of Salvation History, showing the world from its inception to its end, depicted in the Apocalypse of St. John. It is square-shaped and leads to the paradise gate with a bas-relief of a Cherub – a winged angel with a sword. It symbolizes the transition from the human world – the profane, to the divine world – the sacred. The circle and the square in the composition of the gate, inscribed into each other, symbolize the divine perfection of the circle and the earthly aspects included in the rigid form of the square. The streams flowing out are a metaphor for the water of life. The letters of the Greek alphabet, Alpha and Omega, refer to the words: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, saith the Lord God, who is, who was and who is to come, Almighty” (Rev 1: 8). The garden is thematically divided into four parts: “Old Testament”, “The Life and Activity of Jesus”, “The Resurrection of Jesus and His Last Teachings” and “Letters of the Apostles.”

And views of the desert, what do they represent?

They are located in the next zone – the Garden of Biblical Landscapes, which shows the geography of the Holy Land. It consists of three rectangles that form a square. The first shows the dry, harsh landscape of the Holy Land’s desert, filled with rocky cliffs and riverbeds that fill up with water during the rainy season. The word desert occurs almost 400 times in the Bible. Also shown is the garden arrangement of the desert and elements tying to the agriculture of Israel, including grape presses and crop fields.

The third garden presents selected topics related to the Lord’s Vineyard and the teachings of 16 prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Obadiah, Amos, Hosea, Micah, Zephaniah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Joel and Jonah. There is a source of mineral water here. It refers to the story of the prophet Moses, because during the 40-year journey of the Israelites through the desert to the Promised Land, they ran out of water. Moses asked God for help, and he, as we read in the Book of Exodus, told him: “Take the staff and gather everyone... Then speak to the rock in their presence and it will give out water. Bring the water out of the rock and give it to the people and their cattle to drink” (Numbers 20: 8-11). Moses did as God commanded, and the water “gushed out so abundantly that both the people and their cattle could drink.”

There is also a Children’s Bible Garden and a labyrinth-shaped Garden for Lovers. Its paths lead to a fish made of boxwood, a symbol of Christianity.

You referred to mineral waters. Muszyna, like the nearby Krynica-Zdrój, are famous for the health properties of their waters. Which conditions can they treat?

The waters belong to the bicarbonate-magnesium-sodium-calcium-ferric sorrels and also contain the microelements of lithium and selenium. They were already known in the Middle Ages. In the 15th century, the Polish chronicler Jan Długosz mentioned them. The first mineral water well was drilled in 1929. Mineral baths and pump rooms were built nearby, and this is how the resort began to develop. This was put on hold by the war and the communist era. Now everything is being reborn again.

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As for their health properties, they are used to treat diseases of the respiratory, urinary and digestive systems, including ulcers. The calcium contained in our waters counteracts osteoporosis and desensitizes, and magnesium helps with problems with the circulatory system.

We have a total of 19 mineral water intakes. To highlight them, we have created another Muszyna attraction, the Mineral Water Cycling Trail. On the nearly 33-kilometer route, there are 13 bicycle stops, where you can relax in a stylish gazebo and drink water rich in valuable elements and minerals.

Does the resort infrastructure in Muszyna also change with the times?

When it comes to health treatments, this is obviously the autonomous sphere of health resort facilities. Some of them have undergone a major metamorphosis, especially in the area of medical equipment, which is currently at a very high technological level. We also have a very well qualified medical and nursing staff. The British and Germans learn from us how to conduct classic health spa treatment. In 2001, balneologists allowed supplementary activities in sanatoriums, so-called wellness & spa, which enriched the treatment offerings in sanatoriums.

When it comes to the accommodations, it is a bit worse. There are still some facilities where, for example, there are no bathrooms in the rooms, which is unthinkable in other European countries.

Such changes, however, require large financial outlays. And there is no money for it, taking into account the fact that the daily patient rate is still too low as part of the refund for the sanatorium from the National Health Fund. The surcharge paid by the patient helps us a little. The amount of the surcharge for accommodation and meals for one day of the patient’s stay depends on the standard of the room and the season. In the cheaper season – fees start from 10.60 PLN (~$2.24) for a dormitory room without sanitary facilities and reach PLN 32.60 (~$6.89) for a single room with a bathroom. The more expensive billing season is the period from May 1 to September 30, and in this case the fees are respectively 11.90 PLN and 40.90 PLN per day.

If the daily rate was increased, even at the expense of, for example, reducing the number of beds in sanatoriums, there would be a chance for improving the standards of rooms. As we know, running this type of business is quite expensive and not very profitable due to high gas or electricity prices, among other reasons. The pandemic and restrictions on stays also contributed to it.

So health resorts are going through a crisis. How can they be put on the right path?

The health resort base is huge in Poland. We have 45,000 beds in the country and we treat around 850,000 people annually. We emphasize comprehensive and quality patient care. Some people laugh that the patients have as much fun as they want, but as you know, the mental sphere is extremely important in the treatment of the physical side. They go hand in hand. It is about complete regeneration of the body and restoration of the joy of life. This is our advantage and uniqueness compared to European health resorts, which we shouldn’t lose through reckless action.
Castle ruins – currently under reconstruction. Photo: UMiGU Muszyna
To achieve an even better effect, it is worth considering strengthening such townships through public state investments in tourist and health resort infrastructure for example. In one place it could be a ski resort, in the other a thermal resort, elsewhere it could be improved road infrastructure. Some places are difficult to reach, such as Horyniec. As a result, the resort loses potential customers and doesn’t make full use of everything it has.

Without the state’s financial support, it will be more difficult to utilize and fully show the potential of Polish spas. And this is one of our main and unique national products, which we can be proud of on the international arena.

When I listen to you and think about your history of health resort management, I have the impression that it’s your passion. Did you want to be a professional, local government official from the beginning?

It was pure coincidence. After studying law, I started working at the Employee Vacation Fund (FWP) in Krynica Zdrój. These were the last years of the communist era in Poland. First, I dealt with human resources and social matters, and then with organizational matters and supervising real estate, namely holiday homes and sanatoriums. So I was already dealing with preventive and health resort treatment. I had other duties as well. I was even a legal advisor for a while. But I was also involved in academic work, implementing an interesting project with representatives of the Academy of Physical Education, regarding organizational and legal changes in the functioning of the FWP. We proposed innovative changes – transforming the Fund into a company, which was still unthinkable in communist Poland. It has not been implemented, but I wasn’t discouraged. As I said, I was open to new challenges.

In 1988, the then director of Krynica suggested that I should become his deputy. First, I refused, because at that time bureaucratic work was not for me. I found it boring, politically hamstrung and unproductive. But after a while, I succumbed to his persuasions and agreed to become the deputy director. When I started to carry out my new duties, I realized how complicated this job was – it turned out that my seemingly high qualifications were not enough.

Soon after, the director went on sick leave and never returned to his post. It turned out that he counted on me replacing him in the future. And that’s how it happened. As I mentioned, I was a very young man then and I started to manage the city just before the political breakthrough in Poland. As the steward of an important health resort, I was involved in the work of the Solidarity Citizens’ Committee at the national level and I participated in the work of the team for the reform of the local government system. Thanks to this, I made sure that the provisions of the new law included solutions concerning health resort townships. The Polish reality was changing before our eyes, although, as it turned out later, not exactly as we had prepared the local government reform: despite its adoption by the free Senate, it did not pass as adopted by the contract Sejm (lower house of the Parliament of Poland).

What was the biggest challenge back then?

The health resorts started to work together. The first meeting took place in 1990, a year later the Association of Polish Health Resort Communities was established, associating 32 local governments in the country. In 1991, the “Polish Health Resort” Chamber of Commerce was established, it had one hundred founders. Seven years later, the Union of Polish Health Resorts was established in Nałęczów.

Above all, we worked on the reorganization of administrative units in tourism and health care. There were suggestions that the sanatoriums should be taken over by the local government. I was a strong advocate of this idea, because it guaranteed that we’d have an impact on the functioning of health resorts. I believed that it’d be better for us to have a direct impact on their functioning, and not for the solutions to be imposed from above. The more so since it was a time of decentralization of power and the introduction of local self-government. Unfortunately, the commercialization of state-owned enterprises was carried out, as a result of which commercial companies were established, the founding body being the Ministry of the Treasury. Over time, joint-stock companies and limited liability companies were established, which to this day struggle with various financial problems. The self-governments of spa townships were also affected by various restrictions and at some point their situation became dire. Therefore, it was necessary to think about saving health resorts and about their development. We’ve already accomplished many things.

There were a lot of tasks, but that’s how I was hooked to where it actually became my passion. And that’s how it is to this day.

– In conversation with Monika Chrobak, Polish Radio journalist

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and journalists

– Translated by Nicholas Siekierski
Main photo: Themed gardens, view of, among others, aviaries for exotic species. Photo: UMiGU Muszyna
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