6am. We set off as the sun begins to break through the mist cloaking the steep slopes of the beech tree-clad hills and climb up into the Poloniny National Park, a wild 300 sq km tangle of upland forest in the far east of Slovakia abutting the frontier with Ukraine. The valley slowly narrows. Once or twice we pass a lone border control guard, leaned against his vehicle and starting with surprise as our engine breaks the early morning silence. A fat-bellied white stork almost hits us, too, as does a horse and cart carrying a family of Roma, but for the most part, the road is quiet.
After the border village of Ulič, fields flanked by sheep (a rarity to spot in Slovakia, despite the nation’s shepherding traditions), and hay bails quaintly twisted around a stick by hand rather than by machine, as well as a fair few more horse-and-cart drivers are signs that this part of the country ticks to a slower and more traditional beat. Brutalist architecture made few inroads into the time-trapped villages hereabouts and the landscape feels softer, greener, more beguiling. Even the forests are far less managed. In fact, the beech forests of the Carpathians (of which Poloniny National Park comprises a significant part) are so renowned for their virgin nature (meaning no forestry is practiced and the ecosystems are among the world’s most intact) that Unesco has added them to their worldwide list of protected sites. In Nova Sedlica, the start point for our hike, the brightly-painted houses with their wooden outbuildings have smoke curling into the sky from back-garden bonfires, and a stream babbling through their midst. We stop off for a presso (strong, sludgy Communist-era coffee) alongside a party of gloomy Czech hikers, then head up the lane which ascends the valley to the final ridge of hills before the EU gives up the ghost for good. At a bus stop proudly proclaiming it is “the last” the lane kinks left, passes an occasionally-open ranger’s hut selling hiking maps and then that’s it: no more dwellings before Ukraine looms up. What follows is one of Europe’s most superb and fascinating forest hikes.
About a kilometer above Nova Sedlica, we branch off the metalled track on a red-arrowed sign pointing steeply up to the right: a gruelling initiation to this 22km circular hike. Red is top dog as far as categories of trail in Slovakia go and the route remains on red-marked and well-marked trails all the way up to Kremenec on the tri-border with Ukraine and Poland (at approximately the half-way point). The path rises up to a basic lumber yard at 525m of elevation (presumably just outside of the national park boundaries) then sheers up through forest that certainly feels just as primeval as the sporadic information boards claim it to be.
The main point of note is at the ridge of Temný Vršor at 838m where two further boards urge you to rediscover the balance with nature that humans often lose in everyday life: but in all honesty little urging is required. I am already lost, and already contemplating the fact that brown bear, wolf, lynx and bison regularly roam this area. In few other locations in Europe can quite so many of the continent’s “big” mammals be found in such close proximity or in such numbers. It’s a thought that gladdens, rather than frightens me. It’s not just the sea of forests swooping away in all directions underlining the extent of this wilderness: it’s the wildlife too. It’s also, unfortunately, a less savoury side of human life: people traffickers are also known to take advantage of this isolated region to smuggle clients into the perceived sanctuary of the European Union.
Virgin forest ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk
It’s as the path shimmies down to a potok (mountain stream) that makes for a good picnicking point that we understand the consequences of Poloniny being Unesco-protected: when trees fall here, they are left fallen to rot, and whilst the trunks regularly obstruct the route, they are all contributing to the richness of the flora and fauna here (nigh-on 6,000 recorded species all told). We are heartened to find the route, as it zigzags through the trees on the final climb to Slovakia’s eastern border, marked by small posts depicting brown bears: had they not been there, a straying off the beaten track into zones where actual bears hung out would have been a distinct possibility!
“It’s hard to find trees this thick any more” my hiking companion, Freddie, who has called this part of the world home for the last twenty years, tells me. His trade is in oak flooring, and he travels far and wide to find trees of the girth that Poloniny has, because commercial forestry sees them felled decades before they have opportunity to grow up as splendidly as these forests.
A steep scramble, and we are there: the Štatna Hranica, or state border, with a small (old, Communist-era) sign warning that it could be dangerous. In common with Slovakia’s other borders that lie within the depths of its dense forests, there is a few metres of cleared trees, so that the view opens up invitingly to reveal the mist-swathed mountains of western Ukraine, and otherwise? Otherwise there is no change between Slovak forest and Ukraine forest. There is not even a fence, or the remains of one. Nothing to prevent people from walking out, or in (although I am assured that concealed in the nearby tree branches is plenty of the multi-million Euro sophisticated monitoring equipment we read that Slovakia’s eastern EU border has been fortified with, the only man-made thing I can see is a bunch of intertwined sticks presumably left by a creative hiker as a small tribute to the no-man’s land on which we now stand).
Our route turned sharply left at this point, and after a moment of contemplation upon what this land once signified or signifies, we embarked on the final thigh-busting climb along the Ukraine border up to the obelisk of Kremenec, at 1220m, and a tough three-hour tramp from Nova Sedlica. Three gaudily decorated posts in the colours of Slovakia, Poland and Ukraine rise out of the forest clearing and Polish and Slovak hikers sit around picnicking: a somewhat sedate period, one thinks, for a territory which has conventionally marked Europe’s outer edge, and endured traumatic times a-plenty as a result. We take a seat next to one of them, a long-haired man who attracted our attention as he overtook us on the climb up for doing this fairly demanding hike in bare feet, and with only an apple for sustenance. He’s just getting up as we collapse gasping next to him, but has these words for us before he leaves.
“Corporations are destroying the world” he laments. “And we can’t trust any of them.”
Profound words. And ones Freddie opens his mouth to debate. But before he can, the man, point made, has continued calmly on his way.
“Upstaged by a man in bare feet” Freddie sighs.
The obelisk of Kremenec – this is the Ukrainian side, as the language “Kremenec” is written in reveals ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk
Our route heads west (left) from Kremenec, no longer following the Ukraine border, but the Polish one, and initially on the red trail still via some open ground replete with fabulous bunches of blueberries. From a tor here, a vista of the hills on the Polish side rears up before the path plunges to Čiertač and the relentlessly steep yellow connector trail to Nova Sedlica. As the forest plunged back into the meadows surrounding the village, we pass a party of locals, a little the worse for wear after an extremely boozy picnic.
One ox of a man, clad in a pair of rather soiled dungarees and very little else, appears particularly wasted.
“A few hours” he moans as he staggers along. “A few hours rest in my house and I’ll be good to go again.”
Often, there are dramatic contrasts evident at borders. But on the border between the EU and Ukraine, there is mainly just nature. Some slivovica-tanked villagers, some intrepid hikers, and one man who did not think much to Capitalism, sure. But primarily the beech trees, undulating off in hues of green and, further away, grey. Which makes you think in a slightly different way about this continent we have chiselled out for ourselves.
ADMISSION: There is no admission charge for entry to the Poloniny National Park
GETTING THERE: There are trains every two hours between 10.40am and 6.40pm from Humenné, on the direct line from Košice, and Stakčin. Taking the train usually gives you an hour and a half’s wait in Stakčin during which time you can grab a bite to eat at the very pleasant Hotel Armales (the hotel is a 7-minute walk northeast of the train station and the bus stop, confusingly called Železničná Stanica, actually a 4-minute walk south-west.) From Stakčin buses take one hour and 15 minutes to wind up the valley to Nova Sedlica.
NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Nova Sedlica, on the eastern edge of the EU, it’s either on in to Ukraine or back 65km west to one of Eastern Slovakia’s best craft brewpubs, Pivovar Medved in Humenné.