Mountains offer idyllic hideaways
AFTER the hyper-activity of Hong Kong, walking through woods on soft beds of pine needles with no other noise than the rustling trees and the muted muttering of birds is heaven itself.
Such quiet hideaways are the dolinas - flat, pine-encircled valleys tucked between the rugged peaks of Poland's Tatra mountains.
One such dolina is a favourite of Pope John Paul, who knows the mountains well and has frequently visited the spot.
The Tatras are part of a great mountain range which stretches across southern Europe and into Asia.
They hold a fascination for the Poles, in part because the country is generally flat and low. A mere 0.2 per cent of the country is over 1,000 metres above sea level and only four mountain peaks are over 2,000 metres high.
Two centuries ago, the mountains were uncharted territory, home to shepherds and their flocks and bands of brigands who pounced on their prey and then vanished into the mountains before anyone could strike back.
The mountains are as rugged as ever, but the safe havens once occupied by the bandits are now threaded with footpaths and have become holiday attractions for Poles and tourists alike.
Zakopane is the most popular town for walkers making day trips into the mountains.
A funicular railway, or a cable car, will carry tourists up to the peaks from which they can see a panorama of the whole Tatra range.
For those who have more time, the best way to see the scenery is to hike through the mountains, spending the nights in timber mountain lodges en route which offer rooms for rent.
You can expect to sleep on a hay mattress with a feather-filled duvet and will be invited by your host to enjoy a breakfast of real peasant bread, veal and pork sausage and goat's or ewe's milk cheese.
The ewe's milk comes from sheep that graze on mountain meadows over 2,000 metres high, just below the rocky crags of Poland's highest peaks.
Most of the ranges are split by fast-flowing rivers which start from lakes with such picturesque names as the Eye of the Sea.
Many of the rivers provide opportunities for rafting, with the winding gorge of the River Dunajec an outstanding example.
Mineral springs have been developed into spas and the sulphur springs of Ladek Zdroj, one of many health resorts to the west of the Tatras, have been curing the sick since the 13th century.
At the extreme south-western tip of Poland are the densely wooded Bieszczardy mountains, most of which are now designated a national park.
The mountains are home to the brown bear, lynx and golden eagle among other wildlife.
and the scenery comprises a mixture of rich mountain pastures, rocky faces and weathered boulders on the flanks of deep river gorges.
The region has only recently been opened up and one hiking trail, which should only be attempted by the skilled orienteer, winds through 90 km of mountain peaks. It represents an exciting challenge in some of Europe's most beautiful surroundings.