Traditional Dunajec Gorge Rafting in Poland

Aren’t we all too familiar with the pictures of Venician gondoliers, carefully navigating the channels of Italy’s city of romance? Try something niche! Poland offers its own, wilder version of the same experience and throws in breathtaking views.

Raftsman rafts tourists on the Dunajec river
Rafting on the Dunajec River in Poland. Photo: alekosa / stock.adobe.com

The Pieniny. One of the most charming mountain chains in Poland. Situated north of Slovakia, the Pieniny Mountains are best known for the legends of St Kinga and the Three Crowns [Trzy Korony] summit. Apart from picturesque walks, one of the best ways to experience this part of Poland is from a raft navigated carefully by an experienced raftman. And what an experience that is!

From carrying wood to carrying people

Initially, the riverway was used to transport goods. Mostly wood. A raft could be even up to 22 meters long! No wonder the occupation was considered to be a dangerous one due to changes in the water level and rocky riverbed.

vintage postcard showing rafters on Dunajec
Pieniny Hukowa in 1907. Photo: Awiw Szubert / Biblioteka Narodowa / Polona

The first mention of Dunajec rafting comes from the 16th century. However, the idea of people carrying was later popularized in the 19th century by a man who is considered the founder of the Szczawnica resort – Józef Szalay. It was he who decided to travel down the river in style.

He would gather a dozen or so rafts, of which one would be ornamented with national colors, raftsmen standards, and the standard of St. Kinga. He would invite his guests to board the rafts, and they would follow the current. Patriotic songs were sung, and toasts were said as the salutes were shot from mortars, echoing throughout the valley.

The merry company would be welcomed in Szczawnica with music played by a mountaineers band, and local girls would create arches from flowers and handkerchiefs over the heads of river adventurers. These days the rides offered may not be as eccentric, but, in many ways, perhaps this is for the better.

A waterway of legends and beauty

Setting your foot on a raftsman boat at the Dunajec Gorge means embarking on a journey through history, where the legends that fill the local mountains come alive. Your guide is there to show you the ultimate beauty of the river bends that open up to landscapes painted with the white grey of the rocks and juicy greens of the trees. You can experience the powerful silence of Pieniny and travel back in time to the days when the Polish kings were known to wander through this area. Everything slows down as the lazy river carries you to the landing point, and yet still, the two hours spent on the raft end way too soon.

The chosen ones

It is not just about the job. It is about tradition. The season starts on April 1st and lasts until October 31st. There are several rules one has to meet before he can offer a passage to the tourist on his raft. A raftsman must be between 18 and 30 years and have lived for at least ten years in Sromowice, Szczawnica, Krościenko, or Czrosztyn.

He has to practice with a raftsman master for at least three years before passing an exam. His outfit must always be clean and tidy, and his hair must be neatly cut. A raftsman cannot wear a beard or trousers with holes. He also is not allowed to have a previous criminal record.

They are also not allowed to tell the stories told from the rafts on land. Quite a mouthful! The bar to become one of the most recognizable tourist attractions in the Pieniny is indeed set up high, but this warrants the uniqueness of the experience and vouches for the seriousness with which the flisacy (as they are called in Polish) treat their profession.

The Pieniny Mountains are without a doubt one of the best holiday destinations in Poland. Not too high, they offer a variety of walks that will forever stay in your memory. Hear how these mountains’ natural beauty, refreshing water springs, and many legends of the times long gone are calling you to get to know them. And if you are there between April 1st and October 31st, make sure to embark on the journey on one of the rafts. Listen closely to the tales weaved by the flisak and remember – whatever is said on the raft stays on the raft. And in your heart.

Weronika Edmunds

Holder of a DPSI in English Law and an MBA, she believes in lifelong learning. Her passion for theatre shaped her sensitivity to the spoken and written word, leading her to become a creative copywriter. She lives for words and knows how to pour life into otherwise lifeless wording. She likes to repeat after M. Ondaatje: “Words, Caravaggio. They have a power.”

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