Forgotten landscapes outside Krakow

Linked to Krakow by a portion of the Amber Trail Greenway, Tyniec’s limestone cliffs, dense woodland and millennia-old abbey comprise one of Eastern Europe’s most overlooked villages.

Running along the rivers between the Baltic and Adriatic seas, Poland’s ancient trade routes used to crowd with caravans selling amber, mined on the country’s northern shores and and destined for the country’s market squares. Today, as a designated trans-national path passing through some of Eastern Europe’s most overlooked landscapes in Hungary, Slovakia and Poland, the 307km Amber Trail Greenway remains a draw – not for traders, but for hikers and cyclists who want to explore the route’s rural Carpathian villages, untouched river valleys and medieval heritage sites.

While the entire Amber Trail Greenway can be broken into smaller treks depending on time and ability, the 32km section that’s closest to Krakow – called the Nowa Huta - Dlubnia route – offers three loop options that are easily accessible by public transport.

I took bus 112 from the Rondo Grunwaldzkie bus stop, located on a roundabout across the Vistula River from Krakow’s Wawel Royal Castle, where a bumpy 45-minute drive led to the medieval village of Tyniec, one of the many heritage sites along the Amber Trail Greenway. While officially incorporated into Krakow's city boundary, Tyniec’s limestone cliffs, dense green woodland and millennia-old abbey give the area its own distinct identity. Cyclists wishing to reach the same village can follow the Amber Trail Greenway markings from Bernardynska Street at the foot of the Wawel Royal Castle, cycling for about 10km along the Vistula River path.

After depositing my eight zloty, I sat down and watched the scenery outside transform from Krakow's signature mishmash of Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance architecture to woodland. Suddenly, I felt a tap on my shoulder as an elderly gentleman gestured towards my guidebook and a non-signposted village road. Letting out a hurried "dziękuję! (thank you)" I leapt off the bus just as its creaking doors snapped shut and it thundered down the road.

Throughout the centuries, Tyniec was a place for both great learning – and great destruction. The Benedictine Abbey of SS Peter and Paul, located just off Tyniec's main road, Bogucianka street, was constructed by Benedictine monks in the 11th Century. By the time of Poland's Golden Age – between the 16th and 18th Centuries – the Benedictine monks of the Polish Congregation were educated in Tyniec and sculptors such as Francesco Placidi and Franz Joseph Mangoldt had contributed works to the abbey. But after numerous invasions by forces vying for the Polish throne as well as an accidental fire in 1844, the abbey lay in ruins until 1939, when 11 monks formed an order there again. Restoration work on the Gothic-style buildings began in 1947 and continues today.

Walking through the abbey’s defensive gate, I entered a worn cobblestone square framed by buildings with brick doorways, cream walls and clay-tiled roofs. In the main church, golden effigies of saints contrasted with the monks’ unadorned robes as they rose and chanted Latin vespers. "There's even more archaeology beneath the main church," Brother Pavel explained in a quiet tone, gesturing behind his shoulder. "There's a hole to the right of the altar, which requires you to go down a flight of stairs, but after that you can see the original foundations of the church, the remains of the original one that first stood here – pillars, altar and all – and even the burials of the abbey's first abbots and their burial objects. It is closed off to visitors, for preservation reasons obviously, but it is fascinating to think that all that history lies beneath your feet, doesn't it?"

Preserving that history was precisely why the Amber Trail Greenway was constructed. Following the 1989 dissolution of Communist rule in the Eastern Bloc countries such as Poland, Hungary and Slovakia were left with large swathes of natural beauty and historic villages that – after decades of neglect, modern development and a lack of funding – were at risk of being erased. In response to this, the Amber Trail Greenway was set up in 1996 by Krystyna Wolniakowski, one of the founders of the Environmental Partnership for Central Europe, and Bill Moody from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

The Greenway highlights the importance of these culturally significant places through environmental tourism and local initiatives. At the Benedictine abbey, for example, the monks produce food and homemade goods that are sold on-site and in delis throughout Krakow. The profits are invested in maintaining the abbey and surrounding forest, and used to hold events such as summer music concerts. By including the abbey on its route, the Amber Trail Greenway is bringing these initiatives more attention.

As I walked along the trail below Tyniec, which perches high on a cliff, mist from the Vistula River swirled to my left while a forest of firs and pines grew to my right. Bright scatterings of lily-of-the-valley and geraniums bloomed, spotted with butterflies. More than 500 species of rare butterflies and wasps inhabit the Skołczanka nature reserve – one of four reserves that lie within the Bielańsko-Tyniecki Landscape Park, 1km southeast of Tyniec. Featuring well-preserved Jurassic topography, caves and limestone cliffs, the region's natural landscape and centuries-old monuments have been left largely unchanged over the years.

Looking back towards the abbey atop its white jagged cliff, I thought: it was a picture many people before must have seen – yet few, today, make the trek to enjoy.