For millennia, the jade green waters of the Dunajec River have carved a torturous path through the limestone crags of the narrow Pieniny Mountains creating a natural border between the modern countries of Poland and Slovakia. And for centuries, the Flisacy – a rugged, mountain version of the Venetian gondoliers – have been guiding and paddling their wooden rafts down stretches of the river carting fish, timber and goods.
Today, the raftsmen and their plť (the vowel-less Slovak word for raft) carry visitors on a relaxing and scenic jaunt down the emerald waters, gently bobbing along while unveiling breathtaking mountain vistas. Little appears to have changed over the centuries. With weathered complexions and clad in blue felt waistcoats hand-embroidered with colourful floral designs, the Flisacy steer the simple rafts (made of five hollowed out logs lashed together) along the gentle currents and sharp bends of the river skilfully maintaining course by wielding a two metre pole.
Leaving from Cerveny Klastor, a quiet village with a Carthusian monastery of the same name, replete with colourful frescoes, a museum highlighting the lives of the monks and a high-roofed chapel, the raft steers past the striking Three Crowns Mountain (see top photo) and through the trans-national Pieniny National Park.
The Flisacy, with their elongated Eastern European vowels, regale the passengers with folkloric tales in a mixture of English and Slovak, laughing uproariously and entertaining their visitors and themselves. Their national pride comes to the fore with the Slovak guide comparing housing standards by revealing an upmarket Slovak hotel on one side of the river with an old farming barn on the Polish side remarking that the Polish houses have free air-conditioning, half of one wall of the barn completely missing. On a more serious note, there is a slightly uneasy feeling of competition between rafting companies from the two countries.
Along with stunning limestone scenery and harsh cliffs, castles in various states of repair litter the high grounds, strategically guarding key grounds in times past. In more peaceful parts of the river, the forests and farmlands reflect superbly in the Pieniny waters.
Our journey briefly stopped at a wooden fence that indicated a border between Poland and Slovakia (no immigration post in sight though the sign says Attention National Border) and offers some feel for this potentially unusual border crossing, before resuming gently tracking the bends and curves of the waterway before arriving at a wonderful location for lunch.
Sitting over a plate of fresh pstruh (trout) and an unusual sheep-milk cheese, served with cranberry sauce, it is easy to fall under the gaze of the therapeutic Dunajec currents and the brooding beauty of the Pieniny. In a less travelled part of the world, the Dunajec and Pieniny are a treasured travel wonder worth exploring via the centuries old tradition of rafting.