Inspired by what I had read and researched for a recent post, I decided to grab my bike and head down south to deepest, darkest Lemko Land. I decided to pick a place (or places) that were close to water. My destinations were the villages of Łosie and Klimkówka (the latter being created after the old Klimkówka had been cleared and flooded to make way for a reservoir). Armed only with my 15-year-old bike and mobile phone (with which to take pictures) I decided to attack this lost part of Europe and discover what hidden treasures this multicultural mountain land had to offer.
On my very first full day in the Low Beskids, in the heartland of what was once the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria, I decided to go in search of signs of the Greek Catholic culture which was once so rich in Poland. What remains of Greek Catholic (and indeed Orthodox) culture in Poland is a sprinkling of wooden cerkiews (churches) around south-eastern Poland. In Polish there is a distinction made between Roman Catholic kościół and Greek Catholic/Orthodox cerkiew. Also, Roman Catholics refer to their priest as ksiądz whereas Greek Catholics often refer to their priest as jegomość.
I began my 60km biking marathon in search of Poland’s wooden (Lemko) Greek Catholic and Orthodox cerkiews starting with Łosie, followed by the picturesque Leszczyny, Kunkowa, Uście Górlickie, Kwiatoń (reckoned to be the most beautiful wooden cerkiew in Poland owing to its perfect proportions), Skwirtne, Gładyszów, Przysłup (high up on a hill) and Nowica (hidden in a forest). What struck me was that in many of these villages, the local cerkiew actually catered to three different parishes: Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic and Orthodox. A real religious melting pot.
Certainly, evidence of this bubbling religious and cultural hotpot lies in the cerkiews dotted around the gorgeous landscape high upon the Beskid hilltops or in glades deep within the Beskid forests. But we can also see it in the numerous patriarchal (three-bar) crosses strewn across Lemko Land. These (Eastern Orthodox) stone crosses can be seen every few kilometres on all of the village roads in the Beskids. On closer inspection, the patriarchal crosses bear witness to the linguistic diversity of this region with inscriptions almost exclusively written in the Cyrillic script.
Language is often seen as one of the chief factors that define a nation. Likewise, the Lemkos also have their own language: Rusyn. There are now decidedly fewer speakers of the Lemko dialect of Rusyn than before the war but the language is seeing somewhat of a revival with many villages taking a vote on whether they wish to introduce bilingual signs. Several villages have already decided to do so. With such a small number of Lemko inhabitants, this can only be undertaken with the goodwill of the Polish majority. Bielanka is such an example where the decision to introduce bilingual signs was passed with a one-vote majority.
Łemkowszczyzna is not only a rich cultural, religious and linguistic mix but it is also a land full of stories, myths and legends. Every cerkiew on a hill, cross by the side of the road or wellspring has a story to tell – a reason for being there. Perhaps a demon was thwarted by a farmer, the Virgin Mary appeared to a young peasant girl or a spring burst out of the ground after an apparition had been seen wandering around the nearby field. One thing is sure in Lemko Land: that cerkiew, that cross and that mountain spring is still there and can still be seen.