Hiking in Poland: One agent's view

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GRESHAM, Ore. -- Hikers who brave Poland's steep mountain trails are as likely to pass families dressed up for church as they are to see other hikers.

Poland's hilltop pathways can be arduous, said Beverly Russell, travel consultant for Walker Travel & Cruises, based here. Some of the trails are carved out of rocks, which get slippery on rainy days, she said.

These conditions don't deter the locals, however, who use the trails like sidewalks. Russell, who hiked Poland last summer on a 15-night Walking Softly Adventures tour, raved about a trek near the resort town of Zakopane.

The group climbed a mountain called the Sleeping Knight, so named because from a distance, the mountain looks like the face of a knight. "Toward the top there are chains in the mountainside that you pull yourself up with," Russell said. "When we finally made it to the top, we found oodles of people up there."

Russell and her husband, Ron, chose Poland because they wanted to roam a unique place. "Everybody goes to Paris," she said. "We wanted to see something different."

Hiking brought them to the country's wooden churches, some of which date to the 18th century. Inside, a priest gives the history of the church, translated by a guide.

Treks lead to views of rolling hills, mountain lakes and limestone peaks. One hike yields a view of Poland's neighbor, Slovakia. Avid walkers, the Russells belong to a club called Volkswalking that organizes 10K walks around the world (though it has yet to reach Poland).

Although Poland's mountain trails can be daunting, less-experienced walkers need not be leery of the destination, she said. One elderly man on the Walking Softly tour adjusted by walking a bit and then riding back to the hotel on the tour van. The Russells skipped one extensive walk, opting to walk around town on their own.

Russell found that locals were "very friendly and willing to help," she added, so travelers needn't worry about getting lost. In the countryside, however, she found that English speakers are scarce.

Russell's group discovered a password, however. They approached an older woman to marvel at her garden. They pointed to themselves and said, "America." The woman did not understand. "U.S.A.," they tried. No response. "Chicago," one man said. The woman smiled and nodded. The Windy City is home to more Poles than any place outside Warsaw.

Russell also was charmed by the horse-drawn carts rumbling down country roads. She warned against driving a rental car through the countryside, however, because Polish traffic signs are difficult to follow.

The agent did have one regret: Arriving in Warsaw, Russell was surprised to find the locals all dressed up. The midday scene was reminiscent of 1950s America, with "75% of the men in suits and ties," she said. "I wish I had taken nicer clothing."

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