1997. The rain just kept coming down, but the commemorative cross was erected nonetheless, amid a sea of umbrellas. Open bandstand where
performances take place.
1998. Operation "Vistula" commemorative cross a year later.

Vatra 1998

by Al and Oly Boyko

We both knew that when we started to travel to Eastern Europe a whole new meaning would enter into the word travel. For though Albert is a first generation Canadian and I am a second generation Canadian there is no doubt that our roots are deeply entwined in the Carpathian Mountain regions and we believe, near Ternopil, Ukraine.

There are two ways to travel, one by going on a tour and letting a travel agent do most of the worrying. This takes less time but has two major drawbacks. It usually costs much more and you do not have the freedom to move about when and as you wish. We chose to travel independently and though it takes a little planning it worked out very well. This year we spent several days longer in the Lemkovyna area than we had originally planned, because we love it so much. It would have been terrible to have someone say we had to move on.

When we first planned a trip to Poland we were only becoming aware that Albert's background was/is "Lemko". It was through research done by our son, Adrian, that we realized that Albert's mother came from the village of Czyrna, in what is now Poland. We also learned that Albert's uncle, ( his mother's brother ) and his family were relocated during the Vistula Operation in 1947. With this knowledge we went to the Lemko Vatra in 1997 and once again in 1998. Before I go on to write about the Vatra I will tell all who are interested how we arranged our travels from a city in Alberta, Canada to a village in Lemkovyna!

I do not know if possible visitors to the Vatra want to know about how we fared once we arrived in Europe, or from when we left home, so I will write about our trip in its totality up to and including the Vatra.

We followed the same arrangement for each trip. In mid February we purchased our Airline tickets, from Edmonton to Frankfurt, Germany and return. Bearing in mind that the Vatra is usually held on the last weekend of July, ( in 1998 it was July 24, 25 and 26) we allowed enough time to travel to Zdynia for the Vatra.

Once we had our flights arranged it was time to think about obtaining a tourist visa to enter Poland. Residents of Canada need a tourist visa. Residents of other countries may or may not require a visa. It is the traveler's responsibility to find if they need a visa.

A more expanded view of the bandstand and attendees. New "Lemkivska Vatra" sign
for 1998.
There is a fair number of seats in front of the bandstand.


Another consideration was to locate a car rental agency that would allow their vehicle to be driven into Eastern Europe. After much phoning we found that AVIS car rental, through their International Booking Agency in Tulsa, Oklahoma would rent us a car, and one of the great features is that it had unlimited mileage! Our suggestion is to make all the arrangements from home using the 1-800 number that you will find in Avis advertisements and ask for a letter confirming your arrangements. We also asked Avis to list in their computer, the countries we planned to travel in, thus making things easier for us at the Frankfurt Airport when we picked up our vehicle. There were no surprises, either for Avis or for us.

An International Drivers Permit is required to drive in many counties, including Eastern Europe. They are available at all CAA outlets at a very low cost. With your permit you receive information on international road signs. Take the time to study these and keep one in the car to look up any signs that you cannot interpret. Always remember, you follow the law of the country you are in. From several years of experience we can say that we have had no problems. We got into the habit of checking the bulletin boards at the border crossings, this will give you valuable information. An example of this is the "sticker" that we had to purchase to drive on the super highways in Austria, the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic. Other information includes toll road prices and speed limits. Travel in Eastern Europe can be via super highways, where you will find only motor vehicles. Once you are on a regular highway you will find that these are shared with farm machinery, horses and wagons and often with very street wise ducks and geese!

Next it was time to consider accommodations. Most people like to reserve hotel rooms and have them waiting for them. We would not advise this except for the first and last night. We booked a room offered by the same company that we bought tickets from, they almost always offer a much better price when rooms are taken in conjunction with the tickets. A room at the end of a 9 hour flight is nice to have , but remember to do your homework and get a map of the city you will be in (I find them on the net) and decide on a route from the airport to your hotel. In making our choice we always pick the hotel with the most secure parking.

A note before I go on , we were told of all the horror stories that could occur when we drove a car in Europe. We took normal precautions. That is, we selected hotels/motels or pensions that had either quiet areas to park or parking compounds and we used a car CLUB that we had brought from home. We packed this in our checked baggage and it was one of the first things we unpacked and the last that we packed. We always used the club when we left the car, regardless of what country we were in. It is very interesting in other countries. Sometimes parking is an extra charge, sometimes it is not. Sometimes you are given a locked garage, sometimes a fenced yard. In Gorlice and Krynica we parked on the street. Oh, I must tell you that gasoline and diesel fuel are readily available everywhere.

You are probably wondering why we only book our first and last night accommodations. People are often tired after a transatlantic flight so it is nice to have a room booked. On the last night it is nice to have a room so you can re-pack your bags and get a good nights sleep before your flight home. For the remainder of the time you will be free to go where you want, stay as long as you wish and have more opportunity to be spontaneous.

On that note , I must smile and tell you that in most old cities, hotels are often in the center of town, which often means trains and trolley cars and all kinds of noise. So keep a good sense of humor, enjoy the hot shower, enjoy the bustling city streets below you and perhaps, even get a little sleep.

We left Edmonton in the evening and arrived in Frankfurt at 1:30 p.m. the following day. We picked up our baggage, cleared customs and headed for the car rental area. They were very efficient here and within 15 minutes we were in our car. On both trips, the car we had reserved (a mid-size) was unavailable so we were given a larger car at no extra charge.

In 1997 we stayed at the NOVOTEL CITY WEST which was a great location as it was very easy to drive to and had underground, secure parking. Unfortunately, this hotel was no longer offered in 1998 so we stayed at the SCANDIC CROWN HOTEL right in the heart of Frankfurt. We had to park in a parking garage two blocks away from the hotel, after unloading our baggage at the hotel. This was slightly inconvenient but on the other side it was great to be right downtown, visit the train station and eat super charbroiled chicken just around the corner from our hotel. If you ever go there you will find the chicken by simply following the marvelous aroma!

The following day we rose early, had a good breakfast,(included with the hotel charges), retrieved our car and were on our way. We had obtained maps from our local CAA office and these were sufficient for all main roads. If you plan to drive to small villages, and the Vatra is close to a very small village you, will need a more detailed map. We purchased the EURO ATLAS of POLAND, 1:300,000 and this atlas was great for finding the Vatra. We purchased our atlas at a map store in Edmonton, but we did see the same atlas in many cities in Poland.

The route we chose was from Frankfurt, to Wurzburg, then Nurnberg and into the Czech Republic via the Waidhaus/Rozvadov border crossing and on towards Prague. The highways are excellent and are well marked and we found ourselves about 40 km/24 miles outside of Prague in the late afternoon. We chose to stop here and spend the night at a 24 hour truck stop, (also called non stop) as it is less expensive than in Prague. We enjoyed the down to earth, but totally acceptable lodging here at the Buchalka truck stop. We did visit this historic city and left from Prague to carry on to Poland. As I said earlier, the signs are excellent and it was not difficult to leave Prague and head for Poland. In our case we traveled on E65, but there many approaches to Poland. Most of these highways will join the super highway #A4 which leads to Krakow.

We have found that we were always able to find accommodations with little difficulty in any of the Eastern countries that we traveled in. The selection is better if you start to look at around 5 p.m. It is also easier to read the street signs in the daylight hours. In the two trips we made we had accommodations with a private bathroom and shower about 80% of the time. An interesting point is that in these countries it is not uncommon to have showers in the hallway and we found them very clean and in good order. It came to the point where we did not mind at all if we had a shower in our room or down the hall! The point I am trying to make is that finding accommodations is not a problem. The prices are generally much lower that at home in Canada. We did find the prices higher in Germany and Austria.

>From Prague we went to a village near Legnica and then on to Czestochowa, before carrying on to Krakow. I know most people reading this page are going to Poland to attend the Vatra in Zdynia but it is also a good chance to visit Prague with it's own incredible beauty, Czestochowa which is home to the Jasna Gora and well worth a visit, not to mention Krakow, home of the Rynek Glowny, one of the largest and most distinctive market squares in Europe. In all cases we found that the largest roads were the best choice. The major roadway that we traveled in Poland was E40(A4). In 1997 we had to take a totally different route than planned due to the flooding in the Wroclaw area and that is how we ended up going to Czestochowa. We liked this place so much that we chose the same route in 1998.

To this point I have described how my husband , Albert and myself arrived in Krakow. Albert loves driving and we were soon at the POLONIA hotel. We were happy to find there was a vacancy and we parked the car in the garage we were able to rent (in the hotel compound) and settled down for a few days of R&R in this easy to get around city.

Many people may choose to fly from their hometown to Krakow, Poland. In that case you can join us here, so to speak. I have read extensively on the subject and there are many car rentals available in Poland. Some are local, some are worldwide chains like Avis and Hertz. I do not know what the regulations are for renting cars there but I am certain that your travel agent would be able to help you .

So, we are finally really getting close to going to the Vatra! A large area in south-east Poland is the area that was inhabited by many Lemkos. This is a wonderful place to spend a week of your time. We left Krakow and traveled on highway E40 till we found a nice motel about 25km/15 miles west of the city of Rzeszow. As we drove along E40 on our way to Rzeszow we looked south and saw the gently rolling hills and mountainous areas where the cities of Sanok, Gorlice and Krynica are located. This is Lemko country!

The hillsides were covered
with tents and people.
"VATRA" of 1998. Some attendees arrived
by bus.


We had wanted to drive around this entire area so the next day we continued on E40 till we came to Przemysl which is very close to the Ukrainian border and spent the afternoon exploring the town. Then we traveled to Ukraine prior to the Vatra in July/98 and spent three days in L'viv, but that's another story and I must add, a wonderful story! Close to Przemysl we found a nice hotel, ZAJAZD, about 6 km/3.5 miles south of town on highway 98. This highway is a very winding, mountain road for a good distance, the scenery is spectacular and then you arrive at Sanok. It took us 75 minutes to drive this 68km/42 mile stretch of serpentine road and it was worth every minute that it took to drive it!

In Sanok we felt very much at home. We stayed at the TURYSTA HOTEL and would recommend it. When we were out walking we viewed the Jagielonski Hotel on Ulica Jagielonska and it was great. While in Sanok, we visited the SKANSEN, which recreates the village life of the region's main ethnic groups: the Lemkos and the Boykos. It is like taking a step back in time and is rated as one of Europe's best outdoor museums.

From Sanok we followed highway #98 to Krosno, then on to Jaslo, then took #992 to Nowy Smigrod and finally #993 to Gorlice. I have said that we try to take the more major roads, but on the major road there was a washed out bridge at Biecz so we had to take smaller roads to get to Gorlice. It was no problem, it was really enjoyable! Many of these winding roads are very beautiful and cut through quiet farmland and offer much scenery.

When one reaches Gorlice you are almost at the Vatra. Gorlice would be the closest major city to Zdynia. There are three or four hotels in Gorlice and one on the eastern outskirts of the city, this is the one we stayed at, we checked in and then immediately drove off to find the Vatra, though we did not plan to attend till the next day.

Now here is where you really need the 1:300,000 atlas. The drive to the Vatra is through winding, narrow, beautiful mountain terrain roads. Zdynia is south east of Gorlice, about 30km/18 miles. It is very near the Polish/Slovakian border crossing of Konieczna/Becherov. You will see a road sign turning off #98 and going to Konieczna, you follow this road past Siary, Sekowa, Ropnica Gorna, Malastow, Petna, Gladyszow and then Zdynia. This is a winding road with roads branching off the main road and some of the villages I listed are not right on the road, however, you will have no trouble with your atlas on hand.

You cannot miss the Vatra as there is a huge sign erected on the side of the road saying LEMKOVYNA VATRA, in the Lemko language. Turn left at the sign and follow the cars, the bicycles, the hikers and the backpackers! They come from everywhere, these distinct people and their descendants, returning to their beautiful Lemkovyna! They come by the thousand and meet here each year! The road was absolutely covered with people arriving in every mode of travel. Regardless of the weather they come.

Parking is no problem as an entire grassy field is turned into a parking lot and the charge is minimal. Happy young men with smiling faces greeted us at the parking area. There is a very short walk to the Vatra.

This Vatra is set up in a people friendly fashion. There are ticket booths where you can purchase your 3 day ticket. They no longer offer one day tickets. Another bonus, as people from many countries arrive here, is a currency exchange office on site.

I mentioned several hotels in Gorlice but thousands of people come here and they camp on the hillsides for the entire time of the Vatra. This is really the best way to enjoy the Vatra as they are totally immersed and do not miss any of the singing or activities.

This area is well organized for camping with separate camping areas and shower and bathroom facilities. There are many fast food kiosks, selling ethnic and other food and drinks. However, many of the campers came prepared with their own food. In the center of the area is a large open air bandstand, protected with a roof. All dancing, singing and speeches are conducted from here. There is seating for many people, the remainder sit on the grass or on the hillside by their tents and take in the activities.

As we sat and listened to songs that we have not heard since our mothers sang them to us as children we marveled at the greatness of this Vatra! It is so good to know where you came from and to carry on that culture! To all of you reading this we would encourage you to make this trip and take part in this moving experience. Though we could not understand all the speakers due to our limited knowledge of the language we did understand enough to really appreciate the Vatra.

We were fortunate to attend the Vatra in 1997 and 1998. The 1997 Vatra was very meaningful as it marked the 50th anniversary of the Vistula Operation. A large commemorative cross was erected on the hillside and many people attended despite the heavy rainfall.

In 1997 it rained long periods during the Vatra, so a good umbrella is always useful! That same umbrella is equally useful on a bright , sunny weekend such as the one we experienced in 1998, this time to keep the sun off the people! We saw many sunburned people at the Vatra in 1998. A final point about weather is the fact that even on a sunny day, up there in the rolling hills and small mountains a sudden thunder shower can pass through with no warning.

At some time before or after the Vatra try and take a few days and stay in the city of Krynica. This place, famous for it's clean, healthy mountain air and it's mineral water is a favorite spot for Europeans and locals to come and rest. The pensions are beautiful and offer good rooms and all meals, a nice way to pamper yourself!

From Gorlice take highway #98 to Grybow, then go south on 977 which turns into 971 and goes to Krynica.

The distance from Krakow to the Vatra is not great, you could easily get to the Vatra in two days from Krakow. We took longer as we wanted to wander around this beautiful part of Poland where many of our ancestors came from.

We hope that this will help those of you who would like to travel independently to the Vatra. Once you do get to the Vatra we can guarantee you that the memories you leave with will stay with you forever. You may even be like us and decide to go a second time!

Al and Oly Boyko
E-mail: aboyko@oanet.com

Parking attendants - a delighful smiling trio. Campers pitch their tents to the right of
the access road, parking area's on the left.




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Originally Composed: January 22nd, 1999
Date last modified: August 5th, 2002