Travelling with passion... Wallachian Culture Trail

A hill where sheep graze. A view of the mountains in the background.
The Wallachians are a pastoral people who arrived on Polish soil around the 15th century and brought with them not only the domestic art of grazing sheep in difficult mountainous terrain, but also a rich culture that is still alive today. The Wallachians wandered from the Bieszczady Mountains through the Beskid Niski, Beskid Sądecki, Gorce and Podtatrze, to the Beskid Żywiecki and further west, and we can learn about the traces of the Wallachian settlers' stay by following the Wallachian Culture Trail.

We invite you on a unique journey, presented in several scenes, taking in a comprehensive picture of the pastoral legacy of the Wallachians, considered to be one of the ‘Fathers of Europe’, whose wanderings were of great importance in shaping the landscape and culture of the Carpathians. We will not only point out places worth visiting but also delve into the culture and way of life of the Wallachian community, which has given a unique character to the culture of the mountain areas.

A mysterious people – who were the Wallachians?

The collective name Wallachians is used to describe a number of ethnic groups, forming ancestral clans, which have blended into local societies and nations over time, gradually losing the characteristics of a tribal community.  In the Western Carpathians, the Wallachians made an essential contribution to the formation of the cultural community of the highland groups (Ruthenian, Polish and Slovak), passing on to them the mountain pastoral farming system, vocabulary and numerous cultural patterns. The bearers of the innovative Wallachian law were originally ethnically Romanian families of Wallachian dukes (sołtys), who, in return for founding a settlement, received a knyaz land (sołectwo), where they exercised power and brought Polish and Ruthenian settlers from the agricultural lowlands to the area. In the western part of the Carpathian Mountains, the founders of villages were Catholics or Protestants (Těšín Silesia, Moravia); they did not distinguish themselves ethnically from the locals, and the Wallachian law introduced there was only a modification of German law to suit the mountain conditions. The earliest Wallachian settlement in Ruthenia from the second half of the 14th century was still predominantly ethnically Wallachian in character. However, the 16th century settlements under Wallachian law in the Western Carpathians already had not an ethnically Wallachian but a local population. In the modern period, due to  significant economic, social and cultural assimilation (Polonisation, Ruthenisation), Wallachians could also live in settlements under Ruthenian or German law and Ruthenians in villages under Wallachian law.

Wallachian settlement

The settlement policy and military considerations of the Kingdom of Hungary during the reigns of Charles Robert and Louis of Hungary of the Andegavian dynasty favoured Wallachian settlement in the Carpathian Mountains.  The self-sufficient Wallachian economy was an essential element in the development of the economy and population growth in the mountainous lands of the Hungarian Crown.  Successive Polish rulers of the Jagiellonian dynasty favoured such a settlement policy, granting territories in Pokucie and Podkarpacie, as well as the mountainous regions of the Eastern Carpathians (Tucholszczyzna and Bojkowszczyzna) to the Wallachian knyzes and knights. The Ruthenian and Ruthenianised Wallachians were further decisive in spreading Wallachian settlement in north-eastern Slovakia (Zemplin, Sarysz, Spis) and south-eastern Poland at that time (the Bieszczady, the Beskid Niski). The peak of colonisation under Wallachian law in the Western Carpathians was in the 16th century. At that time, new settlements were founded in the Beskid Niski, on the territory of the Muszyna Key in the Beskid Sądecki (Szczawnik, Zubrzyk, Krynica, Chambers) and in the Skalne Podhale in the Beskid Żywiecki and the Beskid Śląski. In the mountainous part of the Lanckorona starosty, to which the area of Podbabiogórze belonged, the 16th century settlements with a pastoral economy included Jachówka, Trzebunia and Bieńkówka, as well as the largest Wallachian village in the region  Zawoja, where already at the end of the 16th century it is likely that individual families or groups of settlers occupied successive streams (settlements), creating pastoral and agricultural clearings. Wallachian migrations had the character of 'elite migrations', which involved the transfer of innovations by a relatively small number of Wallachian settlers. These innovations were rapidly adopted and implemented by the locals and were able to change the social and economic reality in the vast area of the Carpathian Mountains, leading to the creation of a settlement model under Wallachian law. Wallachian law gave Wallachians a privileged position in relation  to peasant communities and determined a pastoral lifestyle with a different system of values and customs than those in agricultural villages. Wallachian law appeared in the 14th century and, in its oldest form, guaranteed the possibility of free movement and the free carrying of arms, a military obligation to the state in force since the 11th century and, unusually, the absence of the need to perform corvée labour for the landowner in exchange for tribute in kind – whole sides of sheep, handicrafts such asleather belts, farm produce such as Wallachian cheeses, or money, for example,a twenty-figure sum from sheep called ‘strunga’ or a tithe from grazing pigs called ‘żer’). It is also interesting to note that the Wallachians, as a 'free people', did not have to abide by the propination laws and were free to drink alcohol. The model for the creation of a new settlement in the Carpathians was the founding of villages by principals coming directly from what is now Romania or, more often, by the son of a knyaz from an already existing Wallachian settlement. In this way, networks of Wallachian settlements were formed in the Carpathians, bound by family, economic and social ties, a kind of 'mountain community' of blood, property and interests with a clear sense of distinctiveness. A number of factors meant that the Wallachian people were undoubtedly regarded as attractive settlers. One of these was the military-guard factor. The Wallachians had the old Balkan organisational models of military-type settlements based on military districts headed by a chieftain (voivode, Romanian: vodă, Hungarian: vajda). The Wallachians had military duties and acted as police and border guards, controlling and securing strategic mountain crossings, defending against troublemakers and suspicious elements, carrying mail, and maintaining the collection of grazing taxes. An important reason for the popularity of the Wallachian settlement model in the Carpathians was also the economic and economic factor. The large landowners wanted to generate income from as much of their land as possible. Hence, the possibility of developing mountain voids and less fertile areas into pastoral and agricultural settlements, and collecting tax from them was  desirable. Moreover, it was also essential to enrich the production profile with pastoralism, hence the invitation to Wallachians to take up residence in existing agricultural villages. The original form of farming of the Wallachians was seasonal transhuman pastoralism and agriculture.

This type of pastoralism involved the seasonal movement of shepherds with their flocks between winter habitats and mountain pastures, which were sometimes more than 100 km apart. On the scorched mountain pastures, they erected characteristic buildings and huts.  The term was used to describe a mountain pastoral farm. The cabin usually included people, animals, buildings and mobile equipment. The sheltered farm was headed by a shepherd who managed all the work and made the cheeses. The sheep were herded and milked by the shepherds, assisted by young boys known as 'honielnicy.' The wool, dairy and meat trade contributed to the enormous wealth of some Wallachian traders and their subsequent move to the cities. Mountain pastoralism was an economic activity that the Wallachians mastered to perfection, introducing and disseminating innovative technologies based on rennet cheese making. The Wallachians were called the 'Shepherds of Rome' in medieval times and were considered the best dairy producers in Europe at that time.

Wallachians in Małopolska

Wallachian settlement in the Małopolska region began in the 15th century and lasted until the early 17th century. The migrantory wanderings of the Wallachians extended from the Bieszczady through the Beskid Niski, the Beskid Sądecki, the Gorce and Podtatrze, to the Beskid Żywiecki, the Beskid Śląski and further west, towards Moravia. Shepherds occupied natural grazing pastures in the Carpathian Mountains and created new pastures by burning tracts of forest. From the 18th century onwards, the administrative authorities began to force newcomers by various decrees and high penalties to establish permanent settlements (of which Ochotnica in the Gorce Mountains is an example) or to settle on the outskirts of existing villages. The Wallachians were organised into so-called families, headed by a knyaz or wajda (today, Wajda is a common Highland surname). When settling, they moved away from a nomadic lifestyle but continued to graze sheep. typically starting in May and continuing through to the end of September. Their culture (evident in language, music, and costume) greatly influenced the formation of highland culture in what is now Małopolska.

Pastures and glades

Specific types of land use have developed over the centuries of use of the mountain areas by Wallachian settlers, and people taking over Wallachian pastoral traditions. In Lemkivshchyna, seasonal grazing was used on extensive pastures located above village buildings (e.g., Zdynia, Długie, Bartne). In the Beskid Żywiecki, the Gorce or the Beskid Sądecki, clearings, cleared by hand or by controlled burning of woodlands, often located on mountain ridges and having great scenic value, are a characteristic element of the pastoral landscape. Of particular note here is Hala Kucałowa below Polica in the Żywiec Beskids, Stumorgowa Glade on Mt Mogielica, or the glades of Srokówka and Jaworzyna Kamienicka in the Gorce Mountains. In the Tatra Mountains and on Mt Babia, grazing was also carried out in areas above the tree line – at this altitude, above 1,500 m above sea level, for example, there is  Hala Gąsienicowa, the old Hala Pańszczyca or the upper parts of Hala Goryczkowa and Hala Tomanowa, as well as the Diablak peak, the highest in the Mt Babia massif. On Podhale and Orava, less fertile areas on the outskirts of villages, in the vicinity of peat bogs (e.g., Puścizna Mała and the Baligówka peat bog) were also used for this purpose.

The world of plants and animals in the world of the shepherds

Specific elements of the plant and animal world are also associated with pastoralism. These are semi-natural pasture and meadow complexes, with their characteristic vegetation. Some species, such as the saffron crocus – or crocus – are commonly associated with mountain glades. In the world of animals associated with pastoral farming, a distinction can be made between domestic cattle and the cakiel breed of sheep, a separate variety in the Beskid-Podhale region, which is a descendant of the Wallachian cakiel. Podhale sheep are almost exclusively white, the result of centuries of selective breeding aimed at obtaining white wool. Beskid cakiels were slightly larger and were often black. It is from black wool that the inhabitants of Piwniczna-Zdrój or Rytro spun fabric for clothes and it is from here that their name – Black Highlanders – originates. Nowadays, the 'black sheep' restitution is taking place in the Poprad Valley, where it aspires to become a branded product of the Nowy Sącz region. The shepherds' inseparable companion remains the dog – the Podhale sheepdog.

Villages under Wallachian law

The most common type of Wallachian village was a cornfield-forestry village (sometimes with intermediate features with a field layout) in the form of a chain village. It was a village established on forest clearings where settlers were given an allotment of land in the shape of a band perpendicular to the road and the river, which formed the axis of the valley. Thus, each settler had fertile land on the valley floor, land on the slope and forest in their allotment. Such villages were established mainly in the 14th and 15th centuries. The mid-forest glade settlements belonging to the chain village are the so-called zarębki, huby, kąty, and majdany. Today their character is preserved in the place names. They were created as the development of summer (seasonal) houses and huts and as the result of forest clearing. Villages with a forest-cornfield layout have partly lost their layout due to secondary subdivisions. The fields were divided among the children so that each child received part of the fertile land on the valley floor, part of the meadows and part of the forest. The densest possible division of the canopy the field allowed eight narrow strips to be delimited. If there were more children, some were given whole clearings and zarębki, transforming seasonal farming sites into year-round residences. Hence, developments in the valley floor around the village core formed a constellation of high-laltitude hamlets and even reclusive farms. Smaller, often separated structures at the bottoms of tributaries, called ’creeks’, repeated the method of construction in the valley floor. The name meant the stream and the settlement, usually built on a singlesteep side of the valley of a creek or stream. Development on the creek was not continuous, but was clustered near the so-called 'plains' where it was easier to develop small arable fields.

Wallachian culturale heritage

In the Małopolska region there are many places presenting Wallachian culturale heritage. Their concentration occurred in the southern part of the voivodeship, especially in the Tatra, Nowy Targ and Sucha districts, resulting from the settlement history of these lands and centuries-old traditions.

The most important sites presenting the Wallachian culture heritage in Małopolska are the places of living shepherd tradition, i.e., shepherd's huts (bacówka).al In Małopolska, they can be found on mountain pastures in the Pieninythe Gorce, the Tatra Mountains, in the Dunajec Valley , in Orava and at the foot of Mt Babia. During the grazing season, they graze sheep traditionally. This tradition dates back to the Middle Ages, which makes pastoralism a valuable cultural phenomenon. Traces of Wallachian influence can also be seen in the landscape of the Carpathian Mountains. The spatial layout of the village, the grazing halls, and the roads cutting across the slopes, which are still legible today, correspond to centuries-old traditions of herding, keeping with the archaic type of Wallachian economy. In addition to the huts mentioned above, museum exhibitions are places which present the Wallachian cultural heritage in Małopolska. Thanks to the persistent work of enthusiasts, collectors and museum workers, it is now possible to see exhibits related to pastoralism dating from the 18th and 19th centuries. The largest collection of artefacts of this type is held by the Tytus Chałubiński Tatra Museum in Zakopane. Interesting collections can also be found in the Pieniny Museum in Szlachtowa and the Władysław Orkan Museum in Rabka . A reconstruction of shepherd's huts with complete equipment can be seen in the Orava Ethnographic Park in Zubrzyca Górna, in addition, thematic exhibitions on shepherding can be found in Piwniczna-Zdrój and in Ludźmierz.

The intangible heritage of Wallachian culture is presented at numerous folklore events, including: "Babiogórska Jesień" organised in Zawoja, "Świętojańskie Zwyki" in Orawka, "Świętojańskie Zwyki" in Ludźmierz, Redyk in Ochotnica Górna and Jaworki. Redyk, the ceremonial departure and return of the sheep from the mountain pastures, is the most important moment during the grazing season. Nowadays, shepherd rituals rooted in ancient, often pre-Christian traditions come to life during the redyk, as in years gone by.

The heirs to Wallachian traditions, who are today's ambassadors of shepherd heritage, are the shepherds – the organisers and managers of the shepherd's hut. Many continue the family tradition, inheriting the shepherding profession as a result of a multi-generational family. The Wallachian material heritage also includes items necessary for cheese production (typuciery, giele, ferule, etc.), elements of shepherd's clothing (shepherd's bag, hat, pins, kierpce, etc.) and cheese-making products for which Małopolska is famous throughout Europe (e.g. oscypki, bundz, bryndza). Intangible heritage includes specific nomenclature relating to shepherd's objects, cheese-making stages, points of interest (names of mountain pastures, peaks, passes), musical and verbal folklore, and the ability to make musical instruments (złóbcoktrombit, fujar,bagpipes) and decorate everyday objects.

Walking in the footsteps of the Wallachian settlers is undoubtedly a fascinating journey through unobvious places, amidst enchanting mountain landscapes, where modernity meets the world of magic and ancient rituals. It is about meeting mountain people, participating in pastoral events, sometimes very spectacular, experiencing pastoral hardships, sounds and tastes...

You are welcome!

See also: Thematic routes "In the footsteps of the Wallachians".


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