The Carpathian Mountains form the largest mountain range in Europe, arcing over 900 miles and providing dramatic scenery in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Serbia, and Slovakia. Topography always has a major effect on history and culture; visit these countries so see what man has made of these mountains.
Meet the Carpathians
The Carpathians swoop from the southeast Czech Republic and southern edge of Poland through the middle section of Slovakia, dip into northern Hungary, curve southeast through Ukraine and into a broad swath in western Romania before stopping just below the northern border of Serbia. Got that? Elevations are lower than in the Alps, topping out just under 9,000 feet, but the length of the range exceeds that of its western cousin. The highest peaks and most alpine scenery are in the Tatras Mountains, which form the border between Poland and Slovakia. The Carpathians are known for their divine landscapes, prodigious wildlife, and incredible variety of plant species.
The lively Czech Republic is awash in must-sees. The fairy tale skylines and medieval streets of Prague and Český Krumlov are breathtaking; in Brno see a wealth of 19th and 20th century architecture including Art Nouveau and a Mies van der Rohe masterpiece. Picturesque castles and villages dot countryside gentle enough for almost everyone to enjoy biking between them. If you’re a cinema buff, tour locations for movies such as “Amadeus” and “Mission Impossible”. Festivals celebrating the arts, history, crafts, food and beer abound and add a wonderful dynamic to your sightseeing. The White Carpathians are a designated UNESCO biosphere reserve for their unique mix of oak and beech forests and the astonishing flora and fauna they shelter. All kinds of outdoor activities are available to help you escape from boredom (if you can possibly be bored here) and to help you work off the soul-satisfying meals including, of course, a local beer. Or two.
Poland is the natural choice for the inquisitive traveler. Visiting the hometowns of its famous sons and daughters would be a fascinating tour; in Olsztyn castle you can see graffiti by Copernicus! Frédéric Chopin, the famous composer, and Marie Curie, winner of two Nobel prizes, are two more illustrious Polish figures. Favorite cities of Poland include Krakow, its stupendous old town practically untouched by World War II, and Wraclow, with 1,000 years of history and despite numerous “changes of management”, a wealth of sites to illustrate its past. Summer or winter, everyone likes visiting Zakopane, a Carpathian jewel. Near Tatra National Park, the town is the perfect base for skiing or summer mountain sports. The less developed Baltic seacoast on the northern end of the country offers as much natural solace, but in the form of shifting sand dunes at Slowinski National Park. If you’re after a wellness break, enjoy geothermal spas in the mountains and balneotherapy near the sea.
Turbulent history and scenic drama give Slovakia all the interest a traveler could want. Bratislava, the strategically placed capital on the Danube halfway between Vienna and Prague, has been a center of commercial and political activity for ages. Scores of Slovakian towns and villages present their stories via beautifully preserved architecture and museums of art and folk culture. Be sure to see the UNESCO World Heritage Painted Wooden Churches, built for different faiths and all decorated with great devotion. Among many stunning castles, Bojnice Castle is one right out of a fairy tale. Not only does it look magical, the International Festival of Ghosts and Spooks is held in it every spring. Where else? The mountains of Slovakia are a paradise for active holidays. You can hike, swim in crystal clear lakes, or expand to bungee jumping in the High Tatras, wood rafting down the Dunajec, Nordic walking, or hot air ballooning in the Velka Raca.
After you’ve climbed Castle Hill, seen the UNESCO-listed view from both sides of the Danube, attended a performance at the elegant Hungarian State Opera House and hung out at a café, then can you tear yourself away from bewitching Budapest? For R&R, head for Lake Balaton, the largest lake in Central Europe, to the south for lakeside resorts and to the north if you’d like to do some spectacular bird and wildlife watching. The Pannonian region towns established by the Romans are still hopping today. The southeast Alföld region is where the legendary Hungarian paprika and much other produce essential to Hungarian cuisine is grown, each with its own festival. Where the Carpathian Mountains reach into Hungary is an unbelievable concentration of attractions. You’ll find storybook villages, vibrant craft traditions, caves to explore, mountain sports, most of Hungary’s UNESCO sites, and wineries producing the famous Tokaj and Bull’s Blood of Eger wines.
Romania, explore the Carpathian garden! Its history consists of waves of invasion and foreign rule lasting for centuries. Dacian archaeological sites, Saxon fortified churches, Painted Monasteries, Jewish heritage sites – and don’t forget Dracula’s castle – can all enrich your visit. Bucharest and its graceful Belle Epoque architecture and lively character make it a favorite Central European city. A cruise on the Danube and a visit to the immense, wildlife-rich Delta are musts. The gorgeous Carpathian Mountain forests shelter more bears and wolves than anywhere in Europe (but they don’t make the your best tour guides). Instead, take a natural cure in one of dozens of spas, since almost a third of Europe’s thermal spas are in Romania, or loll on the sand of a Black Sea resort. Taste Romania: vineyards grow in every corner of the country so you have some regional wine and specialty tasting ahead of you, too.
Serbia has been under Celtic, Roman, Slavic, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian dominion, although the mighty Serbian Emperor Stefan Uroš IV Dušan, ruled almost all of Greece for a time during the 14th century. Vestiges of each era show up in Serbian art, architecture, and even food. Standout sites to visit are Serbia’s cherished Orthodox monasteries, beautifully built and decorated with frescoes. Scenic highlights include odd rock formations at Djavoloja varos (“Devil’s Town”) and heart-lifting vistas as you raft down the Drina River. Enjoy Serbian cities, whether it’s the bustle of Belgrade, slower-paced Nis, or muti-ethnic Novi Sad. Try rakija, the Serbian fruit brandy or sip some Bermet, an elegant dessert wine from Sremski Karlovci that was served on the Titanic. Famous Serbians include Nikola Tesla, who developed AC power, and Milutin Milanković who revolutionized ice age theory. And then there’s the amazing tennis star Novak Djokovic, making today’s sports-loving Serbians justly proud.