By wooden galley on the wild Vistula River

Drewnianym galarem

The queen of Polish rivers – the Vistula – like a blue ribbon stretches from the mountains all the way to the sea. Until a dozen years ago, it was still shrouded in the notoriety of flowing sewage, and is slowly regaining its good name. The discourse about its shipping potential has been going on for years – some prefer to swim in discussions, while others take the river, testing the theory for themselves. The second group includes those who loved the Queen and the “wood on the water.”

For wood on the water, or the return of the traditional Vistula fleet

“Here’s to wood on the water” – this is one of the rafters’ toasts that can be heard in many Vistula River towns when the season begins. It is a tradition that every year, at the end of April, from the zero point of the Vistula River, that is, a place near Oświęcim (where the Przemsza River flows into the Vistula), the Royal Flis of Cracow sets off all the way to Gdansk, or as the rafters say, “to the stake.” They set off on their galleys, which are wooden flat-bottomed boats that were once used to float goods down the river. Along the way, they visit towns where they are awaited by other “cloggers,” that is, enthusiasts and reconstructionists of the traditional Vistula fleet.

Across the entire stretch of the Vistula, the wooden fleet has grown to more than 100 vessels in just the past few years. From small pushboats, to sizable galleys, whips, doubles and skates, to majestic schooners and rafts – such is the variety of reconstructed boats that modern rafters can boast. What is noteworthy is that the knowledge of the art of boatbuilding had the opportunity to be passed on directly from boatbuilders who were still alive and remembered this now vanishing trade. This testifies to the continuity of the tradition, which, although today it manifests itself in a form adapted to modern requirements, passes on the wisdom of past generations sailing, after all, on the same Vistula.

By wooden galley
Source: Osada nad Wisłą Foundation

Immersion into the wildness of the Vistula River

What all those who have challenged the Queen and decided to swim the entire course of her have in common is an almost overwhelming sense of her ferocity. Outside the regulated passages, the Vistula makes itself known as a powerful, proud, unpredictable creature that guards its secrets. Its landscape consists of sandbanks, islands without a trace of a human foot, riparian forests – a veritable bird paradise. Vistula is also a strict teacher. Sailing on it forces one to learn how to read water, which the rafters of the past had in their blood, and which many today learn from their mistakes. And while pushing a boat off a shoal for hours teaches humility, an unwitting wading encounter in seemingly shallow water with a sandbar can be irreversible in its consequences.

You can’t turn back the Vistula with a stick, or sustainability in Vistula tourism

Those who cruise the Vistula are aware of the challenge of this remarkable river. Its nature makes it possible to either fight it or go with the flow. The latter option was chosen by modern wooden boat enthusiasts inspired by traditional rafting. This is because in addition to their historical value, these vessels have a utility feature – they make it possible to adapt the boat to the river, rather than the river to the boat. Their flat-bottomed nature makes them capable of flowing at minimal water levels, which is crucial for an increasingly dry climate. Hence, water tourism based on this type of craft will work well in difficult conditions, without the need to interfere with the river itself.

Wooden units – a floating cultural space

Although wooden galleys no longer carry coal or salt, trading them along the way, this does not mean that the boats have been deprived of their unifying character among people. Modern Vistula boaters have discovered a whole new use for traditional boats – as a meeting space for culture and the river. Wooden boats are increasingly becoming a venue for floating concerts, exhibitions, workshops or cinema under sail. Increasingly, Vistula River cities are turning to the river, supporting initiatives that sustainably connect city and river spaces. Harbors for traditional Vistula boats are being built in Krakow, Sandomierz or Toruń, as a nod to the past and a form of invitation for people to return to the Vistula.

Enjoy the Vistula River – it’s beautiful!

Matilda Wejdman. President of the Osada nad Wisłą Foundation, a Cracovian, lover of the wild Vistula River, helmsman of the Jadwiga galar.

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