Find fresh air and culture in the Polish mountain town of Zakopane
March 26, 2012
ZAKOPANE, Poland -- The slap of ski-jumpers landing during dawn practice awakens the city. Zakopane isn't the type of place people pass through on accident. They land there, decidedly and joyfully, like the skin-suited flyers kissing the summer Astroturf with their fiberglass ski-tails. Located at the end of a road that terminates in the impassable cul-de-sac formed by the mighty Tatra Mountains, this picturesque and teeming tourist town allures a burgeoning volume of year-round visitors.
Zakopane is Poland's foremost mountain resort, sitting at the southern tip of the country near where it meets both the Slovak and Czech republics. Poland is a nation not unlike America's Midwest, rife with flat, endless fields of grain and soot-stained rusting industrial cities. Zakopane stands in stark contrast and draws urban Poles in search of jaw-dropping scenery and breaths of refreshing mountain air. The place doesn't disappoint.
Arriving by train, most easily on a connection from Krakow, you are emptied into one of several thoroughfares competing for Main Street status, each spreading into the mountain valleys like a tentacle. The crowds and street stalls suggest a market from the near East, and in high summer the searing sun can make this illusion plausible if you keep your eyes down, but just look up, and the Tatras above are as lofty and severe as the nearby Alps.
Ancestral home of the Carpathian Goral culture -- a standalone Slavic group whose language, traditional dances and ornately embroidered clothing styles date back centuries -- Zakopane offers tourists a haphazardly distilled selection of Goral mementos, mostly in the form of oscypek -- a traditional smoked sheep cheese -- carved walking sticks, and faux-traditional felt hats. Cheese, sticks, hats -- the vestiges of history boxed and packaged.
Previously buried behind the Iron Curtain, Zakopane is now New Europe at its most ravenous. The once-sleepy hamlet with a population of only 28,000 is blitzed with over 3,000,000 tourists annually. The free market has elevated restaurant and accommodation expenses above the average Polish village, but this still means prices far below anything western Europe has to offer. Travelers used to mountain retreats in the Austrian or Swiss Alps will be pleasantly surprised at the affordable Polish standard of vacationing.
Make sure you find a place to sleep early on in your journey, either by booking ahead or by visiting the tourist information center as soon as you arrive. As a result of the newfound interest in Zakopane, construction has boomed and most residences have been converted into rental apartments or rooming houses. The slapdash construction and incoming hordes of diverse visitors set against the stark mountain backdrop invoke the feeling of a frontier town of gold rush-era Alaska.
An affordable and eye-opening alternative if you're traveling in the summer is to pitch a tent at one of the two campgrounds in the city. They're usually choked with prodigious eastern European families that set up complexes of tents, as well as fleets of elderly Swiss that shut themselves inside hermetic white RVs.
Though not without this requisite European ubiquity of Dutch, Danish and German retirees in camp-trailers, the majority of tourists in Zakopane are Polish: young families and peacocking 20-somethings, the first post-communism generation with disposable income and a glut of personal automobiles who vacation from jobs in Warsaw or Lodz to explore the more remote and beautiful side of the nation they never had a chance to know.
Surveying the culture
Groups of young Polish men sport shaved heads and inflated biceps, and their strutting for young women in Zakopane's nighttime reaches a fever pitch as they screech tires and race gold-plated SUVs down the narrow, cobbled streets. Hedonism and indulgence is the norm here, and after bolting a meal of fried oscypek, grilled kielbasy and potatoes, tanking up on the other southern Polish specialty, pale lager, is expected and encouraged. Na zdrowie! This hearty food and drink fuels you perfectly for exploring the mountains the next morning.
While the city can get crowded, it maintains its rural lineage, and grizzled shepherds still tend their flocks of sheep in the pastures around the town. Ornate horses ferry people through the ancient streets and rough-hewn wooden houses still house the natives. Visitors can watch traditional music and dancing of the Goral people, a culture that aligns itself more closely with nearby Czech and Slovak mountainfolk than with the flatland Poles further to the north. It's a unique enclave of hearty mountaineers, spirited musicians and culturally proud people that form a gem hidden in the center of Europe.
But the reason everyone floods this place, of course, is the mountains themselves. Rising above the city like shark's teeth, the ragged granite peaks touch heights over 8,000 feet, alternating between bare stone and fingers of dense green pine. From the base camp of town, the towering Tatras appear pinkish in the sun, almost like carved bath soap; however, once visitors find themselves amid the rocky spires, their inviting stance grows much more daunting. Skiable in winter, the summer warmth opens up the Tatra National Park to extensive hiking.
Taming the Giewont
The most popular day hike summit -- the Giewont -- soars to 6,200 feet and appears from the town below to be a lonely refuge. But bear in mind that this is Poland, a country of nearly 40 million people crammed into an area smaller than New Mexico.
Also a devoutly Catholic place, much like nearby Austria and southern Germany, every peak of note here is crowned by a large cross and ascents become pilgrimages for the pious and heathens alike. The Giewont is no exception and a lonely walk through the lowland forest soon strings the hikers out into a tight-packed marching line up the narrow path to the summit.
The elevation rises, forcing the climbers to four-limb it over the crags so heavily traveled that the stone is worn shiny as marble in places, necessitating the draping of chains from bolts to aid walkers in their slick-soled city shoes. Though nobody acknowledges this, the trail assumes real peril toward the top, rising vertically to the small summit platform which allows a few dozen proud climbers to wolf sandwiches and inhale congratulatory cigarettes.
From the heights, the city of Zakopane looks as desolate and statuesque as the Giewont seems from below. The Polish omnipresence of black coal haze stretches across the horizon.
Just around a spine of hills down below, the ski-jumpers finish their final practice, quitting just as the afternoon sun begins to grow overly radiant.
There are certainly throngs in the city just as there are crowds atop the mountains, but the mountains provide individual joys at times like this, and before the inevitable descent through the forest, there is a moment of blissful freedom among the breezy hills.