Discover Poland

Tatras: The Top of the World

The Tatras Mountains are part of the Carpathian Mountains; the Carpathians form a 1,500 kilometer range across Central and Eastern Europe, starting in the Czech Republic and gracefully arching eastwards and southwards, through Slovakia, Poland, Hungary and the Ukraine, all the way to Romania; the literary will recall that Dracula\’s castle is located in the Carpathians. The Tatras have the distinction and the honour of being the highest section of this massive natural barrier, with the highest peaks exceeding 2,600 meters. When travellers come to Poland, this is one part of the country that is deemed unmissable – and it is.

Gorgeous Zakopane
Tatras: The Top of the World

Zakopane lies about 100 km south of Kraków, smack on the Slovakian border. Nestled deep in a picturesque valley at the foot of the Tatras, the town is the easiest part of the mountain range to get to from the rest of Poland, and a perfect place to start and stay for a few days.

By Polish standards, Zakopane is a very young town: it\’s only four centuries old. Originally a shepherds\’ settlement boasting 43 inhabitants (not including the sheep), legend says that a man named Gąsienica arrived in Zakopane with his two sons – Paweł and Jędrzej – in tow, and for reasons best known to them, the three entrepreneurial spirits built a mill. Word got around, and soon, a steelworks was set up in a neighbouring village, to take advantage of the iron ore mines in the region – and the area became less an agricultural site and more industrial-focused. Fortunately, before the beauty and rare nature could be damaged by industrial interests, it was declared a lovely place for health spas, due to its clean air and water. And so it became of paramount importance to protect and maintain its natural environment, which means that today Zakopane is one of the cleanest, freshest and healthiest places in Poland. Health spas in the Tatras are still a major draw for medical tourists from the UK and Germany, particularly those with breathing problems.
Hiking For All Levels

Although the Tatras have over 250 km of walking trails, by far the most popular place to hike is in the Tatra National Park, which begins just south of Zakopane. For a lovely, short and not very challenging walk, take the very popular path called Dolina Strążyska; you can walk it and return on foot to Zakopane within 2 or 3 hours, depending on your speed and level of fitness. All easier trails are very well marked, with coloured \’stripes\’ to help you navigate. And with so many people walking the more well-known areas, if you get lost, simply sit and wait three minutes. Someone is bound to appear – most likely a high-energy 10-year-old kid.

More advanced tourists can take the challenging trails along the ridges of the Western Tatras (such as Dolina Chochołowska), or trails through the High Tatras (such as the walk from Zakopane through Zawrat and Szpiglasowa Przełęcz to Morskie Oko); many trails are accessible by chair lift only and the only way down is to walk – or else wait for the helicopter. And for those who long to hike and climb off the more beaten path, and get away from the \’walkers\’, the Tatras offer some stunning trails of very high difficulty. One of the most difficult is Orla Perć (\’the Eagle\’s Nest\’ or \’Perch\’) which involves climbing Mount Rysy, which peaks at 2,499 meters. In especially difficult areas there are special harnesses, chains and ladders; only those in very good physical condition will be able to handle these kinds of climbs, so do be prudent and realistic about your state of health and fitness.Beautiful though they are, it would be well to keep in mind that the Tatras are very high mountains and are dangerous. Often compared to sharp, jutting teeth or long, claw-like fingers, the higher mountains are capable of doing damage to the unwary and unprepared. Though most accidents occur in the winter months, when skiing is the craze, the summer sees its fair share of tragedies, especially when people miss the weather cues: it\’s not unusual to get fog and even snow in the Tatras in mid-summer. Always take experienced guides when hiking off the clearly-marked trails and the higher parts of the mountains. Adventure travelling need not equate hospital stays, or worse.

Get Cultured
As exhilarating as all this fresh air and exercise is, sometimes adventurous, energetic travellers are accompanied by those who are a bit less so. There are those who prefer to enjoy the view from a reclined position whilst sipping a refreshing beverage of some kind – firmly at the foot of the mountains. Have no fear: Zakopane offers more to the traveller than blisters and aching calves.
Classical music lovers will appreciate that one of the greatest Polish composers – Karol Szymanowski – made his home in Zakopane,as did Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz – Polish dramatist, poet, novelist, painter, photographer, art theorist and philosopher – and beloved childrens\’ author Karol Makuszynski. All three are still alive and well in spirit in Zakopane, especially Szymanowski and Makuszynski, whose former residences are now museums.

Eat and Drink, Highlander-Style

All this walking and culture is bound to work up an appetite, so be culinarily adventurous and try some of the local, traditional Highlander cuisine. On the top of the list is oszczypek, a smoked cheese which has been produced in the Tatras since the 15th century. Much to the initial horror of EU standards, its base is unpasteurised sheep\’s milk; any worries about oszczypek being banned from being sold have thankfully come to nothing, and it is sold by old women in headscarves all along the mountains themselves and in Zakopane\’s streets. In terms of production, the ewe\’s milk is first made into curd, which is repeatedly rinsed with boiling water and squeezed tightly before being pressed in wooden, spindle-shaped moulds in decorative, highlander shapes. The cheese is then soaked in a brine-filled barrel for a night or two, placed near the roofs of special wooden huts, and cured and smoked for up to 14 days. The result is a very distinctive taste and texture: slightly salty and soft, the colour varies from a pale, lemon yellow to a deep burnished brown, depending on the length of the smoking. In general, the darker the cheese, the smokier and huskier the strength of the taste.

Now, what do you need to wash down this highlander cheese? How about some herbata góralska (highlander tea), which is tea with vodka? The amount of vodka to be added is measured with an index finger – and as the evening progresses, two or three fingers. After that, the tea is often just forgotten altogether. Another popular drink is spirytus, which is pure alcohol and can be added to tea, coffee or juice. Highland Poles claim it keeps you warm on chilly evenings in the mountains, and it may well do so. And imagine how spectacular the mountains would look if you goggled them with a skinful of tea…highlander-style!

Getting there:

Kraków is often the jumping-off point to Zakopane, and as such, connections between the two are fantastic. Buses run almost constantly, and cost zł.9-10 (about 2 pounds) for the two-hour journey. The frequency of the buses make them a better option than the trains, which take 3.5 hours to get to Kraków and cost zł.25. Both the bus and train stations in Zakopane are within walking distance of the town\’s main street, ul. Krupówski, where most of the restaurants, shops, hotels and help in English can be found.

Where to stay:

Absolutely recommended is the Hotel Sabala, ul. Krupówki 11, tel. +48 (18) 201 50 92, Sabala occupies the most central place in Zakopane, and has the best history. It originally opened in 1894 and its rooms, bar and restaurant hosted a flamboyant troop of artists, poets, free-thinkers and intellectuals, as well as the hotel\’s namesake: the legendary (and in these parts, near-mythical) folk singer, Sabala. The hotel itself is absolutely gorgeous: it retains much of its original architecture and all of its original charm, but includes modern anemities, such as a swimming pool, sauna, steam room and solarium.

Where to eat:

The Hotel Sabala (above) has a great restaurant and live Highlander music every evening, but also worth trying is Gazdowo Kużnia, ul. Krupówski 1, tel. +48 (18) 201 72 01, which specialises in regional cuisine.

Where to drink:

All the restaurants have liquor licenses – this is, after all, the highlander\’s stomping ground – but special mention must go to Cafe Piano, ul. Krupówski 63, which boasts spectacular jazz nightly and a very decent wine and cocktail list for those tired of beer and the hard stuff.

English-speaking guides: If you wish to tackle the more challenging hiking paths, then do hire a guide. Recommended is the Centrum Przewodnictwa Tatrzańskiego (Tatra Guide Center) in Zakopane, ul. Chałubinskiego 42/44, tel. +48 (18) 206 37 99. Open daily 09:30-15:00. They also provide German-speaking guides.


Text by Michelle Smith  Photos by Tomasz Sarna



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