I first came to the Polish Tatra village of Zakopane in 1971, when my father drove us from England to Poland for a holiday. I remember the wooden buildings that lined the streets, and the time my father drank from a mountain stream that gave him a severe stomach upset; grey-faced, he lay on the hotel bed while my mother fretted that we’d miss the Ostende ferry back to England. But the image that clung most tightly to my memory was of a mountain peak looming over the town.
How fitting, then, that the highlight of my return 50+ years later was to stand alongside the iron cross on the summit of that very peak: Giewont. Not the highest (at 1894m) but an icon of Zakopane and a well-known profile of the Polish Tatras.
The Tatras, part of the Carpathians, symbolised Poland before it even became the nation we know today. I’m talking of the time when Poland didn’t officially exist as a state but was split between Tsarist Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the later 19th century, Polish elites came to the village of Zakopane and were captivated by what they saw as Polish culture and customs preserved in the local highlanders – the Górale. Never mind that the highlanders were a borderland mix of ethnicities. In a kind of social experiment, the outsiders more or less invented their own vision of Poland’s historical narrative, projecting it onto the Górale. And when Poland became a state after WW1, Zakopane and the Tatras continued to play a role in the development of Polish nationhood.
At the same time as architectural styles inspired by picturesque rusticity were developing across Europe (eg Heimatstil in Germany, Queen Anne in England), the Zakopane style became Poland’s grassroots-to-national style. Zakopane inspired buildings across the former Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia, and this is brought to life in the Museum of Zakopane Styles. How excited I was to spot the jutting veranda with decorative wooden window frame, a feature I’d noticed whilst travelling in Western Ukraine, wondering at its provenance. A simple version even graced the old home of my family, built during the 1940s in a Ukrainian village within sight of the Carpathians.
Zakopane is a ski resort, but it’s also blessed with a grid of stone-paved trails leading south into the Tatras. Two tracks run horizontally across the high land: at the base of the foothills, the ‘road below the prealpes’ separates the town from the mountains. The much higher and steeper ‘road above the prealpes’ runs parallel higher up. These two horizontal paths are crossed vertically by colour-coded trails along various valleys. And at the top of all this is the ridge separating Poland from Slovakia.
A good introduction is to hike in a square, going up one of the valleys to above the prealpes, hike across to the next valley, make your way down that valley and back across to the starting point. It’s necessary to pay each time you enter the national park but the cost is minimal.
The Kasprovy Wierch cable car gives easy access to the border ridge, where you can rest with your feet in two countries:
From the top of the cable car there there’s a choice of walks including a steep descent to the Czarny Staw Gąsienicowy lake, or one of many trails back down to Zakopane:
Like most people, I chose to walk up Giewont the hard way, from Zakopane: an ascent of 1,000m along the red trail. Halfway through the hike, the summit peak still looked impossibly far and craggy. And it is craggy, requiring some scrambling on the final summit pyramid, with heavy fixed chains to assist hauling yourself up and down the stretches of smooth rock. A one-way system is in place, meaning summiteers ascend the eastern side and descend the western flank. At peak times hikers must queue to avoid potentially dangerous overcrowding on the summit.
And Zakopane itself? It’s inarguably overdeveloped. Modern buildings overshadow the traditional timber structures along the main street, where families and hikers sit on sheepskin-clad benches outside restaurants, entertained by a busking (Romany?) family whose enthusiasm and gyrating makes up for singing ability. In mid-October’s off-season the town felt tolerably busy, but I do wonder how it copes with the crowds during the main summer hiking and winter ski seasons.
The Bazatatry website is a good source of information and accommodation for Zakopane.
A detailed account of the discovery of the Tatras can be found in P Dabrowski’s book ‘The Carpathians’.
Download my ebook ‘Travels in a Young Country’ (FREE from Apple, Kobo, B&N and some Amazon stores). All links are here: https://books2read.com/YoungCountry