We arrived into Zakopane at around 7.30 pm and checked in at the Litwor Hotel which is located in the heart of Zakopane between Krupówki Street and the town park. Litwor Hotel was the first ever four star hotel in Zakopane and the Podhale region and is ideal for family stays as well as weekend breaks. After checking in at the hotel, we walked to the other end of the Krupówki Street for a folk dinner at Gazdowo Kuznia, a restaurant which is located in one of the oldest buildings in Zakopane which was built in 1891. The place is of historical importance as this place was the site of the first hotel in town. As we entered we could feel the ambience of a typical highlander place and the cuisine served comprised of unique local recipes prepared with the old tradition of Polish cooking- the highlander way.The town of Zakopane which is known as the winter capital of Poland was discovered in the mid 19th century as a poor village at the foot of unknown mountains and today it has grown into a symbolic and significant place not only for people of Poland but also for visitors across the globe. Today, Zakopane is Poland’s best known centre for recreation and rest, an excellent cultural and sporting venue and receives over 3,5 million tourists every year even though it has a population of a mere 28800 inhabitants.
The oldest part of the town, known as Nawsie, is full of old wooden buildings and at the intersection of Krupówki and Koscieliska Streets, you will find the first parish church built here known as the Stary Kosciólek or the Old Church. As a whole, Nawsie which is also known as the Old Town of Zakopane forms one of the most important complexes of wooden architecture in Poland. The Krupowki Street where we were staying is one of the most well known pedestrian streets in Poland where vehicles are prohibited. The street is busy especially in the evenings as it is an ideal place to take a stroll, shop around or enjoy some fine cuisine at the various restaurants located along either side of the street. At the entrance of the street is a neo-Gothic style parish church of the Holy Family and has been the main place of worship for the locals. As one moves towards the other end and near the Litwor Hotel, there is a stream of water running leading to a wooden building comprising of the Group of Building Schools where there is a tradition of running a Timber Industry School here since 1876. Another significant building is the Tatra Museum Poland’s oldest regional museum dating back to 1889 which has an extensive collection of natural, ethnographic and artistic interests documenting the rich history of the Tatra Mountains.
Today, Zakopane is one of the most popular tourist towns in Poland and it was in the second half of the 19th century that Zakopane was discovered as a tourist attraction. The first use of skis in Zakopane was in 1892 and the first major ski competition was held here in 1909. Later Zakopane has hosted 3 World Ski Championships in 1929, 1939 and in 1962 as well. Zakopane has also hosted Ski Jump World Cups and several Nordic and Alpine European cups.In summer too, Zakopane is an excellent region for adventure activities especially rock climbing in the Wysokie (High) Tatras with stunning views of the valleys and hills surrounding Zakopane. The authentic folklore of the highlanders of the Podhale region is one of the major attractions for tourists. The Krupowki Street itself is a busy place lined up with cafes, jazz and rock concerts in cellars and a very colourful crowd especially in the evenings where you have artists displaying their creativity with fine art, calligraphy and is the ideal place to spend your evenings on this very vibrant street. We met a local guide who had been to India and he compared Zakopane to Manali in India which is up north in Himachal Pradesh.
The following morning we left Zakopane to explore the region of the Pieniny and Tatra Mountains. Our first stop was at the Pieniny National Park and more specifically at the Sromowce Wyzne village from where we would go river rafting on the Dunajec river. The Pieniny National Park which covers 6096 hectares and borders Slovakia was declared a National Park in 1932. In fact the Pieniny was not only the first national park in Poland but also the first international protected area in Europe. The best way to appreciate the attractive and scenic areas of the Pieniny Mountains is taking a raft on one of the wooden canoes down the Dunajec River. Rafting across the Dunajec gorge is the best way to visit the Pieniny National Park. The rafting season lasts from April until the end of October and there are two routes that one can take from the rafting marina located at Sromowce-Katy. The first route takes you to Szczawnica which is 18 kilometres long and is for 2 hours 15 minutes and the longer route comprising of 23 kilometres takes you to Kroscienko which is for a duration of 2 hours 45 minutes. We did a cruise lasting 2 hours as we traversed the National Park; on one side we had Slovakia and on the other side Poland. The Dunajec river is 274 kilometres long running thru Slovakia for 27 kilometres and through Poland for 247 kilometrs covering in all an area of 6804 sq.kilometres.
The Pieniny mountains are mainly built from limestone and you see these perpendicular walls on either side rising from the Dunajec River. The most famous peak is the Trzy Korony or the Three Crowns which rises 982 metres above sea level. However, the highest point which rises roughly 9000 feet is on the Slovakian side. The length of the whole mountain range is about 54 kilometres with a width of around 18 kilometres. The Pieniny also forms part of the Carpathian which is one of the biggest mountain ranges in Europe. The mountain has an alpine character with jagged peaks which are generally covered in snow during winter. The Tatra mountains are divided into three parts: The first part is the White Tatras which is predominantly within Slovakia and is built of limestone. Then comes the High Tatras and are part of the Eastern Tatra Mountains on the Poland-Slovak border. And then there is the Western Tatras which is lower down. In the Polish side of the Tatras there is over 250 kilometres of marked trails for walkers and hikers who wish to explore the area. There are plenty of activities in the area; skiing in winter, paragliding, mountain biking.
You can even go and explore more than 700 caves in the area which are accessible mostly with the help of professional guides. Another popular sport in the Tatras is ski jumping and it was Adam Malysz the famous Polish ski jumper who made this sport extremely popular. Malysz has won over 38 World Cup competitions and was the only ski jumper ever to win the World Cup 3 times in a row. In fact ski jumping is so popular that for certain international events in the Tatras there are as many as 50000 spectators from across the world who come here to witness the event of ski jumping. Later in the day we had the opportunity to see some of the ski jump slopes and children probably as young as 7 and 8 years who were practicing ski jumping probably for some tournament. It was indeed interesting to see the focus amongst these youngsters who wanted to be part of major international events as they were intensely practicing and well equipped with their skis.
One of the most popular peaks of the Tatras is Kasprowy Wierch which is 1987 metres above sea level and can only be reached by cable car. The Kasprowy Wierch summit forms part of the main ridge of the Tatra Mountains and has several walking trails and the region is thronged by skiers in winter. The summit is reached by probably one of the oldest cable cars in the world which was built in 1935. The summit station also has a restaurant and nearby there is a meteorological observatory as well. We were unlucky as the cable car to Kasprowy Wierch was closed in September and was likely to open around Christmas.Hence, on the agenda was to visit the Gubalówka Mountain on the following day which offers a great panoramic view of the Tatras as well.The Pieniny besides being surrounded by the mountain ranges has various species of plants including over 600 kinds of mushrooms. No wonder mushroom is always part of the meal of this region.
There are 6500 animal species within the Pieniny, and I am sure most of them were within the dense forest as we coasted along the Dunajec River. The lynx and the otter thrive in this region. The area has over 34 kilometres of walking paths within the park and from peaks such as Sokolica and Trzy Korony you can get excellent views of the Pieniny, Dunajec and the Tatra Mountains.After 2 hours of rafting, we were all quite hungry and we stopped to enjoy some fine Polish cuisine about 20 minutes away at the Karcma U Borzanka restaurant located in Nowy Targ. Nowy Targ is the capital of the Podhale mountain region in southern Poland and its name denotes “new market”. The town is situated at the confluence of the Bialy and Czarny Dunajec rivers.
Karcma U Borzanka is an 18th Century Inn, the oldest in Nowy Targ and specializes in Polish and regional cuisine. The restaurant can accommodate 310 guests in 3 dining halls comprising of a cellar, ground floor and an attic. It is a child friendly place as there is a play ground for children, a summer garden and ample space to park your vehicle. The restaurant serves some fine cuisine and it was a pleasure to experience the warm hospitality extended by Kasia and Andrzej, the owners of the restaurant. This award winning restaurant has won a second place in a competition comprising the entire area from Kraków to Zakopane and from Tarnów to Kalwaria as one of the fine places to experience some authentic Polish and regional cuisine- a must visit for tourists to this region.
Later we headed for Zakopane and we strolled along Krupówki Street before heading to an interesting dinner along with folkloric music and dance at Restaracja Bakowo Zohylinia Niznio. The restaurant is located not too far from downtown Zakopane in a wooden highland building within a garden. We were welcome with some highlander tea and warm wine which was followed by a sumptuous Oscypek or highlander cheese from barbecue and cranberry and Moskol which is the highlander potato pancake with garlic butter which was followed by a wide variety of main courses and some fine desserts. The highlanders indeed have a huge appetite or one must say that they serve a lot and it appeared as if the food was for the kings and royalties looking at the huge portions served during every meal that we had in this region. The following morning we visited the Gubalowka Mountain which is at an altitude of 1120 metres above sea level and is one of the highest points in Zakopane. We took a cable car down hill and thereafter headed to see the Jaszczurowka wooden church which is peculiar to this region and we got to see a lot of typical highlander architecture on our way to the Strazyska Valley where we headed next to see the Siklawica waterfall.
Zakopane is one of the very few places in Poland where the old tradition is being practiced of wearing the old traditional costumes and you will find in many traditional restaurants of the region where these costumes are worn by the people as well as they are worn during special occasions such as weddings and festivals and you will find the folk music being played at various restaurants which is peculiar to this area. In August every year there is an International Festival of Highland Folklore in Zakopane which runs for about 2 weeks where groups from different parts of Europe and as far as even Tibet come and participate.
Interestingly, the lowest part of the town in Zakopane is at an altitude of 800 metres and due to its topography, you are walking either uphill or downhill and you do not have any areas where there are flat walks in the region. On our arrival at the Tatra National Park, which is located in the southern part and borders Slovakia, we took a short stroll to the Strazyska Valley to see the waterfall. The Tatrzañski or Tatra National Park has around 250 kilometres of marked trails and within the park there are valleys which start at the northern limits of the Tatras. The Tatra National Park along with is Slovak equivalent is part of the UNESCO’s biosphere preserve today. There are various valleys such as the Bailego Valley, the Dolina ku Dziurze or towards the Hole Valley but with limited time in hand we took a short stroll along the Strazyska Valley which undoubtedly is the most popular and one of the most scenic valleys within the national park.
The trail comprises of rich beech-fir forest where you find dolomite rock protrudes and on the way back we stopped at one of the shepherd’s huts which houses a small cafe to have a warm cup of tea as it does get a bit nippy in the midst of the forest especially in September. The entire walk was indeed refreshing and built the necessary appetite for lunch at the Belvedere Hotel. En route we did a brief halt at Wielka Krokiew, the ski jumping site to click a few pictures and also admire the intensity with which young children were practicing ski jumps on slopes built to challenge amateurs as well as professionals. Wielka Krokiew is not only a regular ski jumping site hosting World Cup level events but it is also historical as in 1997, Pope John Paul II celebrated a mass at the hill station during his visit to this native country. Ski jump is as popular in this region as cricket is in India. Our last halt en route was at the historic Belvedere Hotel which is a 4 star property, undoubtedly the best hotel in Zakopane where Aamir Khan, Kajol and the crew of Fanaa, the Bollywood movie stayed during the film shoot at one of the most stunning locations of Poland.
The Belvedere Hotel is located in the vicinity of the Tatra Mountains National Park and is an ideal place to relax. The hotel is fully equipped with spa, swimming pool as well as a rejuvenation centre comprising of a Health and Beauty institute, an aqua thermal centre and for lovers of sports, there is virtual golf, bowling as well as pool billiards on offer. There are several conferences organized here all year round as there are excellent conference facilities available. There are some fine restaurants and we lunched at the mountain view terrace restaurant which offers excellent regional cuisine and fantastic view of the mountains close by where you can go skiing in the winter season.The highlight for me on the last day in Zakopane before heading for Krakow was undoubtedly the wooden church of Jaszczurowka with its chapel which was built around 100 years ago and is a masterpiece of fine wooden architecture. The shingled steep roofed structure was put together without use of any nails and is part of the wooden trail in Poland and has also been added to the list of the UNESCO World Heritage sites in 1993 along with five other wooden churches in Southern Poland. An abundance of high quality timber was used to built its interiors and the walls and ceilings are covered with woodcarvings dating back to the 15th century.After lunch we headed to the cultural capital and one of the most beautiful cities of Poland- Krakow, and in our next issue we will be featuring Krakow along with another UNESCO site, the Wieliczka Salt Mine