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Polish winter in Zakopane

Polish winter in Zakopane

Eric Boucher - 2008-12-01

Like many western Europeans, I thought Poland was one huge potato crop plain. It wasn't therefore the first destination that sprang to mind when I decided to have a bit of a change and test the powder snow elsewhere than in the Alps. Reading about the country's topography might well put you off: only 3% of the Polish territory is above 1625 ft altitude and a mere 0.2% exceeds 3250 ft. On the face of it, nothing to dissuade you from returning to Meribel, Innsbruck or St. Moritz If only you knew!

If only you'd taken a look at your good old Michelin map (no. 974 but you can also consult the 'Maps' tab of our website), you'd have discovered in the south of Poland, at the border with Slovakia, a narrow green and grey hachured area which of course means mountains: the Tatras, the southernmost chain of the Carpathians.
Small is beautiful
While the Tatras can barely rival with the Alpine giants - the chain is approximately 31 miles long by 9 miles wide and Poland's highest peak, Rysy, soars to 8122 ft, just over half Mont Blanc - they nevertheless present a wide variety of scenery, making them one of Europe's great natural assets.
The Tatras have been a national park (straddling the border with Slovakia) for almost 45 years and are a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Poland has indeed miraculously preserved primeval nature in several pockets of its territory: it's the only European country where there are still a few bisons, mooses* and a few patches of the ancient primeval forest.
Zakopane, you what?
On announcing proudly to my friends that I was going to ski in Zakopane, admiration but above all perplexity could be seen on their faces. The small winter sports resort (approx. 30,000 souls) situated roughly sixty miles from Cracow (Krakow), however deserves better than our condescension and, if it hadn't been for the war years and the Iron Curtain, it might be as famous as Garmisch-Partenkirchen.
I discovered that the Poles considered it to be far more than just a health-resort: people have been mountaineering and skiing here for 150 years and it was - and still is - the holiday resort of the intelligentsia, artists and the upper middle class who had wooden chalets built here from the end of the 19th century, giving rise to the so-called Zakopane style.
This architecture forms one of Zakopane's greatest draws. The Communist era may have left one or two soulless concrete buildings, but that period is over and people are now building wooden constructions again.
If therefore you plump for Zakopane this winter, you should discover this heritage by visiting, for instance, Koscieliska street, the Old Church (1845-1851) entirely built of wood and flanked by an amazing little cemetery with richly decorated graves and, slightly further afield, villa Koliba (1893), transformed precisely into the museum of the Zakopane style.

Half an hour away by road, the village of Chocholow will transport you back in time with its well-known log farms, some of which date back to the 16th century. The region is also famous for its old chapels, little gems built of larch or pine with polychrome decoration, like that of Debno (15th century), in the immediate vicinity of Zakopane, or that of Orawka (1650) to the west of the resort.
As for its ambience, Zakopane remains the smart resort in Poland and the Polish and even Russian 'elites' still like to flaunt themselves here, sometimes ostentatiously, with all the trappings of a western lifestyle. To take the pulse of the town, nothing could be better than a stroll down Krupowkistreet which cuts through the centre of Zakopane and concentrates most of the shops, bars, restaurants, street musicians and hawkers.
The snows of Kasprowy
Another misbelief to be corrected: Poland is not Siberia. The climate is nevertheless more continental than in the Alps with the season starting slightly earlier, from the beginning of November, and finishing sometimes at the beginning of May. You are therefore almost guaranteed thick snow of excellent quality over a long period. The average temperature in February is - 21°F, but days at - 23°F or - 26°F are not unusual in wintertime. The thermometer sometimes even descends to -31°F. But don't panic! It's a dry cold generally accompanied by bright sunshine and crystalline air, which I personally find far more bearable than our damp wintry weather.
Zakopane is located between 2600 and 3250 feet altitude, dominated by Kasprowy Wierch which soars to 6451 feet Nothing that will make you feel dizzy therefore! Yet, and it's an impression I shared with many foreigners on the spot, you really feel you're in the high mountains, with extremely majestic peaks that somehow recall those of the Alps - a surprise that few of us were expecting in Poland.
Ski side
Zakopane boasts 40 or so ski lifts (it's difficult to obtain the exact number) and the ski terrain remains relatively small with approximately 19 miles of ski runs... A number of these are quite short and will satisfy beginner or intermediate skiers, but that won't be so much the case for advanced skiers used to Les 3 Vallées or Les Portes du Soleil. If however you take the ski lift to Kasprowy peak you'll be assured of two fine downhill runs. Experienced skiers will be able to find more technical runs on the Slovakian side, a bit further afield. As Zakopane is the country's main ski resort, expect to queue at the ski lifts between Christmas and the New Year and also during school holidays (end January-beginning of February). An opportunity perhaps to try cross-country skiing (approximately 12 miles of groomed and 50 miles of ungroomed runs) or snowshoes to discover the extremely beautiful unspoilt nature. You can for instance discover Tatras National Park but only on the signposted routes; skiing outside the poles is forbidden.
A home stay
While, generally speaking, prices are lower than in French, Swiss or Austrian resorts, don't expect a miracle all the same: Zakopane welcomes nearly 2 million tourists a year and remains an up-market resort, with services and prices to match. The accommodation therefore meets European comfort criteria.
A pleasant double room with breakfast in a medium-range hotel costs approximately £35 to £49.
The best way of getting to know the inhabitants is to rent a chambre d'hôte, even if the language is the major obstacle. There are plenty of these as evidenced by the multitude of Pokoje (room) signs dotting the locality. Prices range between £7 and £14 per person for a double room to our standards.
You'll be assured of a warm welcome and a complimentary breakfast in the large family dining room. 
Hearty cuisine
It's an understatement to say that traditional Polish gastronomy has barely opened up to Mediterranean influences.Yet it is well worth discovering as food that sticks to your ribs, perfectly adapted to temperatures below zero. Generally speaking, the cooked pork meats are excellent; you absolutely must taste for instance Polenwica, smoked fillet of pork. Another must is the seasonal dish bigos, a kind of very slightly sweetened sauerkraut mixed with mushrooms and diced pork meats. Among the soups, two classics: barsczcz, beetroot soup served with a little pâté roll, and Zurek for those who like sour tastes. You'll also see on all menus kotlet schabowy, pork chops coated with breadcrumbs, and you'll find it hard to resist pierogi, large raviolis stuffed with cabbage, mushrooms or cottage cheese. For dessert, you can pick between the delicious cottage cheese cake (sernik), poppy cakes (makowiec) and the famous cottage cheese pancakes (nalesniki). Last, a typical product of this region of the Carpathians: smoked ewe cheese (oscypek).

If you really can't stomach the idea of such food, you can easily find international cuisine and many fast food restaurants. Pizzas are also easy to come by, even if they are sometimes garnished rather oddly. You can snack for £2, eat very well for £3.5 to £7 and dine almost gastronomically from £7-£8. 
To finish on a picturesque note, you should go for a drink or a bite to eat (sausage grilled in the fire) in the inn with the sweet-sounding name of Chata Zbojnicka, which is a real local institution. Wear your oldest and ugliest tie. I mean it! It's not really the 'in' thing to do in a ski resort but, don't worry, the big attraction of this venue consists in grabbing hold of ties and cutting them off with an axe! Witamy w Zakopanem! (Welcome to Zakopane)
*In Europe, mooses can still be found only in Scandinavia and Russia. Tatras Park is the kingdom of golden eagles, lynxes, wolves and brown bears.
Practical information
Even if you're impatient to put on your skis, it would be a pity to have travelled so far without visiting Crakow to which at least one day should be devoted.
By plane: Both international and domestic flights to Krakow are available from airlines amongst them LOT Polish Airlines. Many low budget airlines fly into Poland; Easyjet, Centralwings, Skyeurope and others. Approximately 1? to 2 hours road travel by car or bus and 3 to 4 hours by train from Krakow to Zakopane.
Polish National Tourist Office in London
310-312 Regent Street London W1B 3AX
Tel.: (0)20 7580 8811
Interesting personal site: www.discoverzakopane.com/
Chata Zbojnicka, Jagiellonska street. Open from 5 p.m. to midnight

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