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Zakopane (zah-koh-pah-neh)

A Budget Travelers' and Hikers' How To, In Brief

Aah, Kraków, one-time capital and still the cultural center of Poland. A lovely place, but a bit crowded - if you head south a bit, you'll get right into the mountains and fresh air, so let's do that - besides, to be this close to Zakopane and not go? Take the bus from town - you could take the train, but it'll take an hour longer. You'll find that hard to imagine as the bus gasps its miserable way up up up and higher yet - but it's true. The incredible lack of a direct connection requires rail switchbacks and trickery with swapping the engine from front to back such as you have never seen - these maneuvers take time, and the bus at least keeps moving. At about 20kph, but moving nonetheless.

Arrival

Whether you go by train (3 hours) or bus (2 hours), you'll arrive in nearly the same place, the lower end of Zakopane - it's less than 10k long, running mainly north and south, and oh, no more than 5k wide. Both the train and the bus station are located at the north end, whereas the main jumpoff point is in the south, at the entrance to the Tatrzański Park Narodowy (Tatra National Park). You'll be greeted by the sight of many many middle-aged to elderly women, often in babushkas, attempting to rent you their lodgings. Take your time, you can afford to be choosy - there's a lot of them, and sometimes the deals aren't all they seem. If traveling with a friend, remember to ask if the rate given is per room, or per bed - you may be in for a nasty surprise. Don't bother asking "how close are you located to..." and fill in a local landmark - they will lie. Instead, be ready with a map and ask to be shown the lodgings on it (you will generally prefer to stay on the south side, nearer the national park). If weary, be sure to ask if you can go there by bus/taxi, or if it's near enough to walk - you may find yourself accepting lodgings at the other end of town, and your landlady will not hesitate to march you all the way there.

That's not to say these sharp-eyed merchants of lodgings are evil - they're just rather good at the haggling bit, whereas you've probably never done it. They're also pretty hardy, so a walk across town (a mere couple of miles, but you probably have luggage and are already worn out) is literally nothing.

If you speak the language, or are traveling with someone who does, it is far more efficient and cost-effective to call in advance and reserve a hotel or a resort - the price will be similar, the lodgings nicer, and they might even send out a car for you. However if you really like the spontaneity, there's nothing wrong with doing the last-minute thing, despite the warnings in travel guides. Just watch your haggling and know the facts.

Once you have your lodgings, you should probably either take a nap after your draining bus/train ride (yes, it's wasn't long - but it will feel like it due to the change in altitude and the overall lack of progress of both train/bus - it's psychological, mostly) or just lie back for an hour. It'll do you wonders to get refreshed, a shower might help too. Then it's time to head out.

Your Surroundings

Zakopane is nested right in that sweet spot where foothills become footmountains, where the subrange of the European Carpathians known as Tatry (tah-tree) begins - it is the only alpine mountain range in this area of Europe. The charm of the Tatry is mainly due to the fact that despite being not too tall, or large (the entire mountain range is perhaps 50km long and 15km wide), they contain within an astounding variety of habitats, environments and geological formations. Thus, you can start out in a thick, dense, humid deciduous forest with clear mountain streams, tall pines and low undergrowth, progress to a sparse, more arid cliffs dotted with hardy shrubs, and end up on stark rock, occasional patches of ice and snow and a complete lack of flora - within just a few hours of walking. You will see green vales, clear mountain lakes, far-off cascades, sheer cliffs, rocky and icy peaks - an assortment of natural wonders. And the best part - you can hike it all.

You can choose from many popular trips, or combine several trails to brew your own unique travel experience. Anything from an hour-long brisk walk in the lower mountains to a full-blown, multi-day professional climb is available. There are plentiful staffed shelters throughout the mountain range (although most of them are in the lower part), and most travel guides include distances and estimated times of traversal for all the routes. All routes are marked with color-coded trail signs, and they too will be marked on your map. If they aren't, you've invested in the wrong guide, and should get another - it will prove invaluable when planning and hiking alike. You will also want to learn the word Cześć! (Tche-sh-ch), which simply means "Hello" - when meeting fellow mountaineers coming the other way in the middle of nowhere, it's the hiking etiquette to say this as you pass. And yes, it is a hard word for such a simple thing if you're non-Slavic; I fear it wasn't invented with thoughts of foreigners. Other preparations include a waterproof windbreaker (sudden, cold storms are frequent, and temperature changes are abrupt) and a longsleeve shirt or a sweater, plenty of water and the usual power munchies like nuts, raisins and plentiful fruit.

A Few Hikes


Giewont
To get a good feel for the type of challenges and views that await you, you might hike the traditional path to Giewont (Gyeh-vont) peak (1872m), the mighty sleeping warrior looming over the entire city of Zakopane and gracing a mad amount of postcards. The hike starts out very easy and flat, leading through higher and higher vales, but ramps up sharply near the end - there are two particularly steep sections called Lesser and Greater Hell, after which you'll need a serious breather. On your many pauses for gasping breath through this part, take a look around - you might spot a mountain goat or three. 3 hours up, 3 hours down, and you can take a completely different path down as well. This is the most popular hike in the entire mountain range, and you'll most likely have a lot of company throughout the hike. Take a minute to look down and back - those little dots are people walking where you were standing just an hour ago.

Kasprowy Wierch
Later, you will most likely want to travel to Kuźnice (Koozh-neets-eh) first; it is an excellent jump-off point for many hikes, and it's the bottom station for a cablecar that will take you up to Kasprowy Wierch (Kasprovy Vyerhh), another excellent starting point, especially if you prefer to walk down, not up. The best way is to catch a city bus (cheaper) or a private minivan (faster) for the 2 mile drive up into the park - private cars are not allowed into the national park area. If you're taking the cablecar here, you should be here very early - 7am or better - to get to the top fast - this is by far the most popular thing to do and it will be crowded.

The ride is breathtaking (whether it's the swaying in the high winds, the altitude or the views that will take your breath, I leave up to the reader's judgment); be warned that the cablecar does not run in high winds. Once at the top, you have a few choices. Straight ahead is Slovakia - border crossings aren't allowed here, so you won't be able to head there. You can take the ridge to your right and saunter along it, skipping back and forth across the meandering borderline (it's actually marked by stone columns, and is fairly straight, but the ridge is not), or start downward immediately. The ridge is fairly crowded, but an hour into your hike you might find yourself completely alone.

Zawrat Pass
A popular hike, although a fairly long one (10hr+, allot the full day and pack plenty of water and energy munchies), leads from here along the ridge, across a few mountain tops and the Zawrat (zahv-raht) pass. You'll have to use the chains here, and be careful on the ice and fallen rock - this is the most challenging part of the hike. Continue past the Dead Lake (so called because it's formed purely from runoff, there are no inlets/outlets - naturally, no fish live in it, either) and down into the Valley of the Five Polish Lakes - the shelter there is a good place to rest and eat something. Then you'll face a climb across and down alongside a mountain down to the shelter at the Morskie Oko (Mors-kee-eh Oh-koh, Eye of the Sea, called that for its unusual depth of 51m and a deep emerald color) lake, a beautiful quiet spot nestled between some of the tallest peaks in the Tatry range (Rysy, 2499m). If you've managed to shake off most of the tourists on this long hike, you'll rejoin quite a few here. A short walk from here will take you to a lot where you can hop a horse-drawn cart, and that will take you to a parking lot located outside the park. From there it's about 20 minutes back to Zakopane by bus.

In Town

In between hikes you will want to take it easy - a several hour hike doesn't sound like much, but chances are you haven't been climbing mountains lately, and you will be sore. Fortunately, Zakopane knows this and has created the market street Krupówki (Krooh-poof-kee) for the sauntering, aching, wincing tourist. Stalls with highlander memorabilia abound, as do giftshops, restaurants, buffets, vendors and street performers; your progress will be slow as it's most likely quite crowded. The goods of interest include:
  • Ciupaga (tchyoo-pah-gah) - a highlander's axe, basically a small axe head on a long handle, used as combination walking stick, grapple hook and cutting tool. You can get some nice replicas in any size and any color, optionally carved with your name (or whatever) on it while you hang around.
  • Oscypek (os-tzee-pek) - a smoked goat cheese made in the old way (well, if you're lucky). The right type should be sharp, slightly crumbly and quite dry, although some may be slightly squeaky in the teeth - if it glistens, seems bland (most vendors will provide a sample) or overly greasy, you probably don't want it. I recently found a Scamorza Smoked Mozarella (check your local Whole Foods) to be amazingly close in flavour, but not quite as strong.
  • Beer with fruit - there's nothing more satisfying after a long hike than a slightly warmed beer with some fruit syrup (usually raspberry or strawberry - this is mostly pureed fruit and not a sugary concoction of high fructose corn syrup and fruit flavoring). This may sound hideous - it really isn't. In the best places you should see lumps of actual fruit in your beer. If you ever had a lambic ... it's nothing like it - it's mellower, smoother, not as hideously sweet, and eminently quaffable. Multiple times.
  • Placek Zbójnicki (Platzek Zbooy-nits-ki) - a thick potato pancake (kind of like a solid mass of perfectly browned hash browns, not too fluffy nor greasy) topped with a spicy goulash. Fortifying. Goes great with the aforementioned juice beer.
  • Żubrówka (zhoo-broof-ka) - bison grass flavored vodka, supposedly named so because the grass grows where the bison graze. A single stalk of this grass lends the vodka a mild spicy herbal flavor (not exactly; see corresponding w/u for details).
The best part is that, for a visitor used to western prices, you can have a full blown meal with drinks for a fairly low price (vegetarians beware, Polish fare is very beef-heavy, however).

If you're up to a slightly larger walk on your day off, you can take the funicular to the top of Gubałówka (Goo-bah-woof-ka), and walk on top of this broad, low hill. Splendid views of the town and the Tatry are offered, and a pleasant walk can be had as well. You can choose to descend on foot along with hundreds of people doing the same, a leisurely walk - I wouldn't walk up it however, as your back is to the view and it's actually not that interesting of a climb.

There are also cultural musems and theatres in Zakopane, but that's like going to Paris to visit the subway system (unless you belong to the Subway Cognoscenti Worldwide, in which case you'll need a different simile and I apologize). For climbing, great cheap food, wonderful nature hikes for all difficulty levels, some necessary folk culture kitsch and the feeling of getting away from it all, Zakopane is definitely a worthy hotspot in your visit to Poland.

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I realize more of this concerns the surroundings of the town rather than the town itself, but that is the case in real life. You do not go to Zakopane for anything else; it is what it is because of where it is.

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