Recently, I visited the “winter capital of Poland.” The city of Zakopane, which is famous for its mountainous landscape, is located in the Southern part of Poland. We took the three hour drive from Sosnowiec to Zakopane mid-day on Saturday – stopping in Krakow to pick up “Broken Friend.”
To stray from the topic, but still inform of the Polish culture, I would like to explain how Broken Friend has obtained his name. The Polish culture names their children from a traditional list of names – the women’s names typically ending in “a” and the men’s most popular being after Saints. Therefore, I have met many with repetitive names – the most common so far being Marcin and Michal (pronounced “me-how”).
In an effort to create the least amount of confusion for me, Marcin has provided other names for his friends. Broken Friend (Michal) had broken his leg this time last year so when Marcin would include him in stories, he was described as “Broken Friend.” Other friends include Norway Friend (often works in Norway – aka Lukasz), Fatty Friend (not actually fat – aka Marcin), Warsaw Friend (lives in Warsaw- aka Michal), and Miner Friend (works in coal mine – aka Marcin). Also, his nephew, Filip, is most commonly referred to as “the kid.”
To return to the topic, we picked Broken Friend up in Krakow on a Saturday afternoon and made the journey to Zakopane. After arriving, we visited the mountain Gubalowka. As mentioned above, Zakopane is known as the winter capital of Poland – rightfully so with its mountains for skiing and hiking. However, we were visiting towards the end of the season so skiers were not so common.
We bought tickets and a large enclosed shuttle took us up the mountain – about a three minute ride. The drop off point had a large wooden lodge where beer and food were served with the view of mountains surrounding. Unfortunately, the view of the mountains was only apparent on a large map instead of from my own eyes due to the heavy fog present that day.
We walked through the tourist attractions located on this mountain – a small lane with booths, games, and activities on each side. While the town is known for its winter activity, it is also very popular in the warm weather. We visited between the two tourist seasons so the area looked of a deserted carnival with its booths empty and attractions covered in snow. I would like to visit again in the summer to see the booths open (selling meats, cheese, souvenirs, etc) and see the beautiful view of the surrounding mountains.
Following the descend of the mountain, we met with Norway Friend and Justyna. Norway Friend was raised in Zakopane and offered his parent’s house for the night. The house was large, 3 stories, and made of wood panels. The house was heated with wood which produced a warm temperature and burning wood aroma.
When hearing about Zakopane, those living there are referred to as “the highlanders.” The reason for the name is not only because of the elevated city but also the customs and language – which are the originals of the Polish culture. I had the opportunity to visit Norway Friend’s grandparents, allowing me the chance to experience the people who preserved some of Poland’s earliest traditions and language.
Their house smelled of burning wood and coal – a scent I love about Poland. We sat in a room just off the large breezeway around a small table positioned in the center. The room had a sink, bed, television, and coal oven with a large, restaurant style stove on top. The far side wall was decorated with a large blanket, Catholic crosses, and numerous pictures of Popes – many of John Paul II.
Most of the older generations throughout Poland only speak the Polish language so translation was necessary to communicate. Norway Friend’s grandmother showed me a picture of her wedding day. The picture was of about 15 people, all dressed in the traditional Highlander formal apparel. Her husband told me a fact that I have confirmed with many, that in order to have a good wedding – there must be a fight. Before leaving, his grandmother told us long awaited news – that spring was coming. Her reasoning was due to a headache which had started within the last couple days. The Polish believe the mountain people have the best sense of changing weather. Her prediction was correct within the following week.
After having dinner at a local restaurant, we traveled to one of the most interesting bars I have visited. The bar was off the most famous street in Zakopane, Krupowki, known for its many shops and restaurants. The bar, Piano, was nestled off the normally crowded street which had now turned into a passage filled with the steady night life.
The bar had rustic log furniture to provide a homey and comfortable place to share in a drink and fellowship. Instead of the typical tables and chairs, the furniture was more of a house’s – couches, loveseats, ottomans, and relaxing chairs. While this was all a new and fascinating idea for me, I found the actual bar area to be the most interesting. Instead of bar stools, each person sitting at the bar was sitting on swings suspended from the above ceiling. Each swing was equipped with a rope positioned horizontally across the persons back to provide a more relaxed and safe drinking experience.
The bar top was made of a glass top allowing for a close view of the flourishing greenery planted in soil within the bar. The scene was even complete with small dirt creatures living in their own earthy wonderland. While sitting at the bar, company could be found with the two older bartenders or with the cat who sat proudly on its perch behind the bar.
On Sunday morning, after having a breakfast which included the city’s famous sheep cheese, we said goodbye to Norway Friend and headed for a hiking adventure to Tatry Mountain. This mountain is Zakopane’s winter capital. The ride there took about 25 minutes – a path of winding roads and slight incline. Once parking at the base and paying the small fee, we began our hike.
Within minutes of observing the interactions between our small group and the steady flow of hikers traveling up and down the mountain, I noticed one factor which was uncommon to Poland – greetings were exchanged between passing persons. This is extremely uncommon in Poland because exchanges are rarely made on the streets, public transportation, or anywhere else to someone you are not previously acquainted with. Marcin and Broken Friend explained that “people who hike are a different type of person.”
The hike up took about two and a half hours of walking. The trail was mainly a large paved path with snow banked on each side to a considerable height. Horse sleigh rides were available to those looking for a quicker, easier way to the top; when we heard bells, we knew to step to the side. Our specific path, which was advertised by markings on the trees, was mainly on the paved path with the exception of a small, one man trail which took us at an inclined walk through trees for about 10 minutes then resumed back to the paved trail.
Once to the top, we walked a short distance longer to a large shelter positioned on a beautiful lake. These mountain shelters are common for hikers or skiers to eat, drink, or rest overnight. We took the opportunity to warm up with tea and have Oscypek (the sheep cheese mentioned earlier). I enjoy the Oscypek – you can taste the smoke it was made with and the texture can only be described as “squeaky.” The lake was frozen over but still provided a beautiful view while we warmed up.
We decided to take a horse sleigh back down in an effort to save time. We paid 90 zloty ($30) for all three of us to ride the 25 minutes down. We were covered in a sheep hide blanket which amazed me with how much warmth and protection of the flying snow it provided. The horses were at a fast trot all the way down. Due to our front row seats, we were enjoying the avoidance of flying pellets of snow and ice – I even put on sunglasses to serve as eye protection of the flying snowballs! The ride down can be described as romantic – warm blanket, snow covered trees and path, the scent of horses mixed with the fresh mountain air. The mountain city was a beautiful destination for the weekend with its landscapes, scents, and wonderful traditional people.