It was a typical European setting—open green slopes, large mountain cows grazing and well manicured trees flanked the expressway. It wasn’t until the distinct wooden houses at the entry turns of Zakopane did I realise I was in Poland. In my mind, Poland was Warsaw’s rebuilt structures and Krakow’s agonising history. And then I saw the quaint mountain town of South Poland which redefined everything I had known about the country.
Lying on the foothills of Western Tatra mountains, Zakopane is a compact, busy town which sees a large influx of adventure enthusiasts through the year. Ski is the prime winter sport here. Summer invites easy to moderate hikers. With this town as a base, Poles also engage in active holidays which include mountain biking, rock climbing and ski jumping.
Barring a couple of easy hikes, I didn’t participate in any of these extreme sports. And the more I explored Zakopane, I understood how it was also a destination for the leisurely traveller.
The lakeside solace
Only 25 kilometres away from the town centre, Palenica Bialczanska is the starting point of Morskie Oko (Eye of the Sea) which is much treasured by the Poles. The vast, clear lake can be reached in two ways. Either walk from Palenica Bialczanska through the gentle inclines for 9 kilometres till the lake or for those who cannot walk, take the horse cart and walk a short few metres.
No sooner I reached the lakeside, I noticed the deep, emerald lake surrounded by the thick pine forest mountains. Running approximately 165-feet deep at the deepest point, the entire circumference of the lake is accessible on foot. This makes it a favourite picnic spot for Poles during summer.
Taken aback by the humungous crowds around the lake, I tried to find a relatively secluded seat. I spotted a vacant rock by the still water and made my way to it. Facing the dark green surface of the lake, I lost all sense of the crowd. I enjoyed the serenity while admiring the crisp reflection of the skies interrupted by the cotton-like cumulus.
The mountain panorama
Mount Kasprowy is perhaps one of the most popular peaks in Poland. At 1987 metres above sea level, it holds breathtaking views of the Polish landscape while comprising many hiking trails across endurance levels.
Kasprowy Wierch is accessible by two cable car rides from Kuznice, a small town in the upper part of Zakopane. Kuznice is flourishing with small eateries, shops selling adventure apparels and filled with scenic spots. As I scaled the distance between Kuznice and Mount Kasprowy in the cable cars, the stunning flora beneath me was acres of pine trees and occasionally the barren rough edges of the mountain. These transformed into skiing slopes during the winter months.
When I reached Kasprowy Wierch, green mountain paths filled my sight. I saw numerous hikers faraway. I walked towards the ridge to get a complete panorama. The sweeping winds made the experience even more peaceful.
The unique architecture
The narrow streets of Zakopane are flanked by interesting wooden houses. The Zakopane-style architecture is characteristic to the town, which follow the norms of the highland. Built of dark and light wood, these houses are made to withstand storms and the oppressive cold.
A walk around the town revealed the many displays from the windows and balconies. The former were beautifully adorned with Polish lace curtains and each balcony was differently decorated—some with colourful flowers.
A few kilometres away from the town, I visited the Chapel of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Jaszczurowka. This old wooden chapel follows the Zakopane-style architecture and was designed by Stanislaw Witkiewicz, who initiated this technique of ‘highlander hut’ architecture. As I walked in, I was enamoured by the intricate carvings on the wood. The main alter was made entirely of wood and the flower motifs lightly etched to add another layer of excellent craftsmanship.
The highlander’s appetite
At Bakowo Zohylina Wyznio highlander restaurant, I sifted through the menu. The trout, a speciality from the region, caught my eye. The preparation was served with barley and it was well flavoured with hints of butter. I gobbled up the wholesome barley granules insatiably!
Since the Poles love their vodka, I decided to try vodka-infused with quince with my dinner. Soplica is a reputed brand of nalewka (or Polish alcoholic spirit infused with fruits, herbs and spices) and available in a number of flavours such as cherry, raspberry, plum and blackcurrant. I topped my glass with water and ice cubes to enjoy the refreshing drink. It was light yet potent and the aftertaste was dominated by the fruit.
The wellness stay
Zakopane is dotted with B&Bs, apartments and hotels. I was taken aback by the number of ‘apartments available’ signage in Polish I saw on wooden homes. Apartments, I understood, was a general term for accommodation. I could wake up in a cosy room with a colourful balcony and yet call it an apartment here.
However, I stayed at the Aries Hotel and Spa. With incredible sleep quality, the boutique hotel boasts of a thermal pool with hydro massage sitting area. I curiously tried it the following morning. I swam from one spot to another to experiment with the underwater loungers. Once I activated the button, warm bubbles caressed my back to relax the muscles strengthen by the laps. The outdoor jacuzzi was equally relaxing, though I felt seven minutes was too short a time to enjoy it.
Cable car prices: 63 Polish Zloty (return journey).
Cable car hours: 0800 hours- 1900 hours (varies according to seasons).
Getting there: Take the bus to Kuznice, Upper Zakopane, approximately 4 kilometres away from main town centre.
Stay: Aries Hotel and Spa, Mariusza Zaruskiego 5, Zakopane.
Eat: Bakowo Zohylina Wyznio, Jozefa Piłsudskiego 28A, Zakopane.
Shop: Flea market across Ulica Krupowki for local shopping.
Have you been to Poland yet?
Note: I was invited by Poland Travel on this trip.
I travelled to Zakopane in July 2016. An edited version of this story was published in The Hindu, Metroplus.