A few years ago, on a trip through Central and Eastern Europe, we decided to settle into an apartment in Kraków, Poland, for a few weeks to catch up on some writing, walk the charming old city streets, sample the local vodka, and do side-trips to Auschwitz-Birkenau and Wieliczka Salt Mine.
Lara, who was researching other places to visit in Poland that were close to Kraków, told me about a ski resort that she thought I might like to go to for some snowboarding. A ski resort? In Poland?
I had heard that Poland had plenty of winter snow but was mostly flat. It was late-March and probably too late for any snowboarding that season at a low altitude resort, I thought. But I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Zakopane is located near the Slovak border, nestled quite snugly between the Tatra Mountains and Gubałówka Hill, and has the highest elevation of any town in Poland. While I knew it was the most famous of Poland’s ski and mountaineering resorts, I was worried that it was just going to be filled with old women in fur coats walking dogs. Not that there is anything wrong with old women or dogs of course…
“And it’s only a couple of hours away by bus,” Lara assured me as I stared at the promising snow-depth charts for Zakopane on a skiing website. “Let’s do it!” I said, even though I couldn’t even pronounce the name of the main ski area, ‘Kasprowy Wierch’.
A few days later we were on the bus to Zakopane; the train apparently was unreliable and took more than double the travelling time. Once out of Kraków the bus gently started to climb and sightings of snow became more frequent, but it wasn’t until the last fifteen minutes of the journey that we really felt like we were in the mountains.
Our hotel, Sabala, was cosy and cute as a button, right on the (mostly) pedestrianised main street. This section of the main street looked like a movie set. There were cute old grandmas, rugged up and wearing head scarves, and selling Zakopane’s famous home-made smokey cheese from their little wooden stalls. There were old men in traditional costume offering visitors horse and carriage rides around the town. There was even a guy in a bear suit who really liked to drink who exchanged hugs for small change. Lara had a turn.
There were charming wooden houses with elaborately carved decoration, splendid churches, a picturesque cemetery, and a market selling even more smoked cheese, wooden and folk handicrafts, and fur winter jackets and hats. There were inviting bars and restaurants dishing up hearty winter food, with rustic wooden interiors and roaring fireplaces tempting visitors in from the cold for a shot of the local vodka and a massive pork knuckle to sate that post-skiing appetite.
At night, groups of musicians earned their keep playing their distinctive style of traditional mountain folk music that is unique to the area, while vodka and beers flowed freely to packed tables of Polish here for their winter break.
While the snow was starting to melt in the town centre, up at ‘Kasprowy Wierch’, the modest number of lifts served a fairly light crowd, with many visitors taking the cable car up to simply gaze at the stunning view. The view of the off-piste areas was more captivating to me and while most skiers stayed on the piste, practicing their turns, I had run after run of powder to myself before heading to a cosy cabin for a fine lunch of pork knuckle washed down with a beer.
Over the course of our stay I tried the other ski areas dotted around the town, but despite the crowds that lined up for the cable car at Kasprowy Wierch, it was the most fun place to spend a day in the mountains.
We ended up spending five days in Zakopane on that trip, enjoying the unique atmosphere before heading back to welcome in the start of the real spring in Kraków.
When we settled on Kraków as one of our destinations for our Grand Tour, we knew we had to sneak away for a couple of days to one of our favourite winter destinations. While many travellers say you should never go back (and risk spoiling the first memories), Zakopane is so close to Krakow that there was no way we couldn’t return to Krakow without slipping back in time to Zakopane. And, as you can see from the images above, we weren’t disappointed.