Source: Discover Poland Magazine
The Tatras Mountains are part of the Carpathian Mountains; the Carpathians form a 1,500 kilometer range across Central and Eastern Europe, starting in the Czech Republic and gracefully arching eastwards and southwards, through Slovakia, Poland, Hungary and the Ukraine, all the way to Romania; the literary will recall that Dracula\'s castle is located in the Carpathians. The Tatras have the distinction and the honour of being the highest section of this massive natural barrier, with the highest peaks exceeding 2,600 meters. When travellers come to Poland, this is one part of the country that is deemed unmissable – and it is.
Zakopane lies about 100 km south of Kraków, smack on the Slovakian border. Nestled deep in a picturesque valley at the foot of the Tatras, the town is the easiest part of the mountain range to get to from the rest of Poland, and a perfect place to start and stay for a few days.
Although the Tatras have over 250 km of walking trails, by far the most popular place to hike is in the Tatra National Park, which begins just south of Zakopane. For a lovely, short and not very challenging walk, take the very popular path called Dolina Strążyska; you can walk it and return on foot to Zakopane within 2 or 3 hours, depending on your speed and level of fitness. All easier trails are very well marked, with coloured \'stripes\' to help you navigate. And with so many people walking the more well-known areas, if you get lost, simply sit and wait three minutes. Someone is bound to appear - most likely a high-energy 10-year-old kid.
Eat and Drink, Highlander-Style
All this walking and culture is bound to work up an appetite, so be culinarily adventurous and try some of the local, traditional Highlander cuisine. On the top of the list is oszczypek, a smoked cheese which has been produced in the Tatras since the 15th century. Much to the initial horror of EU standards, its base is unpasteurised sheep\'s milk; any worries about oszczypek being banned from being sold have thankfully come to nothing, and it is sold by old women in headscarves all along the mountains themselves and in Zakopane\'s streets. In terms of production, the ewe\'s milk is first made into curd, which is repeatedly rinsed with boiling water and squeezed tightly before being pressed in wooden, spindle-shaped moulds in decorative, highlander shapes. The cheese is then soaked in a brine-filled barrel for a night or two, placed near the roofs of special wooden huts, and cured and smoked for up to 14 days. The result is a very distinctive taste and texture: slightly salty and soft, the colour varies from a pale, lemon yellow to a deep burnished brown, depending on the length of the smoking. In general, the darker the cheese, the smokier and huskier the strength of the taste.
Now, what do you need to wash down this highlander cheese? How about some herbata góralska (highlander tea), which is tea with vodka? The amount of vodka to be added is measured with an index finger – and as the evening progresses, two or three fingers. After that, the tea is often just forgotten altogether. Another popular drink is spirytus, which is pure alcohol and can be added to tea, coffee or juice. Highland Poles claim it keeps you warm on chilly evenings in the mountains, and it may well do so. And imagine how spectacular the mountains would look if you goggled them with a skinful of tea...highlander-style!
Kraków is often the jumping-off point to Zakopane, and as such, connections between the two are fantastic. Buses run almost constantly, and cost zł.9-10 (about 2 pounds) for the two-hour journey. The frequency of the buses make them a better option than the trains, which take 3.5 hours to get to Kraków and cost zł.25. Both the bus and train stations in Zakopane are within walking distance of the town\'s main street, ul. Krupówski, where most of the restaurants, shops, hotels and help in English can be found.
Absolutely recommended is the Hotel Sabala, ul. Krupówki 11, tel. +48 (18) 201 50 92, www.sabala.zakopane.pl Sabala occupies the most central place in Zakopane, and has the best history. It originally opened in 1894 and its rooms, bar and restaurant hosted a flamboyant troop of artists, poets, free-thinkers and intellectuals, as well as the hotel\'s namesake: the legendary (and in these parts, near-mythical) folk singer, Sabala. The hotel itself is absolutely gorgeous: it retains much of its original architecture and all of its original charm, but includes modern anemities, such as a swimming pool, sauna, steam room and solarium.
The Hotel Sabala (above) has a great restaurant and live Highlander music every evening, but also worth trying is Gazdowo Kużnia, ul. Krupówski 1, tel. +48 (18) 201 72 01, which specialises in regional cuisine.
All the restaurants have liquor licenses – this is, after all, the highlander\'s stomping ground – but special mention must go to Cafe Piano, ul. Krupówski 63, which boasts spectacular jazz nightly and a very decent wine and cocktail list for those tired of beer and the hard stuff.
Text by Michelle Smith Photos by Tomasz Sarna