By Ernest Barteldes
We left our Warsaw hotel at the crack of dawn on Sunday morning and headed to the airport, where we took a short flight to Krakow. After landing, we boarded a shuttle train (at the cost of PLN 8) towards the transit hub in the city center. I had bought the bus tickets to the mountain city of Zakopane beforehand, so we all we had to do was to locate the platform and wait for our transportation.
It was quite early when we got to town, so we walked across to Galeria Krakowska (a local mall adjacent to the station – not unlike the mall in Warsaw I wrote about earlier) and ordered a cup of coffee at Starbucks, where we also took advantage of the free WI-FI. The two-hour bus ride was quite comfortable and uneventful , except of a schmuck who was on the phone for almost the entire ride. Since the e bus was not really crowded, we moved away from him and were able to stretch our legs and relax. The ride took about two hours, and soon we were disembarking at Zakopane’s bus station .
Being a town that is known for its winter activities in addition to the famed trails, hotels are abundant in Zakopane. Renata, however, wanted to try one of the many guesthouses (pokoje) they have there – private homeowners who rent spare rooms to visitors. We quickly found the house she had reserved before we left, but found it to be empty. Thanks to the fact that I had a Polish number (I bought a SIM card in Chelm and loaded it into Renata’s old phone – something that turned out to be extremely useful) we were able to connect with the owners and get into our room.
The room was comfortable enough – there was WI-FI, a small fridge, a table for meals, a closet with basic utensils plus a small bathroom. Several friendly stray cats were in the area, and we befriended some of them – they would just come into the room, meowing and looking for food. According to the house’s owners, the cats in the area are cared for by the locals, and many are very friendly.
We named two that were frequent visitors “Skinny” and “Mr. Miausz (photo below).” We fed and played with them whenever they showed up (we bought cat food at the local market), which made us miss our own cat back home.
The weather was relatively warm when we arrived – it was very sunny but there was a bit of a chill in the air – something common in the Tatra Mountains. We did need sweaters as it frequently got cold in the evening, and it was quite chilly early in the morning.
We unloaded our stuff, changed and went looking for a place to eat. As we walked, I stopped at a food stand and bought some oszypek, the traditional smoked mountain sheep cheese the Zakopane is famous for. After walking for a while in Kuprowki, the town’s main street, we found a reasonably priced place that served local food. I chose pierogis made with smoked goat cheese (typical in the mountains), which tasted light and delicious.
We explored the town and came upon a park where some kind of music festival was going on, with young students performing show tunes in Polish (I sat through a couple of them, which included a teenager doing some kind of routine with an umbrella to the tune of “Singin’ In The Rain” with Polish lyrics). After a while we found the local Carrefour, loaded up on supplies for our in-room meals and made plans for the next day.
Our first hike was to Morskie Oko, a lake at the base of Mount Rysy, the tallest mountain in the country at 2,499 meters high. (8,199 ft.). We woke up early and walked to the bus station, where we caught a private van to the park where the 9 kilometer (5.6 mile) trail to the lake is located. It was not necessarily a hard one, but it was quite a long walk uphill. There were many other hikers there of all ages – families with kids, tourists and also some groups of students on field trips with their teachers. The walk is quite scenic – there are rivers and trees, and the higher you get the views are breathtaking. At the end of the trail there is a small winter lodge and restaurant that serves Polish dishes and drinks – we didn’t want to eat there, so we got a few snacks and drinks while appreciating the view. There was still snow clinging to the mountains, and the water in the lake was very cold (I did put my feet in for a few minutes). After about an hour or so we started making or way down – another 9 kilometer walk, but this time downhill.
When we returned to town, we had a meal at a small home-style restaurant right across from the bus station. The prices were much more affordable than at the touristier Kuprowki – something we took into consideration. We both ordered zapiekankas, the pizza-like baguette with cheese, mushrooms and ketchup, and walked back to the room to rest and play with “our” cats.
On Tuesday morning we were supposed to ride the cable car to Kasprowy Wierch, another tall mountain in the area, but we changed our minds when we reached the nearby Kuznice because the wait in line was a bit too long and the cost a bit too high, so we decided to walk the trail up instead. We settled on doing half the trail (about 90 minutes), and we set on our way. The beginning is not that hard – some of the road is paved, and before you enter the park there is the Sanctuary of St Brother Albert, (a local saint canonized by Pope John Paul II)an isolated location where monks live in solitude except when they hold masses in their very small church.
We paid PLN 5 (about 1.50 US) fee to enter the park after we saw the Sanctuary and made our way up. The trail was much harder, since there were many unstable rocks. The trail was very narrow in some parts – one mistake and you could find yourself in a lot of trouble. When we reach mid-peak, there was a small facility that sold food and drinks and that also had a public bathroom that could be used for a small fee.
We spent about 30 minutes there and walked back and took the bus back to town. We ate at the same home-style restaurant, and this time I had mushroom pierogis (not sure what Renata had, though). We bought a few more supplies for dinner and breakfast and after replenishing our refrigerator and resting a bit we walked over to Kuprowki and found this interesting market outside the tourist area. We wanted to explore more, but it was getting colder and we didn’t have our sweaters on. We returned to our room, changed and walked back to try their local beer at Dobra Kasza Nasza, a stylish restaurant – I was surprised to hear lots of Latin and Brazilian music as we enjoyed our drinks (there were songs by Marisa Monte, Caetano Veloso and Mana while we were there). We also checked out a liquor store that carried beer and vodka produced in the region and made a mental note to come back there before we left.
We woke up early on Wednesday and went for a final stroll through Kuprowki. Renata had been looking for shoes, so we stopped at the locMoral CCC (a national franchise, we seemed to visit their locations wherever we went). We also stumbled into the location of their live webcam where there is a statue of a man reading the local paper. You can see the live feed here
We also stopped at the liquor store and bought a small bottle of locally made vodka (don’t ask me about the taste, we haven’t cracked the bottle yet) and headed back to our room, where our bags were packed and ready to go. We said goodbye to our friendly kitties (our hosts were away) and walked to the bus station as we looked into what would be the final leg of our trip – Krakow and Oświęcim