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Europe » Poland » Lesser Poland » Zakopane
June 22nd 2009
Published: June 27th 2009EDIT THIS ENTRY

So there we were, avid readers, off to Zakopane, the southern Mountain town where both Kasia and Kazik’s parents live. This bus trip nearly had Aleks in nappies. She has been harping on about Zakopane since the day I met her. So for my giggling clapping co-pilot, Zakopane was like the Land of Oz: a place that she visited ten years ago, and still held memories of little log cabins and woodsmoke. She was in for a shock. More on that later.

The bus trip itself was comfortable and uneventful, with the latter part of the trip consisting of Aleks grumbling at me to stop reading my book and look out the window. At the pouring rain. I politely fought the notion for a while, but my attention was eventually wrenched from Robert Jordan’s incessant ramblings by my first view of the Tatry Mountain Range. I’ve seen mountain ranges before, but, well… let’s just say the book was stuffed back into my bag rather unceremoniously.

We arrived three quarters of an hour later to a balmy 12 degrees plus wind-chill. There was snow dusted across the mountain tops, but this Fishy wasn’t feeling a thing - I was busy gawking at the wonderful town around me and taking photos of the range.

Readers, what say you and I have a little chinwag about Zakopane itself before I get back to the itinerary of our trip, shall we? I’m very passionate about this place. It really is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It’s a place you can sink your teeth into and walk amongst without feeling like you’re seeing the same over and over - a characteristic I can only assume holds true for many similar small towns around Europe. I look forward to seeing those places if this is any indication.

Basically, Zakopane is Poland’s muuuch smaller answer to Aspen: same look, smaller scale. It’s got its own funky little identity crisis thing going on, jacked up between soulless tourist-pandering and the steadfast old-timer influence of the Gorale, the resident highlanders. Mountain Folk! It sounds like something out of a Tolkien novel. But by no means does this idea connotate some tiny little hobbit-town in the mountains that just happens to have a few ski runs. 40,000 full time locals inhabit the municipality, most of which are spaced out across a landscape of rolling foothills and sub-alpine forests, all of which sits pretty in contrast the angry black spine o’ the world to the South.

As I already mentioned, Zako is in Southern Poland, 105km’s down from Krakow, on the North side of the Tatry Mountain Range. The Tatry sits menacingly on the border between Slovakia/Czech Republic and Poland, and plays the bad-ass cousin to the Carpathian Mountain Range which it is a part of. Poland as a country is a fairly flat sort of shindig as far as topography goes, so it’s no surprise that the highest mountain in Poland is here around 2355m, a decent height by anyone’s standards, and the highest point in the Tatry is somewhere on the Slovakian side of the range. So no, it’s not just a little try-hard set of hills with a weird name. It’s the real deal. Weather wise, ground temps drop down to around -25 deg C on a really cold day in Winter excluding wind chill, which is just about cold enough to have you peeing ice cubes. For our visit the range was between 2 and 20 degrees, which was totally palatable.

But what gets your attention is the severity of the peaks.
Eating String CheeseEating String CheeseEating String Cheese

Kasia, Aleks and Kazik And a Stuffed Owl and Antlers Kazik's House Mietustwo
The jagged upthrusts of black basalt and contrasting smooth grey granite formations that make up the High Tatras are a commanding presence. This isn’t the gentle stroll inclines of Snowy Mountains here. If you’re hard enough to climb the top end in High Tatras country, and subsequently stupid enough to fall, you might as well have a cup of tea on the way down. Calling the sides of the peaks “sheer” is being polite.

There are also, as a sort of balance, beautiful mountain lakes such as Morskie Oko and Czarny Staw. Up to 100m deep and all a beautiful copper sulfate blue in summer, they’re randomly placed amongst the valleys, stemming all the melted ice runoff in the warmer months and freezing into high altitude ice skating rinks in winter. There are, for some strange reason, fish in them thar lakes, and ducks paddling across their glass surfaces, and they are so cold even approaching summer that a foot lasts about 10 seconds before going painfully numb.

And so it would follow that, due to the heavy snowfall in Winter and epic landscape in the area, the winter sports scene is pretty hectic. With the exchange rate being shit hot for 90% of incoming tourists, it’s a bit of a hidden Mecca. We’ll see how long that lasts though. From what I’ve read on the sports front, the ski trails are long and varied, and being no skier myself I was impressed at the number of runs on the maps I saw. The clean cold mountain air makes you feel like you’re breathing liquid oxygen, and the streams are so clean you can fill up your water bottle from them. It was a stark contrast to the smog and bustle of the cities I’ve been around recently, that’s for sure.

I won’t lie, though - the influence of tourism in Zakopane is staggering, with mass arrival of over a million tourists turning up when the town really gets out of bed at some times of year. In the main drag of the town, centuries old pierogi-and-barszcz serving restaurants are slowly being booted out the back exit to stick in the next Salomon, North Face or Calvin Bloody Klein store. It’s bollocks really, and I hate to see that sort of perpetual motion machine get started, but I’m just as much at fault being there. Filthy tourists! They’re ruining everything! I’m just glad I got to see the place before it turns into Banff. Aleks was a bit disappointed when she arrived as I mentioned before; the place is now totally different to what she remembered. But that’s just the way the Wheel turns really isn’t it?

In terms of the true residents, it’s an interesting mix of ages and looks. One of the first things I picked up was a noticeable gap between the tots-to-teens and the middle agers here. There’s a fairly simple reason for that; from what I can gather from Kazik, it’s because the 18-25’s got clued up and got out fast. Some lads stayed behind to become your standard wax-coiffed ski instructors in winter and pizza boys in summer, along with their raven haired buxom barmaid girlfriends, but I reckon they’re starting to eye the local Northbound bus timetables. And good for them, I say - I know exactly where they’re coming from.

There are a lot of kids too, but in general even the large groups of teens that range around the streets are relatively quiet and inoffensive. I must say however, being the old sod that I am,
KazikKazikKazik

Mietustwo
some of the blossoming 14 year old ski bunnies should really wear more clothes for that kind of temperature range, and the guys need to wash their hair a bit more. But I guess that’s the crack these days, eh?

On the flipside to the young and the hopeless, I have to say I feel sorry for the aforementioned grannies and grampses that wander around the town looking rather taken aback by the fake tan, fake fur and fake boobs. It might be my imagination, but there’s a slight air of resentment amongst the grey brigade about the dissipation of the Gorale mountain culture. Let’s face it, because you see this everywhere - most of GenY and iGen don’t really give a toss about culture. And even if they do feign interest, it’s only under sufferance. These old timers are usually decked out in true mountain attire, the ladies’ heads wrapped in kerchiefs and the men with little mountain-folk caps. Both sexes’ hands look big and meaty enough to snap a moose’s neck with ease, carved from stone after years of hard work. I’m not perceptive by any means, it’s just so easy to see all this.

Luckily, the further out of Zako that you go, the more the old ways of life seem to shine through, and it’s a beautiful exercise to get away from Main Street™ and see what the back-then side of things is all about. It’s hard to describe unless you really see it, this Gorale thing. For starters, the houses in the forests heading slightly northwest out of Zako’s central hub are, by and large, totally made out of wood. There’s not a tile or a carpet to be seen anywhere. And the wood they use for EVERYTHING is Oak - a rarity for us heathens in the Land Down Under. A single chair made out of this beautiful wood weighs more than a whole bedroom set at home, and will probably last longer than most of the suburban Lego housing in Kellyville. But it’s more than that. Gorale is the traditional clothing that’s worn to church on Sundays, it’s the different dialect they speak so loudly in, it’s the painstaking cheese-making process and the effortless wood-carving, so intricate it yells “Mountain Pride!” without a hint of self-consciousness. It really has to be seen to be understood. I can only tell you so much.

But anyway, that’s the general idea of the place. And it was all this that I was soon to discover. For the meantime though, I was happily making a large and stupid nuisance of myself in the local supermarket. I like looking at prices of stuff in foreign supermarkets; I don’t think that’s a crime. The old wives who had just finished work didn’t really see it that way. They grunted and tsked as they tried to get past this tall foreign looking gringo blocking the condiments section. We did some shopping for booze and breakfast, then legged it to the local burger and pizzeria type place, where thanks to our tour guides, we smashed a giant Kotlet Burger (like a burger thing with schnitzel and other delicious things) and a Zywiec for a paltry 10zł each. 4 bucks. I love this country.

We eventually got on a local bus somewhere around 21:10 that night, going from an uncomfortable cold rain outside to the uncomfortable fun of playing sardines with our big bags and a bunch of less-than-impressed townsfolk, who returned my smiles with blank stares. And the most exciting part was that our stop was the last one on a half hour trip! Bonus! I didn’t dare fart, I reckon the bus would exploded from the pressure increase - there were no windows. But we got there in the end and all was well.

After skirting around some large cows and boot-eating mud puddles, we finally got to Kazik’s house: a mountain house to make a dwarf proud. A classic triangular snow roof (complete with stork’s nest in the chimney), exterior walls fortified with river stones the size of rockmelons and an interior made almost entirely of, you guessed it, Oak. It was awesome, and I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face as we were given the royal tour - the inside was exactly what I expected, family made everything with craftsmanship you couldn’t fault with a magnifying glass. The chairs, the tables, the stuffed owls, the deer antlers and the drinking glasses… All phenomenal stuff. You just don’t get that sort of thing in Australia. We met Mama Kazik, a beautiful soul full of smiles and just the sort of matriarch you would expect to run such a magic house. And then we settled down and drank and talked bulldust all night. Somewhere in the proceedings, Kazik’s Godmother turned up with half a ton of cheese, dumped it on the table, and disappeared as fast as she arrived. The guys hooked into the heavily smoked string and goats cheese, which I tried, but it wasn’t really my gig to be honest.

Next morning, it was Kazik’s “Do The Mowing and Other Man-Chores” day, so that left Aleks, Kasia and I to get our asses off on a hike. I strapped on Wujek Jacek’s totally wicked hiking boots, and we jumped on the 12pm bus to town, where we picked up some boots from Kasia’s place, meeting some of the family, and then went off up to the foot of the range, where we hiked for a couple of hours through a forest every shade of green and brown. Everyone else in the world had the same idea it seemed, and there was the usual range from the weekend traveller to the real, full time, money-spending serious hikers, whose presence was generally preceded by the clickety-clack of hiking sticks. There was a LOT of people at the ¾ way up mark, a little converted sheep shelter which served hearty supplemental food at triple the usual price. We snarfed a 6zł hot dog and moved on up like the M People, end game being a beautiful waterfall. It was just stunning. See photos.

The next day, discontent with the 3 ½ hours of waking the day previously, we decided it was more hiking for us. I was coming off the back end of a nice batch of outer ankle tendonitis caused by a rubbing boot on the previous day’s hike, but wasn’t about to be foiled by that. No siree bob. I was told in no uncertain terms earlier in the trip that we weren’t here to sit around, and so I convinced Kazik it was fine and then we legged it to town to drop off Kasia at her parents place; she had a sore ankle too but is less under the thumb than I am… *grin*.

We snagged a lift to the base area of Kuznice with Ciocia Ewa, Kasia’s Mum. This is where the cable car to Kasprowy starts and is the suburb dedicated to starting out hiking groups. It was here that we started our voyage up the mountain. It was a constant incline that was moderate in terms of cardio fitness for all involved, but Jesus Tapdancing Christ my ankle was copping it in those boots. I grinned and beared it like the true champion I am, even after an excellent twist on a large rock, and we made pretty good progress seeing as Aleks and I are noobies when it comes to real hiking. We arrived after 2 and a halfish hours at Hala Gąsienicowa, forty minutes over estimated par time. HG is a mountain lodge somewhere in the innards of the range; a centrepoint to various tracks where hikers can catch their breath. Once again, we found ourselves surrounded by the entire North Face 2009 Winter Catalogue, and ate homemade Kanapki (sandwiches) and chocolate and chicken wings inside the lodge, ignoring the heavy-handed pricing of the lodge’s menu. Then, with the promise of several more hours of agony, I excitedly made my way with the others up the final half hour ride to Czarny Staw, the lake.

The lake was, as I have mentioned previously, stunningly beautiful. We spent over an hour there, snapping photos like Japanese bus-riders and basking in the warm sunshine. I stuck my ankle in the water and marveled at the pain it caused - this only made me want to throw on a drysuit and a hood and go for a scuba dive in there, Aleks agreed. It really was something else - I would have loved to open a wormhole from where all of you were at that time just to let you see. We marveled at more hikers dragging their poor children up to the higher peaks (we were already 15-1600m up), adamant that the fledgling trekkers would live up to their parents standards. That’s just what I’d want to do with my kid, watch them walk the knife edge of a trail we were on. Clever, clever people! We even saw a group of 4 nuns up there. Yes, nuns. It was at that point that I was sure that I had seen everything in life. A group of nuns, in FULL habits and sandals, 1600m up a bloody sheer rock path dodging ice piles and laughing merrily. Dang.

But the overriding feeling for Aleks, I might add, was accomplishment. Jesus she did well; for someone who’s had heart surgery only a month and a bit ago is still slamming blood thinners like chewing
The view from the apartmentThe view from the apartmentThe view from the apartment

Uncle Piotr and Ciocia Ewa's Zakopane
gum, there were moments where she was ready to pull the pin. But to her credit she kept on the throttle, and Kazik and I were just flummoxed at the solid resolve she had - she was going to arrive at our destination, and that was that. It wasn’t too bad for us lads - we’re both natural mountain goats. For Aleks, a water baby at heart, it was a little more challenging, especially on meds.

Even though we took our time and made extra stops, it was the biggest mission that I’ve ever seen her face and beat hands down, and as Kazik said, it was by no means a walk in the park, even with the extra buffer.

Bravo, co-pilot. Bravo.

Long story cut short, we took the “other” route back to Kuznice from Hala Gąsienicowa, the yellow trail, and were instantly glad we didn’t take that route on the way up. It was reaaallly slow going on the way down, super steep and very loose rocks, until about a quarter of the way from the bottom where it finally flattened out. We made it all the way back to Kuznice where we caught a bus back to the Centrum Rondo (roundabout) of town, and mosied back to Kasia’s, patting ourselves on the back, and (for me) limping and grinning like a Cheshire Cat. Mission accomplished. Happily we were met by a feast for champions made by Ciocia Ewa, which we felt we sorely deserved, being the rabid hikers we now felt we were.

That night was the first night we stayed in paid accommodation in Europe, at a little B&B that Wujek Piotrek (Kasia’s Dad) had organized for us with a mate of his. It was interesting getting into the place… The guy that turned up to let us in didn’t have the keys and looked like he had spent all day at the pub. After sitting around on our ass waiting for the “cleaner” to turn up and unlock the boss’s office where he had “accidentally locked the keys”, we got in and made ourselves at home. The place was small but well set up and was (at 80zł) a night, ideal for what we wanted - time on our own at a low price.

Next day was good for a wander up Gubałowka, another smaller, flatter mountain facing the main range, which was another tourist hub. We bought our up and down ticket for 17zł each, then took a mountain rail car to the top. We were immediately assaulted by a guy in a bear suit, who wanted us to take photos with him. After we took the photos and started walking away, he started to demand money. When we said no, he said delete the photos. Aleks being the pacifist she is told me to delete the photos - I personally wished she wasn’t around… It would look so much funnier in the blog if I was writing that I pulled out the stops on some junkie in a bear suit. What a funny fight that would have been.

Anyway, after I deleted the photos and the bear stopped following us, we had a beer at a bar with a bit of a sour taste in our mouth. I wasn’t allowed to go back and spar with the bear, so I settled for a wander over to the other real world ski lift on the other side, sparse in terms of safety equipment which meant excitement plus for me, terror for Aleks. We made it down to the
Koziolek MatolekKoziolek MatolekKoziolek Matolek

Andrzej Renes' Work Zakopane
bottom and I found a place near Gubałowka that let you bungy off a 95 metre crane for 120zł. I couldn’t justify it, so I didn’t do it. After a few beers we realized we were pretty knackered and retired early to bed, to try and get a decent sleep in the world’s squeakiest bed. We postponed dinner with Kasia’s Mum and Dad till the next night to try and turn in early. The plan was, for the next day, to take the Cable car all the way up to the 1987m summit of Kasprowy Wierch. I’m not sure which came first, the mountain or the chess player, but in any case Aleks decided we should walk back down it, so a good night’s sleep was in order. She was determined to follow on from the previous hiking achievements, now that she was instantly fitter and more experienced. I looked forward to wearing my boots again.

The next morning, Aleks woke up with the shits. Not literally, but emotionally. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem and is usually fixed with a bit of hand patting and the like, but today it was due to the break in the weather
Ski JumpSki JumpSki Jump

Zakopane
- for the worst. It had rained all night, and after waking up and seeing the outcome at six in the morning, she was getting her grump on. After the deluge the smallest ditches in the rough dirt street outside our residence had become lakes. She was absolutely certain that it would have been better to go the previous day, which I had steered clear of due to the weather looking like heavy rain ALL day and my ankle smarting like a smacked arse. Fortunately, I eventually got her out of the house (after many tantrums and huffs)and we made our way up to the cable car and bought our tickets for 40 zł a piece. It seemed a bit extortionate at the bottom, but we had no idea what was in store.

The ride up was just AMAZING. There aren’t many of that type of Cable Car in the world and I understand why. A kilometer up a sheer cliff on cables isn’t a world record, especially if you live in Switzerland, but it’s still a damn fine sight. Just as we thought we got to the top half way up, we changed cars… And kept going up. Up into the clouds where we couldn’t even see where it ended. And to think in the fantasy novels they simply glide over this stuff. All in all it was rather gentle, but Aleks was still fearing the worst, as her trust for mechanical technology is limited to say the least. When we finally got up the top, it was blowing hard and cold to boot.

But bugger me, WHAT A SIGHT. Even though the steady cascade of clouds rolling over the surrounding peaks dimmed the initial view a touch, the sheer size of what we were standing on top of was easy to feel. And it was VAST to say the least. All those peaks that we could see from ground floor were now within five minutes walk. It was however, blisteringly windy up there. After spending plenty of time on boats up North, I’ve become half-decent at determining wind speed by feel. Once we climbed the remaining twenty metres from the cable car station to the Observatory Level of the peak, the wind hit. I’d call it an easy fifty knots gusting to sixty. It was madly fast, which was bad enough, but it was also cold! So the thought of us walking down slowly diminished, especially after glancing at the trail - steep, icy in places and on top of the thinnest part of the ridge so far. It was a no from me (for now) and the other America’s Got Talent judges, but Aleks was sure that she could make it… in shorts and a pair of running shoes. Ha.

After I convinced her that it was way too windy (whilst hanging sideways off a wind vane pole) and that neither of us were that elite at hiking, Aleks finally acquiesced. The call was supported by a couple walking past us: the wiry priest of a husband was getting soundly bollocked by Little Miss in a thick pommy accent, squealing at her counterpart to, “take me down off here ‘afore I get blown off the bloody mountain!”. So I believe it was a good call, and I reckon Kazik would have agreed. Being the typical superior human that I am, I made it absolutely clear that I wasn’t going to get beaten by a trivial little mountain, and that we were coming back to climb down the trail, even if it killed us.

We did manage to get a couple of good photos, baulked at the prices in the resident eatery, and resigned ourselves to a seat on the ground outside to munch through the lunch we had brought - beautiful oat and fruit bread with sliced gouda cheese, mountain style skinny kielbasa, and super tasty tomatoes… They really know how to grow those around here I tells ya. Washed down with a bar of Milka Alpine Chocolate, it was nothing but great.

Aleks got over her huff and we went back down via the cable car again… and my co-pilot went straight back into the Cable Car Horrors. This time the ride was a little more interesting. Several times the operator slowed the carriage down to combat the swinging it was experiencing, caused by rather… “fresh”… mountain breezes. This naturally caused Aleks to rail against the Gods of cable-car technology and sing the praises of her own two feet. Smiling, I patted her hand and thought exactly the opposite, happy to put my complete trust in the European engineering prowess of Doppelmayr Aerial Tramways. Plus, any opportunity for a cheap thrill - suspended 60m above the ground on a bloody cable
Kazik BBQ-ingKazik BBQ-ingKazik BBQ-ing

Mietustwo
swinging in a nice 50 knot breeze. Top stuff.

After taking a bus down from Kuznice we relegated ourselves back to our room to get ourselves sorted out for the evening, doing a little packing for leaving the next day before getting over to Kasia’s parents’ house for the dinner we promised we’d have with them. It turned out to be a great evening with Piotr and Ewa. As usual I ate myself into a coma and we ended up spending over three and a half hours there drinking buckets of strawberry compote and eating everything in the house - what beautiful people they are: they opened their house to us and offered for us to return whenever we were down in Zako Town again, and I felt truly lucky to meet them. After that, back home, and dead as roadkill in our bed.

Here ends the Zakopane Chapter, in the next installment of “Nemo Has To Write All The Big Blogs,” I’ll go over the return to Krakow, Wieliczka, and the dreaded End Game Boss, Auschwitz.


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