Offbeat Euro Getaways: Zakopane, Poland

“But why Poland?” I was constantly asked not just by friends and family back home but also Polish locals. Being gorgeous, cheap and offbeat had put Poland high on my travel list and there I was traipsing around the country for nearly three months.

Getting to Zakopane:
If you love hiking, snow and nature then Zakopane is the ideal getaway for you just like it was for me. Buy a cheap flight to Krakow (I’ve bought return tickets for lesser than £50 from London) and then take a bus to Zakopane. It takes about 2 hours from Krakow and there you are in the middle of nowhere surrounded by gorgeous mountains and lakes. If you haven’t been to Poland before then Krakow is also an amazing city to explore. I reckon like a lot of Eastern European cities it’s underrated but more on Krakow in another post. This one is for Zakopane.

First Impressions:
I was in love with Zakopane the moment I saw the stream running along Krupowki, the Main Street. A bubbling body of water running along a cobbled lane was the ideal visual depiction of the romantic landscapes in my head.  It didn’t just end there, my fairytale visuals were further enhanced by the row of wooden houses, baskets of flowers, ponies, stone fences and street performers.

The Culture of Zakopane:

Zakopane is far from your average soulless ski resort cashing in on drunken tourists. It has fantastic ski conditions but along with that it is also the hub of Gorale culture. The Gorals are a community of indigenous people found mainly in Southern Poland as well as parts of Slovakia and Czech Republic.The architecture now known as the Zakopane Style was inspired by the richly decorated homes of the Gorals. There are several other Gorale traditions still followed in the region which can be seen in the people’s choice of dialect, clothes, folk music and of course, my favourite, the food.

Food in Zakopane:

The food in the Tatra Region is unique and slightly different to the food eaten in the rest of the country. Try Oscypek, a smoked sheep milk’s cheese. It’s a hard cheese that is only found in this region and in Zakopane town there is a cheese market every day where you can buy yourself some tasty souvenirs. Souvenirs that you can eat = the best. A restaurant serving traditional Tatra Region food is U Wnuka  which started doling out food as early as 1850. Housed in a solid wooden Zakopane Style house, authenticity and tradition are the key words here. Ever so often they have live music where a Highlander band all decked out in Gorale garb performs for eager culture seekers. For dessert, there is always Gofry: waffles with ice cream, berries, cream or whatever else you’d like. Another place to unwind in after a long day of skiing or hiking is Cafe Piano , a jazz bar with reasonable drinks and a warm and toasty ambience.This is where Highlander hipsters – the nice kind- like to hang out and for me, this makes Cafe Piano and its conversations even more interesting.

Things to do in Zakopane:
Close to the town is Gubalowka Mountain, a short funicular ride from the main street.  While in the winters skiing and snowboarding dominate, in the summer the highlight- in my opinion- is the 750 meter Toboggan run. At first instance I thought it didn’t appear to be thrilling enough however one quick run down at breakneck speed was enough to change my mind. The views from Gubalowka are stunning but if you’ve hiked up Czarny Staw (see below) already it might pale in comparison.

Outside the town, I loved heading to the Tatra National Park (a minibus there will cost you 10 Polish Zloty) which stays beautiful all year round. The first thing to do here is to hike up with a picnic to Morskie Oko, the largest lake in the Tatra Mountains. If you left early enough with time to spare and if you still have it in you then try hiking on further to the lake Czarny Staw. The climb is steep and fairly tough (maybe we were just unfit?) but the views of Morskie Oko alone are worth the hike. The two lakes are connected by a waterfall that you will pass along the way. The National Park is stunning and feels far away from everything…I suppose it is.

What’s the damage?
Budget wise Zakopane is a lot cheaper than other ski resorts and like I said earlier, laden with culture. Also, Poland still hasn’t embraced the Euro which means their national currency, the Zloty, is a lot easier on most budgets. For Indian Travellers, with the INR being weaker than ever exploring Eastern Europe will take the Indian Rupee a lot further. Also for the Bollywood enthusiasts several scenes from the movie Fanaa were shot in and around Zakopane.

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