Those of you who have read Polska Dotty will know that it took a revisit to the Tatra for me fully to appreciate them (my Polish wife Marzena was already an enthusiast having visited them frequently growing up). I was soon a convert. Despite this, we haven’t holidayed there since the days of the book – 1998 – preferring instead to take in Krakow (where we go next – look out for the blog!).
The Tatra have impressed. Day 1 we walked in the Koscieliska valley – Dolina Koscieliska – a flatish track between sweeping valley walls populated with evergreens, but also large numbers of downed trees which make for quite a sad sight. Apparently the storms of last winter toppled them – up to 200/hour at their peak – and though most have been carted off, many still remain.
Then to Gubalowka, a high hill above the main mountain town Zakopane, that commands sweeping views of the Tatra range. I admit I’ve always enjoyed the short but incredibly steep cable railway ride up as much as anything else, and this time didn’t disappoint. They’ve upgraded the train since our last visit, and you now glide up in a comfortable carriage. At the top, having admired the view, we lunched on chunky grilled Polish sausage – kielbasa – which was cheap and tasty.
The weather in the Tatra was fickle: the moment the sun came out it was warm, but in between it rained. On one such rainy day we visited the thermal baths – Termy – at Bukowina. These were tremendous fun. As well as a large (but overcrowded) main inside pool, there are several outdoor ones. One, in particular, is heated to something like 40C, meaning you get that lovely sensation of a warm body as cool air – it was positively chilly the day we were there – passes over your face. Not that our kids noticed: they hurtled down slides into another outdoor pool.
Piece de resistance was our visit to Morskie Oko – the eye of the sea – a smallish but perfectly formed tarn surrounded by high Tatra peaks. This was the scene of much amusement for Marzena when, back in the day, we’d parked in the car park at the start of the road to the top, and expected to trot up in a matter of minutes. Turns out it’s 9km each way – quite steep up – more than my dodgy knee will allow. This time we came prepared. Almost. We got to Morskie Oko at 9am, warned by the Tourist Office in Zakopane that parking spaces filled by 10am. In fact, we got one of the last spaces in the overflow car park. That meant a 2km walk to the start of the 9km route. At the start, we waited for a horse and carriage (dorozka) to the top… for nearly an hour. Eventually, we were on. I felt guilty as we climbed: a sea of grannies, toddlers, and parents pushing prams or wearing baby carriers paced purposefully to the top, as we cruised along. But not too guilty. At the top, Morskie Oko was as stunning as ever. In particular, the lake water is a pure green, a delight to behold.
At Morskie Oko, and elsewhere during our first week, I was struck by how – surprisingly – some things in Poland haven’t yet changed for the better. So, Morskie Oko was heaving, but all you have for facilities are the most unpleasant of chemical toilets – the sort with no flush. There aren’t sufficient dorozki to go round, and yet the authorities have limited the number of people they can carry to protect the horses. I’m all for that, but to make up for the shortfall they’ve said they’ll experiment with golf buggies. I saw one, which didn’t move.
Elsewhere, some of the mountain people (“Gorale”) seemed a bit grumpy. A particularly obnoxious bus driver deliberately blocked our path as we inadvertently drove the wrong way along a diversion (Zakopane is one big roadworks at the moment, and the diversion signs are entirely inadequate). There was plenty of room to pass each other, and we’d nearly reached the end of the diversion – and a way out – but he wanted to make a point. In vain did I explain in my pidgin Polish, once the driver had aggressively approached my window, that I was an Englishman and so not familiar with the intricacies of a Zakopane diversion. “Sure”, the driver said, “and I’m American!”, and then continued with a volley of abuse, eventually threatening to stay put in the road until I backed away. I was half tempted to let him try, and see what his passengers made of it.
On another occasion, at an ice cream parlour on the main street in Zakopane – Krupowki – a po-faced assistant flatly refused to let our 9 year old try one of the intriguingly named flavours – “Smurf” – they also have “Shrek” etc. She eventually softened and handed over a small spoonful. There seemed no reason not to have done this in the first place. For those interested, it’s banana!
Equally, a nice old chap running the “Go Ape” style high wire tree climbing (“Park Linowy”) offered our eldest an additional free run when it transpired her ticket allowed for only one go (we’d rehearsed her look of disappointment). And a waiter at the restaurant opposite the Park, where we ate lunch afterwards, let us park our car there all afternoon as we trooped into the centre of town, and was generally the friendliest and most attentive of types.
As ever, you must take the rough with the smooth, as we did, experiencing a thoroughly enjoyable first week. Go to Zakopane and surrounds if you enjoy walking in the mountains, and the views, and the fresh air, and thermal baths, and wholesome Polish food, and souvenirs, and everywhere, stunning wooden chalets studded with straw. Just expect a little of the unexpected as you go. Next stop Krakow…