Ever heard of the Carpathian mountains? You’re about to…
The sleepy mountain village of Zakopane isn’t just a jumping off point to Slovakia, it’s also a jumping off point to the Polish Tatras (the mountain range that separates the two countries, full of jaw-dropping scenery and craggy mountain faces, and part of the Carpathian mountains). It’s also a beautiful town in itself, full of log chalets and phallic cheeses.
Hike hike hike: I don’t care if you’re morbidly obese, suffering from a chronic injury, or you don’t have any legs – a jaunt into this mountain range is worth every back-breaking step (or not, if you’re the latter). You can easily swing in to Tourist Information for a map and some information on all the trails, and there’s plenty that can be completed in one day. We spent a day on a trail that starts at the funicular (take public transport to the start, ain’t nobody got time for a lengthy uphill climb before you even start your walk), and kind of just made it up as we went along.
We ended up at the Black Pond, which was lovely, before heading back down the sloping mountains. The walk took a good five hours, taking into consideration our relative unfitness and stops for lunch, and parts of it are very steep. But the views over the foothills, up to the higher mountain faces, over gorgeous fields of wildflowers, and into the distance to Zakopane are unparalleled. The only downside? The promise of wild bears and viscous wildlife never eventuated.
Check out the town: It’s got a very ski-resort chalet-type vibe, with plenty of cute souvenir shops and ski sports shops.
Old cemetery, or Cmentarz Zasluzonych na Peksowym Brzyzku, allegedly: Located near the centre of town, this cemetery is about as gorgeous as graveyard’s get (again, is that a thing). Full of ornate headstones, huge stone pillars and flower arrangements to rival that of a florist, this is worth a wander.
Phallic cheese: Sure, that’s probably not what they market it as, but that was our first thought when we saw it. The pungent oscypek is a salted, smoked sheep’s milk you can buy from little wooden carts all over the town, and yes, it looks a bit like an intricately-decorated penis. Luckily, it doesn’t taste like one, and it’s quite a delicious accompaniment to a good sandwich, or on a cracker.
Pierogi: No, sorry, we don’t have a good restaurant for you here. We do have an excellent example of how not to cook a giant supermarket bag of dumplings and cook it in meat gravy. Such is life when it’s your last day in Poland, you’re craving pierogi, and you’re having a moment of relative poverty.
Hostel Stara Polana: This charming log cabin almost had us convinced we were settling in for a ski holiday somewhere near Aspen. There’s a lovely balcony overlooking a forest of pine trees for you to relax on after a hard day’s walking, or where you can sit and tuck into your overcooked, gravy-smothered pierogi and $1 beer. The breakfast is solid; most notably for its tub of nutella. Everything else was a blur.
Price for one night in a dorm bed: 9 euro.
GETTING TO SLOVAKIA:
Okay, while there is public transport – it’s patchy, if not sporadic. You can get a bus from the middle of Zakopane all the way to the middle of Poprad. However, if, like us, you have a slight obsession of living within your means two days before you’re due to depart a country and refuse to make another withdrawal of cash – you might take a leaf out of our book and make your way there a cheaper way. Which was actually free. Yes, this was where the Eastern European hitchhiking du jour began its first uneasy steps.
For starters, we got off to a bit of a rocky start. We walked along the main road out of town to the East, hoping to quickly thumb a lift to Lysa Polana, the border town. After half an hour unsuccessfully and uneasily standing with our A4 paper scrawled with our destination name outside of a petrol station, we walked on. Fifteen minutes later, we downed packs and tried again. After several drivers flew past either ignoring us, laughing at us, or pointing downwards furiously** we moved on further. Finally, after about an hour, and as we flirted with the complete outskirts of the town, a driver stopped. As we tried to communicate, he speaking not a single word of English and us not knowing a bean of Slovakian, traffic piled up behind him as he hadn’t pulled completely off the road. Thank heavens for impatient tooting Slovakian drivers, because this meant a quick wave of acceptance and us bundled into his car.
Along the way, I’m 80% sure he was trying to tell us he was going nearby the border but not to it, but – understandably fed up with us simply repeating the same five words in English – he took us right to the border. The plan from here was to get a bus (there’s a bus stop at the info centre at Lysa Polana) so we settled in for the next one which was in about an hour’s time. Hearing the hum of a vehicle approaching, I jokingly stuck out a thumb – and was horrified when the tiny purple hatchback screeched on its brakes and skidded to a stop on a shoulder just ahead. A topless torso emerged from the driver’s window and asked where we were headed. Lo and behold, the tanned Frenchman was headed nearish Poprad and was keen for some company. Added bonus: he spent time in New Zealand and the trip ended up being far more pleasant than a stuffy bus ride. For the second time that day, our driver went out of his way to take us to our final destination. This one, however, I’m sure was due to my sparkling personality rather than language barrier-induced inability to do otherwise.
**Pointing downwards whilst driving apparently means “I’m not leaving town” in Eastern Europeans, so rather than questioning the sanity of furiously finger stabbing motorists, try your luck with the next one.