Among the snow-covered mountains of Zakopane in Poland, Liz Coggins discovers a genuine winter wonderland.
Imagine an uninterrupted landscape of frosted pine forests, chocolate box timbered houses, horse drawn sleighs and majestic snow covered mountains – welcome to Zakopane.
Known as the winter capital of Poland, and set amidst the grandeur of the Tetra Mountains, Zakopane has been a big draw since the 1870s when the purity of the mountain air attracted the attention of doctors. Within a few years this incredible mountain village was transformed, becoming the haunt of Krakow’s artists, composers and poets who weren’t always there for the health benefits. Truth is they behaved outrageously, giving it an air of decadence, but leaving a legacy of art, architecture and culture.
After the two wars, tourism took over and Zakopane became Poland’s most famous ski-resort, boasting one of Europe’s earliest ski jumps naturally constructed using the slope of a hill; whilst the mountain region around the town was designated as the country’s first national park.
But Zakopane is not just winter sports, walking and hiking. It’s the perfect place to enjoy mountain scenery and get a taste of the art and culture of the highlands of Poland whilst indulging in a spa treatment or two along the way. It’s also the ideal place for a two centre holiday combining it with the gothic and historical delights of Krakow.
It’s also easy to reach – a two-hour flight will get you to Katowice (130 miles away) or Krakow (55 miles away). My coach journey from Katowice to Zakopane is to be recommended. It took the scenic route passing through incredibly beautiful villages and countryside that looked as if it should have been on a Christmas card. Although it was early in the year, the sun streamed down and glistened on the white snow so much so I was glad I had brought my sunglasses.
The first thing that will hit in Zakopane is its architecture. It has its own style that was designed by Stanislaw Witkiewicz in the late 18th-century. The tree-lined streets have wooden buildings made from logs with steep pointed roofs and attic windows. Adorned with intricate carvings the three and four storey balconied houses have a unique and incredible presence making the Swiss chalet look quite mundane.
Zakopane has only one main street, but it is full of character with its sleighs lined up to take tourists on a tour of the town and beyond. In summer, during the international theatre festivals, the street becomes a stage to some incredible productions and street theatre from all over Poland. At the bottom of the street is the market where you can buy just about anything from wooden crafts, dolls and toys to leather goods and clothing and a huge selection of food including the local smoked ewe’s cheese, oscypek.
A visit to the Tatra Museum in town is well worth it. Here you can see local folk culture at its best re-created through a peasant’s house and there’s some stunning embroidered folk costumes to be seen.
Zakopane has some wonderful historic churches. Their interiors have highland wooden décor with hand carved altars and pews. The Chapel of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is a must to visit. Its beautiful exterior, built in Zakopane style, has a triple layer roof and geometric ornate windows.
St Clements is the oldest church in Zakopane and has a great history and a cemetery full of famous local people.
In mid-August Zakopane plays host to the International Festival of Mountain Folklore. This week long event attracts groups from highland regions around the world, as well as top local acts and all the concerts are free and you can even learn to folk dance at the festival .
Zakopane has accommodation to suit all budgets but one of the finest is The Hotel Belvedere, set on the edge of the Tatra National Park. The hotel is built on many levels and from my room I had an uninterrupted view of the snow-capped mountain and pine forest as if they were my very own.
The hotel has a luxurious spa , great if you want some “me time”, relaxing and being pampered. The beauty salon offers a range of treatments – but better book well in advance as it is a favourite with the locals. The indoor pool area has a water slide, a Roman bath, Jacuzzi, infra-red sauna and both Finnish and Turkish saunas.
On the top floor, overlooking the mountain is The Angel Bar, its décor resembling a highlander’s house, with its own terrace, where in summer you can sunbathe and sip highlander tea – that’s tea with vodka of course!
Breakfast at The Belvedere is one of the finest I have ever known. With fruits, breads, cereals, pancakes, sausages, salads, pickles plus every kind of egg and meat, its a veritable feast. When you are in Poland you are never very far away from a tray of cakes and I loved the Polish tradition of cakes at breakfast – a tradition, which along with Zubrowka vodka, I could easily get used to.
Zakopane at night is a romantic place with the clip-clop of hooves and the sound of sleigh bells echoing in torch-lit streets.
Sitting in a horse-drawn sleigh wrapped in a fur blanket, with an obligatory large tipple of vodka, I felt like a character from a Tolstoy novel. As we moved at a gentle pace up to the snowy streets to the Czarci Jar Inn, where highlander musicians greeted us – I wondered if all this was for real or was I dreaming – such is the allure of Poland’s winter wonderland.
Liz Coggins travelled to Zakopane as a guest of the Polish National Tourist Office and WizzAir. For further details about holidays and travel to Poland visit www.poland.travel, email: London@poland.travel
Hotel Belvedere Resort and Spa: www.hotelbelvedere.pf
WizzAir flies direct to Katowice – www.wizzair.com