When living in a foreign country for an extended amount of time, I think something you should definitely try to do is to visit as many places as you can whilst you have the chance. So last week, I invited a friend from the UK over to Poland to spend a little winter break in Zakopane, known informally as the “winter capital of Poland”.
I should mention that before we travelled to Zakopane, Rich (the friend) came to Kielce for one night and was instantly introduced to Polish hospitality at the celebratory party of one of our Polish friends for graduating from university (congratulations, Mateusz!). There were many offerings of vodka shots and kiełbasa and a bunch of people trying to talk to us about the English Premier League with broken English by just reeling off the names of players for respective teams. I think we were both ready to head to the mountains.
The bus to Zakopane should only take around 4 hours, but as is traditional with the Polskibus company, it arrived into Kielce around 20 minutes late. Usually, I don’t mind, but on this particular morning the temperature was -17 degrees and Rich and I took to walking around in small circles to try to keep our toes warm. It didn’t work. Then on the leg of the journey between Kraków and Zakopane, our bus driver decided to go full renegade. He took a definite detour through tiny, country roads before arriving at a bridge that was half the size of our bus and could only handle a certain weight. The bus stopped in front of it for a second, and I could hear the cogs of the driver’s mind working, trying to calculate whether we could make it across. We couldn’t. So, we turned back the way we came, adding an hour or so onto our journey, but finally heading towards Zakopane.
The day was still cold when we arrived, but the weather was clear and we got our first glimpse of the impressive Tatra Mountains, which surround Zakopane on one side, as it lies in a valley between the Tatras and Gubołówka Hill. Night was approaching though, so we didn’t choose to explore so much yet. We just walked up the main street of the town, chose a place to get some food where there was a candle placed between us and we were given free prosecco (maybe they thought we were on a date, which is cute) and then went to watch some handball in an underground bar where we could try to get warm.
Our experience in this bar, “The Vintage Pub”, deserves a paragraph all to itself, so I will give it one. Firstly, before I get to the handball match, I would guess that 99.5% of the British population have absolutely NO idea about the rules of the game, or knew that the European Championship was taking place over the past few weeks or, in fact, even cared that it was happening. It is just not a sport that we have adopted. Secondly, on the weekend that we arrived, the ski jumping World Cup was being held in Zakopane, so many fans (and many loud vuvuzela type horns) had travelled to Poland to watch. Thirdly, the handball game that we were about to watch was between Poland and Norway, so with the influx of fans for the ski jumping, the bar was equally divided between Norwegians and Poles. And us. A couple of handball-ignorant Brits. The national anthems were sung, and applauded by both sets of fans, and then the game started! We got into it by singing “Polska! Biały i czerwony!” (Poland! White and red!), but by the end of the game were incredibly distracted. We made friends with a pair of incredibly drunk guys from Łódź, and as you can see in the picture below, I exchanged hats for a little while with one of them. After an hour or so of me drumming on the tables and my hat-swapping-friend rapping over the beat I created, Poland lost the handball game by 2 goals. I’m going to blame that for what happened next. I decided it was time to swap the hats back, I needed my thick wooly one for the upcoming days after all, but the guy I had swapped with had fallen asleep in his chair. His other friend, who was still awake, saw me doing this and had an extreme reaction to it. Perhaps he thought the trade was permanent, but he started cursing at me in Polish and saying some other words that I told him I didn’t understand, but he insisted that I did. It all turned sour in under a minute, and he left. I waved to say goodbye, he stuck his middle finger up. The dangers of drinking, boys and girls!
Anyway, that didn’t dampen our spirits, we were still super happy to be there, so we woke up bright and early the next morning to catch the bus to the National Park and take on the walk to Morskie Oko, the largest lake in the Tatra Mountains. I had asked the receptionist of our hostel the night before whether any hiking trails were closed because there was a lot of snow on the ground, but she said they were all always open and it was up to you personally whether you wanted to take them on. To prepare, me and Rich had read through the Wikihow page on “how to survive an avalanche”, which didn’t really prepare us, more terrify us! In any case, despite the snow, the path from the entrance of the National Park up to lake is in summer, a large asphalt path, so there was no serious hiking involved. We even felt confident (or arrogant) enough to take a small break in the avalanche zone and pose for a photo standing next to the warning sign.
The walk was full of incredibly dramatic and overwhelming scenery, where we would be walking through snow covered trees in the forest for some time, before turning a corner to reveal sensational mountain vistas, with low-lying clouds moving across the tops of each mountain slowly, hiding each peak before they announced themselves suddenly as part of the landscape. There was hardly a moment where you could not pay attention. The walk takes you incredibly close to the Slovakian border, with the mountains forming a natural border between the two countries. In total, the walk should take around 3 hours but we were constantly stopping to make short videos, play with the snow, and take photographs. I think the photos of the walk might be better to express how incredible the views were so here’s a photographic summary of our journey.
But, none of these photos yet included the actual lake. If you didn’t know that there was a lake there, at the summit of this walk, you could arrive and have next to no idea, but that really doesn’t mean that the destination was not impressive. You arrive to an open space, with some of the tallest mountains of the walk surrounding your position. Fir and pine trees enclose this huge, open expanse of snow, which rests untouched, around 2-3 feet deep, which itself sits on top of 10 inches or more of ice, which has frozen above the entire of Morskie Oko, stopping this lake and place in time. As soon as we arrived, we walked out onto this ice and for some time, we were the only two people on the entire lake. There was literally no noise. It was perfect. We would later cross the lake over to the other side and climb a small incline to reach a frozen waterfall, but before that, we went into a small wooden lodge that is built next to the lake for a celebratory beer. That was perfect too.
Previous people who had crossed the lake had sort of trodden down the snow on a certain section to make the walk easier. In contrast, we decided to go where no human had gone before and cross the lake through the 3 foot snow. And wow! It was so tiring, it was like having to walk up one of the mountains even though we were on the flattest part of the entire trip. Then to compliment the avalance picture of Rich, I walked beyond a sign that told people not to walk on this section. Jokes aside, I didn’t venture too far. And in terms of not venturing too far, we started to climb the face of one of the mountains to reach a frozen waterfall; this was worth the hike and we had a great aerial view of the lake from the opposite side, but in terms of going further and to the peak, we had no chance without hiking poles and spikes on the bottom of our shoes. So, we had to enjoy the short but slippery walk to the waterfall and enjoy the beauty of its frozen descent before walking the 3 hours back to the bus whilst lazier travellers got the horse-drawn sleigh.
The next day, we became those lazy travellers! We caught the cablecar to the top of Gubołówka bright and early again. The view from the top was really great, with a mostly blue sky to see each and every Tatra and Zakopane sleeping below. We had arrived so early that almost nobody was at the top yet, and we had pretty much the whole panorama to ourselves. As we walked 30 minutes across the ridge of the hill, I got into an altercation with a dog whilst trying to take a picture of a cat and for a brief few minutes, we also thought the world was ending as we heard alarms and sirens heading our way before we turned around to see that a fire had broken out behind us. It was weird that with just us two walking up there, the world really could have been descending into chaos elsewhere and we would literally have no idea. Anyway, it wasn’t ending, not to worry. We continued and chanced upon 6 people about to ride snowmobiles for an hour, which we rapidly made 8. The ride began just as snow started to fall heavily, and I was the passenger for the first half an hour. I was leaning left and right as we turned (very necessary) but also just gawping at the open expanses of land, brief glimpses of, you guessed it, mountains, and incredible (and I promise never repetitive) scenes in front of my eyes. That part was fun, for sure, but riding it, maybe more so, as I kept hanging back from the leader as long as I could before going full throttle to reach 60km/h, at least. Not sure how happy Rich was about that reckless driving though.
But I can positively say that we were both beyond happy with the weekend and a bit that we spent there. I have already written so much about it, but there was even more! The pierogi, the part where I almost managed to order an entire meal in Polish before falling at the last hurdle (getting better), the part where we made a snowman called Sidski, the part where I slipped for 10 metres and almost broke the GoPro, the part where we just watched a film at home because we were so tired (“NO SHOOTOUTS?!”), our own little walking tour of Zakopane on the final day and the uneventful return to Kielce, where we both collapsed into a deep, deep sleep. Zakopane, I promise I’ll be back in summer to tackle your steepest and highest hikes in safer and much less icy conditions!