Days Like This, No 2: In the Tatra With Bears and Nuns

tatra 10

ZAKOPANE is a resort in the foothills of the Polish Tatra. Many people warned us about coming here, saying Zakopane is the unacceptable face of commercialism in an otherwise pristine mountain environment. But we like the town immensely. I suppose you could call it the Polish version of Bowness-on-Windermere, but without the steamers and the ducks. There are loads of inexpensive restaurants serving hearty Polish food, and a fantastic little campsite on the outskirts – Camping Ustup – where the proprietor helps to erect your tent while engaging your wife in conversation about David Beckham . . .

This is a retro post for Because They’re There. It’s a letter from the past featuring a memorable walk and the contemporary events surrounding it. Here we go . . .

Language barriers are broken down when football is the common element. Walk into a bar or a campsite reception in Poland, and when someone asks where you’re from and you reply “Ang-lee-ya”, their faces light up, they point a friendly finger, and they say: “Ahhh. Davvid Beck-ham.”

That’s how it’s been all the way down through Warsaw, Krakow and now Zakopane. Everyone’s talking about football because the Euro Championships are in full swing. And everyone loves David Beckham.

tatra 1It’s 7am on Sunday morning and I’m heading for the Tatra. I leave the car in a private car park on the edge of Zakopane (pronounced Zako-panna) where a chap with a big moustache tells me the price per hour in Polish złoties (it works out at about half-a-crown for an entire day). And off I wander into the shadowy forest.

tatra 2Now the big problem I have with the Tatra – the high and rocky mountains that form a natural border between Poland and Slovakia – is that they are inhabited by bears. Admittedly, I’ve never had a confrontation with a bear so my fear is probably irrational and based on the fact I was tortured as a child with dark tales by the brothers Grimm and others.

Also, I’ve read A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, by Bill Bryson, and I can state without fear of contradiction that anyone who wasn’t scared of bears before they read the book certainly was before they’d proceeded beyond the opening chapters.

I wander upwards on a stony path beneath the dismal forest canopy, wincing at every twig that snaps loudly beneath my boots, sure that it’s going to disturb a slumbering bear. After half-an-hour of steady climbing the forest becomes thinner and bright rays of sunlight pierce the canopy to illuminate pleasant green swards on the mountainside.

The relief I feel is overwhelming. But then it occurs to me that the first thing bears will do when they awake in the early morning is gravitate towards pools of warming sunlight. So they are probably all waiting in a line somewhere up the track.

tatra 5I have a rough though quite ambitious plan for my walk today. My first peak will be Giewont (1,895m or 6,217ft), which towers above Zakopane and has an iron cross on its summit (pictured above). I shall then proceed to the ridge that divides Poland from Slovakia – which was patrolled quite energetically by the then-Czechoslovakian military after the early triumphs of Solidarity and Lech Wałęsa in the 1980s, because they didn’t want radical rambling Poles influencing the Czechs and Slovaks.

Once on the ridge on Kopa Kondracka (2,005m or 6,578ft) – my very first 2,000m peak – I’ll head west for Krzesaniog (2,122 or 6,961ft) and Ciemniak (2096m or 6,876ft), then double back and tramp east along a narrow path beneath an elegant border arête to a ski station on Kasprowy Wierch (1,987m or 6,519ft).

Incredibly, it all goes to plan. On the rocky approach to the summit of Giewont, fixed cables are in place for people to haul themselves up the steeper sections. It’s cracking fun. And there is a marvellous view over Zakopane and the lowlands of southern Poland. And there are no bears.

tatra 6tatra 4I love Poland. I really do. It’s about the only place I’ve been where British people are welcomed with open arms and treated with a friendship that is both warming and humbling. I don’t know why this should be so, I just assume it has its roots in 1939 when Britain and France declared war on the Nazis upon their invasion of Poland – and Britain subsequently became a haven for the remnants of the Polish armed forces and the most enthusiastic and active supporter of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. If it wasn’t so bloody cold in winter I’d consider moving here and looking for a job.

On the westernmost peak of the walk – which is Ciemniak – I gaze down into wooded valleys that stretch south into Slovakia. I’m actually on the border, which is marked occasionally with red-and-white rocks. It’s a great ridge to walk, and there are loads of people about today because it’s Sunday. The Poles really enjoy getting out into their national parks and stretching their legs on a good hike.

tatra 7 tatra 8 tatra 9 tatra 11 I turn around and head east, and at the mid-point of the ridge, where the narrow path cuts along the contour of a slope that slides steeply into Slovakia, I encounter 24 nuns tramping in a line towards me. Each is wearing a full habit, hiking boots, and has a rucksack on her back. I so want, more than anything in the world, to take a picture of this strange procession. But I don’t possess the confidence, the hard face, the rudeness – call it what you will – to lift my Praktica LTL3 to my eye to invade their privacy as they approach. It just doesn’t feel right.

So I stand aside to allow them to pass, saying “Good day sister” in Polish 24 times. Some pass meekly, some smilingly, some couldn’t-care-lessedly, and some with a laugh and a few words that I can’t translate because, unfortunately, I do not possess the skill.

I’ll just add here, in case anyone reading this encounters a similar procession, that “Good day sister” in Polish is “Dzień dobry siostra”. I used to be quite good at Polish, in a sort of Englishman abroad fashion. You should hear me speaking Geordie when I have a night out in Newcastle. Polish is easier, mind.

tatra 12 tatra 13 tatra 14The ski station on Kasprowy Wierch, in common with all such places, is busy and not too pleasant. Still, the gondolas allow the less-agile and the elderly easy access to the high peaks, so the positives outweigh the negatives.

I follow the ski lift service track back to Zakopane. It has been a long and weary day. I reckon I’ve walked about 26km over high ground. The day is made more weary by the discovery my path back to the car park has been dislocated by the construction of two Olympic-style ski jumps. You don’t appreciate how big and steep these things are until you try to clump across one before pausing after a couple of tentative steps, gazing at the drop beneath your boots, then retreating gingerly. That wasted some time, I can tell you.

Back at the camp site, as darkness is falling, I get earache for being away so long and forgetting to buy a loaf of bread. The atmosphere is tense for the remainder of the evening. If David Beckham stuck his head through the tent flap he wouldn’t melt the frost. I consider becoming a nun but I have no idea how to go about it. Not in Poland anyway.

That was a day climbing in the Tatra, June 2004

SOME SHOTS IN THE HIGH TATRA, FROM THE SLOVAKIAN SIDE . . .

tatra 15 tatra 16 tatra 17AND FINALLY . . . Janusz Popławski sings Czy pamiętasz tę noc w Zakopanem? (If You Remember the Night in Zakopane?) 1939.

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About McEff

Alen McFadzean. Journalist (recently made redundant from The Northern Echo when my job and the jobs of my colleagues were transferred to Wales to be done by people on lower wages), former shipyard electrician, former quarryman and tunneller. Climbs mountains and runs long distances to make life harder. Gravitates to the left in politics just to make life harder still.
This entry was posted in Camping, Climbing, Environment, Hiking, Mountains, Poland, Second World War, Walking, Zakopane and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to Days Like This, No 2: In the Tatra With Bears and Nuns

  1. andywham says:

    That looks brilluiant Alen. My only knowledge of Zakopane was the world cup ski jumping held there. My daughter is a huge fan of ski jumping, or was until she moved to Finland, which seems odd! Mind you the balance of power in the sport is changing and it was a Pole who won both Olympic golds this year.

    Anyway, that ANOTHER area on my ever-lengthening list of places to visit. So, thanks. Thanks very much….

    • McEff says:

      Hi Andy. You must get yourself over there. It’s a great area. I’m not into skiing – and certainly not ski-jumping, which looks bloody terrifying – but the walking alone is outstanding. Both sides of the border are well-served for outdoor types.
      All the best, Alen

  2. Funnily enough I was just talking to my pal about going over here this summer for a week to get the high points of Poland and Slovakia.Your blog is costing me a fortune Alen.First you make me go to Madeira and now you get me all excited about the Tatra.I can no longer afford to peruse your rather excellent blog I`m afraid :)

    • McEff says:

      Sorry about making you go to Madeira, Alex. I expect you hated every minute of it. I had plans to go back to the Tatra and do some walks on the Slovakian side. Some of the higher routes have fixed ladders in place, like in the Dolomites. In fact I even bought a guidebook, which I think was published by Cicerone, but never actually used it in action. Get that plane booked! Or drive. It took us two days.
      Cheers, Alen

  3. Hanna says:

    It seems to be beautiful mountains, Alen. It’s pretty cool when there are grass and moss to look at in all that rugged. I like that.
    I once had a colleague Tatjana. She suggested that if I should ever walk in Poland she would highly recommend the Tatra mountains. I guess she was right from what you’re telling.
    It serves to your credit that you didn’t fired the flash straight in to the face of a nun. If she had been chased by a bear, it would have been different. Then focus had been somewhere else than on your person ;-) :-)
    All the best,
    Hanna

    • McEff says:

      Hanna, now let me get this right. I did the correct thing by not focusing my camera on the nuns and firing my flash in their faces, but if the nuns had been chased by a bear then that would have been different and I would have been justified. I’ll go along with that. But it would have been a quick shot because I would have had to run away from the bear as well!
      Tatjana is right. Beautiful country, beautiful mountains.
      Cheers now, Alen

  4. That’s cracking looking walking – and so nice when they fix cables and stuff to assist you – I wish they’d get the message about that in the Cuillin! Those peaks look really spiky and unfriendly when you first see them in your photos but the paths look really nice.

    That’s amazing about those nuns – I chuckled when I pictured that. How nice that they get out enjoying God’s mountains though instead of just theorising in the nunnery.

    I’d be bloody afraid of bears too. Although, you’re best to make a lot of noise approaching apparently and then they scarper. I think the problems are when you surprise them. That and if you have nice-smelling food!
    Carol.

    • McEff says:

      Hi Carol. The mountains are fantastic. It’s a shame I didn’t have a digital camera in those days instead of 35mm slides because they haven’t converted very well. But there you go. The really spiky mountains are the High Tatra, and they’re very impressive when you get among them. The final three shots were taken from the top of a cable-car station on one of the highest peaks.
      I’ll bear your bear theory in mind should I ever stumble upon one – which is very unlikely in the places I frequent most, such as the Pennines and the Lakes. But I shall make a great deal of noise, as you suggest. Blood-curdling screams would be appropriate.
      Cheers, Alen

  5. Great story Alen, and the photos are superb. It just looks an amazing place to go walking. Funnily enough I recently returned from a trip to Latvia and once people hear your English accent it is all ‘Manchester United’ and ‘David Beckham’. Must be the same the world over…I once encountered a bear and her cub whilst trekking with my cousin in the Laurentian Mountains in Quebec – you just don’t realize how big they are – fortunately we spotted them from a distance and we managed to get into the river in our canoes and paddle away…but I remember the heart-stopping moment when I first saw them…I was about 10 and it really scared us….

    • McEff says:

      Blimey James. Lucky you had canoes. They reckon cows are dangerous when they have calves with them, so what are bears going to be like when they feel they should protect their cubs?
      I’ve never been to Latvia but there’s time yet. Riga looks like a beautiful place to visit.
      Cheers, Alen

      • Riga is beautiful – especially the old quarter. Well worth a visit. We may be back again in Oct – my Mrs has relatives there…

        • McEff says:

          Thanks for that, James. I’ve just been looking at pictures of Riga on Google

          • I have only been the once – and we spent a few days in the countryside and small towns too, and up near the Russian border. It really is a superb country – lots of forests and few mountains though. And when we were there it was very cold – the Baltic Sea was frozen. If you do go – not too many people speak English – even in Riga – mostly Latvian, German and Russian. We found very few English speakers – although I think this is slowly changing now. Well worth a visit though.

  6. Crikey, what a walk. The ridge in the 5th picture makes Striding Edge look like HIgh Street. Fantastic mountain range.

    I went to France in the early 80s with a friend from Manchester and his chat up line with the French girls was ‘Manchester? Bobby Charlton?’ MUFC seem to provide some sort of universal language, like a footy Esperanto.

    As for bears, aggressive sheep are my limit.
    Chris

    • McEff says:

      Ha ha. I love the chat up line. It’s very English. I’m trying to think of one to rival it but I’m stumped.
      Sheep can be very aggressive in certain situations, especially when they’ve had a couple of pints and they think you’re staring at them.
      Cheers, Alen

  7. David says:

    Looks a great place and interesting to read about your experiences there, especially the Nuns. You could have broken the ice by asking them to take a pic of you and then cheekily asked if they would mind you taking a pic of them. “Shy bairns get nee chocolate” as they say in Newcastle.

    As for Bears plenty of noise is supposed to be best, but then if you met one with a headache….

    • McEff says:

      Hi David. I just want to say I’ve read your comment late at night, I’ve had a few beers, and I’ve just laughed my head off at your “shy bairns get nee chocolate” gem of Geordie knowledge. How true that is. Professional photographers know all the tricks, and that’s probably why they are professional photographers – along with taking decent pictures, of course.
      And as for the bears, if I’m ever in that situation I certainly will make a great deal of noise. Thanks for the advice.
      All the best, Alen

  8. Jo Woolf says:

    Hi Alen, Love your retro-style blog posts! What spectacular mountains. There’s no way I would walk on those ridges. Crikey! Your nun encounter brought up a hazy memory of a John Wayne film that I was made to watch – was it Three Goats for Sister Sarah or Three Nuns with Sister Sarah? You certainly beat that, with 24! Poland looks beautiful. Has anyone ever been attacked by a bear in Europe? (Sorry if that’s an ignorant question, but I really don’t know!)

    • mbc1955 says:

      Hi Jo. I think you’ll find it was Two Mules for Sister Sara, and Clint Eastwood not John Wayne.Shirley Maclaine was the, um, nun, who was not quite as religious as the two dozen Alen met (for one thing, she certainly didn’t have a proper rucksack).

      • Jo Woolf says:

        Thank you, Martin! I guess that shows how much attention I was paying (oops!) Aha – I shall look at people’s rucksacks in a new light from now on!

    • McEff says:

      Hiya Jo. I think Martin has answered your John Wayne question. All I would like to add to the subject is that Big John’s best film, so far as I am concerned, is The Quiet Man. Pure entertainment.
      The bears thing has got me thinking. I’ve a feeling that someone was killed or attacked by a bear in the Pyrenese about six years ago, because it coincided with our last visit to that area and it sticks in my mind. I might be wrong.
      Either way, I don’t want to meet one when I’m alone on a bare mountainside. I can’t climb trees as quickly as I used to. Although some people have no trouble, apparently.
      All the best, Alen

      • Jo Woolf says:

        Hi Alen, I’m grateful to Martin who has put me straight on the John Wayne issue. Oh dear, I might not mention The Quiet Man to Colin in case he feels the need to watch another western (life usually stops for a western). I wondered about the bears because I do some work for a wildlife tour company that takes clients to look for them! (In Europe, that is, not the US). On a bare mountainside, at least both you and the bear would feel equally exposed! Although this theory may not be quite so comforting in practice. As for climbing trees, aha, watch and learn! :) (Or maybe not!)

  9. mbc1955 says:

    Alen, yours is rapidly turning into one of my favourite sites on the web. Being currently all but cut off from the felltops, it’s a window for me into better days when I could get around a lot more, though my wanderings were almnost exclusively confined to the Lakes. I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve added a link to your blog off my own site, encouraging anyone who reads my recollections of the fells to come here for a treat.

    Keep up the good work.

    • McEff says:

      Hi Martin. Thanks for that comment. You’ve got me thinking now because I’ve just read the About section on your blog and you say “the blog has become an end in itself”. And I’m thinking – that’s happened to me too. Because my blog started out as an idea to showcase my limited writing skills and perhaps generate some income, but I get so much pleasure from postng articles and making new friends that I don’t really care where things are going any more.
      Cheers now, Alen

  10. Howellsey says:

    That has seriously piqued my interest in this part of the world. Looks fantastic! I like the aded frission of a potential bear encounter too!

    • McEff says:

      Hi Howellsey. It’s a fantastic place in every respect. Except for the bears. But I’ve just read that they’re very quiet and keep themselves to themselves.
      Cheers, Alen

  11. I’m really glad that you appreciate the beauty of our mountains. I hope that you will come back one day again. You should try to climb Orla Perć. It’s the hardest and the most beautiful trail on our side. Actually it’s not very hard, but quite dangerous.
    I read some part of your blog and I must say that I’m really stunned. You have a big talent to writing and also to photography. I’m waiting for new posts!

    • McEff says:

      Hi Aleksandra. Thank you for your comment. I’ve just taken a look at Orla Perć on the internet and it looks really something. If I return to the Tatra then it will be top of my list – but it does look pretty scary. I’ve been to Poland many times but to the Tatra only once. It is a beautiful part of the country.
      Cheers, Alen

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