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.
It’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.
Now 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.
I 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.
I 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.
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.
The 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 . . .