48 HOURS IN ZAKOPANE, POLAND
Following our city stay in Kraków we decided to end our holiday in Poland with a trip to the mountains. Zakopane lies just along the base of the Tatra mountains, in the south of the country, and is not far from the Slovakian border. From Kraków it was a relatively quick journey by bus - around 2.5 hours in total. You can catch the bus easily from Kraków Głowny on the day or you can do what we did and book a Flixbus a little ahead of time. (Flixbus was perfect for us, with storage for our luggage the bus only stopped when we arrived in Zakopane so you can have a snooze without worrying you might miss your stop. If you book far enough in advance you can buy a return ticket for under a tenner.)
Once the bus had dropped us off we headed to Baza Tatry to pick up the keys for our apartment. A good friend recommended we stay with them and we were not disappointed. The owners, Retha and Karolina were really helpful from the get-go and the accommodation we picked was the perfect base for our trip, within easy walking distance of both the hiking trails and the town centre. I didn't take pictures of our apartment - we were too busy exploring! - but if you'd like to take a peek at where we stayed, this is the place. Next time we visit I'll definitely make Baza Tatry my first port of call for a place to stay. They also run lots of tours catering to different interests from ski lessons to learning how to make traditional Pierogi.
Exploring the hiking trails
After leaving our bags at the apartment we headed to a nearby trail recommended by our host, Karolina. Dolina Strażyska is a great starter route if you arrive in the afternoon and still want to get a walk in before the sun sets. The trail is well marked and popular with locals and visitors alike. There are lots of trails that shoot off from this one and they are helpfully marked out with average completion times so you can easily plan your day around them. We opted for an easy walk before dinner and ended up at this gorgeous waterfall. Despite signs urging us to be 'bear aware' we didn't see any on this occasion but we did see and hear a lot of birds as they flitted up into the lush canopy above us.
Zakopane is one of Poland's most popular holiday resorts and while we were there in the Summer it was very busy. All the restaurants are well set up to cater for solo travellers or big family groups and there is plenty on offer to choose from, whatever your taste.
One of the things we'd highly recommend, especially if you're short on time, is a trip to the top of the Gubałówka mountain in the funicular railway. It's a fun experience and a great opportunity to take in the incredible views without too much exertion. We packed a picnic and spent time soaking up the views and strolling through the market at the top.
To travel on the funicular you need a ticket which you can pick up from one of the automated machines along the high street. You can buy a return ticket or, if you are feeling energetic you can walk up and take the funicular back down.
By far our favourite experience in Zakopane has to be one that happened quite by chance as we were passing Willa Czerwony Dwór (The Red Mansion). Unbeknownst to us at the time, this is the native culture centre and our spur-of-the-moment drop-in was right in time to attend a concert celebrating some classical music and even some traditional Highlander music. It felt really special to be there and while the event was all in Polish (as you'd expect!) we were made to feel so welcome by the hosts and fellow attendees. As we sat in the wooden salon we were wowed by the musicianship of the performers and it was clear that in here, as well as in Kraków, culture and music is considered extremely important. It was a full house for the concert and an experience we'll never forget. Here's a snippet for you to enjoy...
Given we were only in town for a couple of days we didn't make much of a plan, yet still managed to squeeze in a lot. Zakopane's an easily walkable town with culture and beauty on every street corner, from the stunning architecture to the street sellers with wooden carts brimming with local delicacies. This is a place proud of its heritage, eager to share it with the world.
We stuck our heads into a local church - I can never resist a stained glass window - but we weren't expecting to find such a striking interior. This church was bursting with colour and as we were admiring the hand painted designs we spotted an artist at work as he painted one of the arches from behind a white sheet. With echoes of World War II commemorated on the walls in memorial portraits of fallen parishioners (or perhaps clergy) this seemed like a place where the horrors of the past are remembered so as not to allow them to happen again. It was a beautiful place to spend some quiet time - a welcome refuge from the bustling shopping street outside.
Zakopane had everything we were looking for to round off our trip to Poland - nature, history, culture and a bit of breathing space before we returned to the UK. Even if you only have a couple of days to spare it's worth visiting the Podhale region to recharge your batteries and connect with the great outdoors. It's hugely popular in both Summer and Winter so if you're a keen hiker or skier this could be the perfect place for your next trip.
The people we met were so friendly and welcoming and even though we couldn't always find a common language to converse in their warmth shone through and we felt right at home. I can't wait to go back again.
See you next week. Until then, keep wondering.