The name ‘Poland’ originates from the tribal name ‘Polanie’ meaning ‘people living in open fields’. And today, that’s where we are heading – to the fields. Well, kinda.
A private tour to Zakopane and the Dunajec River Gorge awaits us today. Zakopane is the most famous Polish mountain resort (it was even Pope John Paul’s favourite recreation spot!), located in the south of Poland, at the foot of the Tatra Mountains – the most beautiful and the only Alpine-like mountain range in the country. While being the most popular winter sports destination, for the rest of the year Zakopane attracts tourists with its stunning take on nature, rich folklore and original culture. Dad has been particularly interested in visiting Zakopane, having heard his mother talk about it lovingly. And I do have fleeting visions of gaudy embroidered cloths and engraved flutes adoring my Babcia’s house, which apparently came from Zakopane with love.
Only two hours drive from Krakow, and you arrive in the south of Poland where the Pieniny and the Tatra Mountains are situated. We are on a private tour today with Janusz from Prime Tours so we can enjoy Zakopane in the comfort of our own company.
Along the way there’s a quick stop at the Chocholowska Valley with time to admire the wooden houses which are specific for the region and striking landscapes. The main street of this 16th century village showcases traditional wooden cottages which are the best examples of highland architecture in the whole Podwhale region. Chocholow has a curious local custom that involves cleaning the walls of the building once a year until they are white.
There’s a funicular between Gubalowka Mount and Zakopane with breathtaking views of the Tatra Mountains from the top, though it’s a little foggy today. It’s said to be the finest panorama of the Tatra Mountains from the northern Polish side of the range. The Tatras, the highest mountains in Central Europe, with alpine landscapes, lie within Polish and Slovak national park. After a beer at the top of the mountain, we jump in the chair and down we go.
We also have time for shopping at the traditional highlander market and shopping street. Krupowki is the finest street in Zakopane. It’s lined with cafes, restaurants, exclusive souvenirs and art galleries and it’s impossible to avoid the market near the funicular railway station – on sale are kerpce (traditional moccasins), woollen pullovers, wooden ciupagi (sticks with decorative handles) and bryndza and oscypek (regional cheeses made from sheeps milk).
Along the way, we stop at several historical wooden churches in the area. Five of these wooden churches in the area are currently listed with UNESCO and some date back to the 15th century. They were largely built with larchwood without the use of nails.
The Dunajec River is a natural border between Poland and Slovakia. The river changes continuously from quiet to the bubbling of shallow mountain rapids and the highlight is taking an unforgettable leisure rafting trip on traditional, wooden rafts among the towering cliffs and the limestone rock formations of the breathtaking Pieniny Mountains. Depending on the level of the water, the trip takes between two and three hours. The Dunajec is the only river that takes waters from the Slovak territory to the Baltic Sea.
Boarding the raft in Sromowce, we set off rafting the route of 23km down the Dunajec River. The boat is led by experienced raftsmen, so its absolutely safe (and remarkably remaniscant of the raft trip Mum and I took in Arashiyama, Kyoto), with views of cliffs, trees and mountains. We just sit back and relax.
The view changes along the way and is really quite stunning. The boat ride itself was a little long, probably given the chill in the air, and sitting on a wooden bench for two hours, but I can imagine it would be glorious if the weather was bright and sunny.
This is out last stop for the day, so we are back in the car and on the road home. When we finally arrive back in Krakow it is lovely to see it lit up like a Christmas tree from afar. It’s been a very long but interesting day and it’s always nice to get out and see the countryside.