Friday 24 February 2017

Trekking the Tatras: There's more to Poland than cheap city breaks

Activity breaks in Europe

Sasha Kinch

View from Kasprowy Wierch in High Tatra Mountains just before sunset, Poland
View from Kasprowy Wierch in High Tatra Mountains just before sunset, Poland

Beyond Poland's budget-friendly city breaks lies a countryside full of surprises, says Sasha Kinch.

Think of Poland, and Kracków or Warsaw come to mind.

You may even be aware of Poznan, thanks to Euro 2012. But there's a lot more to this country than cheap n' cheerful city breaks.

Kracków is amazing. A beautiful medieval city, with culture bursting at the seams. But, surprisingly, it's also the perfect starting point for a trekking adventure.

How to do it

Just a 2.5-hour bus ride from Kracków lie the Tatra Mountains.

Forming the border between Poland and Slovakia, these are part of the Carpathians featured in Bram Stoker's Dracula, but don't worry... they're anything but terrifying.

Beginning the trek to Giewont
Beginning the trek to Giewont

The best base for a trip to the Polish Tatras is a lovely little village called Zakopane. Bus fares are about €3, and are run frequently by private companies from Główny train station.

In Zakopane

In winter, Zakopane is a bustling ski base, but in the summer, spring and autumn months, it is a thriving trekking town. Even midweek, the main pedestrianized street, Krupowki, is heaving with shoppers, street stalls and trekkers.

In September, it felt like Christmas to us as we strolled down the cobblestone street, lined with gorgeous wooden chalets. I eagerly purchased a white log thingy from one of the stalls. It looked like a tasty pastry, but turned out to be traditional smoked sheep's cheese, Oscypek.

One bite was more than enough for me.

Onwards to Morskie Oko

From Zakopane, you can take day tours to the Tatras mountains.

Morskie Oko a must. Catch an hour-long bus to Lysa Polana and then enjoy the 9 kilometre walk through expansive fir forests. It is a busy route, with hundreds of walkers, and many people opting to take the lazy option - a horse-drawn carriage.

Horse and Cart to Morskie Oko
Horse and Cart to Morskie Oko

The busyness doesn't detract from the deep serenity of the place, however. It feels like you are walking hallowed ground; the trees appear to worship the mountains that loom over the walkers.

When we arrived at the lake, I was initially annoyed at the number of people taking photos, but they quickly seemed to vanish from my view as my eyes adjusted to the incredible light spilling over the mountain, piercing the lake. It is an impossibly beautiful place. It was one of those moments when I didn't want to close my eyes so I could absorb every dazzling moment of it.

Morskie Oko is the largest and fourth-deepest lake in the Tatras, and at 1,395m, you may well feel the altitude. The restaurant at the end of the trail serves hearty Polish food, which is well-deserved.

There are further walks, including the ascent of Rysy, Poland’s Highest Peak (2,503m) which you can see from the lake. Not for the inexperienced trekker, but someone told me that you are not a true Polish citizen until you have climbed Rysy.

Morskie Oko
Morskie Oko

Tip: Bring small change for bathrooms. There are lots of portaloos en route (free to use) but some of the more substantial restroom cost a few złotys.

Hotel Kalatówki

Another hidden retreat, easily reached from Zacopane, is Kalatówki hotel. It is somewhat different from the other Schroniskas (or shelters) in that it is a hotel, as opposed to a more basic mountain hostel.

Accessing it is an adventure in itself. You can walk from Zacopane, which takes about an hour and half. You can also get a quick bus to a small spot called Kuznice, but you will have to walk for about half an hour, uphill on a rocky track to get to the hotel.

View from Kalatowki
View from Kalatowki

Our room overlooked the most incredible meadow, like something out of Bambi, or perhaps that opening scene of The Sound of Music. It was the kind of place you could easily wile away hours just "being". The hotel is basic, has a restaurant, shop and bar, and comfortable accommodation, even if the décor is stuck in the 1930s.

From the Kalatówki, there are hundreds of spectacular walks, all well-signposted, all relatively easy for a semi-fit person and all good for the heart, soul and mind. We ambled through the forests with no destination in mind one of the days, just breathing in the clear mountain air. We also did some more challenging walks, eager to prove our mettle.

Tip: Book in advance. While the hotel is secluded, it does get booked up, particularly in October when they have their annual trekking Jazz festival. Yes, that is a thing and it looks awesome.

The trek to Geiwont
The trek to Geiwont

The views from Giewont

Geiwont is a high peak (1,895m), and is extremely popular in the Summer, often crowded, but well worth doing. As an added bonus, you’ll get spectacular views into Slovakia.

You could bag another country and trek into Slovakia, but be warned that there aren't many hostels close to the Polish border, so plan your route carefully.

Kaspowy Weirch

Kaspowy Weirch (1,987m) is another accessible, and possibly more dramatic, peak. It is a rather long trek from Kalatówki, so we cheated and took the cable car from Kuznice.

View from Kaspowy Weirch
View from Kaspowy Weirch

I still find it strange standing on a ski slope with no snow; it echoes an abandoned playground. But the phenomenal views of Zacopane on one side and Slovakia on the other are soothing to the soul. We even thought we could see Rysy from our vantage point...

Tip: bring good shoes and be prepared for the weather. Sunshine abounds, but as with all mountainous regions, the weather can change fast.

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