I love Google.
I bet you have never heard of Zakopane. Neither had I.
We have discovered so many off-the-beaten-track local treats a la Google. I often wonder at the ingenuity of the travellers in previous generations. No internet bookings, every flight locked in at an office, letters sent home across the seas, no idea what your friends and family were up to, and equally little idea of what remains hidden around the next corner of your global meandering. I suppose the benefit must have been that travelling was much more social. We rely so much on the internet these days, that you literally wouldn’t have to meet a single local or pop into any tourist office whatsoever. (Actually I wouldn’t mind avoiding the tourist centres. I always feel like such an outcast exiting with my head bowed low, eyes to the ground, studying my gigantic map, hoping the locals won’t notice my lack of direction and bulging pockets trying to conceal my camera). The shame!
Where was I? Oh yes, google. I love it, as it can land you smack bang amongst the locals if you allow it to do so. Zakopane was one of these times. We always try to couple up any city break with getting outside into the countryside to get a better sense of the culture, and how the people live. Sometimes this is successful, and other times it is ummmm a learning experience. This was a success. We drove a few hours from Auschwitz down to the Polish ‘ski resort’ of Zakopane not knowing what to expect, but with a healthy curiosity.
Joel was a master, navigating the silly rental car over snow and ice until we landed on the doorstop of our ridiculously-cheaply-priced-lodge. I think there were about twenty dead animals nailed to the walls (well, their fur anyway) and it definitely felt authentic! Joel wasted no time in building a raging Polish fire and we reclined with red wine in hand congratulating each other for being as non-touristy and authentic as possible!
In the morning we headed out have an obligatory wander down the main street of the ski village. The beauty of Zakopane is that we were ‘Polish Tourists’, as in I don’t think we met a single traveller from outside Poland. It seems that all the Poles flock down to Zakopane for their ski holidays because there are bigger and better peaks out there for the international tourist to consider worthy of their ski boots. As a result we enjoyed a village feel amongst the warm and welcoming Poles, eating smoked cheese straight off the coals and purchasing sheep skins from the markets for a steal. My sheep skin still smells like a sheep – therefore I conclude that it is definitely real! I think we could have purchased ten dead animal skins in the form of booties, coats, uggs, hats etc etc without even missing the money from our wallets! The Poles are proud of their smoked cheese, and even though we brought some home, we just couldn’t cook it like they could. It tastes better in winter woolies as you watch the snow fall around you.
Of course nobody in the ‘tourist’ office spoke English (yep, there’s the authenticity screaming at you!) so we were left to figure out which hill offered the best ski slope. When I say hill, it isn’t a typo. Basically their skiing experience offers the ‘amazing opportunity’ of three lifts per resort! So choose your hill… We chose the steepest one we could find, with a baby slope for Shelley as Tim was teaching her the ‘apparently’ amazing world of snowboarding. As purists Joel and I stuck to the faithful skis, and for a stupidly cheap price actually had a blast of a time skiing the same hill about fifty times. Who would have thought! The one bonus is that you can night ski as the piste is lit by floodlamps. By the end Shelley was shredding the steep slope and there were some hilarious ‘ski team’ videos filed in the floodlit night. It was *lovely* when we returned to our car to find it wouldn’t start. Did I mention our authentic location? Oh yes, that’s important because nobody within a ten mile radius spoke english to help us out. Lucky I have a dazzling smile and Shelley played the part of a poor-freezing-english-girl-who-needed-help excellently. This proved successful in enlisting ‘burley man’ help despite the english barrier, and an eternity later we were safe back in our lodge. Phew…
Our favourite outing in Zakopane was a trek through the forest in the Tatra Mountains to a frozen lake called Morskie Oko. The pictures can do the talking, but it was a snow covered piece of paradise in the wilderness, with flanking mountains standing guard over the frozen lake. Well, almost frozen lake, as Joel managed to sink his foot through the snow and crack it open. No it was not on purpose, and yes it did alarm us somewhat! Nevertheless we did our best to capture it on camera, and on film for Joel’s brilliant dance-tribute to the wonder that is Morskie Oko. After trekking our way up, we were more than deserving of snuggling up under a sheepskin blanket as two gallant horses pulled us down the mountain in a sled. The rider looked as though he had been living in the mountains all his life, his face weathered and believable. As I watched the horses trotting through the snow, manes swaying, the sleigh gently rocking, feeling the crisp air against my cheek, and the warmth from the sheepskin blanket…I thought life doesn’t get much better than this.
On the way home we made a 30 second detour and went to Slovakia. Because in Europe you can do that. No other reason. Slovakia was incredible for those wondering… we spent two whole minutes there. Gorgeous country…looks just like Poland 😉
All in all, we were sorry to leave Zakopane with our bellies full of every kind of meat and smoked cheese, and snow matted in our hair. We exited in style with Joel urging the car forward through a blizzard, and slowly we watched the snow covered pines disappear into the distance.
Upcoming post: Hungary. Catch you there!