Poland Trip 2007

27th October 07 - 1st November 07



The Tatras beckon

Only two hours from Crakow by bus, Zakopane is, a major mountain resort popular with tourists for summer hiking and winter skiing. We arrived to clear skies. and mild temperatures. The Podhale (literally "Mountain meadows") is Poland's most southern region, sometimes referred to as the "Polish highlands". The Podhale is located in the foothills of the Tatra range of the Carpathian Mountains, bordering Slovakia. I had Google-mapped Villa Slimak, just beyond where the pedestrian only zone on Krupowki ended, where I had booked to stay. The villa is fronted by a restaurant, constructed entirely out of pine. Zakopane lies in a big valley between the Tatra Mountains and Gubalowka Hill. The valley is inundated with multi-storey villas, most of which are of wooden construction. Villa Slimak was painstakingly being restored by its amicable proprietor, Marek, even as I arrived. I was showed to a small yet comfortable, clean upstairs room. Though this room had not yet been restored, I was shown a larger one which had been refitted with wood panelling and it was truly a work of art. The cost for the two nights including breakfast in the restaurant downstairs amounted to 144zl.


View from room window at Villa Slimak, Zakopane.


In the 1870s the purity of its mountain air attracted the attention of doctors concerning their consumptive city patients. The mountain village became in a few years a desirable location for the medical world, and artists and intellectuals soon followed. What became a popular and fashionable site was soon discovered by the Poles. From the 1920's and 1930's and after World War II Zakopane became a prime tourist area. Zakopane's main street is a pedestrian walkway with restaurants and souvenir shops. Numerous fast food eating facilities like McDonald's and KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) have found space along the street, though I was keen to find more traditional cuisine. I set out too reconnoitre Krupowki high street, as it was late in the afternoon and the sun would probably only be out for a few more hours.  Though attractive wooden villas were in evidence, Zakopane architecture is not in the mould of old Polish towns. It does not possess the masterpieces of Crakow, nothing special. Indeed, it looks much like one would expect any prime tourist ski resort to look like.  Built for purpose, it has a charm nonetheless. The distinctive Zakopane mountain architectural style was pioneered by Stanislaw Witkiewicz. The first building ever erected in the Zakopane style was the Villa "Koliba." Designed by Stanislaw Witkiewicz and built between 1892 and 1894, it stands to this day on Koscieliska Street in Zakopane.



At the lower end of the pedestrian street close to where the highway bypasses Zakopane and the river Cicha Woda flows by, is a marketplace where craftsmen's and artists' creations are sold. Armed with a map I had acquired earlier from the tourist office as I alighted from the bus, I found a route up Walowa Gora, just passed the entrance to a main ski lift station beyond the market. In fact the route, somewhat muddy and precariously slippery, reached the  overhead lines of the funicular, near a radio tower. Mist hung in the valley below. The light began to fade fast around 16h30, so I turned back. Still being off-season, the town was quieter than normal, yet I would expect it to be an entirely different proposition, as soon as the first winter snowfalls occurred. At this time of the year, perhaps not the ideal place to spend one's birthday.  The walk was a good way to flex the muscles. Numerous elderly women braved the cold to vend cheese rolls to passers-by from their tiny stalls. After a shower I headed out to grab a bite.

The interior of Karcma Zapiecek, a restaurant on Krupowki,Zakopane.


Zakopane culture

The people in this region are particularly famous for their oscypek, a cheese made from a mix of cow's and sheep's milk. I had acquired a taste for cabbage-based traditional Polish food and entered Karcma Zapiecek restaurant on Krupowki, on instinct. I was in luck. I was greeted upon arrival by a smiling yet shy blonde waitress, dressed in some sort of traditional costume. Stefcia recommended one of the soups on the menu, consisting of mutton, vegetables and mushrooms. Delicious, especially with a glass or two of red wine and not too filling. Zakopane is not exactly a mecca of high culture, but is home to a rich folk culture much romanticized in the Polish patriotice imagination. Goralska muzyka (Highland music) is central to that, with double bass, guitars, cellos and violins predominating as instruments. While folk music has largely died out in Poland, especially in urban areas, the tourist destination of Podhale has retained its traditions. Though a part of Poland, Podhale's musical life is more closely related to that found in the Carpathian mountains of Ukraine and Transylvania.

Several restaurants, including this restaurant, used resident folk bands to attract tourists, yet they all sounded the same to me. At that stage I knew nothing of the local culture. My curiosity got the better of me and as soon as I made an attempt to extend the conversation to find out more, I seemed to embarrass Stefcia, whose English was probably limited to the menu. Well, my Polish was non-existent, to be fair. Customers left and soon I was the last. I retired to the confines of my room, contemplating the fact that another year had passed on so rapidly. Polish channels only were to be found on TV. Marek had put paid to my ambitions of hiking to the summit of Giewont, too dangerous and specialized equipment, crampons and the like. Heavy snowfalls had occurred at high altitudes. Indeed, it seemed from the news channel that some sort of mountain rescue had taken place in the Tatras. In any event, i only had one full day within which I could use for a day walk.


Grace and Stefcia, charming waitresses at Karcma Zapiecek, dressed in costumes of the local Highland folk culture.


Morskie Oko

I surfaced fairly early, eager to make a start for the remote the snow-capped mountains clearly visible from Zakopane. Next on my list of options was a lake known as Morskie Oko. The only problem was that the restaurant below only served breakfast at 09h00, for which I had already paid. He assured me that I could easily manage the trip and walk in a day. Besides, the weather looked good and the skies were clear and no foul weather was expected until the following day. So I ordered and tucked into an omelette, not the healthiest but tasty nonetheless. I walked to the bus station near the main railway station via a short-cut and took a mini-cab for 7zl, bound for Bialka, at the edge of the National Park, the journey lasting an hour.  


Arriving at Lake Morskie Oko.


Morskie Oko is one of the most popular destinations in the Tatras, often receiving over 50,000 visitors during the vacation season. It is reached by foot in about two hours from the nearest road that allows motorized access. Many other tourists opt to take the journey by horse-drawn cart, a large number of which are operated by the local Górale inhabitants. In winter, a short section of the journey is in an avalanche danger zone, and the area can remain cold and rainy even in summer. I chose to walk the tarred road which gradually ascended and meandered through the forest of Swiss pines. The less ambitious hired a cart-ride but many chose the same option I had. In two hours I had covered the distance to the lake, having been overtaken by carts only, while my deliberate pace had bewildered some on foot, or so it seemed to me from the tone of some of the dialogue. It was sunny, the air fresh, though I hurriedly donned my wind jacket as I breeze picked up nearer Morskie Oko. The route to the south, concealed above Morskie Oko and shut at this time of the year, the path icy and slippery, leads to the magnificent Czarny Staw (the Black Lake) higher up the valley.


Horse drawn carts operated by Górale inhabitants provide a means of reaching Morskie Oko.


C'est moi at Morskie Oko.



I contented myself instead with a tea and apple tart at the tea-room adjoining the lake, now crowded with visitors. Morskie Oko is the fourth deepest lake in the Tatra mountains. It is situated in the Rybi Potok Valley, at the base of the Mieguszowiecki Summits, and deep within the Tatra National Park. The peaks that ring the lake rise about 1,000 meters above its surface; one of them is Rysy (2,499 meters), the highest peak in the Polish Tatras. Beside Mieguszowiecki Szczyty (including Mieguszowiecki Wielki, 2,438 meters), farther away and slightly to the left, is the distinctive, slender Mnich (“Monk,” 2,068 meters). Many Swiss Pines also grow around the lake. In the past, Morskie Oko was called "Rybie Jezioro" ("Fish Lake") due to its natural stock of fish, which are uncommon in Tatra lakes and ponds. In the clear depths of the water, one can easily notice trout - so called "famine" trout - that live in the lake. The name "Morskie Oko" translates to "Eye of the Sea", derived from an old legend, according to which the lake was connected to the sea via an underground passage.

Morskie Oko (Eye of the Sea) and the mountains that surround it, as depicted on a wooden plaque.



Two panoramas of Morskie Oko (Eye of the Sea) - courtesy of Wiki website.

Around 14h00, having been there an hour, I set out on my return journey. At the entrance to the park, a mini-cab left almost immediately for Zakopane. The route features a plethora of multi-storied villas, some more attractive than others. despite the abundance of pine forests, I wondered as to the impact on the environment. My feet hurt and a warm shower adjoining my Villa Slimak room, was most welcome. I snoozed before heading into town around 21h00. I returned to Karcma Zapiecek restaurant on Krupowki and ordered a Hungarian goulash soup, the same waitresses in attendance. As I entered, however, the signs were ominous, as a boisterous youngster was being frog-marched out the front door. The band of the night before were in no better shape, their numbers having swelled too, to a quartet, or was it a quintet? Hard to tell at times. The session deteriorated as they became more inebriated and songs were never completed. It was a shame really and proved somewhat embarrassing. I took a  photograph, though one of the band members threatened to get in on the act. By the time I left, the streets of Zakopane were all but deserted, though the downstairs Slimak restaurant seemed to be going "great guns", clientele still in occupancy.


The restaurant below Villa Slimak, where I enjoyed a sumptuous omelette breakfast.


Katowice and the Caamora concert

Though I was up and ready for an early walk before breakfast, the inclement weather put paid to that. My luck had run out and it was drizzling. I packed up and headed for the bus station. The strains of Louis Armstrong's "Wonderful World" never sounded truer, as I boarded a bus bound for Crakow, which arrived at 11h05, just in time for me to join a queue to hurriedly purchase a rail ticket to Katowice. Though the departure time was 11h24, the train was delayed. Katowice, located on the banks of the river Rawa, is the largest city in the Silesian region of Poland and is the main industrial centre of the country. Katowice main railway station hardly proved inspiring, though and seemed a relic of the Communist era. A drab and unimaginative construction, a tourist office was non-existent. I had to purchase a map from the newsagent and then figure out which side of the station I needed to exit, as I knew that the hotel was on one (the south side) and the Silesian Theatre, the concert venue, on the other. With the help of a young passer-by, I established my bearings.  It took another half to three-quarter hour to walk to the hotel, passing through a modern downtown area inundated with high rise apartments. It illustrated that Katowice, though not first choice as a tourist destination and not even mentioned in my DK Eyewitness guide, was not an entirely unattractive city, the main station notwithstanding. Having said that, the fact that Katowice and Poland as a country is a popular haunt for progressive rock, is totally without question!


My flight  from Katowice the next morning was at 11h00, which didn't give me much time, as the airport is located some distance from the city centre. A walk to the Wizz Air mini-bus departure point was probably out of the question, the only realistic proposition involving taking a taxi, which I arranged for 08h15 the next morning, upon arrival at the Camponile. I freshened up in my hotel room. It suddenly dawned on me that, with two support acts scheduled as well, I had not checked that the starting time of the show was around 17h30.  A quick dash across the city ensured that I was able to catch the Oliver Wakeman band, who had already started their set, which seemed to go down a storm. Progressive rock band Pallas followed, their music being somewhat darker, though with a tight rhythm section and some gloriously melodic passages featuring keyboard and guitar. I loved the old-world theatre and its rounded balcony. Between sets I relocated to the foyer for a beer. The extremely likeable Oliver Wakeman appeared to chat to the crowd. I recalled the band's almost aborted in Sheffield a year or so previously and the subsequent e-mail I had received from him to explain what happened (the vocalist had been involved in an accident).


Artwork for the Caamora project.



  The funny thing when I spoke to him (in Katowice) was, he remembered that I worked at Xerox! In partnership with Agnieszka Swita, Clive Nolan  composed and arranged the music to She (known as the Caamora project), based on a novel originally penned by Henry Rider Haggard (also famous for King Solomon's Mines) in 1887. The rock musical constitutes two Acts and a huge cast of musicians and guest singers, notably Agnieszka Swita, Allan reed, lead vocalist of Pallas and the delectable Christina Booth, lead singer of Magenta.

Agnieszka Swita and Christina Booth.

At one of the breaks, I approached young, blonde Polish girl who had been taking photographs throughout the performances, which were to be used for the covers of the CD and DVD releases. Marta turned out to be a concert junkie like myself, who loved to take photos too. She was so incredibly friendly and I was glad to have met her. The concert dragged on to about 01h00 the following morning and featured a retake of the finale. I left for my hotel and my bed! My trip to Katowice went according to plan, though it was ruined somewhat by the late departure of the return flight to Stansted Airport. It turned out that all the musicians associated with Caamora suffered the same fate, as they had been booked on the same flight. My intuition tells me that this will probably not be my last visit to this city or indeed Poland, as I'm sure many more concerts lurk just around the corner. Many a concert DVD featuring English bands have been recorded at Theatre Slaski (the Silesian Theatre)


[Home Page]


[Part 1 - Crakow]

[Part 2 - Zakopane & Katowice]

[Part 3 Crakow (more images)]

[Part 4 - Zakopane (more images)]


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