Debra's Diary ~ January , 2008         Zakopane is in the Podhale region of Poland, and its only mountain resort, so 3 million Poles visit it annually - and in high season, it feels like they are all there at once.  Having said that, I loved Zakopane - the wooden architecture is unique and lovely, and has a different look to mountain houses in say, Switzerland or Austria.  In Zakopane the houses look as though they have been hand-made by someone, rather than machine-made and picked off a shelf.  

There is a real party atmosphere there - it's the Poles in holiday mood, and there are a lot of families, a lot of laughter.  Krupowki is the main street which is pedestrianised, and all that is trendy, fashionable and touristic is there.  The restaurants that have live music - young, talented male musicians in Highlander dress who play a mixture of traditional Polish folk music and some jazz or modern thrown in just for fun - have excellent food at low prices, but on a weekend, you really have to fight for a table or time it right.  Zakopane is popular as a weekend-break destination too, so by Friday, you can notice the sudden influx of people.  The Highlander culture is as unique as their architecture; the true Highlander families wear the traditional dress - boiled wool drainpipe trousers, embroidered with patterns in coloured wool with voluminous sleeved white shirts for the men, and embroidered bodices and long skirts worn with handmade flat leather shoes for the women - for more than special occasions, and are fiercely proud of their heritage - so much so in fact, that they weren't particularly enthusiastic about us making a film about Zakopane.  You don't hear very many other accents there; maybe an occasional German or English; it is entirely Polish and you really get the chance to actually be in amongst them, instead of observing.

We met our contact, Tatra Mountain Guide Maciej Krupa the evening before our interview, in a cafe overlooking Krupowki, and had an opportunity to plan the day's shoot.  Maciej was a BBC Radio Correspondent for several years in London, who has written several books about the region and now guides groups of people on hikes in and around the Tatra Mountains.  A sophisticated and cosmopolitan man, he is able to take a step back and look at his countrymen with a more detached air and still retain a strong pride in his heritage.  We found the Poles here so much more cheerful and relaxed than in Krakow.

The interview went well; we took the funicular up to Gubalowska, which is a ridge above the town that has ski slopes in winter.  It takes time though; you have to walk through the market clustered beneath the arches of the dilapidated flyover that carries the road to the Slovakian border, only a few kilometers away, and that just can't be hurried.  There is too much to see, to pick up, browse, ponder over and eat.  I quickly became addicted to the local smoked sheep's cheese - Oscypk.  It tastes of bonfires and salt with a texture a bit like Edam, which isn't your usual marketing come-on description I have to admit, but to have slices of it grilled, with cranberries, is to die for.

On the ridge there are more market stalls - in fact, the ridge is really just one long market! But there are horse-drawn carriages plied by Highlanders and the chair lifts operate in the summer to bring you up to have a stroll along or walk down.  We did the interview on what is a ski slope in winter; Maciej and I with the whole town and opposite mountains as the backdrop in sunshine, we were so pleased.  We came down into the town and walked along Koscieliska street, which has the greatest concentration of carved wooden houses, plus the Koliba House, which is a museum dedicated to the architect and artist Stanislaw Wietkiewicz who made the Zakopanski style of house building famous, to the little wooden church and cemetery, taking our coats off, really warm now.  Next morning we were planning to do a valley walk, sure it would be spectacular in such lovely weather.  Next morning it snowed.  Well, sleet to be exact, but whatever, it rather ruined the continuity of the thing.  We did do the walk, and filmed it, but the skies were gloomy and overcast, and the light was greyish and flat.  What to do now?  Well, what can you do but come back again? I said.  In the snow.  Do a winter walk.  Dave reluctantly agreed, suspicious that I might have an ulterior motive here as he knows I love snow.  

And so we did.  We arrived at night, having taken the Krakow airport shuttle to the city's train station, walked round the corner to the bus station and caught the coach to Zakopane, and during the two and half hour journey, crossed the snow line as we neared the mountains and watched the digital temperature readout drop to minus 12.  We dragged our cases over compacted snow to our hotel, the same one as before, the Giewont, which is right on the corner of Krupowki, so handy for the essentials - food, sheep's cheese stalls and market.  The staff are lovely, a little English spoken, and if not, well, we got by with a combination of English/German/French in each sentence that seemed to work.  We met Maciej again in the cafe to catch up and garner any more expert tips for a hike in the snow.  Again I was struck by the party mood - I even broke down and bought one of those fake fur hats with ear flaps that I swore I wouldn't be seen dead in because no-one cared.  Everyone was wearing stupid hats - it was de rigueur to wear something outrageous on your head, and both men and women were sporting fake fur hats with cow horns; hairy hats with ear flaps, knitted caps with fake hair attached, I've never seen so many odd-looking headgear.  The sort of 'Kiss me Quick' hat only without the tackiness. We strolled along the ridge, Dave looking far too normal in a polar fleece hat as it snowed and me with what looked like a bedraggled wet beaver on my head, amidst the snow suits and ski boots.  The Highlanders had swapped their carriages for sleighs, and Dave indulged me having a sleigh ride back to the funicular from the far end.  The horses are big, powerful, well-cared-for high-steppers with bells on their yokes as they trot at a fair rate of knots as people get out of the way.  The Highlanders have sleigh races in the Winter, and reach some surprising speeds as they hurtle over the course.

The next day dawned sunny, cloudless blue skies - perfect weather for a walk in a mountain valley.  Because we travel at a slow pace with filming, we were out all day, and we weren't alone.  Every one of those three million Poles was with us, it seemed.  I've never seen so many people - grandparents, toddlers, even baby-buggies, wrapped in an assortment of outerwear that was surprisingly dull, they don't seem to go in for colour in their coats - out on the trail.  There is a hardiness about the Poles, a toughness and resilience that begs admiration, but makes them perhaps a bit dour in anywhere else but Zakopane.  As Maciej pointed out, there is a lawlessness in the Poles that leads them to be careless of any authority that is not their own - and given their history, you can understand that.  

We reached the hostel at the end of the valley walk - higher up is a nature reserve that is not open to the public - as the sun was beginning to disappear behind a peak, and had a glass of warm gluhwein and a rest.  The horses and sleighs don't come this far up, although the path is wide and well trodden.  A little too well trodden in fact; with so many feet, sledges, sleighs and skis the snow on the path was now like a skating rink and it was inevitable that I would lose my footing at some point on the way back.  Without the sun the temperature was rapidly dropping at the end of the day, and out came the now dry badger with flaps as we set off back down the valley.

I loved Zakopane, I've said it before.  We've never gone back to the places we've filmed in except there, and Maciej just laughed at us and said you'll be back - he may be right.  Sitting in the window of cafe Antrakt with a glass of beer, or a cappuccino or a cherry vodka, overlooking Krupowki and people watching was very satisfying because for once you were lost in the crowd, not obviously a tourist until you opened your mouth.  Polish is difficult but not impossible to learn - you just need someone to pronounce it for you first before you attempt it, because you would never get it from just looking at the words.  We are not skiers, so we can't comment on the quality of the slopes, but for sheer enthusiasm and good natured atmosphere (not to mention value for money) you couldn't do better than Zakopane.

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