Zakopane: The Architectural Gem in the Tatras

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

(Published first in the Deccan Herald, Jul 2015)

We left Krakow under an overcast sky and out on the two-hour undulating highway to Zakopane it drizzled intermittently and fogged up the views. Unless you are looking to ski, climb, glide or snowboard you come to the hills for the views. But the hill weather is unpredictable and there was no way we were going to see the splendor of the Tatra Mountains that looked so alluring in all the guidebooks.

We saw bits of them though, between the pines and the rising fog. Some had broad swathes of white running down their slopes.   These were not the glaciers, Christopher, our guide, reminded us. Tatras have none. These were the ski slopes. Zakopane is Poland’s unofficial winter capital, attracting skiing amateurs and aficionados from across Europe and the world.

We had left Krakow full with the history of the place to a geographically isolated clime further south of Poland. Relatively untouched by the horrors of the Wars that had scarred Krakow and much of Poland, here was a place of quite and harmony.

The Tatra Mountains – the tallest mountains of the Carpathian Range – form a natural boundary between Slovakia and Poland. Mushrooming in their shadows are a host of towns among which the resort town of Zakopane is the biggest and the most popular.

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

Battling rain and poor visibility we glided smoothly to this Polish town passing rolling hills with hamlets studded into their even slopes. The villages were but a clutch of houses, sitting amidst tidy farms with chicken running amok in the front yards. It was the advent of spring and some farmers were already atop their tractors tilling. A church with a high belfry was the most dominant building. Not surprising in a country with 80 percent Catholics who take their church attendance seriously.

It was an idyllic Central European rural setting one could say. Except this imagery was rudely broken by the occasional strip-club signs in the woods. A surprise, but promising unadulterated adult- fun for weekend revelers spilling out of Krakow.

Zakopane, however, despite the onslaught of tourism and technology, retains its Goral or Highland culture. It is there in their clothes, their music and their food. The attire is however only ceremonially worn. But it was the official dress for the waiters at a restaurant where we stopped for lunch. The restaurant with its cedar-wood ceilings and walls plastered with stuffed animals sought to recreate an otherworldly hunter’s den. A nightmare for any animal lover. But the good food was distracting. As was the local music which had an unmistakable Scottish lilt to it. No wonder then that the Zakopane dance is a group affair bearing uncanny resemblance to the Scottish Ball.

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

But the Zakopane culture is synonymous with its architecture inspiring home construction not only in Poland but across Europe.

The houses look complex with an overlay of pattern over pattern. What makes the Zakopane houses look so distinct are the roofs. They are steep, usually over 70 degrees or more and have gables jutting out of them at different levels. These roofs are made of shingles or galvanized iron but in the older houses , the roof and sometime the entire building is hewn of wood.

We stopped by to marvel at the Jasczczurowce Chapel, an epitome of Zakopane architecture built by Stanislaw Witkiewicz, the man who popularized the Zakopane style. He built the church in 1904 and it was one of the many buildings that formed the blue print for what came to be known as the Zakopane style.

The best way to take in the beautiful architecture is to walk down Krupowki street- the main Zakopane street. Tidy row of houses line both sides of the near- empty street. There are small stand-alone stalls manned by women who sit inside them, selling condiments mostly made of local cheese.

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

We didn’t see any tourists though there were many horse -carriages at the ready. The gabled houses, the stalls, the ubiquitous old churches and the horses with tufts of ankle -hair all lent an old world charm to Zakopane.

Too add to this, a short drive from Zakopane, are the mineral water springs. Our hotel Termy Bukovina had channeled the therapeutic waters into their pools where one could partake of what is believed to be waters with therapeutic and rehabilitation powers.

Perhaps we needed it for the next day when we went snowboarding in the Tatras. Snowboarding is the best option for any fly-by-nigh tourists who cannot ski and have no time to learn how to. You just sit on the machine and press the accelerator. To stop you simple let go the accelerator. But unlike Lapland where I had successfully ridden the snowmobile on the flat snowfields, I had trouble veering the machine in the steep Tatra slopes.

But then as we stopped for a barbeque lunch in a somewhat boggy forest clearing, I realized that what I may have missed in views, I had more than made up in experience.

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

How to get there:

There are no direct flights to Krakow from India. Depending on what airlines one takes one has to halt to change planes in one of the several European cities. From Krakow Zakopane is 109 kms by road. It a less than two hour journey on the smooth highway.

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

Leave a Reply