Zakopane, Poland

Zakopane, Poland

Zakopane is a small Polish town located about two and a half hours from Krakow, Poland. At approximately 1000 meters (3000 feet) above sea level, it shares many similarities with Banff, Alberta and draws tourists from many regions to enjoy sports such as skiing in the winter and hiking and mountaineering in all seasons. Historically, Zakopane began as a mining town and was the center of metallurgical activity in the area during the 1800’s. Nestled in a valley at the base of the Tatra Mountains, the town has played host to many international alpine events including the World Alpine and Nordic Ski Championships in 1939. They lost out to Turin, Italy in their bid to host the 2006 Winter Olympics.

Our hotel was located across from the water park and a nice 10 minute walk from the city center. Weather did not play in our favor returning to rain and ~10 degrees Celsius. Most of our tour group decided to stay near town exploring Zakopane’s famous Krupowki Street with its many restaurants and shops or taking the Funicular ride to the top of Gubalowkwa Hill to get a great view of Zakopane and the surrounding valley and Tatra Mountains. The “funicular” is like a tramway or gondola on wheels and follows rails up the side of the hill. Unlike a gondola ride, the funicular never leaves the ground as it progresses up the hill.

I decided to go for a trek through the mountains and headed south of Zakopane to a national park (5 zloties) where I hiked 14 kilometers (and about 800m vertical) in an attempt to visit Morskie Oko Lake (Marine Eye Lake) mentioned in the regional chat as a most beautiful lake surrounded by mountain peaks that rose a 1000 meters or above the water. However, my hike ended up taking me in the direction of the wrong lake, Czarny Straw Gasienicowy, which is higher in elevation and more difficult to reach. It is a glacial lake with sapphire-like clear, deep water often referred to in English as the Black Pond. The yellow route, which I took, began as a gradual walk but then rather suddenly headed up a rock staircase which took me about 30 minutes to climb. This is a very popular hike for those visiting the region and I wasn’t the faster climber on the trail so was passed by many hikers of various nationalities and exchanged “hi there” and “hello” greetings in a multitude of languages along the way. I began to worry that I had not budgeted enough time to actual reach the lake and in the end, as I reached a twin peak section, the weather turned colder, windier, and the path muddied after the vertical climb so I decided to turn around and head back down to Zakopane without reaching the lake. Lots of great scenery to see along the way, but the lake will need to be seen some other time, not this trip.

(Graeme on tour in Europe. Images will be uploaded when time and available internet access permit)

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Hostel Deco – Krakow

Hostel Deco – Krakow

The Hostel Deco is about a 15 minute walk from the city center. The decor in this hostel is quite interesting as each room has its own unique, special art deco theme and the walls in the hotel are very interesting.There is no elevator in this hostel and it does require a 10 zelote deposit on towels but WiFi is free and the reception area is open 24/7. A nice garden area provides a quiet spot for reflection or meeting with other travelers when the weather cooperates.

In the basement, there is a nice small bar which doubles as the breakfast room. Breakfast is served until 11AM or even noon (I think) if pre-arranged, so that would be a nice feature if you are not inclined to be up really early. We are in tour mode, so had breakfast and were out touring again long before noon.

Since this hostel was a two night location on this tour, we were able to get 24 hr laundry service. Great to get some clean clothes although some noted that clothes were still a bit damp, not overly so, but not immediate pick-up and wear.

I’m beginning to think that all beds in our accommodation use the same wooden base but ultra comfy mattress and pillows.

(Graeme on tour in Europe – photos to be added when good internet time available – not much time between touring and sleeping :-))

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Krakow, Poland

Krakow, Poland

Finally a warm day we heading out in t-shirts and shorts. Today is our free day and I elected to take both excursions, the City Bike Ride and later in the afternoon a tour of the Salt Mines.

We walked from Hostel Deco to the center square where we picked up our bikes. They had several versions of bikes, and I picked one with a basket in the back to hold my backpack. Overall, the bikes were in excellent condition with only one bike on our tour getting a flat in the first few minutes. The flat tire was quickly resolved as we were circling the city center and then we were on our way.

The bike pace was good and anyone who can ride a bike would be able to keep up to the group. The tires where quite wide to handle the cobblestones. There were no shocks but each bike had padded seats to varying degrees. The bikes had a single 7-speed shifter for hills and were definitely a lighter frame that what I had used in a similar Holland tour a few bike years earlier.

We stopped by the north gate which is all that is left of the multiple layers of city walls. The ancient walls had been demolished long ago to feed the expanding city need for housing material and reduce disease.

We then biked to the University District, and our guide told us about how the university came to being and how, during WWII, Nazi tricked most of the intellectuals to a conference where they were then rounded up and sent to a concentration camp. A great deal of WWII history in this part of the world and much of it can be quite gloomy. The tour was not all doom and gloom though. We stopped far a while to look at a clock which, on the hour, played music and had a little visual display.

Next we headed to the castle, where we saw the Wawel Dragon Statue. The Wawal Dragon has an important role Polish mythology. As our guide explained, there are many stories about the fire-breathing dragon. In one instance, the guide explained the legend where a peasant tricked the dragon into eating sulphur and he exploded! By killing the dragon the peasant gained the hand of the princess in marriage. The statue breathes fires, but, as our guide explained it, the fire was only visible at random intervals. Just before we left, it did let out a puff!

We stopped for a half hour halfway through the tour for food/bathroom break at the edge of the river. and next we headed to the Jewish Ghetto where, during WWII, Jewish people lived after being kicked out of their houses. At the Ghetto food was scarce and heavily rationed, worse still SS men would perform selections and send Jews to concentration camps where then where ultimately worked, starved, or gassed to death. Not many happy stories at this location.

Our final major stop was at the entrance to Schindler factory. It was in this factory that Oskar Schindler was able to protect some 1100 Jewish workers by giving them continued employment in the factory and using bribes and political connections and influence to keep them in his employ and out of the concentration camps. Oskar Schindler’s WWII activities were eventually chronicled in the movie “Schindler’s List”.

Bike ride back was fun but it soon became clear that on a Sunday at lunch the city center soon became packed with foot traffic.

(Graeme on tour in Europe. Images will be added when time and reliable internet access permits)