Nestled at the foot of the Tatra Mountains of south-central Poland, the resort town of Zakopane (known as “the winter captital of Poland”) was our next stop. Just days earlier in Prague I’d been comfortable in jeans and a tank top, but Zakopane had us all digging out our warmest sweaters and thickest socks. It was COLD!
I think Zakopane was the biggest surprise of my trip. I’d been expecting a hole-in-the-wall pit stop en route to Budapest, but this place was beautiful! Disney-level beautiful, with Alps-style wooden timber buildings, costumed carriage rides, curled lampposts, and stunning mountain scenery. The charm of Zakopane was tempered only by the weather (it was damp as well as cold during our brief stay), but I made the most of it.
The primary tourist activity for those that don’t ski or hike is strolling the town’s most popular street: Krupówki. Lined with stores, restaurants, and street performers, it offers tasty treats and a slew of unique Zakopane souvenirs. Here, a helpful sign spelled out some things I could look forward to eating in Zakopane. Waffles? Smoked cheese? French bread pizza? Towering cones of soft serve? Okay!
I’m not kidding about how tall the ice cream cones were. Even the fake ones.
I decided to get a zapiekanka for lunch, the halved baguette grilled with mushroom and cheese. I don’t think it was the best example of the dish, but I (and my pigeon friend) enjoyed it anyway.
Then, after a little shopping, I strolled down the hill and over the river (stream?) to check out the more market-style souvenir stalls.
In Zakopane, you can find a lot of interesting take-home gifts. Many include the image of Pope John Paul II, the beloved Polish Catholic pope (1978 – 2005). During his years at the helm of the Catholic church in Kraków, JP2 often often vacationed in Zakopane, and they still love him. Everywhere in Poland they love him.
Also for sale are beautiful examples of oscypek, a smoked cheese of salted sheep milk made exclusively in the Tatra Mountains.
They’ve also got a lot of furs and pelts for sale in Zakopane, which come in handy when the thermometer is flirting with freezing.
Tempting as the furs and JP2 swag were, I settled on a pair of knit gloves (plus pairs for my sisters) and a few wooden spoons.
The big attraction at the bottom of the main drag is the Gubałówka Hill Funicular (like a tram), which whisks riders (the ones that don’t want to hike, and I didn’t) up the Gubałówka mountain. At the top are another clutch of cafes and shops, plus stunning views of the Tatra Mountains and the town below.
Unfortunately, this is what I saw. Hello, cold and drizzly fog. Oh, well.
After a quick look in the icy rain, my teeth chattering and my fingers numb, I high-tailed it back down to slightly warmer temperatures and spotted the first cat of my trip. Hello, you pretty Polish feline.
A short walk led me to a classic Polish Catholic cemetery nearby. Can you believe all of the cozy and color? I could not.
Continuing my walk…
Oh look, another batch of love locks on a few feet of fencing overlooking a babbling brook. How…appropriate. (See the Krakow post for an explanation).
For dinner, we headed to a cozy timbered spot with live music, mood lighting, and more spreadable lard.
I started with some oscypek, the local smoked cheese I mentioned earlier. It came warm and crispy with a side of cranberry chutney — and it was AMAZING.
An overhead look included beer, bread, lard, meat, potatoes, and pierogi. Hearty doesn’t begin to cover it.
My dinner was (of course) mushroom pierogi which came with a side of melted butter. I’d only ever seen that with lobster, but what the heck. Butter!
The next morning, we left Zakopane behind and passed through Slovakia, stopping briefly for one very memorable experience in the village of Podbiel. There, local businessman Jozef Krupa gives rides in the decommissioned armored tank he bought 20 years ago to haul wood, but has since outfitted to accommodate passengers. The ride, a fifteen minute white-knuckled series of violent turns, belching exhaust, and sloshing water underfoot, was (I feel confident in saying) like nothing I could ever experience at home.
Jozef took us in two batches. Here’s a look at the other group “pulling” back into the station.
Despite my best efforts to hold onto the metal pole, brace my feet, and NOT FALL DOWN… I fell down.
Sigh. The real title of this series should be Eastern European Adventure | Aimee Falls Down (I also fell during the bike ride in Krakow — did I not mention that before?).
Before crossing into Hungary, we stopped in another small town for lunch, where I had one of the best pizzas of my life. I’m not kidding.
Maybe I was just really hungry, but when you’re expecting doughy, tasteless pizza and get this instead — perfectly crisp and topped with corn, olives, mushrooms, red pepper, and just the right amount of cheese — it’s enough to make you forget that you just had to change your muddy pants in a Slovakia bar bathroom because you fell down during a tank ride.
Next up? Budapest! Our final stop, and the end of my Eastern European Adventure. Stay tuned!