Sunday, August 26, 2012

Weekend at Zakopane

This is going to be a long post, folks, because it details a rather exciting and full weekend for me.  I honestly don't think I've attempted to pack this much into a weekend since the wedding or maybe college.  I'll go chronologically and divide it into days to make it easier.

Zakopane is a town in the Tatra Mountains, part of the Carpathians.  It's about 2 hours away from Krakow. Almost anytime I ask someone what they're doing this weekend, "going to the mountains" is likely to come into the conversation.  I figured I should see what all the fuss was about.

Friday, August 24
After a hastily-planned trip devised during the week, we leave for Zakopane via bus at 7PM.  There were five of us taking off from Krakow, but we didn't see much of two of them, so I'm going to concentrate on the three principal actors.

  1. Sarah, a Pole who has grown up in Australia, is both charming and very useful to have around because she's bilingual in Polish and English.  If she speaks in English, you'd think she's from Australia. If she speaks in Polish, people think she's from Poland.  
  2. Justyna ("yous-TEN-ah"), a Lithuanian lady who is also fluent in Polish, English, Lithuanian, Ukranian, and some German, is a student who we met at a meeting of foreigners where this trip was conceived.  
  3. And of course there's me, possessing English and Spanish capabilities (both of limited use here) and able to communicate in Polish in a manner slightly above grunting.  Of course, I also possess the ability to plan, which came in slightly more handy.
We arrive in Zakopane about 10PM and get a taxi to the hostel the ladies are staying at.  I chose to stay at a hotel roughly 1km away because I find that as the number of people in a room increases, the quality of sleep decreases.  Thus, I wanted a room to myself, not the room with 7 others that the hostel provided.

I had taken pains to write down the name, number, address, and a small map from the hostel to my hotel.  However, I lost this note somewhere in the journey.  However, since my job has given me many opportunities to improve my ability to memorize small factoids from notecards, I remember the map pretty well.  The name and address, not so much.

Mom, if you're reading, skip this paragraph.  So it's about 10:30 PM, and we're up a little ways into the mountain hills.  I need to get to my hotel from where the taxi let us off at their hostel.  I couldn't use the taxi to get to my hotel because I know how the name of the place.  So, I start walking down the road.  It's a clear night, but pitch black.  The road does a giant s-shape (a mountain switchback, I believe it's called), and only a few spaces have streetlights.  Also, there's no sidewalk, and I know I'm on a hill so the shoulder needs to be used with caution.  Between the lights of passing cars, the few street lights, and my cell phone, I manage to get to the hotel.  Upon further examination of Google maps, there was a shortcut that would have saved about half the distance, but I surely wouldn't have found that in the dark!

The hotel was nice, giving everything needed and not a lot else.  The curtains were very lacking in light-blocking ability, which gave me about 7 nice hours of sleep per night and one sort-of-sleep hour from 6-7AM.

Saturday, August 25
We get up, make contact by text, and prepare for departure towards Morskie Oko about 9AM.  To get to Morskie Oko, one needs to take a 12 km bus trip from our hostel/hotel area, then walk 9 km uphill to the actual lake.  The ladies have added a fourth to our group, a thickly-accented Australian guy (I should probably say "mate" out of respect to the culture) named Saul.

We caught a bus which was standing-room only en route to Morskie Oko.  This was expected; the buses originate from the center of Zakopane and pick up people along the way, which was about 4 km of pickups before it got to us.  Thus, we were the last ones on this particular bus.  For all of it, I was standing.  This is the closest experience I've ever had to surfing.  Mountain switchback roads + crazy Polish bus driver + standing at the front = surfing?  Anyway, after some questionable maneuvers, we arrived at the parking lot to the national park containing these mountain ranges.

A 9 km uphill walk awaited us.  We could have taken a horse-drawn cart ride up for 40 PLN each (about 12.25 USD), but we came to walk, not ride.  Also, the horses didn't seem to be going that much faster than the people, so the only savings was in effort, not time.  Not for us!

9 km takes about 2.5 hours to walk, depending on how many breaks you take.  2.5 hours of uphill walking is more than enough to break a sweat, but we got to see gorgeous views.  I took 170+ pictures on this weekend.  Here are some from our walk up to Morskie Oko:

That's Saul and Sarah in the last photo.

I should mention at this point that before starting out, we had stopped at a small store to get some provisions.  I intentionally bought more than needed, hoping to share with the group in exchange for the language and culture handicap I brought.  Ideally, I would have found something like Clif bars or Power bars, but none were sold in that store.  I settled for candy; although it was nice for my sweet tooth, this is one of the few situations I can justify eating candy nutritionally - quick energy required.

After roughly 2.5 hours, we reached the shores of Morskie Oko:

At this point, we took a break, had some ice cream at a restaurant/store/bar area there, and looked around at what else there was to do.  It turns out that there's a second lake, Czarny Staw, which is higher than Morskie Oko but also is at a crest that provides great views of it.

This side-trip was another hour of walking, at a distance I estimate to be 3 km.  However, the last kilometer is something like a rocky staircase: pretty much straight incline for a good distance.  At this point, Sarah's energy gave out and she urged us to go on without her.  However, I'm far more stubborn encouraging than that.  We took breaks, I gave her a Twix package I brought for just such an emergency, and we ascended the slope.

I should mention that at this point, I'm convinced Justyna is Superwoman.  The rest of us have happily sat on rocks as the breaks were required; Justyna hasn't sat down yet.  I'm not sure if she sat down the entire day until the bus ride back to town.  Apparently long walks are just part of her life and she's good at them!

The views from the crest were amazing!  Remember also, this isn't a mountain peak; it's merely a landing on the giant climb to the peak.  (We didn't go to the peak; this was quite enough for us.)

This is where the postcard shots of Morskie Oko come from!  The first photo is Sarah, the second is Saul and Justyna, and the third is me.  The fourth is our victory shot!  The rest are just pretty.  In the last photo, directly across the lake you can see a small building.  That's the restaurant/bar/store area.  It's not tiny; it's just really, really far away here.

After resting at the peak, we slowly descended first back to the Morskie Oko "base camp," as I call it (the restaurant area), and then to the entrance to the park.  Although walking downhill is easier than uphill, it was still a very long journey.  At this point, I count something like 24 km of sheer hiking, whether uphill or downhill.  A half-marathon is 21 km, so this is more than 14 miles of walking over roughly 7 hours.  This doesn't count the pre-hike walking, which is probably another 2 km for me.

We took the bus directly in to Zakopane's downtown rather than going to our hotels first; it just make more sense that way.  When we got on the ground at Zakopane, the first order of business was food.  We hadn't really had lunch.  We just ate snacks when we needed more energy.  By this time, all of us (even Superwoman) were very hungry.  Very, very hungry:

Yes, we ate all of it, and none of us were sorry.

After dinner, we walked around a little, but pretty much all of us were ready to pass out.  So, we got a taxi back to our respective sleeping places (no way was I doing that walk in the dark again!), and we all crashed.

Sunday, August 26
Walking something like 28 km will do wonders for your sleep.  Although the sun still awoke me at 6AM, I managed to doze until 7AM before getting up, dressed, and heading down to my hotel's breakfast.  I texted Sarah at 8AM; she responded at 9AM and we were on our way at 10AM.

One of my Polish friends heard I was going to Zakopane this weekend and told me that there was a festival in town and I had to see the parade on Sunday.  It turns out it's a highlanders or folklore festival, and the parade on Sunday is a procession in traditional dress from various nations.  After exploring a little, we grabbed a front-row seat with some snacks and watched as the performers walked by:

There were no fewer than four Polish groups that walked by at various intervals.  The last picture with the funny shoes is of the French group, interestingly.

We poked around town a little longer, but didn't see much else of this caliber at the festival.  So, about 3:30 PM we got on a bus just as the first drops of rain were beginning to fall.  The weather had been great this entire time, so putting our exit right at the first sign of rain seemed like blessed timing.

I'm tired (not running tomorrow morning!) and I've seen a lot, but it was a lot of fun!  I got to meet lots of people, get to know a good crew on the hike, and practice my Australian accent.  (Nice = "noice", sweet = "sweot", etc.)  I probably won't make it back to Zakopane for a long time or maybe ever, but I'll carry the memories with me forever.

Today is August 26th; in one month, I leave Poland.


Laurel Blough said...

30 days + 9 for the U.K., right?

Andy said...

Yup, that sounds right to me. Well, 29+9 days now :-P

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