The Polish town of Zakopane is a popular spot for winter sports holidays - and it's not hard to see why, with a superb backdrop of easy-to-reach mountain peaks and a wide range of activities on offer
A busy little town, at the foot of the Tatra mountain range in southern Poland, and just a couple of hours south of Krakow, Zakopane is blessed with a wonderful location. It's just a hop, skip and a jump from the ski slopes, and a base for almost every kind of winter sporting activity you can imagine. If you’re a lover of peace and quiet, then it’s probably not for you, but if you like a good time in the snow, Zakopane has plenty to offer.
Getting to the slopes couldn’t be easier: go straight down the main shopping street, ul Krupowski, to the funicular railway at its north end - the earlier the better, as the queues can be long. In under five minutes, you will be whisked 1388 metres to the top of Mt Gubalowka. You can make the climb on foot but at 15zl (c£3.30) for a full-day return ticket, you might as well save your energy. The panoramic views down to Zakopane and over the surrounding mountains are beautiful. It’s easy to be distracted, though, by the many stalls, selling everything from woolly gloves to the locally produced smoked cheeses. Heady aromas follow your progress - the grilled cheese is especially good, and, of course, grzane wino, the local mulled wine, made with ginger, cinnamon and orange peel to warm you up.
The slopes here are gentle and south-facing - great for catching the sun. The season generally runs from late November to April and at the first hint of snow the slopes are prepared with overnight artificial snow. Lighting adds to the atmosphere and means you can ski until 9 at night, if you have the stamina. For the young at heart, a toboggan run descends 750 metres at speeds of up to 40kph. Gubalowka is one gigantic playground.
More challenging skiing is to be found at Mt Kasprowy Wierch (1967m), on the summit of which you can stand, if you wish, with one foot in Poland and one in neighbouring Slovakia. The cable car (30zl/c£6.55 return) will take you up from Kuznice - a short ride by number 7 bus from Zakopane - and you can ski back down to the village or into the neighbouring valleys. It's as well to reserve your ticket for the gondola in advance, at a local travel agency, to cut down on your waiting times.
There are any number of places to ski, depending on how adventurous you are, and over 50 ski lifts in and around Zakopane. Nosal is short and steep and a top choice for advanced skiers,whilst Polana Szymoszkowa has nursery slopes and is more suited to beginners. There are four ski schools locally and tuition by English-speaking instructors is available in both skiing and snowboarding. Try Tylan Skiing Komplex, Nosal Polana, at the foot of Nosal (018 206 2700).
When you’re not on the slopes, there’s lots of other entertainment, including snowmobiles, sleigh rides with a choice of trails (town or forest), even husky rides! Zakopane is a cross-country skier's dream - the Krokiew area, by the enormous ski jumps, is particularly recommended. Gubalowka and the main shopping boulevard are a little commercial, but the town has a great atmosphere. Quieter areas feature distinctive villas, traditional wooden architecture and broad leafy avenues.
Zakopane has an interesting history. It was once an isolated mountain village populated by sheep farmers - fiercely independent characters known as the gorale. The pure mountain air attracted doctors and sanatoriums, forerunners of today's health spas. The Polish intelligentsia followed, and Zakopane became a place of culture. You can follow the Lenin Trail (details from the tourist office) - he was briefly interned in the area on suspicion of spying in 1914, after renting a room for more than a year in the nearby village of Bialy Dunajec. He was a regular amongst cafe society in Zakopane. Today the town retains its good time feel.
The Tatras are National Park territory and, to assist with their preservation, a nominal entry fee is charged for admittance to the area. Cars are not allowed into the park but transport is provided where necessary. A car is no great asset in Zakopane - road number 47 (Zakopianka), the route from Krakow, slows to a snail’s pace in peak season. However, trains from Krakow (45zl/c£9.80) take about three hours and are frequent, while the express bus allegedly makes the trip in two and a half hours for just 10zl (c£2.20).
Flights into the area are extremely easy, with a good choice of carriers - easyJet, Jet2, Wizzair and Ryanair. If time permits, you might like to take a look at Krakow too; it's beautiful.
Where to stay
Accommodation books up quickly but there is plenty of it, and the tourist office at ul Kosciuszki is very helpful.
If you’re looking for style, the Villa Marilor has been sumptuously renovated and is grand both inside and out. The atmosphere and appearance is reminiscent of the days when Zakopane was a mecca for poets, artists and composers and the fashionable set. It would make a lovely romantic destination for couples.
Peacefully located on the edge of the National Park, the Hotel Belvedere has excellent amenities, including a thermal spa, and would be great for a family holiday.
Antalowka offers moderately priced apartments, with smart modern interiors and good amenities, including a food option, and is near the Aqua Park.
If you want a real bargain and don't mind being a little away from the action, the Hotel Weronika, in the village of Poronin, just 7km north of Zakopane, has a lovely setting and grounds,and good local skiing. A walking trail connects from here to Gubalowka - one of dozens of trails in the area, as Zakopane is popular for hiking holidays in the summer as well as for winter sports.
Folk traditions are proudly maintained in the Tatra foothills, and folk groups in beautifully embroidered costumes perform at local weddings and often in the bars and restaurants around town. Bakowo Zohylina (ul Pilsudskiego 6; www.zohylina.pl) is a Highlander restaurant serving excellent traditional Polish food for a moderate price. It’s a fun place with mountain music to accompany your food.
Ul Krupowki, the main street, literally hums with bars, restaurants and street entertainers. Warming hearty soups, sometimes served in bread, and pierogi (savoury or sweet dumplings) are a popular choice. Cafe Sabala in the hotel of the same name (ul Krupowki 11; 018201 5092) is a traditional place to sample Polish cake and Highlander tea - its "secret" ingredient is vodka, of course. Paparazzi (ul Generala Galicy 8; 018 206 3251) is a smart cocktail bar, with friendly staff and laidback music.
For the club scene, Ampstrong (ul Jagiellonska 18; 0501 645464) is a reliable and stylish choice. Rockus is a rock and pop disco-style bar under hotel Dom Turisty (ul Zaruskiego 5; 0601 588 181), while Genesis (ul Plac Niepodleglosci; 0502 554 555) is a full-on lager and lasers spot. Expect neon and smoke machines fuelled by the cocktail of choice - Mad Dog! In the mountains, Nosalowy Dwor Spa Resort (ul Balzera 21d; www.nosalowydwor.zakopane.pl) has a fabulous setting, and if you can't afford to stay there, you'll still be made welcome in the affordable restaurant. Finally, the restaurant at the top of Mt Kasprowy Wierch also provides wonderful views before you venture back on the slopes.
The Poles are warm, hospitable people who work very hard, but really know how to enjoy themselves. Zakopane is a great place to kick back and have fun.