Day 12: Up the Mountain to Zakopane

Today we were up and out again a little after 9:00.  We stopped for a proper coffee at Coffee Heaven on the Main Market Square, cruised by the internet café to send out a few emails and suss out the weather for the rest of our trip (which was to be beautiful and much warmer than we’d anticipated), and then headed back to the room to finish packing and check out around 11:00.  I’m not sure what we were sadder about, leaving the Nordic House Apartments or leaving the arresting beauty of Krakow but they made for a powerful combination and we loved every minute of our stay.

Grand Hotel Stamary

Grand Hotel Stamary

We slowly strolled through the cherished Planty one last time before making our way to the bus station where we got noon tickets to Zakopane on a big, comfortable bus (20zl each/$6.30).  Zakopane is a town in southern Poland that sits in the foothills of the Tatra Mountains (which is part of the Carpathian Mountain range), is a very popular spot in Poland for skiing,  and we had visions of it being a cute, charming little hamlet and were looking forward to a mountain respite.  The bus arrived to Zakopane a little after 14:00 and we easily found our hotel, Grand Hotel Stamary, as it was about 150 meters from the bus station and one of our power duo already knew that, having mapped it out from home before we left.  Please hold your applause.

The heart of it all, Krupowki Street

The heart of it all, Krupowki Street

After dropping off our stuff to the room (which got our stamp of approval) we headed down toward the main pedestrian thoroughfare, Krupowki Street.  Krupowki is a long street that runs up and down a hill and the street our hotel was on intersects it in about the middle.  Once we reached Krupowki we started exploring by first walking up to the top before turning around and heading toward the bottom.  Remember when I mentioned we were excited to be going into the mountains to a cute, charming little hamlet?  Well, Zakopane isn’t exactly that.  The local population only numbers about 30,000 but they get over 2 million visitors a year.  As such, it’s all been built up into sort of a hodge-podge of buildings, there is an incredible amount of ongoing construction, and almost every square inch of Krupowki was lined with building after building that were plastered top to bottom with signs and advertisements, while many of the tenants were in business to sell what I like to call kiosks of crap.  Vail this was not.

Oscypek cheese

Oscypek cheese

A specialty of Zakopane comes in the form of a sheep’s milk cheese, called oscypek, that I was anxious to try because who doesn’t love specialty forms of cheese?  Before we arrived to town I was worried we wouldn’t be able to track any down but my fears were completely unfounded, as there were little carts selling it just about every 50 feet.  I bought a little sample, gave half to Jim, and took a bite.  It’s, um, interesting, kind of like Polish sausage but in cheese form with that same smoky flavor.

Fit to print

Fit to print

To help, uh, cleanse the palate after the cheese we stopped for an ice cream, where the nice-as-pie woman got me my mint chip in a cone quickly but her smile faded when Jim stepped up with his order, which befuddled her and she didn’t seem in the mood for shenanigans.  You see, he wanted coffee ice cream in a cone but there was much confusion as to whether he wanted ice cream or a cup of coffee.  Eventually they ironed out their differences and we were on our way down the hill, ice cream in hand like a true local.

On the funicular, going up up up the mountainside

On the funicular, going up up up the mountainside

At the bottom of the hill we walked through an outdoor market consisting of more kiosks of crap and to the entrance of the funicular (17zl each round-trip/$5.30) that will take you up the mountain 1,100 meters (3,600 feet).  We love us some funicular and were soon being whisked up the mountainside.  At the top were some nice views of the surrounding mountains and something else that immediately caught our eye – a luge ride (5.50zl each/$1.75).  As there was someone about to go down the luge track we hung around and watched for a few moments, already knowing we’d be trying our hands at this one.  You see, a few years ago we did our first luge ride, the Sommerbobbahn in Rohren, Germany, so we felt a bit like luging professionals.  This one turned out to be longer and potentially much faster than the one in Rohren.  I say potentially because Jimmy tore down the track like a daredevil while I toot-toot-tooted my way down with one hand on the brake, taking in the scenery.

Enjoying a beer and the scenery

Enjoying a beer and the scenery

Fresh with luging excitement, we breathlessly compared track notes before wandering around the area immediately surrounding the funicular station, Gubalowka Hill.  As with the town below, this part seemed incongruous with the surrounding natural beauty, as there was a lot of trash, a street running along the ridge that was lined with wooden houses in need of repair and love, and a lot of random rusty carnival games strewn about.  It was just kind of scruffy and a blight amidst the picturesque mountains.  Nonetheless, we stopped at an outdoor terrace to have a small beer and admire the snow-capped mountains before heading back down on the funicular for an early dinner at an Italian restaurant called Adamo (where we gave the food a thumbs-up).

The mountains looming over Zakopane

The mountains looming over Zakopane

After dinner we strolled back to the room but it was kind of early and we weren’t ready to turn in just yet.  So we rallied and went downstairs in the hopes the hotel bartender would set us up with a couple chairs on the terrace (it was such a lovely evening and we hated being inside) but it was too early in the season and he had no outdoor furniture available.  Instead, we found the beer garden of a bar we’d seen from the hotel’s windows called Brzoza Drinkbar.  It was perfect, with great seating outside where we could listen to chirping birds and it was peaceful and quiet until… a man inside fired up his guitar and impromptu Karaoke hour.  Through the open windows we could hear him singing at the top of his lungs with his posse gathered ‘round him.  Well, it wasn’t so much singing as it was hurtling words at his audience in different tones.  Eventually the fracas moved outside to a table next to us.  It turned out there were two budding musicians in their group, and while one man played the guitar very, very well in sort of a Gipsy-Kings-background-music kind of way, the more boisterous of the two took over after a few minutes and treated us to what sounded like a very stormy song in Polish, all sung with thunderous flourish.  He expectantly looked at us after his big and animated finish that involved a lot of furious guitar strumming so we politely clapped, fervently hoping he wouldn’t take that as a sign of encouragement.

He was quiet for a few minutes, resting and slamming down another beer during his self-imposed intermission so we took that time to excuse ourselves and head back to the hotel before he fired up the strings and burst into song again.

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