“Poland has mountains?” This reaction that I got from several people to some of my recent photos inspired this post. Poland is certainly not the flat and uniform country some imagine and here I want to show you some of the magic and legend that are so central to Polish history and culture.
The south of Poland is packed with mountains. Poland has a stretch – around 10% – of the huge Carpathian (Karpaty) mountain range, shared with Ukraine, Romania, Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia and Austria, and the Karkonosze range on the Czech-Polish border. The star of the show, though, is probably the Tatras (Tatry) mountain range that it shares with Slovakia; on the Polish side the highest peak reaches 2499m. Close to my home, I know it best and it’s the most visited.
Eight of Poland’s 23 national parks can be found in these mountains and are home to the chamois goat-antelope, fields of ‘szafran’ crosuses, emerald lakes, waterfalls and snowy peaks. It’s not all smooth sailing though – particularly during weekends and holidays the traffic on the relatively small roads is known to get out of hand and until the new highway is completed a two-hour trip from Krakow to Zakopane can easily turn into four or five…
The highlander (Górale) people native to the Tatras are famous throughout Poland and neighbouring countries for their customs, food, costumes and occasional disdain for the wayward city folk down on the plains. The music is also very specific, with discordant and captivating string music combined with hearty vocals. Check out this typical song here, which tells of a Hungarian visitor having a drink in a local tavern: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-1xGhf60hWE It’s easy to find – and hard to forget – live performances in mountain restaurants.
The mountains are a great focus of Polish tourism and have been for centuries. There are 689 ski lifts with nearly 500km of pistes, a huge network of hiking trails dotted with refuges and countless thermal water parks. The largest and most famous mountain resort, Zakopane, is visited by over 2.5million people each year and is a huge centre for skiing, hiking, mountain biking, climbing and …. partying. It has hosted several ski jump World Cups and world ski championships and it even features in a very (in)famous song which translates to ‘Love in Zakopane’ from 2017: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n2hJA78YuWw. It claims to be somehow folk related but seems more ‘disco polo’ in flavour.
Visiting a hot spring resort in the Tatras recently, I saw a huge group of men and women of all ages, in swimwear and huddled around a TV screen in the cafe. With my British biases I immediately assumed it must be a football match, but on closer inspection I saw ski jumpers hurtling towards take-off. Poland won the ski jumping World Cup in 2016/17 and 2018/19, to the great delight of the Polish people.
The Polish love a good legend and the mountains are no exception. The most famous is maybe of the ‘sleeping knight’ Giewont mountain above Zakopane, which strongly resembles the lying figure of a huge person at rest. According to legend, a Zakopane blacksmith accepts the offer of a bag of gold from a stranger to complete a simple task and to keep it secret. Taken up into the mountains, the blacksmith is shown into a cave in which a large group of knights and their horses lie sound asleep.
The regal soldiers, he is told, are resting in preparation for the moment that they must rise to protect Poland. As instructed, the blacksmith replaces one of the sleeping horse’s golden horseshoes, but returning to the village he can’t keep the secret and blabs to his wife and friends. His golden reward is reduced to sand and the location of the cave is lost forever.. A lesser known legend involves a group of shepherds who, refusing to speak to a passing beggar, were punished with an avalanche that formed the Wantule valley.
With all this rich heritage, legend and attractions, it’s easy to see why the mountains are close to the hearts of many Poles and foreign visitors.
With thanks to Kasia and Magda for their research and contributions.