on February 5, 2010
~ The Eye of the Sea ~ How the Sea's eye became separated from the rest of its body is unclear, but it certainly chose a good spot in which to hide away. Morskie Oko, "The Eye of the Sea" rests in a natural amphitheatre high in Poland's Tatra Mountains, overlooked by dense pine forests, snow drifts and the highest peak in the range, 2500-metre Mount Rysy. The rather poetic name given to the Lake is a fitting one, as the whole region seems to slumber in a faintly fairytale-atmosphere. The nearest town, Zakopane, is lined with gingerbread-houses and smoking fireplaces, while the surrounding forests, dark and silent, are almost certainly full of wolves, woodsmen and wicked witches up to no good. Reclusive as these are, though, you may well not see them on the path to Morskie Oko, one of the most popular attractions of the region. A combination of its beauty and its accessibility make it quite such a draw for tourists - a stunning location a mile above sea-level in the mountains made easily reachable by a paved track winding its way up from car-park to lake. Closed to cars, the six mile (nine kilometre) distance can be traversed either by foot or horse-drawn cart - in the latter case, the cart will drop its passengers about a mile away from the lake, although by this stage the gradient is pretty shallow. ~ Reaching the Eye ~ For the vast majority of visitors to Morskie Oko, Zakopane is the starting point, at least for the day's excursion. In terms of getting to the town, most will come from Krakow, two hours' coach journey to the north, or longer by train - either way, you will be dropped off fairly centrally, as Zakopane is a reasonably compact place, with everything of note happening on or around Ulice Krupowki (walk along Ulice Tadeusza Kosciuszki from either station for about ten minutes). Being a pretty tourist-orientated destination - catering for skiers in winter, hikers in summer - you won't have trouble finding accommodation, dining options or entertainment. There are some excellent restaurants serving tasty, filling food along Krupowki, including a couple featuring enormous barbecues and every kind of meat you can imagine - perfect for a cold night in the mountains! A local product worth trying is the cheese, Oszczypek (osh-ee-pek), which has a rubbery, squeaky texture and a distinctive, but not overpowering taste - faintly bitter, like a goat's cheese, but very much one that grows on you. Buses run from the main station up to Morskie Oko, although the best and quickest way up is to take one of the minibuses which typically wait just over the road for enough interested people before they set off. Expect to pay 10 Zlotys (around £2.50); the journey, through some attractive rising meadows and forests, takes about forty-five minutes, and drops off at the car park near Lysa Polana, the Slovakian border crossing. The buses making the return journey leave from the same place. The track onwards and upwards from here is obvious; side-step the barrier and continue up the road - now car-free - bearing right when a smaller track splits left. The road provides a fairly easy, shallow climb, although when you reach the switchbacks about a mile after the road crosses above a waterfall, those of surer foot can take a series of shortcuts rising steeply through the forest; rough, slippery paths that require sturdy footwear. Prior to reaching the u-bend the track takes above the waterfall, there's a signposted path that leads up and away from the road; this doesn't lead to Morskie Oko, but is a more challenging, much less-travelled track that cuts through the forest of the mountainside and opens out onto some fantastic views of the surrounding valleys and peaks. The established road to the lake ends in a clearing on the edge of the bowl in which Morskie Oko sits - the horses stop here, and everyone walks the last mile or so along a secondary track. For those who don't relish the prospect of a six-mile climb to the lake, the horse-and-carts leave from just past the car-park and will leave when full. The journey takes around an hour going up, half an hour or so coming back down, and the prices reflect this - about 40 Zlotys (£10) for the ascent, half that for the descent. Obviously, this saves a lot of effort, but the easy option doesn't come cheap, and it's hard not to harbour some concerns about how hard the horses are worked pulling a dozen people up an incline for such a length of time. However, it is claimed the horses are given plenty of time to rest and make only a maximum number of trips per day. ~ The Lakes ~ Morskie Oko takes on a starkly different appearance depending on the season, but always retains the same sense of drama and spectacle, whether the waters are the vivid blue of summer or frozen into the uniform white of winter. During the latter season, which lingers throughout April, the iced-over lake can be crossed by foot, although care should be taken as it starts to thaw out. If you do come up here during winter, it's certainly a memorable, slightly curious feeling to be standing in the centre of the lake looking outwards; an inverted perspective on the conventional view. The hut standing on the moraine overlooking the lake houses all the basic facilities visitors would need; functional accommodation, food, drink and toilets. Many visitors take in the panorama and leave - however, there are a wealth of walks in the area which merit exploration. Perhaps the most dramatic of these is the climb up to a second, higher and smaller lake, Czarny Slaw (The Black Lake), from where one can look down on Morskie Oko and up at Mount Rysy, on the Poland-Slovakia border. Getting to Czarny Staw in summer entails taking a more circuitous route around the lower lake (in itself a fine walk), although the shorter path directly across Morskie Oko in winter is offset by a challenging scramble up the snowy slope on the other side. Budget at least an hour to climb up to the Black Lake; less to come back down - it's certainly worth the effort, granting views not seen in the postcard shots from the vantage point by the hut. Plus, when the slopes are covered in snow, what is a sapping toil upwards is an easy seat-of-the-pants slide back down (provided the behind covered by said pants doesn't mind getting a bit cold). As with any easily-accessible attraction of such striking beauty, you're not going to be the only visitor here; there are usually considerable crowds buzzing around the moraine, meaning you'll have to go further afield to find the serenity one might like in which to consider the views. However, you needn't stray too far from the beaten track to lose the crowds - just step off the main path at any point and you'll be swallowed up by the forest within metres. Morskie Oko, then, is a stunning location and a fine centrepiece for this part of the Tatra Mountains. For those making only a short visit, it's certainly a good choice for a day trip, taking you into the heart of the dramatic surroundings. Do, though, if you've time, try to explore more of the less-travelled paths - there's some fantastic scenery, and some wonderful walks that are barely explored compared to attractions such as the lake, and have all the more appeal for it. Take in the view of Poland's eye of the sea, but don't make it your only stop in the Tatras. *** The name "The Eye of the Sea" comes from a traditional belief that all bodies of water were connected somehow to the ocean by subterranean passages - aquatic optic nerves, perhaps! The presence of fish in Morskie Oko only furthered the suspicions that the lake was a distant body part of the Baltic Sea.
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