Missing out a trip to Zakopane when visiting Krakow is similar to forgetting to see the Vatican when in Rome. Who will forgive you for such a sin of omission? Visiting Zakopane from Krakow is after all an easy two-and-a- half hour bus trip that traverses through wonderful terrain of hillside groves and green pastures, a pleasure expedition that should in no case be missed.
While Krakow is historical and cultural, Zakopane is entertaining and easygoing. This does not in any way implicate that Zakopane is short on sightseeing attractions and tempting appeal but the town is geared more towards light-hearted leisure and recreation rather than artistic enrichment and aesthetic refinement. Krakow with its majestic churches and historical buildings captivates and ensnares; Zakopane with its trendy parading walkways and scenic views amuses and pleases.
No matter how early you leave Krakow, you will not put your feet in Zakopane before 11:00 am, probably much later. Consequently, it is advisable to stay overnight and so have enough time to join the crowds of Polish hikers and strut up and down along Ul Krupowki (Zakopane’s leading promenade) late at night when the endless rows of restaurants, cafes, boutiques, souvenir shops and open-air stalls turn into one illuminated display of colour, animation and excitement. Zakopane never seems to sleep. Even a downpour of rain and snow did not preclude the swarms from persisting repeatedly in their walking procession of wonder and delight.
Unquestionably, Zakopane deserves a stay longer than a couple of days, particularly if one intends to use the place as a stepping stone to the mountains. Nestled at the foot of the Tatras right at the confluence of two picturesque valleys, Zakopane is enclosed within mountainous landscape, a rugged topography of high peaks and straight-cut ridges. Separating the alpine heights are several picturesque valleys, streaming tributaries and glistening lakes, their grassy watersides affording ideal footpaths trailed for trekking.
All this seems adventurous enough to make a stay in the city enjoyable and amusing but… in the course of the last few years, the number of visitors has multiplied to such an extent that for most of the time the demand for accommodation far exceeds the supply. Gone are the days when home owners converged on the train and bus stations with placards in hands requesting disembarking passengers to lease a room in their house. This was the state of affairs in Zakopane ten years ago when I first visited the city. I can easily think back to the days when locals swarmed the area around each bus that arrived calling out ‘pokoje’ or ‘zimmer frei’. Today’s scenario has changed from one of owners begging to one of visitors looking around in an attempt to track down a place of accommodation. Hotels and pensions in Zakopane are simply not enough to house the thousands who descend on the city in high season. And when is it not high season in Zakopane? During the winter spell and such interval starts from early December and does not end before mid-April, the city is literally overrun by skiers and mountain trekkers who come here en masse to enjoy the snow-capped peaks and snow-carpeted slopes. In summer when the day temperature goes up to the mid-twenties and sunny days are frequent (although spells of heavy rainfall are frequent as well), the city is plagued with backpackers who come here to savour the fresh air of the mountains. In other words, Zakopane has in the last few years evolved into an all-year-round resort, a destination that offers something for everyone during each day of the year. On account of the city’s prevailing demand for rooms and the concurrent shortage of hotel accommodation, most houses (if not all) along the most popular streets of the city have been turned into guesthouses, their former needy owners becoming filthy rich overnight.
During the current year, I visited Zakopane twice, each time disregarding to book ahead. In the first instance, desperate to locate a bed after a day of travelling, I pleaded for accommodation at scores of houses that displayed the ‘pokoje’ sign. I was finally fortunate enough to find a tiny room on Ul Jagiellonska in the vicinity of the train station after a two-hour non-stop search. The second time, having thought that the high season was over, I was confident that finding accommodation would be a simple straight-forward affair. Contrary to my belief however, I couldn’t locate a room no matter how intensively I tried and hunted around. My only alternative was to take lodging for one night in Hotel Giewont, an expensive option worth the equivalent of a whole week of budget accommodation in a basic holiday home.
In short, Zakopane’s tempting appeal and charisma have turned the city into Poland’s most popular all-year-round destination and so demand for accommodation has become extremely great. Visitors should keep this in mind before showing up in the city. It is therefore advisable to book months ahead if one wishes to secure an acceptable place of accommodation close to the centre.
The airline hub closest to Zakopane is Krakow’s Balice Airport, more than hundred miles north. Since no direct transport link exists between Krakow’s airport and Zakopane, one has first of all to start with a short effortless trip from the airport to Krakow’s Dworzec Autobusowy, the city’s main bus station located in close proximity to Krakow Glowny train station on the north eastern outskirts of the Old Town. The most fitting option to reach Zakopane from Krakow is to use the bus and not the train. Buses and minibuses operated by at least three different transport companies (PKS, Trans-frej and Szwagropol) run regularly every hour or even more frequently when demand cries out for more. Trains are far less frequent and cover a longer route, consequently taking about an extra hour to reach the final terminus. Over and above the extra journey time, one has to consider as well the price of the ticket which is less expensive for the bus trip than for the train.
But on top of everything, it is the scenic route the bus follows that makes travelling by bus more advantageous, more desirable and worthier than travelling by train. The journey from Krakow to Zakopane by bus is roughly a direct hundred-mile southbound route that for most of the way passes over single carriage roads running along fertile valley corridors or mountain sides lined with vast patches of pine forest and smaller patches of grassland. Leaving behind the wonderful view of Wawel Hill, the bus soon delved south along Ul Zakopianska, a major traffic-infested thoroughfare that headed straight out of town to the outlying suburb of Libertow. Just before bypassing Libertow, the bus crossed the mighty A4 overpass whose elevated layout afforded excellent views over the neighbouring village of Opatkowice.
South of Libertow, the bus proceeded along a stretch of a dual carriageway that extended across fabulous countryside characterized by large swaths of grazing land and smaller areas of cultivated farmland. Dotting this unblemished scenery of greenery were patches of yellow glittering stars studded with prominent dark brown cores, carpets of self-poised sunflowers that seemed to be ready for harvesting. All this natural beauty glimmered for only a few minutes and soon dropped out of sight as the bus reached Myslenice, an urban settlement of considerable size located at the northern foot of the Beskid Makowski Mountains. After a short stopover, the bus started its uphill trip along high-gradient meandering roads passing on the way close to several typical mountain villages, most of which consisting of nothing more than a handful of farmhouses scattered here and there across the countryside. Dotting the trailed pathways amidst the densely forested alpine heights were tiny charming mountain refuges, convenient havens for trekkers and mountain climbers. Half-hidden in the thick of the forest but partly visible through the window of the bus were several chair lifts ideal for ramblers who wished to touch the peaks without exercising their legs beyond overindulgence.
This exciting portion of the bus trip alternating between sloping mountain roads and descending faulting depths resumed for no less than an hour until we finally reached the town of Nowy Targ, a mountain neighbourhood notorious for its ability to afford amazing riverside walks for amblers and picturesque peaks for climbers. A good number of backpackers got out of the bus at Nowy Targ bus station on the western edge of the town from where access to the mountains seemed to be an easy undertaking.
From Nowy Targ the bus started its fifteen-minute high-gradient descent to Zakopane, the first section of the road leading to the small mountain settlement of Poronin being a winding course running across hillside groves and fertile ravines brimming with flowering shrubs in yellow bloom. Extending south from Poronin to Zakopane, the road becomes pretty busy, particularly as the approach to Zakopane becomes imminent. Rows of rustic folksy wooden chalets, so characteristic of Zakopane paved the way to the town’s official boundary.