Nestled at the confluence of two picturesque valleys, Zakopane is Poland’s most convenient base for hiking in the Tatras. Besides a host of central hotels, Zakopane is flooded with holiday homes that accommodate the thousands who descend on the city every year. In addition to cheap lodging, Zakopane boasts excellent and frequent bus transport that penetrates deep into the most popular valleys and climbs up the most outstanding mountain sides of the region. These two worthwhile benefits are perhaps enough to justify why so many mountain trekkers choose Zakopane as their seat of lodging.
Those in the know however are aware that the atmosphere in Zakopane has evolved into one of day-and-night street partying which at times becomes tiresome and is too much to withstand. Although first-time visitors may be fascinated by the air of celebration and euphoria that hangs out along Ul Krupowki and its neighbouring side streets, it must be said that unless one finds accommodation away from the central zone, it is utterly impossible to find moments of nonchalance and tranquillity. Consider coming back to dine and sleep after a full day of trekking on the peaks or skiing on the pistes and you encounter high-volume street music or noisy street entertainers performing non-stop right under the window of your hotel room. Not even double glazing can prevent the disturbing ferment from reaching you.
To avoid the incessantly uproarious atmosphere of Zakopane, trekkers familiar with the place do not use Zakopane’s hotels or private rooms as their base to the mountains. Those coming down from towns further north, particularly from Warsaw or Krakow, usually terminate their journey at Nowy Targ, fifteen miles north of Zakopane. This subdued mountain town sitting on the intersection of the White and Black Dunajec rivers is not geared towards tourism and consequently accommodation is scarce, although the business of private rooms seems to be stepping up like lightning. Located on the main traffic route between Krakow and Zakopane, Nowy Targ is well connected by bus with all neighbouring towns and villages. An extra bonus is the westbound bus that travels to Zubrzyca Gorna, a small urban settlement that boasts the greatest outdoor folklore museum in the region. Using Nowy Targ as one’s base to the mountains may not be as handy as Zakopane but one is undoubtedly assured of a good night’s sleep away from the persistent bustling atmosphere of Zakopane’s shindigs.
Only a quarter of the Tatra Mountain region is Polish territory, the rest and the most off-the-beaten track belonging to Slovakia. The Slovakian Tatra Mountain range embraces the highest peak of the Carpathian chain and the deepest and most picturesque valleys and glacial lakes in the entire Carpathian region. The rugged mountain crests, bare and snow-capped for most of the year are reachable via funicular railways or chair lifts or a combination of both. Below the mountain crests, the lower sloping sides are carpeted with pine and spruce while further down, the fertile alpine valley sides offer a striking variety of terrain, characterized by extensive patches of grassland and smaller plots of shrubs and blossoming plants.
This attractive expanse of mountainous terrain located south of the Polish - Slovakian border can be reached from Zakopane by a special bus operated by a private company known as Marian Strama Transportowe. Popularly known as the Strama bus, this convenient public vehicle runs five times daily between Zakopane and Poprad in Slovakia and back, covering the whole one-way trip in somewhat more than two hours. The ticket price for the entire journey is twenty-two zlotys, less if one stops along the way. The cheap price combined with the comfortable air-conditioned Mercedes buses that ply the route makes the trip a worthwhile option, particularly when one considers that the bus cuts across scenic mountain landscape all the way.
From Zakopane, the bus climbs uphill along a steep busy thoroughfare to the small mountain village of Poronin, making its first halt at the Dom Kultury stop. From here, it proceeds eastwards along a secondary road towards Bukowina, another tiny village located within a picturesque forested valley setting. Leaving Bukowina, the bus makes its way towards Lysa Polana, a quasi-uninhabited border village located deep within a fertile ravine from where the rising views of the nearby enclosing mountain topography are superb. Lysa Polana is still characterized by the surviving border-crossing gates which have been out of operation since 2007 when Poland joined the Schengen zone.
Out of Poland into Slovakia, Lysa Polana’s twin sister is Tatranska Javorina, a nondescript village that sits comfortably at the foot of the Belianske Mountains. The journey from here to the small town of Zdiar is amazing, the bus pulling along high-gradient forested slopes from where the snow-capped peaks of the High Tatras are almost within touch. Soon after leaving the last Zdiar stop, the bus takes a sharp turn south towards Tatranska Kotlina passing en route alongside stretches of dense pine forest, bubbling river tributaries and grassy lake shores. After stopping at the minuscule mountain hamlet of Kezmarske Zlaby, the bus proceeds further south towards the highest peak and most scenic spot along the route. Called Tatranska Lomnica, this is Slovakia’s most equipped ski centre offering besides hotels, restaurants and other essential services, a sufficient number of cable-cars and chair lifts that render the highest peaks within easy reach. Even if you do not intend to trek or ski, stopping here for a day to use Europe’s most risky suspension cable-car to Lomnicky peak is definitely a highly rewarding experience.
Tatranska Lomnica is followed by another ski resort called Stary Smokovec. Although this is the oldest mountain settlement in the High Tatras, it is not as resourceful and equipped for skiing as Tatranska Lomnica. The cable-car to the Hrebienok peak however offers views that are equally amazing all the way up.
The last fifteen-minute section of the route is a sharp drop from the soaring altitude of the mountains in Stary Smokovec to the sub-Tatra region of Poprad. The descent along a winding country roadway offers more views over fertile valleys, sweeping meadows and rushing streams that drain the surplus water from the mountains into the Poprad River. The bus stops at Poprad bus station where the majority of travellers terminate their journey. However, it has to be noted that Poprad bus station is not the end stop because the bus runs further east to Poprad Aquacity, a modern spa resort equipped with saunas, massage rooms and all water-sports facilities one can dream of.
Apart from Poprad’s spa resort, the city is an unappealing monolith of residential blocks and does not draw any sightseers but its proximity to the High Tatras and its excellent transport options make it East Slovakia’s most ideal location from where a number of quiet graceful mountain towns and villages can be reached with ease.
Only a thirty-minute bus ride eastwards from Poprad is Levoca, a town small in size but utterly rich in history and natural charm. Set amidst lovely undulating hills at the foot of the Levocske Mountains and cut across by the Levocsky tributary, it is a sanctuary of seclusion and peacefulness, distinctively quiet, noiseless and secretive. Walk along the steep streets on the south edge of the medieval town and presumably you will walk alone; climb up to the town’s central square where most of the historical attractions are located and you will not encounter more than a dozen visitors. "Where are the locals?" I kept asking myself. But, needless to say, there was nobody on the street to answer back.
Levoca’s bus station is out of the way on the southern outskirts of the town, a twenty-minute uphill walk to the medieval quarter. But this laborious walk is as a matter of fact a feather in one’s cap rather than a drawback because it gives one the opportunity to walk along a lengthy stretch of the city’s immaculate medieval bastions and observe the architectural beauty of the arched gateways and projecting turrets that grace this double-walled structure.
Several gates along the city’s ring road, Probstnerova Cesta allow entry into the medieval town but it is the Kosicka Gate on the northeast edge of the bastions that is the most impressive. A short westbound walk from here on Ul Kosicka puts you right on the central square. Unpretentious but crammed with attractions, it is the place to stay if you want to savour the history that moulded the city into the shape you see today. Levoca’s irresistible focus of attraction is the Gothic Town Hall, a graceful fifteenth-century structure that occupies central stage on the main square. Close by is the Church of St James, a gigantic building that contains a wealth of original wood carvings, its high altar being an extreme example of fine craftsmanship and elaborate artistry. A good look around the square reveals more outstanding buildings, presently used as museums or exhibition centres.