Sunday, 15 June 2008

Zakopane


My chest snaps as I stand. It feels much better. Even though this random escapade is to be a short one, the small suitcase we have with us is comforting; it feels like an anchor of preparation seldom included on banal treks to the village or surrounding woodlands. I snatch it up greedy before the door to my right slides open. Two nuns bolt towards the open, clad in blue and white robes, past a huddled bunch of biddies I can see through the smeared glass windows. Someone told me before we came that it is not necessary to book a room in Zakopane before arriving, as it is almost impossible not to stumble across swarming old women with boards upon getting off the coach. I hook my jacket around my waste and thank the driver, a tatty gnome like woman with chipolata fingers and bad breath, hops up and down in front of me exclaiming that she has an apartment for rent. Her loose pink blouse is so stretched it looks like it is trying to escape her tacky dark skin. I look over my shoulder and ask Joanna what she thinks, she winces. A group of elderly women point at the gnome lady from behind and make faces at her when she tries to convince us she has a beautiful apartment for us to stay at this evening. I ask her where her accommodation is located and she tells me it is only three minutes around the corner, her mawkish digits grapple with the suitcase and we are on our way.

The gnome lady’s competitors sneer behind her as she turns to gloat, but she does so only for a second. She whisks us off in the direction of the high street past kiosks, meat markets, veggie stands, coat racks and shrubbery until we find ourselves at the entrance to a modern Polish tower block. The walls are yellow. Gnome lady opens the door with a silver key and we march up some stairs to the third floor, she shuffles us inside her smutty abode and shows us around. The first thing I notice after stepping into the bedroom is the glorious view of the Tatra Mountains in front of us; peaks capped with amethyst streaks that shimmer in the sunlight. It looks glorious, which is a little more than I can say for the dingy quarters we are asked to pay seventy zloty a night for. I haggle down to fifty and the gnome lady sneers while handing me two small keys strung together by a gritty pink hair tie. She tells us not to touch the boiler, even if it starts rattling in the night. The ceiling is bulging and the dead lock is busted but everything else works fine. She says she will be back at ten o’clock in the morning to remove us.

Joanna has just finished a twelve-hour night shift and her hands are shaking but she says she is ready to climb some mountains. The poor lass works as a security administrator in Bochnia, her role similar to that of Janine Melnitz in Ghostbusters, dispatching security forces to breeched areas of the town. I pry about the small apartment and decide is not actually all that bad for fifty zloty a night. The boiler growls and spits some thick black liquid into the bath tub as I walk past it and into a second bedroom. Like the room we dumped our suitcase in, it holds two foldout sofa beds and little else. As I turn to leave the room though, I am confronted by one of the creepiest religious objects I have ever seen.

White polystyrene folding boxes are commonplace in the UK for carrying battered fish and chips. They are most useful when eating on hoof and even for storing ‘from the night before’s. As useful as these boxes are in the take away food department, I would never so much as even think about using one as a picture frame. Yet that is what I seem to be presented with. A polystyrene fish and chip box lid, nailed to the wall, framing a cut out of John Paul 2nd. The late pope grins back at me as I make no effort to contain my laughter at this absurd display.

We walk a couple of minutes from the apartment to the bustling high street, the forecast was for rain but the sunshine has brought masses of people out onto the streets for ice cream and dancing. Hundreds of market stalls litter the pavements, selling everything from baby slippers to long axes. The air smells of chestnuts and the Gubalowka mountains in front of us rocket from the ground below the busy high street. We hit the bottom end of the town center for a mushroom zapekanka each and locate the cable car to the top of Gubalowka. According to the tourist guide, this is the most accessible mount and is full of screaming kids as a consequence. The most rewarding aspect though, is that it is an excellent place to view the ‘praying man mountain’, whatever that may be. Half expecting to be escorted to the top of the mountain all rickety by a rusty chairlift, I feel a splinter of disappointment upon discovering the sixteen zloty a head ticket only covers a one way journey to the top by a state of the art train. We clamber on board and the electronic doors hum as we zoom past eager climbers haggering their way up the recline. I envy each alien stride.

School children bustle about the wooden fencing that overlooks the below. A loggers leap type race track, flags crumpling in the gust jets and the praying man mount. It twirls in a sea of cloud somewhere to our right. The view from the top of the Gubalowka is beautiful but I feel foolish for paying to get to the top. We take a coffee in a café overlooking the fabulous view and we discuss our plans for the remaining few hours we have left in Zakopane. We are staying for two days and one night; a deserved break after a tricky year of toil. Joanna points to the praying man and asks me what I think. This particular formation is symbolic due to the fact that it slightly resembles a man laying down in the prayer position… Some time ago, people decided that it would be a good idea to stick a giant cross on the praying man formation’s ‘finger’ to help inflate its symbolism. It looks daft. Regardless, the range is an incredible sight and makes walking back down to the bottom of Gubalowka most pleasant.

By the time we reach the bottom of the 1200 metre descent, I am walking at a mad angle. There are so many peaks and pivots to patrol, my ankles bend odd every time they touch ground. The sky hints at downpour but we still have one more mountain top to conquer before dinner if we wish to make the most of our stay in Zakopane.

After a nice sit down and a cup of tea in a field, we wait at a random bus stop. There is no timetable and daffodils lark in the gentle breeze. A little similar to Rytro with its multitude of guesthouses and tourist delights, Zakopane is one of the most popular destinations for Poles during bank holidays and summer seasons. According to Joanna’s father, there were over one million visitors during the May bank holiday weekend this year, leaving the roads jam-packed and inflation on a killer wave. The streets are crowded enough on this murky, I can’t imagine what a million bodies on a sun kissed afternoon would do to this small town.

We wait twenty minutes and an eight seater stops and drives us a few kilometers up the road to a range called Kasprowy Wierch. This bad boy is eight hundred metres higher than Gubalowka so we have no intention of climbing up or down it. At least not today. As the cable car plods slower up the plume green mountains, the clouds get that much lower. Droplets of rain start to slap the glass-paneled car as we escalate. There are thirteen of us in the car, huddled together taking pictures of astonishing scenery. Gallant green gatherings of steep bark ad tussling leaves jigsaw up the mountain as we near the 1000 metre mark. We stop at a place called Myślenickie Turnie, change cars and get higher. A slim brunette stands in the center of the car and spins around in circles while clutching a video camera. Her sister asks what she is doing and the camera lady presses a free finger to her lips. The car tilts to one side and a fat man squeals with glee. 1987 metres above sea level and we are at the top of the mountain, although we might as well be at the bottom judging from the view. Cloud surrounds the peak of the mount and it is impossible to see more than a few feet in front. I feel as though I am a part of some glorious magic show, all surrounded by smoke. I refuse to pay the two zloty at Dominium to use the toilet and urinate over the edge of the mountain.

Once back at ground level, we make our way to the bus stop. A driver bolts upright when we walk past and asks if we want to go to the center for three zloty each. Sounds fair. He boots us up with a grim collective of moist walkers and starts the ignition. The drive back to the center of town is a quick one, taking no longer than a few minutes. By this point though, Joanna is very tired after her night shift and needs to collapse. We find a pizza restaurant in town and order humongous portions of veggie delight. We make plans for tomorrow, accounting for the gnome lady waking us up at ten o’clock. She tells me that she once went to a mountain range in the area called Morskie Oko and that it is a frightfully wonderful place to spend an afternoon if it be rain free… We walk back to the flat half expecting to see Gnome framing a picture of Ratzinger in a crisp packet. She is not. The boiler screams at me while I use the bath, a lacey black spider watches me as I scrub.

Joanna sleeps for an hour and a half while I mooch around the shops in search of herbal tea. The sky is leaking but it matters not, for when she awakes, she tells me she wishes to drink wine in the center. We brolly to the high street in search of bright lights and noise. There are several illuminated signs, some bustle in the air and thudding beats come from a building somewhere above. We stumble into a quaint little joint on the main strip. There is a band of three belting some whoppers on their strings and horns as we take our seats. I order a bottle of white wine and the waitress beams back at me as she pours.

-

I throw on my jeans and scour the kitchen for cutlery. Three forks. I take a swig of cold tea from the bowl I used as a vessel last night and stroll the morning dew in search of a bakery. I settle for a 24 hour mini mart called SuperSam and purchase some fresh rolls, a yogurt and a couple of drozdzowki. When I get back to the flat, we fill the rolls with cream cheese and get disturbed. A ten to nine, Gnome bursts in through the front door with a couple of new guests. She yells good morning at us and shuffles her new clients into the polystyrene pope room. We had agreed to have the room until ten o’clock this morning but I suppose this comes at the expense of winning a bitter haggle.

We consume our breakfast on the small balcony and finish packing to the voices of Gnome’s new guests, they hand over the full asking price in cash and Gnome leaves. The gent of the new clientele asks where we are from but he has never heard of Bochnia. He sits in the second bedroom and natters to us politely while skinning up a joint on the coffee table. We bid them adjure and walk towards the train station with our suitcase, passing scores of babas with smoked cheese and head scarves on the way. We pay a lady at the station five zlotys to take our suitcase somewhere and look after it for the day while we scout the area for busses to the Morskie Oko.

The mini bus is tight and loud. It buzzes through small villages, bombs around sharp corners and struggles over dusty hills, lavished on either side with fury green trees. I listen to a Spanish vocab builder and the first ten minutes of Andrew Marr before we arrive at a large car park. We pay the driver eight zloty each and then pay another three something to get through the gates and into the countryside. There are posters and signs everywhere exclaiming the presence of bears in the area. A mass of people start to make their way up the steady mountain and scores of walkers crack open tinnies as a symbol of vacation. I am stunned that so many people are drinking beer at this time and place. I fancy one. Waterfalls, brooks, sudden drops and random pathways jilt at all angles throughout the six kilometer hike to the top of the mountain. I drink a litre of water, wash my face in a stream and get confused for a girl on the way to the Oko. Once we get to our destination I feel a change in the air. The most placid and glistening veneer of the cleanest and possibly the coldest water I have ever seen lay in front of me surrounded by flourishing greenery and crumbling rocks. Chubby fish swim close to the edge in hope that I will drop my sandwich from the rock I am perched on. A guesthouse looks over the transparent water where trout swim and children throw stones. Group loads of Poles arrive on carts pulled by horses and there is not a cloud in the sky. I look up to my right at one of the highest mountains in view, Joanna tells me it is called Rysy and it is 2500 metres high. Crikey. I buy some tea with rum and we sit with a group of elderly Germans who munch on pealed apples with bread and meat.