A white holiday

A white holiday

A white holiday

With streets and mountains covered in a thick blanket of snow, Stuart Forster explores Zakopane and Krakow in Poland that have become the new tourist hotspots.

Pedestrians stare and children wave as I glide past them in the back of a horse-drawn sleigh. Laughing, I wave back. This may be as close as I’ll ever get to knowing how Santa Claus feels, yet it’s just an ordinary winter’s day here in Zakopane, Poland.

Snow is piled 50 cm deep on the sloping roofs of the ornate wooden houses that are typical of this region. The scene really could come straight from a Christmas card. We zip past a chemist’s shop and I see a thermometer saying it is a chilly -11°C tonight.

 Fortunately, the sleigh driver covered me in a thick blanket before we set off on our evening sightseeing tour of this beautiful winter resort, and the dry air of Tatra mountains means I don’t feel the biting cold.

Watching that I don’t slip on the icy road, I disembark at the Czarci Jar Inn, and welcome the warmth within the wooden walls of this pine hut where regional delicacies are served. A string quartet dressed in traditional fawn costumes of the mountains plays, and a waitress presses a warm cup of tea mixed with vodka into my hand. Polish hospitality, I’m learning, is hearty.

Mountain air

Zakopane is a popular winter resort and will host Alpine skiing events during the 2022 Winter Olympics if Krakow, 87 km to the north, is awarded the right to host the games by the International Olympic Committee.

Mateusz Marasek, a former member of Poland’s national ski team, agrees to take me out skiing on the pistes he knows best. “I consider Kasprowy Wierch to be a good slope. For advanced skiers, it is a very good place because the slopes are long. In the town there are plenty of possibilities for beginners and less advanced skiers...this year, we have a good winter, so it will be possible to ski in May here,” has says. We chat as we take a cable car to the peak of the mountain, 1,987 metres up in the Tatras.

During summer, this area is popular with trekkers, who come to appreciate the fresh air and mountain scenery. Unfortunately, with snow falling, I can’t see anything. Mateusz pulls out his digital camera and shows me a series of beautiful landscapes from a sunnier day; normally, we’d be able to look into neighbouring Slovakia too.

Last year’s UEFA Euro 2012 football championship, which Poland co-hosted, is generating new interest in travel to Poland. The event helped break unflattering stereotypes about Polish customer service, a legacy that has lingered almost a generation since the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Krakow did not host any games during last year’s tournament, but a number of teams made this historic city their base. The Italian team stayed at the four-star Turowka Hotel and Spa, a 15-minute drive from the impressive Wawel Castle, the capital of the Kingdom of Poland during the Middle Ages.

Guests at this hotel can ask to sleep in the room their favourite player occupied during the tournament. I see a neat little plaque stating Mario Balotelli, the AC Milan star, stayed in room 110. “The plaques are proving very popular,” says the hotel manager, “in fact, quite a few have already been taken home by guests as souvenirs.”

The Turowka is a two minute drive from Wieliczka Salt Mine, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Darius, a former miner, informs me that underground tunnels run for more than 300 km. Mining rock salt, known as ‘grey gold’ in times gone by due to its high value, came to an end here in 1996.

Visitors come to see the sculptures and rooms carved by miners underground. I utter a “wow!” as I see chandeliers made from salt crystals hanging in St Kinga’s Chapel, 101 metres below the surface. “You’ll have to come back again some time to listen to our orchestra playing,” says Darius as we pass an underground concert hall on the way to the subterranean restaurant.

Legends of Krakow

Parts of Krakow, such as the Kazimierz district, the city’s Jewish quarter, have undergone major restoration in recent years. Snow lies on the ground and tourists snap photos of the synagogues and the pastel facades of houses and restaurants.

To learn why these buildings fell into disrepair, I head to the Schindler Factory. During World War II, the factory was managed by Oskar Schindler, a name I recognise from Steven Spielberg’s 1993 movie, Schindler’s List, which was filmed on location in Krakow, and tells the story of the industrialist who saved the lives of more than 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust. 

The factory reopened in 2010, hosting the hard-hitting permanent exhibition in Krakow under Nazi occupation 1939-1945. Its carefully put together collection — of photographs, artefacts and recreated wartime rooms — conveys a sense of how the Nazis terrorised the Polish society. Tellingly, as we reached the end of the tour, my guide Magda turns and says, “For us, the Russian arrival was a second occupation...for the rest of Europe the war was over, but not for us.”

Poland is clearly enjoying its freedom and now is as good a time as ever to explore this central European nation.