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November 3, 2017
Autumn colours in Zakopane
Looking back, the success of this weekend was as much down to good fortune as it was to good planning. But whatever the cause, it shouldn’t detract from the fact that this autumn mini-break turned out to be a rather special few days.
On the way to Kuznice
It all began back in the early summer. Over the course of the year we had been listening with increasing regularity to the klezmer / jazz / Balkan / folk / fusion influenced compositions of Polish world music ensemble Kroke and decided on a whim to find out whether they were touring anywhere. They were, and not only that, they were going to be playing a special one-off 25th anniversary live show in their hometown of Krakow …….
Kondracka Kopa & Giewont
With tickets booked, we hastily cobbled together a long weekend itinerary featuring a couple of days in the mountain resort of Zakopane, followed by a return to Krakow for the gig.
Approaching the Murowaniec Hut
“What’s the weather like in October?” friends enquired, “Isn’t it cold?”. We checked. The weather in Zakopane during October is typically characterised by “rapidly falling daily temperatures”, “decreasing daylight hours” and “increased cloud cover” Precipitation can also increase, too. Oh well, maybe we’d get in a bit of low-level ambling along the valleys.
Giewont as seen on the descent
Fast forward a couple of months, and we were checking the forecast again. As we were travelling with only hand luggage, packing appropriately for both the walking and the gig was crucial. We had already seen photos of early snowfall across parts of Central and Eastern Europe – would we be in for a wintry weekend?
In the Olczyska Valley
To our surprise, it looked like it mightn’t be too bad. Temperatures in the mid-20s Celsius were forecast, and sunshine too, and these were confirmed on arrival in Zakopane - a wave of unseasonably warm, bright weather had settled over the region, leading to summer-like conditions and clear skies. We looked up at the mountains, and got excited.
Our first walk was an old favourite. From Kuznice, we followed the Dolina Jaworzynka, climbed to the saddle at the head of the valley, then followed the level-ish path to the Schronisko Murowaniec, where we enjoyed a lunch of bean soup, pierogi (Polish ravioli) and tea.
Beautiful colours in the Dolina Olczyska
Returning to the saddle, we then took an alternative route towards Kuznice on a ridge path high above the Jaworzynka Valley. Descending through woods as we neared the village, we veered off on a path leading down into the Olczyska Valley and followed a rushing mountain stream framed by flaming autumn foliage.
If anything, the next day dawned with even more promise. Urged on by clear views of the mountainous backdrop, we set off early to catch the cable car from Kuznice to Kasprowy Wierch from where we planned to walk the ridge that follows the Polish-Slovak border.
View from Kasprowy Wierch
The High Tatras are a compact range whose 2,500m summits sound relatively modest compared to the alps. But make no mistake: the range may be small, but as can be seen it is pretty perfectly formed.
Approaching Goryczkowa Czuba
After picking off the nearby minor peak of Beskid, we set off along the ridge. With clear skies, autumn colours and snow-dusted peaks, the views across the Tatras were amazing and the morning on the verge of being too perfect. Not that we were worried by that!
High Tatra summits
The ridge is sharp and clearly defined, and the path along it rocky and undulating. Care must be taken, but there is little real danger if approached sensibly, and with the occasional “hands-on” sections and substantial drops to either side add a frisson of excitement, it is arguably mountain-walking at its best.
Looking into Slovakia
Having crossed or by-passed several subsidiary summits, we reached to top of Kondracka Kopa after a couple of hours. It was busy, the fine weather having drawn the crowds, but we found a perch and took a break for a bite to eat.
Looking back along the ridge from Kondracka Kopa
Although the path along the ridge continued to the summits of Malolaczniak and Ciemniak and beyond, our route struck off towards the Kondracka Pass at the foot of Giewont.
Giewont & the Kondracka Pass
Highly visible from Zakopane, Giewont’s shapely profile has earned it the name of “the Sleeping Knight”, and legend has it that the Knight will awaken to protect the people if they are in danger. We had considered adding this summit to our outing, but with over two-and-a-half hours of hiking still to complete, and not wanting to finish in the dark, we decided against it.
The descent from the Kondracka Pass to the Schronisko Kondratowej took about three-quarters of an hour, allowing time for a leisurely cup of tea at the hut. Bathed in warm sunshine, uplifted by the glorious autumn-tinged surroundings and soothed by the hubbub of happy hikers, there must have been few better places to be at that precise moment than right there, right then.
Eventually, we prised ourselves away from the hut and continued down the valley. Kuznice was busy, so we carried on into Zakopane, heading directly for the main street in search of dinner. Having worked up a decent appetite, the meal of Pork Goulash and Potato Pancakes went down really well, as did the coffee and vodka later on.
Next morning proved to be the best so far, and with only a few hours left before we had to catch the bus back to Krakow we wanted to make the most of them.
Giewont, The Sleeping Knight
Heading out along the road, we made our way to the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima, one of the most important churches in Zakopane. Constructed in the 1980s to mark Pope John Paul II’s recovery after the 1981 assassination attempt, the church is of unique design and is dedicated to Our Lady of Fatima.
Stained glass showing the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II - gunman visible in bottom left panel
Our Lady of Fatima is another name for the Virgin Mary, who appeared as an angel to three shepherd children in the parish of Fatima in Portugal. What we didn’t know was that the weekend of our visit coincided with the centenary of the appearance of the apparitions, and no sooner had we finished our look round than the doors were shut and visitors excluded in preparation for the forthcoming celebrations.
Inside of the Church of Our Lady of Fatima
Picking our way through quiet residential streets, we joined the Droga pod Reglami – a cobbled road running beneath flame-coloured trees along the edge of the wooded hillside that connects some of the numerous valleys that run north from the Tatras.
On the Droga pod Reglami
Back in Zakopane, we crossed town and made our way to the coach station. It was time to leave, and although we would have preferred to stay for longer, we were buoyed by the prospect of the evening’s gig and the knowledge that a long weekend in Poland can be very rewarding and quite easily organised from the UK.
View of the ICE venue across the river
Having checked into our Hotel in Krakow, we got ready for the concert. To see an iconic band celebrate their 25th anniversary in their hometown was a real treat. The atmosphere was fantastic, as was the musicianship, and although we didn’t understand the chat between songs there was no mistaking the mutual appreciation between band and audience.
Waiting for the gig to start
It was a great gig, and should have been enough for one night. However, we were in for another musical treat: outside the church of Saints Peter and Paul on Grodzka Street, musician and composer Andy Grabowski was performing his mesmerising works for cello and live loops/effects.
Our final day was spent exploring Krakow. Much of the morning was taken up with an exploration of the Jewish Quarter, followed by a circumnavigation of the Old Town along the Planty (a tree-lined strip of park that circles the old town centre).
The Old Jewish Cemetery
Walking along the Planty
Statue of Nicolai Copernicus
After a final bite to eat, it was time to head back to the airport. Mulling over the events of the past few days, it was amazing to think we had completed two-and-a-half days of mountain walking, transferred between Krakow and Zakopane twice, seen two excellent music performances, explored a historic city and travelled to and from the country – all in a 5-day break!