Put yourself in pole position

Cheap flights and a welcome shot of money could soon make Zakopane in Poland a serious rival to the budget ski resorts of Bulgaria and Romania. It might even overtake them. Minty Clinch heads east
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The Independent Travel

On a crisp February morning, we stood patiently at Kasprowy Wierch base station, part of a queue that ran languidly down a street full of sausage sellers doing a brisk trade. And if the sausages were washed down with vodka, so be it: Zakopane's venerable two-stage cable car carries 30 passengers per cabin, a meagre total of 180 an hour, up the most challenging of its ski areas. Those who had failed to pre-book their journey would be here for some time.

Zakopane is a small town in the Tatra mountains an hour and a half from Krakow international airport, easily reached by non-stop flights from London. As yet, it is not an international winter sports destination, a situation that could change quickly. Given the funding to upgrade its lifts, Zakopane will comfortably match its Romanian and Bulgarian rivals. It could even overtake them, given that it is equally cheap with far better food.

For the moment, however, it is a destination for independent travellers looking for a cultural adventure with skiing options rather than a winter sports holiday per se. Zakopane has four well-scattered and idiosyncratic ski areas in the mountains surrounding the town. Integration is a distant dream, with no inclusive lift pass; even within the individual areas, you have to pay for each lift as you come to it.

Refugees from the Alps will feel most at home on Kasprowy Wierch, a 1,987m crag flanked by the only skiable slopes above the all-enveloping forest. Two relatively modern four-man chairlifts serve two prepared if rocky pistes. In a spirit of adventure, we explored some interesting powder variants, much to the horror of our guide, an ex-racer who claimed that off-piste skiing is not on the agenda in these parts.

Maybe this is fortunate because the spirit of the Polish cavalry, which charged the German tanks when Hitler invaded the country in 1939, is alive and well and skiing in Zakopane. Although lessons are available, there is precious little evidence that the Poles take them, favouring a crash and burn approach.

This is particularly relevant on Gubalowka, a smooth floodlit dome served by a sleek funicular that runs until 9pm. At the top and the bottom, the intermediate piste is wide and inviting, but the two halves are joined by a high-speed icy chicane over the railway track. You may choose to slow down for it, but don't back your fellow skiers to follow suit. If you are a beginner yourself, you will find the most convenient nursery slopes at Nosal, a town hill with several parallel drag lifts on a wide flat area at the bottom. If you get bored, head for the pub with the welcoming open fire rather than the creaky one-man chair lift serving a narrow lethal descent from the top of this modest ski area.

With 15,000 residents, Zakopane is more town than ski resort, but a pedestrianised main street running parallel to a stream makes an appealing focus. There is no shortage of bars, ranging from cocktail through pub to local, where a round of 15 vodka shots may cost as little as £5. Alternatively, you can buy draft Guinness in the Seagrams Pub-Café. Either way, you should be flying by the time you strut your stuff to "Dancing Queen" in the Finlandia Arctic disco.

We stayed in the Belvedere Hotel, chosen as a holiday hideaway for Aleksander Kwasniewski, the former president of Poland, partly for its marble and glass chic and partly for its discreet location on the edge of the town. No doubt he enjoyed the excellent food in the penthouse Pod Aniolem restaurant, but I don't know if he shared our liking for the subterranean U-Boot bar, which provides late-night drinking in addition to pool tables, bowling and golf simulator.

Zakopane makes an excellent base for day trips to local attractions headed by the magnificent medieval city of Krakow. When I first visited it in the communist 1970s, sad Poles in cheap anoraks queued outside discouraging shops, while restaurants had nothing to serve except pork chops and mashed potato. Today Krakow is vibrantly alive, its 800,000 inhabitants crowding into cocktail bars, niche hotels and fully stocked stores in the pedestrian zone around the celebrated Market Square. Before 1989, it had 3,500 shops and 15 restaurants; 15 years later, those figures are 10,000 and 200.

The other "must-see" sight is, of course, Auschwitz concentration camp. One walks under the infamous entrance arch bearing the slogan "Arbeit macht frei" (work brings freedom) to a vast complex that has been kept almost unchanged. Even the most elementary knowledge of the horrors perpetrated here cannot fail to move.

The local tourist office puts the salt mines in Wieliczka beside the Pyramids, Versailles and the Taj Mahal on its world's top monument list. That may be overrating them a bit but Europe's oldest salt mines are certainly intriguing, as much for the Catholic zeal on display in the vast subterranean Chapel of the Blessed Kings as for the workings themselves. The tour allegedly follows paths taken by Copernicus, Goethe and Chopin. No doubt they loved it too.

The author travelled courtesy of Made to Measure Holidays (01243 533 333; mtmhols.co.uk), which offers seven nights at the Hotel Belvedere, including return flights and half board, from £699 or from £849 with car hire. Polish National Tourist Office (020-7580 4488; www.visitpoland.org)

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