My final fleeting memory from last night is people dancing around a bonfire swinging axes. Meanwhile, the headache I’m nursing suggests there’s every chance one of the axes is buried in my skull, though that’s more likely to be the work of the vodka I can still taste. There’s little time to work out the mystery of the après ski, though – I’m about to fling myself down a mountain.
My ski lesson is taking place just outside Zakopane, in Poland’s Tatra Mountains. The sorry state of the pound meant a ski holiday in the Alps was out this year, but Poland (and its zloty) promised the chance to hit the slopes for half the price. I’d also heard that the Tatras were different to the average Alpine resort. “More personality, fewer crowds,” claimed a patriotic Polish friend.
Zakopane, two hours south of Kraków, is hardly a secret – the winter capital of Poland, it’s welcomed kings and Popes during past December to March ski seasons – yet few foreigners come here. Even better, outside of the Polish school holidays, its six slopes aren’t crowded. Banked by neat valleys, sweeps of pine forest and blueberry bush scrub, it’s a landscape that can’t claim to be spectacular (the highest mountains peak at 2,000 metres), but it is serene and undisturbed, and beautiful for it.
You’ll need to put up with a little lack of finesse. Facilities are being upgraded, ski passes aren’t interchangeable between slopes and the town’s shuttle buses adhere to timetables found only in the driver’s head. But these inconveniences are balanced against the refreshing impression that Zakopane isn’t trying to shake down its visitors.
My skiing turns out to be as terrible as ever despite the lesson, not that I can blame Zakopane for that (although my performance is undermined by a hangover as well as a complete inability to steer). But at least I haven’t paid a fortune to fall over this time, because Poland delivers on its price promise. Day ski passes work out at around £15-20 and ski rental starts at the equivalent of about £6 per day.
Given that the skiing is a bust, it’s lucky Zakopane is so inviting. Of course no ski town can completely escape the dangers of becoming a tourist trap, but its main street of Krupówki remains largely unmolested. It’s an enjoyable pedestrianised ramble past carts hawking local cheeses and the steamy windows of bakeries stacked high with doughnuts.
I take my pick of the cosy inns (karczmas) to eat potatoes and lamb chops in front of an open fire. This is the cuisine of the Gorals – highlanders who farm the foothills surrounding town. Their personality infuses the region – in fact, they’re the reason I’m in my sorry state. They can be found hauling horse-pulled sleighs or striking up fiddles over dinner dressed in their distinctive felt hats. How much of this folk tradition is all show for tourists? Since I’m not so hot at skiing, I’d headed into the foothills to find out.
Maria Zych wasn’t wearing a hat when I met her, but she’s highlander through and through. Her family farm still produces the signature Goral oscypek sheep cheese inside a traditional wooden smoking hut known as a bacówka. Stepping through swirling smoke from the fire used to cure the cheese and past religious icons nailed to the wall, Maria showed me how they hand-turn the milk in a barrel and use wooden presses to mould the cheese.
It's a process that's barely changed in the four generations the Zychs have run the farm. When I asked Maria why they stick to traditional methods, she carved a slice of the cheese. It was fresh, slightly salty and had a delicious tang from five days in the smoke. “Because it tastes best this way,” she replied. I bought an oscypek the size of a wine bottle for less than £8, and we celebrated the sale with Maria’s homemade vodka – twice.
There are dozens of these bacówkas and karczmas hidden in the countryside. Largely undiscovered by tourism, you’ll find a modest scattering of tables and chairs, local food and endlessly warm hosts at each.
That’s how I found myself conscripted into a boisterous Goral wedding party. Plied with wild celery-infused vodka, I was yanked off my feet as a band of traditional dancers took to the floor. The dance is a centuries-old ritual, passed down through the clans and taught at local Goral schools to keep the culture alive. There were whistles, whoops and more raised glasses as the dancers clicked their heels, leapt over the bonfire and began to swing traditional mountain axes over their heads.
The après ski gets the thumbs up, then, but it’s hard for me to properly rate skiing in Poland. The experience in France, Austria and here is much the same for those of us who spend most of our time face down in the snow. But my inability to ski is precisely why I enjoyed Zakopane so much – there’s so much to explore off the slopes. And whether or not I rent a pair of skis again, I’ll be back: for the folklore, for the culture that hasn’t yet been polished and packaged for tourists… and to share more cheese, vodka and a little bit of mischief with axe-wielding locals.
Ryanair (ryanair.com) offers frequent flights to Krakow from Stansted, with return fares from £40.
Rory Boland stayed at Mercure Kasprowy (kasprowy.pl/en), where rooms overlooking the Tatras are around £100 per night in ski season.
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