Ellie’s Travel Adventure – Zakopane ~ the ‘winter capital of Poland’

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If anyone has been reading from the start, you may remember that the first few weeks of van life, and in Scotland especially, we did quite a bit of climbing, hiking in the mountains etc. My husband loves a hike, but he is not a fan of climbing, so imagine how shocked I was this week when HE suggest 3 different mountain climbs! They weren’t all ‘successful’, mind you, but he’s a changed man!

‘soft Slovakian bread’
This kind of pale, yellow-y bread is the best bread I’ve ever eaten – but what is it?!

So this week, we were in Zakopane – the ‘winter capital of Poland’. It’s nestled in the Tatra mountains, right on the border with Slovakia. In fact, the best route to get from where we were to our apartment was through Slovakia. We were driving in the country for a grand total of about 25 minutes, but we thought we should stop for lunch on the way through – if you get the opportunity of lunching in a different country, you take it! We found what seemed to be a local, traditional place, and we managed to vaguely communicate with the waitress in slow Polish / Slovakia (I say we, I wasn’t much help, obviously). We ended up with a huge pot of tomato and cabbage soup, with bread, pork in a sauce, with yet more bread, fried cheese, sauerkraut, potato salad and 2 drinks, all for just €9! The bread! I am huge a bread fan – this was some of the best bread I have ever had in my life! It was soooooo soft! We don’t know exactly what it was, but having spoken to a friend who is German, she suggested it may be similar to German knödel. I have Googled various things like ‘soft Slovakian bread’, but cannot find a definitive answer, unfortunately. The fried cheese was sheep’s cheese, which, as we came to notice, is hugely popular in the whole of the mountain region. Stomachs fully satisfied, and with another pot of soup chucked in for free to take home with us, we continued the journey.

So, as I mentioned last week, it has been feeling a little nippy in the van at night recently, and we thought we would probably feel this even more in the mountains! This, coupled with the fact that we wanted to be out and about, would want a hot shower etc, meant that we looked for a place to stay for the week. Since we’re in between the summer and winter seasons, during which Zakopane EXPLODES, we were able to find a lovely studio apartment we could rent for the whole week for a very reasonable price.

As I mentioned before, my husband is not huge on the whole climbing thing, so I had envisioned us finding some flatter hikes etc. Imagine my surprise then, when he suggests 2 climbs in 2 days – one of which being to Poland’s tallest mountain! And so, up we were at 5am, to set off for Rysy, at 2500m high! Rysy is right on the border, so you can choose to climb from the Polish or Slovakian side. The Slovakian side is considered ‘easier’, but, it’s an hour and half drive around the mountain to get to the start of that trail. Also, on the Polish trail, you go past lake Morskie Oko, which is apparently the most visited sight in the whole of the Tatra’s National Park. We knew that this would be a tough climb, and so we kept our expectations for actually summiting low. If we could see the lake, at least, I would be happy!

Morskie Oko
The surreal scenes of Morskie Oko.

The trek up to Morskie Oko was a paved road all the way, being such a famous spot. And, unlike other climbs we’ve been on – it has a café when you get there! (Backstory – when we climbed Ben Nevis last year, for some reason, I was convinced there was a café at the top. My husband was not enjoying the climb, and kept asking people who were on the way back down if the café is open, receiving a lot of chuckles, as people presumed it was a joke, I guess! When we got there and there was no café, he was not best pleased, and instead sat on the ground to die, and phoned his mum to say goodbye! Safe to say, we’ve come a long way since then!) Anyways, Morskie Oko truly is an incredible sight. I think it’s the first time I’ve seen with my own eyes the classic mountain lake with crystal clear reflections. Truly beautiful, so, like I said, if that was all we had managed, I would’ve been happy!

But, we were feeling good, and the weather was fantastic, so we decided to carry on (after a coffee in the café of course!) The trail carried on around the bank of the lake and up to another one … and this is where we started to encounter problems. Turning around, we could see the incredible sight of the border between where the sun hits and where it doesn’t ever reach. Unfortunately for us, the rest of our climb would be on the backside of the mountain, in the shadows, where the sun’s light is not able to thaw the snow and ice. This time of year, you can never be sure of the conditions – it’ll be cold and freeze up one day, but the warmth of the next can melt it instantly – but it soon became clear to us that we would have a long old icy trek ahead of us. The bigger problem though, would be a big old icy descent. Anyone who climbs mountains will probably agree that the descent is often more gruelling than the climb. Not on your lungs, but on your legs, and knees. The relentless downhill can cause some serious pain! A slippery, icy, relentless downhill … now that just did not seem appealing to us. If the climb would be 2 hours, coming down in those conditions would be much slower, and honestly, we would probably run out of daylight! So, we did make the decision to turn back, which, genuinely, I think was correct. We had had a lovely, enjoyable climb up to the lake, and seeing some beautiful scenes – why would we now ruin it with hours of intense, sometimes scary, sometimes dangerous climbing and descent. We were able though, to make it up to a sort of ‘snow cave’ that we could see a little way up the side. After some research, it turns out that this formation, which is literally just an arch of snow, not resting on anything, is the result of melt underneath, and then wind whipping through and icing up the bottom layer again. It did make for some great pictures!

The ‘snow cave’
The ‘snow cave’
Where winter meets summer.
Where winter meets summer.







I’ll not go into too much detail, but we did attempt another mountain, and again, were thwarted ¾ of the way up by very bad icy conditions. It was at this point that we decided to invest in some spikes for our boots! If they would come in time, we’d try again at the end of the week.

Piggy & Coffee
This little piggy enjoys coffee breaks when climbing mountains.


Whilst waiting for the spikes, we had a couple of down days, where we took a few walks into town, and also went to a traditional sauna. I say ‘traditional’ .. when you first enter, it seems like any other big water park. We spent some time in the ‘family section’, which hot tubs, outdoor pools, salt baths and slides. One of which was super cool, by the way! You stand in a tube, the guy presses a button, and the floor beneath your feet disappears and you just fall down this slide! Then, we decided to go up to the spa/sauna area … where, nudity is obligatory. Yep, obligatory. Konrad had warned me that there would be naked people. That’s fine, that’s their choice … what I was not expecting was to be told that I had to remove my bathing suit, and then, when we even went into a steam room with a towel on, for someone to come I and tell us that towels were not allowed. I don’t want to make this a huge thing, but I cannot get my head around a good reason why complete nudity would be OBLIGATORY! What damage is a towel going to do to your steam room?! But there was one reason why we were there – Konrad wanted us to experience a séance. This means something completely different in Polish! What it turns out it means in sitting in a sauna whilst someone flaps a towel around to make it even hotter … I wasn’t much looking forward to it, to be honest, as I don’t enjoy the dry heat of a sauna very much anyway, but this was the ‘traditional’ part, so I wanted to try it. It was an incredibly surreal experience … this time, I was allowed to keep my towel on, but many didn’t. Then, club music was pumped at a very high volume, whilst men waved the towel around. However, this was very clearly a real skill, a form of dance, and one of them even turned out to be world champion! Maybe not something I would rush back to do again, but it was definitely unforgettable!

2096m – our first 2k+ peak!
2096m – our first 2k+ peak!

Our spikes came, and so we set off for our third and final climb of the week, hoping that this time we would make it all the way. And, spoilers, we did! And turns out, due to the beautiful weather of the previous 2 days, we didn’t even need the spikes! This time, we chose to climb Malolaczniak, which, at 2096m, would still be our highest peak. The climb was tough, I must admit, and a huge part of it, I felt, was due to the differing oxygen levels in the air. A lot of the time, I would be feeling exhausted, breathing for my life, and yet my watch would tell me that my heart rate was hardly elevated! There was a cool little section with chains to pull yourself up, and after about 3 hours in all, we summited! And felt wind like we’d never felt wind before! Multiple times I had to literally lie on the floor to avoid being blown over! As expected, though, the views were stunning, and, as always, that makes the effort worth it.

I need to finish this week by just telling you about the meal we had after the climb. We were really cold, drained, exhausted, and felt we needed some stodge and comfort, so we went to a Polish restaurant. The food was lovely, reasonably priced blah blah blah … but something happened which has really caused me to question everything, why am I even here?!

Our dishes came – a breaded, stuffed chicken, sauerkraut, salad, potatoes … but I look across at my husband’s plate, and his boring old boiled potatoes have somehow magically transformed into chips! He had literally ordered, asked for his potatoes to be changed into chips and not asked if I wanted the same!! His ludicrous defence? ‘’I thought you would prefer boiled potatoes’’ We are married! And he thinks I might prefer boiled potatoes to chips?! And if this isn’t enough to spur me on to learn Polish, I don’t know what is…!

On that note, we’ll leave it there, and check in again next week, when we leave Zakopane and head back up to Gdansk.

Check out more of our travels here!