I am staring at a local Polish lad with mesmeric light eyes standing beside his horse and carriage. He is confident, thriving on all the attention that he gets. He is a Gorale (from the Polish word, goral for mountain), wearing Highlander clothes embellished with embroidery. His outfit includes a black felt hat with a feather and white woolen trousers with a pompon at the ankles!
Krupowki Street is the epicentre of all life in Zakopane, in Southern Poland. There are pretty chalets and a pedestrian-only main street crammed with restaurants, bars and souvenir stalls. Oszczypek or smoked goat's cheese is the local delicacy and old women in headscarves sell it round-the-clock. The distinctive taste of the cheese comes from being smoked and soaked in a brine- filled barrel.
We see the Tatras in the distance, their peaks enshrouded in mist. Silver patches glistened in the sunshine. The Tatras are the highest ranges in the Carpathians -- jagged peaks punctuated by lakes and valleys.
Zakopane was the favourite haunt of the athletic Pope John Paul II, who skied and hiked here, as well as paid a nostalgic visit when he was pontiff. We dine in traditional Polish restaurants and feast on smoked cheese, jurec (a soup made of rice, potatoes, eggs and herbs) and potato pancakes. Meat is traditionally smoked, grilled or roasted over a wood flame. The local portions are large enough to feed an army!
Zakopane was originally an obscure shepherd settlement. The pure mountain air was ideal for sanatoriums, the forerunners of health spas. Soon, Polish artists, composers, literary figures, architects, poets and painters flocked to Zakopane. Hotel Litwor, where we were staying, is built in the traditional Zakopane style of architecture, with sloping tiered wooden roofs and small windows and eaves.
We drive to the Tatra National Park just south of Zakopane. Our guide Krzysztof surprises me by saying that the Bollywood movie Fanaa was shot nearby!
We chose to be driven by a raffish Highlander, Michel in a horse carriage. He tells me that these mountains are dangerous and witness a lot of accidents in the long winter. Always take experienced guides and stay on the marked trails.
Zakopane is a cross-country skier's dream -- we see the enormous ski jumps and imagine how exotic this town would be in the winter. Local Gorale music with cellos, fiddles and lively tunes filled the air. We enjoy it at crowded local bars over some warm beer with cinnamon, honey and herbs.
If you want to feel the spirit of a hundred years here, then the place to visit is the cemetery behind the St Clements church on Koscielsika Street. This is the place where local celebrities are laid to rest: it is atmospheric, with wooden carved crosses and sculptures, coloured lanterns and candles and kaleidoscopic glass paintings.
We take a funicular to Gubalowka for a panoramic view of the Tatras. We spend hours here drinking highland electric tea spiked with vodka, looking out at green meadows and watch sheep grazing. In the distance is the Babia Gora (the Old Lady's mountain). It looks like a sleeping figure with snow-capped peaks and the mesmerising colours of fall. I think to myself -- the mountains are the real stars of Zakopane!