The home products

Say... : All along Krupówki Street, cheesemongers vie for our attention, carving off slivers of cheese and beckoning us with their knives. Photo: Malavika Bhattacharya

Say... : All along Krupówki Street, cheesemongers vie for our attention, carving off slivers of cheese and beckoning us with their knives. Photo: Malavika Bhattacharya

Zakopane, a charming town in southern Poland, relies on traditional recipes, local produce and a lot of cheese

The Tatra mountains in southern Poland form a natural boundary between Slovakia and Poland. In the lower reaches of these craggy giants is a little town called Zakopane. It’s pronounced ‘Zah-ko-pah-nay’, with a certain flourish, and not ‘Za-ko-pain’, like I’d been saying in my head. As you drive in from Krakow, around 100 km to the north, the town unfolds like a postcard. A tumble of gabled timber chalets with sloping slate roofs on the hillside; the pointy tops of coniferous trees poke out between them, framed by purple-hued snowy peaks in the background.

A jumping off point for skiers in the winter and hikers in the summer, Zakopane is the typical mountain resort town. Rental holiday cottages and 19th century wooden villas line the winding streets. The main pedestrianised market stretch, Krupówki Street, is chockfull of stores selling sporting gear. Skis and snowboards, hiking shoes and snow jackets — outdoor enthusiasts preparing for their adventures spill out of the shops and into the cafes on the upper levels, for apple strudel and coffee with a view.

At the northern end of Krupówki Street is a large square with an open-air market, along the route to the funicular station for Mount Gubałówka. After the bustle of Krupówki, with its glass-fronted shops, the market is a step back in time. Little wooden stalls are spread across the cobbled square, manned by locals with frilly aprons around their waists. The market is awash with local offerings: wheels of cheese, jars of pickled mushrooms and fresh ginger, swathes of coloured wool, heavy furs and leather products. The furs on display have been fashioned into shaggy coats and scarves, but many are as is — pristine ivory sheepskins and much larger, patterned varieties that undoubtedly belong to larger game. All along, cheesemongers vie for our attention, carving off slivers of cheese and beckoning us with their knives.

Intricately patterned oscypek is all around. A traditional Polish mountain delicacy native to the Tatras, it is made with salted sheep’s milk, follows an ancient recipe, and each household’s variety has mild differences in flavour. I wander towards a friendly woman named Agata, who carves off great chunks from different wheels for me to taste. It’s tough, chewy and has the distinct smoky flavour of meat. I try varieties, mixed with cow’s milk and goat’s milk, and finally purchase a little ear of salty, smoky oscypek for one zloty.

The Tatras are part of the larger Carpathian range. As is true of most mountainous regions, a distinct culture prevails in these parts. The Highlanders have unique folk traditions and customs, a distinct architectural style, and speak a different dialect.

Lunch is at a typical highlander restaurant — Bakowo Zohylina Wyznio — where I’m acutely aware of the many pairs of eyes on me. Heads of deer and elk are mounted on the walls, their antlers intricate and rambling. Thick logs of wood serve as tables and the interiors are dimly lit. Bearskins and all manner of taxidermy creatures — foxes, owls and the like — make up the décor. To keep the seats warm, rough animal fur rugs are thrown across the chairs. The staff is dressed in patterned white trousers — a typical highlander costume — and a local folk tune plays. Here, I dine on great portions of meat accompanied by cabbage and pierogi (a sort of dumpling) and sip Miodula, a honey vodka that looks like liquid gold and burns right through me. The spirit follows a recipe that’s seven centuries old and is aged in Polish oak for almost a year.

Zakopane is traditional, using centuries-old recipes, living off local produce, inviting visitors to chat with cheesemongers, and lingering over honey vodka.

In striking contrast, the next day is all about speed, thrills, and technology. A funicular deposits us on Mount Gubałówka, which is covered in a thick layer of crunchy snow and engulfed in swirling fog. Suiting up in heavy jackets, snowshoes and pants, we hop on to bright red snowmobiles. These ultramodern 600cc, 90hp mean machines, weighing 200 kg each, are our rides for the day. We rumble across the rough terrain, guns blazing at first, but soon realise turning the heavy beast isn’t as easy as it seems. There’s a tumble here and there, but it’s all part of the thrill, with the snow significantly cushioning the fall and the guides from Snowdoo at hand to help. At a meadow, we have a quick break for hot berry tea and fat chunks of oscypek toasted over a fire. During our return, the mist settles low on the ground and we soon lose sight of each other in this endless expanse of white, navigating our way by the tracks in the snow. It’s almost otherworldly, this isolated, misty, moon-like vastness. Zakopane tends to feel like that — of another world and another time.

Travel log

Getting there

Fly to Krakow via Berlin or Vienna and then drive approximately an hour south to Zakopane.

Do

Go snowmobiling with Snowdoo (www.snowdoo.pl) — a reliable operator that’s great for beginners

Stay

The region around Zakopane is rich in thermal pools. Stay at a spa such as Termy Bukovina (www.bukovina.pl) and indulge in mineral-rich, hot pools

Tip

Stock up on oscypek, sold in little pushcarts along Krupówki Street. The hard cheese tastes best when grilled: the insides melt, turning warm and gooey.

Malavika Bhattacharya is a Delhi-based freelance travel journalist

Published on May 20, 2016

Related

MORE FROM BUSINESSLINE


 Getting recommendations just for you...
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor