Time in the Tatra’s

18 – 24th August 2017

We left Krakow eagerly anticipating some lovely scenery and good weather in the Tatra mountains. The Tatra’s are part of the Carpathian range, the highest mountains in central Europe, and although at 2655m the highest peak is small in comparison to the Alps it is almost double the height of Ben Nevis. The Tatra’s are relatively compact in their range and  20% of the range is in Poland with the rest in Slovakia.  Apart from the scenery the mountains have a lot of marked trails and we intended to do some good walks.

We made decent progress arriving at our campsite by lunchtime. Camping Ustup is set on the edge of Zakopane, the highest town in Poland and the walking/skiing centre for the Tatra’s National Park,. It is also less than 200 yards from a McDonalds, a Polish pizza restaurant, a small supermarket and the bus-stop to the centre. We were met by a rotund man with a round face and a bushy moustache, wearing  a cloth hat, green dungarees and a check shirt. He welcomed us in, gave us a tour of the sanitary facilities, and showed us to a grass pitch on the small field next to a river. We were happy.

For the first time we broke our unwritten rule and went to McDonalds for lunch. Much as we hate to admit it, it did hit the spot.  Given our campsite had no internet access we then went into the pizza restaurant backing onto the campsite and got a beer and their wi-fi password and crossed our fingers. Back at the van it worked like a dream and we were able to sit outside and stream some of our favourite American comedy.

It wasn’t until we had been to the immaculately clean toilet block that we started to worry about our host and his wife. There were 6 toilets and 6 showers, with sinks either end of the block. Our host was stationed in a chair watching the block and each time a shower or toilet was used either he or his wife would immediately clean it. Kate wandered over to use our bowl at the sinks to wash out some underwear and a couple of tops. As soon as she arrived, he leapt into action – she was not to use her bowl, instead he brought out a small bowl of hot water for her to add her washing liquid to and sat and watched eagle-eyed throughout. But the best was yet to come – when Danny went to wash the dishes he was prevented from using the sinks out at the back and again given a small bowl of hot water to put inside the sink, and a little table was produced for him to put things on. The dirty water could not be put down the drain but instead had to go into the grey-water motorhome drain, lifting the manhole cover to do so. Nuts. Completely and utterly barking. And he did that to everyone on the site. A complete control freak with a cleanliness fetish. Most odd.

We appeared to have timed our visit to the Polish Tatra’s to coincide with a cold, wet spell. On Saturday we knew rain would set in around lunchtime so we caught the bus in to the centre for a morning exploration. The bus was 20 minutes late – so different from the efficiency of Krakow – and already so full it was standing room only. It took an indirect route stopping often and more and more people crammed in, even when we couldn’t see any space at all.

We walked down into the town centre, past the traditional Zakopane-style all-wood houses which are so picturesque. Even the roof-tiles are wood. There was a Tyrolean feel to some of them , no-doubt an influence from the period when this part of Poland belonged to Austria.

We quickly realised that Zakopane is much, much more popular than we had thought and was heaving with tourists, walkers and ‘wellness-spa’ visitors. The first guest house here was built in 1878 and the place has been hugely popular since around 1900. Although it has no lake, and turns into a ski resort in winter, it had a definite feel of that busiest of Lake District towns, Windermere. There is an Aqua Park, a big sports centre, a huge ski-jump with a new one under construction, museums, a dizzying number of churches, a theatre and a funicular railway. Oddly it didn’t seem to have a centre, but instead a 1.1km long commercial main street. lined with guest houses, hotels, restaurants, walking shops, souvenirs. Not the quaint little country village we were naively expecting.

At the tourist office, opposite the folk festival that was clearly going to take off later in the day, and a most unhelpful and unfriendly woman gave us a bad map of the area and told us ‘no cycle routes’. Given that there was one directly opposite the office, we knew we were on to a loser.

Despite our inclination to flee we opted to have lunch in town and try to adjust to it. We found a traditional place on the main street and seated ourselves inside at an open window, away from the press of people but still with a good view. We ignored the traditional food such as the lard on bread that Kate’s brother had recommended and played safe with burger & fries and a chicken salad, and we share a selection ‘bat’ of 3 local beers. Lucky for Kate as Danny didn’t like 2 of them. An hour earlier than forecast the rain started so we ordered a taxi and made ourselves comfy in the van to wait it out.

It rained all afternoon and night and then continued through the next day in varying degrees of intensity, none of it light. We stayed inside reading, watching TV and surfing the internet (until that gave up on us). It didn’t stop until around 8pm by which time the river at the bottom of the field had become a raging torrent, and after that intermittent showers set in for the rest of the evening. Those with tents had wisely all gone in and the site was down to us and 2 other motorhomes, one each side of us. The torrential rain didn’t stop our host’s activities though – if it weren’t so odd it would almost be impressive.

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Our host at Camping Ustup at his observation post

Monday dawned dry and although further thunderstorms were forecast later in the day we were desperate to get a walk in so caught the bus in again – this time 35 minutes late and just as packed. We started our 9-miler walking uphill in a big stream of other people towards Kusnice. We passed the memorial to victims of facism at the glade where Poles were executed by the Nazi’s and once at Kusnice, the headquarters of and entrance to the Tatra National Park, we paid our 5 zloty (£1.50) each for entry.  At this point the people thinned out and we took the route uphill with a sigh of relief. We are so unsociable!

We crossed the Bystra river with it’s pool and weir and followed it upstream to the very pretty Jaworzynka glade and it’s wooden shepherds huts standing as a reminder of the Park’s pastoral history.

Following the grassy valley uphill took us to a gully and the trail then started climbing steeply up the hillside towards the ‘Pass between the Piles.’ It was hard work in places, the trail very uneven underfoot but we were getting some great views. Unfortunately these included threatening black clouds moving in. At the Pass we joined another trail with a lot more people on it and put on our waterproof jackets before carrying on to the high point. Before we got there the rain hit and by the top, where the panoramic views should have spread out before us, we couldn’t see a thing – one of the many joys of hill walking.

We followed the path anyway as our destination was further on at Gasienicowa Coom. It was now that Kate remembered that her trousers were only water resistant and Danny realised he’d put on the wrong trousers which weren’t waterproof at all. Cold, wet and kicking ourselves we plodded on. We reached a scattering of old shepherds huts now-converted for use by the National Park and slightly further on was our destination, a large mountain hut providing shelter, cafe and toilets. We joined the other 300 people who were taking shelter there. It was packed, steamy and very welcome. We wormed our way through to a newly vacated table, got a couple of beers in and munched on our sandwiches while we waited for the weather to clear.

When we were warmer and the rain had stopped we headed back and at the coll took a route along the ridge of Skupniow Terrace before taking the long trail down through woodland which offered shelter from the showers. We were slow as Danny’s knee had decided to play up and were glad to get down to the ford at the entrance to the park where we raided our packs for coffee and a Kitkat. Nearby an information board helpfully pointed out that summer is the wettest time of year!

Despite the cold and wet it was a nice walk and we did get a feeling for how popular these mountains are. We had been told that the Polish are a walking people and we saw all shapes and sizes – kids, grannies, nun –  in everything from casual shoes to full walking kit. And nearly all of them had a cheap plastic poncho/raincoat to put over their jackets.

Next day was cold with rain forecast and given Danny’s badly swollen knee we ruled out a walk and ambled down to McDonalds for breakfast. We used their wi-fi to upload photos for the blog but it was so slow we ended up staying all morning and having lunch as well. Very unhealthy. Danny used the time to research our move into Slovakia and after checking the forecast (cold & wet followed by more cold & wet) we settled on leaving next day.

We paid our host and said goodbye to Camping Ustup and the strangest site management we have ever encountered. As we drove along the valley Zakopane stretched much further than we had anticipated and on the far side the deanery was prettier and the hills easier to access. But our course was set and we headed out of Poland still unsure what to make of it.

We entered Slovakia and it was all change again. Although half the size of Ireland with almost double it’s population it still does not feel remotely crowded. It is a lovely, green rolling country of of woods and streams as well as agriculture. The strip farming of Poland disappeared and the architecture also changed. Rather oddly we noticed that many villages had loud-speakers attached to light-posts and telegraph poles, and in one village with a small market in progress there was music coming from the speakers. Reminiscent of Cuba but the music wasn’t as catchy

In the valleys big fields of harvested grain, tall-standing maize,  sunflowers and small villages with onion-top churches. More wildlife – wild deer, birds of prey, stork nests, a pair of crane flying over-head with their necks outstretched. And a lot of road-kill. This was a landscape of hills and mountains, rivers and streams and we liked it.

There were also a lot of police – within the first half an hour we saw at least 10 police cars,  a speed trap, and logging lorries and cars pulled over for checks. Danny kept strictly to the speed limit.

We stopped in a lay-by for some egg rolls and Pringles – very healthy – and by  mid afternoon we in the Lower Tatras, surrounded by wooded hills. We turned onto the road to Demanovska Dolina and soon saw the signs for Bystrina Campsite. The staff were helpful, smiling and beautifully normal and we had a choice of pitches on the hillside above the hote , on two different levels. They were far from full and we chose a pitch with really nice views out across the valley. Time to try the local Slovak beer in the bar which was delicious but turned to to be very strong – to be drunk with caution.

The internet was working at the van and it was just warm enough to sit out for a while in the sun which had decided to come out to play. The clouds cleared to give us a lovely sunset through the tree tops.

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Next day was GCSE results at home and we had great news this morning as nephew Jack got 7 GCSE’s  which means he is ok for his Aviation course at Belfast Met. Well done Jack! Danny’s knee was still not great so we spent the day enjoying some warm sunlight and fresh air and doing a bit of research. We still didn’t have a plan but we did have some options to consider. And we had decided that we’d chase the sun again which sadly meant leaving the Tatras. But before that we had some local Slovakian food at the restaurant – beef goulash with gnocchi, and a potato pancake with chicken and pork. Both were huge and the waiter looked at us with disappointment when we didn’t clean our plates.

Another nice sunset sent us to our bed.