Friday, May 12, 2006

Kraków to Zakopane

It's a relatively short drive from Kraków to Zakopane, only two hours or so uphill (I think I heard someone say "101 kilometers", about 63 miles). You can see the snow-covered Carpathian mountains rise in the distance, towering over the cities in the valleys, only vaguely distinguishable from the sky (it's a big surprise when you're looking out the window and realize that those aren't clouds in the distance, but mountains). The other way you can tell you're getting close is the pitch on the roofs. They start to angle so radically that the fundamental architecture of the houses is modified. Zakopane itself has a wonderful atmosphere — people still making good, regular use of horses, wearing warm clothes out of habit even though the weather is comfortable. The people are great: getting off the bus, I noticed two jolly, unshaven guys sitting on a bench, with a cart nearby holding some wool and other little things, sharing conversation and a drink (perhaps some of that misleadingly named "Zakopane mountain tea" — almost 200 proof).

After arriving, we walked quickly through the marketplace to a tram that would take us up one of the mountains. The marketplace is hard to walk through quickly — there are so many enticing sights and smells. The mountain was definitely worth it, though. Once you get a few hundred feet from the tram station, you come across this huge field (presumably for skiing, in the winter). Laying on the grass, soaking up the sun from that altitude, looking over the city and the mountains, completely serene. Perfect.

We went back down the mountain to get lunch — white mushroom soup (local mushrooms, of course), and some sort of pancake dessert. I thought it was wonderful, but Grandpa has a more sensitive mouth for his native food, and I learned a new combination of some words I already knew: "To nie jest pyszna."

After lunch we were given a few hours free — finally! I walked up and down the 10 blocks or so of the marketplace street twice, stopping in every store and booth that looked unique (about half of them are the same, selling touristy goods). There is a whole half-block dedicated to cheeses, and another half-block populated by old women sewing socks and sweaters with thick yarn, some side streets near the middle where you can buy clothes, and plenty of places to find trinkets. One of my favorite characters was this man dressed up in traditional mountain attire — with his cane, beard, long hair, crazy hat — carrying a lamb on his shoulders, going up to people and having his picture taken with them (putting the lamb around their shoulders, of course). On my way through the second time, I noticed a crowd of maybe 30 people had formed in the middle of the street, surrounding a man shouting things in Polish. Sitting on a bike, he dared people to ride it — he would bet them a few złotych they couldn't. Sure enough, someone would take him up on his offer, and fall down after no more than three feet. He would demonstrate to the cynics that it can be done, and another would try. It took me a moment to realize what was going on: he'd modified the bike so the front wheel pointed in the opposite direction of your turning!

After the break, we stopped by another cathedral. This is the most elegant one I've seen yet — made completely from stone and wood, it has a glorious post-gothic mountain appeal to it. We drove around a little on our way back to the hotel and the guide pointed out an amazing tradition in this area: sometimes, you'll see stripes on houses. If they're white stripes, the couple inside was just married. If they're blue stripes, the person inside is "waiting for someone". Maybe I should start wearing blue stripes?

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