Sunday, 18 May 2008

Blackpool-in-the-Tatras

I can’t say I’m a fan of Zakopane. It’s a classic example of a tourist destination that’s become a victim of its own success. Zakopane’s is the result of masses of Poles and foreigners alike believing that “Poland (as a holiday destination) is a country of mountains and sea”. Well, Poland has its long Baltic coast, but the sea is cold, the season short. However, Poland is not a country of mountains. It is a country with half a mountain. Most of Poland is so flat that, to borrow a phrase from Bill Bryson, "if you stand on two telephone directories, you have A View".

Towards the south of the country, the landscape acquires some gentle undulations. Then, suddenly, as you approach the Slovak border, round about Zakopane, the earth rears up to form some stunning mountains. You reach the top of the first chain of proper mountains you get to after travelling 400 miles from the Baltic – and that’s where Poland ends. The rest of the Tatras are in Slovakia. The border runs along the northernmost ridge of the mountain range.

The myth that Poland ‘has mountains’ in any meaningful quantity (as possessed by say, France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Switzerland) draws over three million tourists down to Zakopane a year. The high tourist seasons (mid-June to early-September and the ferie winter breaks) draws vast crowds. And even in May they're here en masse. Vast excursions of them. Because it is the only significant town in the Polish Tatras, they all get funnelled through here.

The stunning photograph (below) was taken by my colleague Ewa in August 2007 and shows the scale of the overcrowding problem. Click to enlarge to see the full horror of the situation. Ecologists are trying to limit tourist numbers during peak times, but tramping around the Tatras, almost all footpaths show signs of erosion. People can’t bear to walk in single file, and overtake one another wherever they can, broadening the paths.

Zakopane itself is a crowded town. Even now, off-season, the hotels are full (mostly the conference trade). The town’s image is downmarket. Traders selling tourist tat (woollen pillows shaped like women’s breasts) are everywhere, as are signs of Americanisation (local mountainfolk have for over a century traditionally migrated to the USA in search of work; returning entrepreneurs have set up fast food outlets with an American flavour). Bouncy castles rub shoulders with unique wooden folk architecture.

Above: Kropówki, Zakopane's main drag, on a quiet Sunday morning. Come the summer holidays, the place will be heaving like Oxford Street two shopping days before Xmas. Beauty – both natural and architectural – takes second place to convenience, the high altar of consumption and pretend-happiness win out.

Above: Why they come. If you can get away from the crowds for long enough, the scenery really is quite inspiring. Zakopane's heyday was before WW2, when it was a haven for artists and poets, before mass tourism turned it into a parody of itself.

When it comes to the Polish mountains, I prefer the Bieszczady. They're much lower (hills, really), nestling in the extreme south-east corner of Poland. This is way off the usual tourist track, difficult to get to by road, rail or air. This is the place to get away from it all, to finally lose the madding crowd. In the Bieszczady, it’s possible to roam for hours without seeing a single trace of humanity; no discarded snack wrapping, no mountain bike tyre tread, no electricity pylons marching across the landscape, not even a wooden farm hut. It's the only place I've ever been in my life where I could imagine for a few hours what it was like in the Middle Ages.

Would I go back to Zakopane? Only if they paid me. And as this was a business trip, with a morning off to walk some mountains, I shouldn't really complain.

This time last year:

Twilight falls on Jeziorki; the sublime time of day
Got to get ourselves back to the garden
What's going on in the fields behind our house

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