Podhale and Tatra Mountains
Podhale and Tatra Mountains are one of the most popular tourist destinations in Poland. Not surprising – Zakopane is for many reasons a town unique on European scale. Add to this the natural values of the Tatra National Park (beautiful valleys and peaks, picturesque mountain trails), bicycle routes, unique architecture, professional ski slopes and delicious highlander cuisine. And this is just the beginning of the story about the attractions of this region! Podhale is characterized by an attachment to tradition, its inhabitants have a very emotional attitude to folk elements and folklore and you will see the manifestations of the above at almost every step. We invite you to a fascinating journey around Podhale!
Once upon a time…
Podhale is a real paradise for lovers of communing with nature and a Mecca for tourists who love mountain hiking. The region is divided into “Rocky Podhale” (the southern border of which is marked by Zakopane, among others) and “Niżne Podhale”. Along the Polish border, there are Tatra Mountains, protected in the area of the Tatra National Park. The historical capital of the region is Nowy Targ, while the town most important and most visited by tourists is the “winter capital of Poland” – Zakopane.
We can admire the beauty of the Tatra landscape by going on mountain trails, somehow which will be crowned with the conquest of one of the Tatra peaks: Kasprowy Wierch, Giewont or Rysy – the highest peak in Poland (2,499 metres asl). We can admire the beautiful mountain views by using the funicular to Gubałówka, the cable car to Kasprowy Wierch and the chairlift to Butorowy Wierch. Experienced tourists, who already know the Tatra trails by heart, can face Orla Perć – one of the most difficult marked routes in the entire Tatra Mountains. Hiking in the mountains and valleys is facilitated and varied by a network of picturesque Tatra mountain hostels, e.g. the Morskie Oko mountain hostel or the Valley of Five Polish Ponds.
However, mountain peaks are not everything, as Tatras offer also beautiful valleys carved by the streams, climatic caves and transparent lakes. The most frequently visited valleys are: Rybiego Potoku, Kościeliska, Chochołowska, Gąsieniców, Valley of Five Ponds, Roztoka, Strążyska and Białego. When visiting the Kościeliska Valley it is worth to explore the tourist-accessible caves: Mroźna, Raptawicka, Mylna, Obłazkowa and the Dragon's Den. Chochołowska Glade, in turn, is the most beautiful in spring, when it shimmers with purple crocus flowers.
A characteristic element of the Tatra nature are the beautiful streams, lakes (called ponds) and waterfalls. Tatras are also source of several rivers draining both this mountain range and the entire Podhale region: Biały Dunajec, Czarny Dunajec and Białka. The famous Morskie Oko lake, as well as the Wodogrzmoty Mickiewicza waterfall, located next to the trail leading to Morskie Oko, both enjoy great popularity. We also recommend the Five Ponds Valley and the Gąsienicowa Valley abounding in ponds, high peaks and rich vegetation. It is especially worth coming to see Wielka Siklawa – the highest waterfall in Poland.
Also noteworthy is the “Bór nad Czerwonem” peat bog reserve in Nowy Targ, which is one of the oldest nature reserves in Poland. The reserve has a special educational and nature trail and lookout platform, from which you can admire the mountains surrounding the Nowotarska Basin.
The brave can take advantage of the tourist flights over the Tatras or Gorce, proposed by the Municipal Airport in Nowy Targ.
Churches and chapels
Wooden architecture, both sacred and secular, is the region's true showcase, even though there are also some stone and brick pearls. The native inhabitants of the region are famous for their religiosity, which is reflected in the real treasures of construction in the form of churches and wooden chapels.
Let's start the trail of Podhale churches from Nowy Targ, because it is here that we can see the church of St Catherine, which dates back to 1346 and the wooden church of St Anna from the 15th century. Nowy Targ is an excellent base for further trips to treasures of the local architecture, e.g. the Shrine of Our Lady of Ludźmierz located 10 km to the west in Ludźmierz, where you can admire the beautiful rosary garden with the monument of Pope John Paul II. From Nowy Targ we can also head at Czorsztyn and it will be a great choice for many reasons! On the one hand, we can thus appreciate the natural values of the Pieniny Klippen Belt and of Gorce, on the other – see the treasures of Podhale religious architecture. This means primarily the wooden, Gothic church of St Michael the Archangel in Dębno Podhalańskie, which was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. It is also listed on the Wooden Architecture Route along with other valuable wooden buildings in the neighbourhood: the church in Harklowa, as well as the church of the Holy Trinity and St Antony the Abbot in Łopuszna. Interestingly, it was in this latter place that Fr. prof. Józef Tischner spent his youth. It is worth visiting the Memorial Room dedicated to this personality, known as “Tischnerówka” and stop for a moment of reflection by the priest's grave at the local cemetery.
While in Zakopane, it is necessary to visit the church of Mother of God of Częstochowa with the Gąsienice family chapel and the Old Cemetery at Pęksowy Brzyzek located next to it, where almost every gravestone is a separate work of art! It is worth visiting the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima in Krzeptówki, built as a form of gratitude for saving the life of John Paul II after the assault in 1981. Let's also go to Jaszczurówka, where you can admire the wooden Chapel of the Sacred Heart of Jesus built in the Zakopane style. It was designed by Stanisław Witkiewicz, who had a huge impact on what happened in the culture and architecture of Zakopane at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. From Jaszczurówka we head north to Bukowina Tatrzańska, where the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is located, and then further to Białka Tatrzańska to see the church of Sts Simon and Jude, the Apostles.
Repository of knowledge
The folk culture of Podhale can be discovered in numerous museums, which are popular tourist attractions for visitors from all over Poland and even from Europe. The Podhale inhabitants themselves are also eager to visit them. This is not an empty phrase: the number of people visiting the local museums is almost twice as high as in the rest of the country. Where should you start? First of all, from Dr Tytus Chałubiński Tatra Museum in Zakopane. The museum, named after the promoter of Zakopane and the Tatra Mountains, is a real treasury of knowledge about the nature, culture and art of Podhale. Branches of the Tatra Museum are also worth visiting, to name just a couple of them: Museum of the Zakopane Style at the “Koliba” villa, Museum of the 1846 Chochołów Uprising in Chochołów or Manor in Łopuszna.
For those who want to learn more about the history of the region, we recommend the Podhale Museum in Nowy Targ, located in the building of the former town hall and the Museum of Fight and Martyrdom “Palace” in Zakopane, located in the place of executions taking place during World War II. The walls covered with notes of prisoners held in the hands of the Gestapo are particularly shocking. If you think visiting museums is boring, Podhale will quickly make you rethink this attitude. All you need to do is follow the trail of nature and architecture of the region, and start your trip with an extremely modern facility, which is the TPN Nature Education Centre with the largest model of the Tatra Mountains in the country and 4D cinema or the Peatland Promotion and Protection Centre in Chochołów.
A visit to the foothills of the Tatra Mountains is a unique opportunity to get to know the examples of Podhale architecture and Zakopane style. We especially recommend the live open-air museum in Chochołów, where the residents still live in neat wooden huts and walk along ul. Kościeliska in Zakopane. The Zakopane style can be admired by visiting the Czerwony Dwór villa – the Native Culture Centre and villas built on high foundations: Pod Jedlami, Oksza, Koliba, decorated with pazdurs (ornaments on the ridge) and słoneczka (narrow slats). Or maybe a trip following the trail of the regional celebrities? Zakopane invites to biographical museums, such as the Kornel Makuszyński Museum, the Karol Szymanowski Museum at the Atma villa and the Jan Kasprowicz Museum at Harenda hill. An important place in the hearts of the inhabitants of the region is occupied by Sabała – the Homer of Tatras, a singer and storyteller who accompanied with his music and word several well-known personalities during their expeditions to the Tatra Mountains in the second half of the 19th century. A house belonging to his family has survived to this day in Zakopane, it is known as Chata Sabały (Sabała's Hut). We also recommend to see Tischnerówka in Łopuszna – the memory house dedicated to Fr. Józef Tischner.
Art lovers should visit the Włodzimierz and Jerzy Kulczycki Art Gallery and the Władysław Hasior Gallery. In turn, those who want to commune with the contemporary culture of the region are recommended a visit to the Bukowina Culture Centre “People's House”. Following the local technology monuments will lead you to the Printing Museum in Nowy Targ.
And at the end of our “journey” around the Podhale museums, a pearl of the region – oscypek! At the Oscypek Museum in Zakopane, you will not only taste different types of oscypek cheese, but you will also be given the opportunity to prepare your own cheese. Bon apetit!
Active leisure at the foot of the Tatra Mountains
The Podhale region is a real treat for enthusiasts of active leisure – from mountain hikers to lovers of skiing. Something interesting also awaits those, who want to cross the region on a bike or prefer a canoeing trip. Well, mountains mean also mountain trails! The Tatra Mountains have a lot to offer for lovers of hiking, nature and beautiful landscapes. Depending on your level of advancement, we can recommend you: the red trail Toporowa Cyrhla – Morskie Oko, Morskie Oko – Rysy; the yellow trail Murowaniec – Five Ponds Valley, the Droga Pod Reglami trail, the green trail through the Chochołowska Valley, the green trail through the Kościeliska Valley and the Chochołów Uprising Trail (a great alternative to popular tourist routes). Mountaineers who are not afraid of climbing, can try reaching Kościelce, Mnich, Kazalnica Mięguszowiecka and Zamarła Turnia.
Several walking routes are available for also cycling (e.g. Chochołowska Valley to the hostel or Droga Pod Reglami). Apart from the Tatras, special attention should be paid to VeloDunajec, i.e. a 237 km long bicycle route, running from Zakopane to Wietrzychowice, which abounds in extremely picturesque sections, especially on its Tatra and Nowy Targ section. A great alternative is also the Around the Tatras Route, a historical-cultural-natural cycle route with a length of 250 km.
As befits the “winter capital of Poland”, Zakopane and the surrounding area offer a lot of attractions for winter sports enthusiasts. Fans of cross-country skiing can take advantage of the benefits of the following regions: Kościelisko-Chotarz, Gubałówka, the area of ski jumps in Zakopane, the airport in Nowy Targ, as well as Poronin and Białka Tatrzańska. What counts the most for skitouring enthusiasts is the proper snow cover in the Tatras and good visibility to enjoy the beautiful climbs and descents. In turn, fans of skiing and snowboarding will be delighted with the slopes in Białka Tatrzańska and Bukowina Tatrzańska. A stay in the skiing capital is also a great opportunity to take part in a real highlander sleigh ride or a dog sled.
Exploring the Tatra caves, which are numerous in the area, is also an interesting form of activity. However, this is an activity for the few, because it requires specialised equipment and permissions.
Highlander folklore at your fingertips
What interesting can you do in Podhale? There are many possibilities, which results from the exceptionally rich cultural and entertainment offer of this region. Just take a look at the list of festivals and events taking place here! One of the most important is the week-long International Festival of Mountain Folklore, during which numerous artistic performances show the beauty of folk tradition from around the world. Film lovers can go to Zakopane for “Meetings with Mountain Film”, “Review of Films about Art” or take advantage of the repertoire of Summer Cinema in Zakopane. Music lovers will definitely be interested in musical events, among which particular attention should be paid to: Jazz Spring Zakopane, International Festival of Organ and Chamber Music, as well as Music on the Heights – International Festival of Chamber Music. Other interesting events are the Zakopane Literary Festival, Days of Zakopane, Tatra Wici (five municipalities organise events promoting Tatra culture), Highlander Carnival in Bukowina Tatrzańska (which includes kumoterki – a race in small sleighs for couples dressed in traditional costumes. If weather allows, the horse-drawn races are organized by the municipalities of Biały Dunajec, Kościelisko, Szaflary and Poronin. Moreover, there are also Sabałowe Bajania event in Bukowina Tatrzańska (Polish Music Folklore Festival) and the Podhale Fair in Nowy Targ. And if at given time there are no events taking place, you can always visit the BWA Jatki Art Gallery in Nowy Targ, the Witkacy Theatre, the Entertainment Theatre RZT Szymaszkowa or the Municipal Art Gallery named after count Władysław Zamoyski in Zakopane.
Podhale also provides tourists with many other attractions, such as thermal baths, swimming pools and aqua parks, which are abundant at the foot of the Tatra Mountains! One of the are the famous Bania Baths in Białka Tatrzańska, Bukowina Tatrzańska, Szaflary, Chochołów and about the Szymoszkowa Pool. Zakopane invites you to the Aqua Park, to the gravitational slide at Gubałówka, the nearby “Snow Zabawa”, to the chairlift leading to the Wielka Krokiew and “Snowtubing Gigant Zakopane”. As you can see, there are plenty of attractions for both children and adults! When planning a trip to Zakopane, it is also worth looking into the calendar of cyclical ski jumping competitions held here - maybe it will be a good opportunity to see Polish representatives in action.
If you are looking for something for the body and spirit – go for an evening stroll in the main promenade in Zakopane: the Krupówki street. You will find highlander's taverns offering traditional music, local drinks and the flavours of regional cuisine. These include sauerkraut soup, czosnianka (garlic soup), zoproska vegetable soup and bryjka (a dense dish, which is a combination of flour and groat with fat). In regional taverns you will also find main dishes such as potato dumplings known as tarcioki or hałuski, moskole (baked potato and flour fritters) and the Podhale lamb. When visiting Podhale, you absolutely have to taste the regional cheeses: oscypek, bryndza and bundz (from sheep's milk), pucok and gołka (from cow's milk) and żętyca – sheep's milk whey. And for dessert try the famous Nowy Targ ice cream available at the town's market square.
A stay in Podhale is also an opportunity to experience lively, regional culture. Beginning with the Zakopane style introduced in the 1890s by Stanisław Witkiewicz, through numerous groups cultivating folk songs and traditions, to regional, highlander costumes and a characteristic dialect that can be heard only in this place.
How to combine business with pleasure and actively explore Podhale? There are several interesting routes to choose from, of which the Małopolska Wooden Architecture Route deserves special attention. One of its four routes leads through Orava, Podhale, Spiš and Pieniny, giving the opportunity to admire the most beautiful wooden monuments of the region. During your stay in Zakopane, it is worth getting interested in the Trail of Zakopane Style, which can be an interesting adventure not only for architecture lovers. Or maybe you prefer the Oscypek Trail? If you don't know how bundz differs from bryndza it's high time to try regional cheese straight from the shepherd's hut! For enthusiasts of Zakopane, we recommend the Trail of Outstanding Zakopaneers, commemorating celebrities distinguished for the town and the Zamoyski trail (thanks to QR codes placed on the route, you can read about the merits of the count on the screen of your smartphone or tablet). Visitors to the community of Biały Dunajec interested in sacred art cannot miss the Trail of Wojciech Kułach Wawrzyńcok – a Podhale folk sculptor working both in wood and stone.