Who We Are…
Where the mighty Carpathian mountain range arches the most to the north, is a magical land full of towering peaks reaching the snow line, mountain lakes filled with crystal clear water and a proud people exhibiting exceptional appearance, dialect, beliefs, architecture, ornamentation and pastoral culture…
…a dream habitat for tourists, ethnographers and athletes…!
We will not find any documented reliable sources of information about the first settlers in this inhospitable rocky region. Legend has it that the first of them was a fugitive from the royal court, in the second half of the sixteenth century, named Gasienica. Experts speculate that the name of this place and later the city, which today would translate as “buried in the ground,” in the medieval language meant a place situated beyond the last grubbed up forests. At that time the northern foothills of the Tatra Mountains were covered with impenetrable forests, where no one dared to tread. The first people to appear in the Tatras were probably treasure hunters.
A small number of documents drawn up by them survived to this day in the Polish and German archives, and refer to the first half of the sixteenth century. Medieval chronicles also cite royal Polish copper and iron ore mines in the region of the Koscieliska Valley, traces of which can be seen to the present day. The scientific and leisure orientated exploration of the northern slopes of the Tatra Mountains on a larger scale began rather late; only in the second half of the nineteenth century. This area was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The man who is credited with discovering Zakopane for tourists and patients was a doctor from Warsaw called Tytus Chalubinski. It is he who, in the middle of the nineteenth century, propagated among the fashion elite of Warsaw the idea of visiting this place.
Previously, those wishing to visit this relatively unknown corner of the earth, stopped at the Kuznicki Court located in the vicinity of the largest metallurgical plant in this region of Europe.
It should be noted that, what the first persons wishing to stay in the village called Zakopane encountered, was far from the standards of places to which they were accustomed. In order to reach the destination, they had to travel in the most inconvenient way: first by train to Krakow followed by a two day and over 100 km long muddy and bumpy off-road ride in a horse drawn carriage through the Tatra Mountains.
What they initially encountered upon their arrival also did not fill them with optimism. Zakopane at that time numbered just thirty shacks, the village stretched along the street today known as Koscieliska, with as much as a hotel or restaurant nowhere to be seen. The highlander huts in which they resided were built facing the south, with a second outbuilding located to the west protecting the house from the cold blasts of the winter winds.
The most common building materials were simply spruce beams, with gaps between the balks initially sealed with moss and, later, wood chips twisted into braids called ‘welnianka’. Roofing boards were called ‘dranice’ or ‘gonty’.
The interior was often split into three rooms. A black and a white room divided by the so called ‘sien’, which was a type of hallway. In the black room, the owners of the house would spend most of their days, especially in winter because there was a stove. Full of smoke and soot, it owed its name to those factors primarily.
The white chamber, clean and richly decorated, was only used by members of the household sporadically on special occasions or when receiving visitors. In the summer it was usually put at the disposal of tourists. The summer season tourist trade was a huge financial support for the local community. The rocky and barren land and harsh climate meant frequent periods of scarcity and famine during winter and early spring. Besides, the diet of then inhabitant of this place was not too rich.
The soil only gave birth to limited amounts of potatoes and oats, but with time, the local highlanders in turn mastered the art processing all that a sheep and a cow could give them to perfection. These animals fed and clothed the entire mountain community, which even today is reflected in local dishes as well as dairy products and the way ‘Goral’ highlanders dress.
Let’s start from the outfit because it is something, other than the local dialect called ‘Gwara’, is most noticeable when coming to Zakopane.
A characteristic feature of the highlander dress has always been beauty combined with convenience, simplicity and excellent adaptation of it to the testing climate associated with living in high mountain areas. The male attire consists of a linen shirt, pinned together at the collar with an ornate brass buckle, pants, a waistcoat called ‘serdak’, jacket called ‘cucha’, leather shoes called ‘kierpce’ and a black hat. The outfit is complemented by a leather belt and a long-handled axe called ‘ciupaga’. The ‘cucha’ is usually white in color and richly embroided. Black jackets are usually only worn by ‘Goral’ highlanders having a special role to play ritual or an honorable role at a ceremony. Due to the distinctive style it is usually worn draped over the shoulders. Pants; tight and decorated on the hips by probably the most well-known regional motif called ‘parzenice’. The outfit also includes a very wide leather belt, decorated with metal studs and grooves.
In the old days, the belt also served as a stab-proof, protective element for the ‘Gorals’. Equally important was the aforementioned ‘ciupaga’ which also had a defensive function, as well being extremely useful during mountain hikes, serving as something in the form of today’s ice-axe. The hat was decorated by a strip of sea snail shells. This has its origins in the days when both Tatra and the northern Adriatic region were part of one country, namely the Austro–Hungarian Empire. Completing the ensemble was an eagle’s feather tucked into the strip on the hat.
In the old days, only bachelors wore the feather. Today, this tradition is still observed in many places. The groom could not attend his wedding without the feather as it was the most important symbol of a free man, which was ceremoniously removed from the hat at the service. Detaching the feather (renouncing his bachelor status) was required for the man to dance with his bride. The women’s dress included an embroidered blouse, a colorful skin-tight bodice, flowered skirt, small apron and leather ‘kierpce’ moccasins, complemented by a large, red beaded necklace.
The ladies outfit underwent many changes with strong influences from worldwide fashions trends, ranging from the Krakow women’s attire and Slovakian patterns to the more exotic Turkish headscarves and Tibetan textile. Decorated with roses, vines and sequins, laced with red ribbons and topped off with red coral beads, the embellished skirts, corsets and delicately embroided blouses always left men enchanted. Even today, the young tailors in the region dictate trends by ignoring the downspiral of mainstream simplicity. Young women in the region embrace colourful motifs and have a special regard for jewellery such as necklaces, medallions and the crucifix, which throughout the ages was said to protect from sickness, wicked people and dark forces.
Admittedly, the great expeditions organized by Tytus Chałubinski for his Warsaw friends did not advance their knowledge of the Tatra Mountains, but nonetheless allowed them to experience the magic of this must-see place. Thus, despite the inconvenience which the newcomers suffered during their journeys, tourist traffic grew continously and in 1873, the first tourist organisation, ‘The Tatra Society’ (Towarzystwo Tatrzanskie), was founded.
This organization set itself the goal of making the Tatra Mountains accessible through the construction of trails and organising an association of experienced mountaineers who served as guides. They usually recruited from the Tatra poachers, as people who knew the Tatras well as a result of their occupation. It should be emphasized that without these, often illiterate, common people, it was impossible at that time to lead an exploration of the Tatra Mountains. A tourist at the time was totally dependent on their help, sometimes in carrying their luggage but, sometimes, the tourists themselves.
The expansion of the railway line to Zakopane in 1899 increased the influx of tourists and slowly allowed for their independence, creating the first Tatra tourism organizations at the turn of the century and later, in 1909 under General Mariusz Zaruski, the Tatra Voluntary Rescue Service TOPR was assembled to help those stranded on their journeys. The decision to form the service was accelerated by the tragic death of Mieczyslaw Karlowicz, who died when an avalanche slid down in the area of Hala Gasienicowa, burying the composer. Among the many great highlander explorers of the Tatra mountains towards the end of the nineteenth century, the one who excelled the most was Klemens Bachleda, who discovered many new trails and ascended most of the peaks. The most outstanding guide of his time, he raised two generations of Polish climbers and also went down in history as the first mountain rescuer who died carrying aid to a climber trapped on a dangerous, not yet conquered, northern wall of the Maly Jaworowy summit.
He kept going as others involved in the mission, exhausted by the raging storm, pulled out of the wall. He died, falling off the face of the peak just before he managed to reach the injured climber. His funeral was a remarkable manifestation of the people of the mountains and his name is idolized to this day. The current organization of mountain guides from Zakopane bears his name.
During the interwar period, the town enjoyed extremely dynamic development as a summer and winter resort and ski capital of Poland.
Zakopane attracted the world’s most famous figures from the fields of science, culture and arts as year round holidays in the region became fashionable and the town prospered.
Twice, in 1929 and 1939, the International Ski Federation organised the World Championships here.
In 1935, the decision was made to build a cable car to Kasprowy and remarkably within less than a year the project was finalised. When opened, it was the third longest and highest cableway in the world.
In the post-war era, the city developed at an astonishing rate and again hosted the FIS World Championship in 1962. Each year the ski-jump World Cup is held at the Wielka Krokiew, as well as high profile cross-country ski and speed-skating events which attract hundreds of thousands of sports enthusiasts to the region.
That, which for several centuries now attracts people to Zakopane, Tatra Mountains and Podhale, is extraordinary magic of these places, which consists of beautiful landscapes, wildlife, interesting folklore, as well as healthy air and clean water. In this, our nationwide passion for Tatras and Podhale, lays something much bigger still and less definable.
Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, Tatra Mountains and Zakopane have established themselves as symbols of the unification of the Poles, the inhabitants of different regions of a country torn by the invaders first, followed by totalitarian regimes. But it is not only a place of union, but also to some a temple, a place of reflection, inner concentration and contemplation. We come to the mountains in order to meet the personal goals of each of us. In the mountains we recognise and discover the advantages and disadvantages of our nature, our own capabilities and limitations, we learn to accept our shortcomings and deficiencies in body and spirit.
Here we reach a state of inner harmony. The difficult questions posed in the lowlands, in the mountains receive a response, nagging doubts in the midst of the mountain valleys get dispelled by the tranquil silence. The mountains become a lifestyle and they are not on the selfish path of spiritual development, but they are the world, allowing for the manifestation of true intentions, habits, obsessions, beliefs, often hidden strengths of character. In the mountains we learn humility and the truth about ourselves, a sense of freedom and detachment from other people. There, we can discover our sensitive nature. There, at the same time you realise your nothingness and fragility in the face of a wild and untamed habitat.
Mountains have to be duly respected and honored. Maybe that’s where, in this land, closely guarded by the intimidating, wind-lashed peaks, torn souls finds peace and contentment? Or maybe that’s where, somewhere under Szpiglasowa Pass, crossing the path of a stray chamois, You, our guest, will find the meaning of your existence?
Or maybe it’s right there on the stone path somewhere in the Tomanowa Valley, in the silence of the night, marred only by splashing raindrops and footsteps in the dark, you will hear your true self? Maybe it is there, where waxwings dash amongst the rowan trees, doze your dormant desires? Or maybe it’s a constant search for unfulfilled dreams, carefully hidden high in the clouds, somewhere between Morskie Oko and Roztoka, where they can only be found by the wind smashing a centuries old spruce? Or maybe it’s the moments of contemplation, doubt, weakness, spent in peace, still, somewhere over the Czarny Lake in the shade of Koscielec?
Maybe, just maybe, there, leaning over Zielony Lake in the glow of the setting sun, gazing into its depths, akin to a cheval glass, you will see your true reflection…