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View over Krakow

I woke up early and had not slept well at all, partly because of the plastic mattress cover, which I always take as an insinuation by a hotel that their guests are bed-wetters. It just feels as if your skin can’t breathe and you feel hot even without a sheet/duvet over you. We were in much better moods today. One of the sources of friction yesterday had been that we had not set an end date to our travels and it was now high time that we did so. We agreed that trying to cover Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova would be too ambitious for this trip, but that if we could plan things we could do a loop through the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, and that then it would be time to go home. “Rolling home” as one of the songs on a CD we picked up in the Baltics says.

We decided to do the replanning later today and first went out to see the Wawel, the hill just south of the old town centre, overlooking a bend in the river Wisla, and which dominates the city, physically, culturally, spiritually, with its collection of buildings comprising a cathedral, castle and many others. Our Rough Guide introduced it like this: “For five hundred years, the country’s rulers lived and governed on Wawel Hill. Even after the capital moved to Warsaw, Polish monarchs continued to be buried in the cathedral, and it is at the Wawel that many of the nation’s venerated poets and heroes lie in state within a set of buildings that serve as a virtual textbook of Polish history.” On the path leading up the side to the entrance gate in the high walls, a queue for tickets to the entrance rooms was already stretching back a long way and we joined the rear of the queue. It did not seem to be moving. There must have been hundreds of people already, queuing or standing around. Ness stayed in the queue and I went ahead and entered the main square to see if we could join a tour or get our own guide and bypass the queues.

I found a guide office and for £50 we got our own tour guide and pre-booked tickets to all the major sights. This definitely seemed worth it as there many more long queues at each of the individual buildings for further tickets, which we didn’t have to bother with. Our guide was called Chris, a young history student and in fluent English he rattled off names, dates, etc. As a student rather than a guide his exposition came across as a bit of a textbook, and he frowned on the frivolous Americans who in his view lacked respect for the surroundings. Our own efforts at humour were correspondingly limited! The Wawel was full of grand medieval buildings, most notably, from the main square, the large and ornate cathedral, where John Paul II was archbishop before he became pope. It compared with Westminster or St. Peter’s as “a place resonant to the core with national history”, to quote RG again. We toured around the inside, which seemed much smaller than we had expected. It was crammed full of chapels, statues and a central shrine, to a bishop-saint, see RG p.411 for details – and more tombs of the great and the good all around. Below we visited the crypts, along with the hundreds of shuffling tourists, which removed any sense of “crypt atmosphere”. The crypt held dozens of sarcophagi covering the ages. Back up for air and next we went to the tiered castle courtyard, which occupied the eastern half of the Wawel complex, more like an opulent Italian palazzo with balconies and an overhanging wooden roof supported by series of columns. First we visited the small treasury. Most of its contents had been looted, most recently by the Nazis but before that by the Austrians who did a very thorough job of it. After the Austrians had pillaged the castle they turned it into barracks, but now it has been fully restored and reconstructed. Next we visited the state rooms, a collection of grand rooms richly decorated with ornate coffered ceilings and massive Flanders tapestries – no photography permitted unfortunately.

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Ness feels energised - a special spot somewhere in the Wawel

We had well and truly reached our fill by now and it had been a very worthwhile tour. After so much grandeur we were in need of a simple snack and coffee. We said bye to Chris, admired the views over Krakow and the river from a terrace, and had a coffee at the cafeteria, sharing a table with an older and very Jewish British couple I had already seen around town yesterday. He reminded me of Michael Winner, and she was wearing the same Rohan fleece Ness has. We walked north to the Rynek. On the way out of the Wawel we noticed that the queues had disappeared completely. If only we had known we could have come here in the afternoon and saved ourselves £50 and/or a long wait.

Back at the Rynek we went for another drink, at a terrace café set up at the foot of the 70m tall Wieza Ratuszowa, the town hall tower. An excellent spot to just sit and people-watch. All around the sides of the Rynek cafés have set up terraces, with brewery-sponsored umbrellas. Wall-to-wall, and with plenty of customers at each one. We played cards, chilled out, and returned to the Cracovia. By now it was late afternoon. In our sixties room we spent some time re-planning and by cutting out less interesting destinations we came up with a plan that would enable us to see Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary and get back to the UK for around the middle of September. Having done that we both felt much better, now having some certainty about where and when we finish our trip and finally made our turn for home. For Ness especially, but for me too, whilst the appetite for more and more travel will always be there, it is now time to say “it’s been fun, let’s go home”. On the “where do we live?” front, we’re thinking about Edinburgh and North Berwick and the plan is to give it a try and see what we think of it. In the evening we went out again to the area around the Rynek and had a tasty meal at a convivial little restaurant not far from the square on a small street, and afterwards, in the mood, went for a drink, a “digestif”, at a café on a little courtyard. On the other side of the courtyard we saw the Jewish-Rohan couple, who stopped by to say hello on their way out later. Knackering morning full of sights, and a great day.

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Jewish tourists at Auschwitz
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"Arbeit macht frei", the infamous motto at the entrance to Auschwitz. But I love this photograph which shows a Jewish tourist on his mobile as he is leaving; it looks as if he is clocking off for the day.
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Wadowice, birthplace of local lad Pope John Paul II.

We made an early start, to drive to Oswiecim, to visit the infamous Nazi death camp of Auschwitz. We were surprised at the steep charges for the car park, which we thought belonged to the hotel. “Privat”, they said. “Kriminal”, I replied, but they didn’t care. We drove to Oswiecim, listening to one of the CD’s I had bought the other day, of Jewish sounds of the Cracow Klezmer Band. It seemed to be the right music somehow, with a rather sad, melancholy tune.

Oswiecim itself just seemed an ordinary town, nothing remarkable, other than the signs to “Auschwitz museum”. We followed the signs, along with many other motorists and buses. At Auschwitz there were large car parks and we were pointed at the next slot. We passed on the cheaper car park off the main road, the yellow-shirted attendants doing their best to compete with the official car park across the road. Lots and lots of visitors, and it felt more like going to a Florida theme-park, minus the jumbo drinks. The visitors centre was suitably sober, built of grey stones. It was not very well organised but we managed to find the till to pay for a guided visit at 11.30.

First we were shown the short documentary, a rather dated 30 minute film with an old British narrators voice and sombre music accompanying the images. Gruesome, chilling black and white footage, delivered rather factually. A “death factory” does describe this place accurately. Somewhat grim-faced we walked out again and went to wait by the tills for the start of our tour. We were split into buses, our group going first to visit Birkenau – Auschwitz II, a short bus ride away. At the entrance we were split into two groups again, and we stuck with the short girl who had an efficient manner and a charming accent to her excellent English. The gate to Auschwitz II is the bit most often seen in films and documentaries, with the view of the train tracks running through the centre of the brick building into the camp beyond.

As at Majdanek, some wooden sheds remained, off to our right. Only about twenty of the several hundred that had originally been built. All that remained of most of them was now a brick chimney. Barbed wire fencing was everywhere. We toured the site, one of the many tour groups being led around. The presence of the hundreds of other visitors and the pleasant sunny weather made it a much less chilling experience, rather sterile even. Yes, we saw the very basic sheds, intended for cattle rather people, the rows of latrines, and our guide did her best to convey the horrors of the camp. At the back of the camp we were shown the ruins of the gas chambers and she told us how train loads of people were divided and “selected” – those who would work, those who would die – and marched straight off to the efficient “processing” building to undress, fake showers in the gas chamber, drop Zyklon B in and seal the chamber, then move the dead bodies to the ovens. All the work was performed by other prisoners.

We returned to the buses and were taken back to the main site for the second half of our tour. This looked “civilised” compared to Birkenau, with brick buildings of two storeys, and paved paths between the buildings. But inside the buildings were some incredible sights. The multitude of visitors did something to remove the impact. In a sequence rooms we saw the collections of thousands and thousands and thousands of shoes, piles of glasses, hairbrushes, suitcases, pens and, most famously, human hair. A mountain of human hair was piled up in a huge space behind a glass wall, the pile reaching right up to the ceiling. In other buildings we saw the cells in the basement, with stories of torture, starvation, and of a priest who gave his life to take the place of another prisoner in a two-week starvation cell. The priest survived the two weeks and was immediately executed, but the prisoner whose life he saved went on to live until 1998! Somehow this single fact was a victory over the Nazi evil, and it lifted the human spirit. It was a story that shone out in the surroundings of this death factory. We continued the tour, the last visit being the experimental and first full-scale gas chambers. It was horrible to walk inside them.

After the tour we had lunch at the cafeteria which had the character of a communist era canteen rather than an efficient tourist facility. Tasty pancakes and roast pork. On our way back to Krakow we made a detour via Wadowice, a small unassuming provincial town which was Pope John Paul II’s birthplace, and now a bit of a pilgrimage site. We parked at a lot set back from the immediate centre and walked to the main square, with an ornate church at one end and, next to it, the house where Karol Wojtyla, a.k.a. Pope John Paul II, was born and grew up. There was a long queue at the house, which was open for visitors, so instead we went for a coffee and a cake next door, sitting in the courtyard with lots of greenery, right next to the house where JP2 etc. We tried the local cream cake, Ness posted a card, and then we continued on our way, returning to Krakow. I called Mischa and True North (re. sale of Morty which is dragging on) from the hotel, and we stayed in our room for a while. Later we went out for dinner and walked to the Kazimierz area, a good twenty minute walk, into the not-so-nice parts of Krakow. Back to Szeroka square. The Klezmer Hois was full, or rather, we were too late. Further along the square we were lucky to get a cosy little table pour deux at Alef and were just in time to catch the tail end of the Klezmer band’s performance, and had a very tasty Jewish meal. I had choulent, a kind of bean stew, and Ness had meatballs. An excellent ending to a worthwhile day, although not exactly with the most “cheerful” sightseeing we have ever done. Oh, I nearly forgot: we finished the day with a drink in the red-and-gold aperitif bar, mainly so I could get a picture of it. The only other customers were three past-it tarty Polish ladies with faces covered in thick make-up, perfect material for the picture!

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Polish locals
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Polish locals
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Just a colourful picture

We had expected to make a quick dash southwards from Krakow towards Zakopane for a couple of days in the Tatra mountains. After calling several hotels and getting the “we’re fully booked” reply (except for one but that was too pricey for us), we started to question the wisdom of heading for busy touristic Zakopane at all, and in the knowledge that this was going to be one of the busiest weekends on its calendar. Next Tuesday was Assumption Day and many Poles would be making a long weekend of it. But then we got lucky at the Sabala hotel and were off. Oh, another tasty breakfast of groats pudding!

We checked out of the expensive Cracovia and drove out on the smooth roads … After no more than ten kilometres we hit a wall of traffic, masses of Poles on their weekend exodus to the mountains. There was nothing we could do. No other route and all there was for it was to sit it out. We switched off the engine, listened to the górale CD, Polish highlanders music, and continued to make slow progress. The congestion was caused by a combination of traffic overload and road works. Anyway, we progressed, slowly, and saw the landscape around us change, first it became more hilly and rural and later it started to become mountainous. The scenery became alpine, the trees, the fields, the brown cows, the houses in typical Zakopane style, and so on.

Zakopane was bigger than we had expected, and busy with cars and pedestrians. Long before we actually reached the town itself we noticed many hotels and places offering pokoje, rooms. There was a definite holiday atmosphere in the town. We found our hotel and were very pleasantly surprised at what a great find it was, a lovely wooden building full of mountain cabin charm, smack bang in the centre along the main pedestrianised street. The very friendly welcome we received just put us completely at ease and in a great mood. Even better, we got a nice large room with lovely wooden furniture and a proper double bed (after changing from the one with superb views but only air-con, no opening windows), free internet in the room, and there was a pool and sauna on the top floor, and we got a 10% discount as we were staying for three nights. Definitely rated this as one of our best finds to date, and the addition of the crowds of tourists actually only made it more appealing as there was a distinct “buzz” about the town, the overwhelming majority Polish.

We dumped our stuff and went downstairs and had drinks sat on the balcony overlooking the busy crowds on ulica Krupowki, the stalls selling tourist tat, the street entertainers, and just watching people, like the kids with the cones of Polish lody (ice cream), tall twirly cones of chocolate and vanilla soft ice. We walked up the street and to tourist information where we bought a guidebook and a map of hiking trails. A Brit helped us out with some trail recommendations. The girl at the counter in the log cabin was only helpful up to a point, which did not include recommending or suggesting a suitable walk. Still, we came away with useful information and returned to our hotel, doing a bit of shopping for picnic ingredients along the way – local cheese on sale from the stalls along the street; a simple but decorative log of smoked cheese; and a few other bits and pieces which we could store in our own fridge in our room, along with the water and berry juice we already have; a Polish sausage, bread, tomatoes, raisins, from a mini-market.

Then we returned to our hotel and had drinks on the balcony (yes, got that wrong – not before going to tourist info, anyway…) Then we changed into our swimsuits and went for a relaxing session in the sauna and cool down in the cold pool. I chatted with a Swedish family. Husband, looking rather “gypsy”, does business with Russia and Ukraine. Later Ness came up too after having done stuff in the room. Total chill-out time. Afterwards we both felt bloody good, tingling. We had a tasty dinner in the lively hotel restaurant, where a górale band was playing inside, but we only managed to find a table outside again, under the awning. Just as well, as it was looking rather grey and raining steadily.

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Colourful locals, at the shepherds market
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Wearing the typical "gorale" (highlander) headgear
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The younger generation remains to be convinced...
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Kebabs, wine, beer, etc. What more could you wish for?!
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Following the trails through the forests

Our comfy double bed made it difficult to have the early start we had in mind for a hike. A lie-in and lazy breakfast in the wooden airy and light breakfast room, with egg chef cooking up a decent omelette, got the vote instead. Both feeling refreshed and rejuvenated. We walked down the ul. Krupowki, already thronging with hundreds of people and so busy in places that it was a matter of shuffling rather than walking. By the church there was something going on. Barriers had been set up to provide space for dignitaries to get to the church and behind the barriers people had massed several layers deep. We shuffled along and then, out of curiosity, also stopped to see who would be turning up. I joked that it must be the Pope, in Madonna’s limo, or maybe the other way round?

We spent a long time waiting, over an hour. In the period we saw several groups arrive: a group of veterans, fiercely carrying a standard, as if they were headed into battle, and groups of soldiers, in tight formation, and a few individual invitees, including one in the typical highlander costume of funny hat, thick pressed woollen (itchy) trousers, and scouts who helped some of the veterans up the stairs. But after over an hour everyone was still waiting for the main visitor or dignitary. The police officer in charge spoke to the crowd, in Polska of course, and the crowd, disappointed, started to disperse. We wandered on, to the end of the street and across the road into a busy area full of market stalls selling tourist kitsch, including many of the local cheese stalls, as well as the typical axe-shaped walking sticks, children’s versions of the highlanders hats and so on. Hundreds and hundreds of people were all shuffling about. Quite a pleasant festival atmosphere.

We queued for the funicular to the top of the Gubotowka hill, despite the crowds it didn’t take all that long, especially when we found out that to get into the car, after having queued to buy your ticket, we didn’t have to queue… oh, whatever… We crawled effortlessly to the top of the hill, with fantastic views over the valley and looking towards the Tatra mountains beyond the town. At the top there were cafés, stalls, a fun-bobsleigh-type ride, and lots and lots of Poles on their weekend away. It reminded me a lot of the Teleferiqo above Quito, but this was a very Polish version, with kebabs and barbecue stalls, a highland version of the promenade at Międzyzdroje. We had a drink, coffee, at a terrace café, looking out over the valley views. Fresh air, windy even. Just as well that we had taken extra layers with us. It was still cloudy and grey but nicely fresh with it. A path followed the ridge, towards a chair lift down to the bottom (we had already bought tickets to return on this). All along the path there were more stalls, log cabins, and near the start we stopped for a plate of blood sausage, pork chop, groats and fried potatoes. We ended up with two, as did the British couple sharing the table with us. Along the walk I took a picture of a couple of con artists doing the trick with three cups, guess where the bean is – they didn’t like me taking a picture! From the ridge we could also see north, across a gentle green landscape, rolling hills, quite a lot of farm buildings, and on the other side of the ridge, the valley with Zakopane and the majestic Tatra mountains.

We walked the short walk, 15-20 minutes, to the chair lift which took us back down, with a nicer view going this way, in the open air and able to enjoy the views more leisurely. At the bottom there were the usual horse and cart rides available, ready and waiting to take us back to town. Rather than take the walk along the busy road full of traffic we decided to take the horse and cart option, lazy but nice, with our driver in his highlander costume and our cart creaking a little. Nice way of getting back. He dropped us just short of the centre as there was so much traffic. We walked through the car park, through a series of ordinary stalls selling clothes and bags and things, and ended up back at the touristic market area. Off to one side we noticed there was a festival, a podium with singing and dancing going on, and in front there seemed to be a cattle or sheep market. We went and took a look at the main stage and the action in the central area, and there was bungee jumping off to one side also. Lots of Poles, and lots of highlanders in their typical outfits. Great festival atmosphere. We watched the singing and dancing, the usual “folk” stuff – enacted courtship, pretty costumes, etc. And in the central area there was a pen with dozens of sheep and a group of highlanders, and a ring of onlookers, and we watched a bit of the sheep-shearing competition.

We walked back to town through the market stalls and Ness was sorely tempted to buy one of the puppies on sale. We walked up to ulica Krupowki, past our hotel and had a drink at a pavement café, while the shuffling crowds continued to flow past us. On the way back to the hotel I bought some new hiking boots at the North Face shop, and then we returned to our hotel room, and I wrote my diary for a little while. Later we went out again and rather than going for a sit-down dinner we had a drink at the simple bar in a basic log cabin at the bottom of the street, had a potato pancake on the go on the way back, followed by a tasty waffle with cream and chocolate sauce, ditto, and we watched a couple of street artists create their “space panoramas” with spray cans and then toddled back to our room, feeling very relaxed, happy and at ease. Another great day, and a lovely spot to just spend some time in. Oh, we have decided to come back to Zakopane next weekend, for the annual International Highlanders Festival, the highlight on the Zakopane diary, and were again glad to book a room at the same hotel. It just seemed silly to not spend some more time here, in these perfect surroundings and at the best time of year to be here, etc.

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Ness keeps a lookout...
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... and exclaimed "I saw a bear!" (several, actually). This was one of the most memorable moments of our entire trip, seeing a mother bear and her cubs, in the wild, at close range!
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Polish "babushka"

We managed an early start and went down to the large wooden open breakfast room, and afterwards got into Eddie to drive a short way south of the town centre to Kuźnice. Lots of people were already up and about, hikers walking all the way from the town centre and those who, like us, preferred the lazy option of driving to the car parking area at the border of the Tatras national park. We were guided to the next available space. The roadsides were already filling up and we parked on the car park of the rather sorry looking Zakopane Sports Hotel, a hangover from communist days when “summer camps” must have been held here. There were signs of occupation, like the football shirts and sports socks which dangled from some windows on the upper floors, but on the whole the hotel looked rather past it now.

From the car park it was a good walk, on a slow uphill, along the tree-lined road to the start of the cable car. Ness was soon huffing and puffing, not having realised that there was a long walk. Many others were headed in the same direction, as were horse and carts, the drivers conveniently positioned just beyond the car park, but we resisted the temptation. The walk was longer than we had bargained on, and on a steady incline, and we felt pretty knackered when we reached the top. There was a long queue for the cable car and it didn’t move. While Ness stayed in the queue I went to ask how long the wait would be and was told four hours! That decided it for us, and we decided to walk up instead. After all, that was what we were here for in the first place! But first … coffee and tea at the cafeteria, and then we were ready to go. We were going to follow the blue trail. First we had to join another queue, to get into the national park! We bought our tickets from the tiny sentry post-sized little log cabin that served as a ticket office and then started the walk. As usual on hikes, I had my yellow eTrex GPS to hand, to keep us informed with facts and stats on the walk.

The first section led through dense dark pines, steeply and steadily uphill on a path that was slippery with moisture as well as the smoothly worn rocks from the many hikers. It was a tough slog but very enjoyable. Well, I was almost grinning from ear to ear, Ness seemed ok with it but was more focused on just getting to the top! With all the other hikers around we weren’t really “getting away from it all” and into nature as such, but there was nonetheless a relaxed family day out atmosphere, a collective enjoyment of nature. It did strike me how keen the Poles are on things like walking in forests or on paddling in a lake.

We climbed and climbed, and climbed, and stopped often for short breaks for Ness to catch her breath, but I was glad to have the frequent stops too! After the forested climb we came out on a ridge. The path was just below the ridge on one side, and from here we had stunning views over the valleys, fields, forests and villages far below and far out into the distance. The ridge was open, covered in grass but without any trees. We stopped for a little break and then continued, still climbing up and up, and we got views over the other side of the ridge. Below it was a deep, narrow and thickly wooded valley through which we could see the “yellow” trail. It looked pretty flat from up here, except for the last part where it climbed steeply up the end of the valley, through woods, to join our trail further up on a saddle between two peaks.

There were lots of people on this trail too, all slowly walking up. A little further along the ridge we had a surprise animal spotting: three bears! A mother and two cubs, slowly going about their business in the tall grass and moving slowly, far enough from the path. They must have been conditioned, accustomed to the incessant stream of visitors and seemed to ignore us. A few people jumped off the trail into the bushes alongside the path, to have their pictures taken with the bears in the background, and another guy left some food, hoping to entice the bears nearer! It was an incredible sight to see these big furry wild animals at such close range, and genuinely in the wild. (Stats looked up later – there are estimated to be about 50 bears in the national park, so we must have been exceptionally lucky to see any at all, never mind three of them!) We continued to climb along the ridge and then up to a saddle between higher peaks.

At the saddle we stopped and had our lunch. We had brought some bread, sausage and the local smoked cheese. It was a super spot, which we shared along with several dozen other hikers! The views looking down the valley and north towards Zakopane and far beyond were unbeatable. We crossed the saddle and on the other side descended into a very pastoral and picturesque landscape, gently folding curves between the peaks, covered in greenery, bushes, pink and yellow and blue and white flowers, and picturesque log cabins dotted here and there. At the end of the trail we came to a very large log cabin which was a café, restaurant, cafeteria, doing brisk business catering to the hordes of hikers. We had a tea and coffee and then made our way back along the same route to the saddle and then down along the yellow trail, steeply downhill and into the forests and along the bottom of the valley. What had looked like a nice flat bit to us earlier was still a steep downhill, coming this way, and our legs had to work hard! At first it was narrow and rocky and then in the valley the trail joined up with a stream running along the bottom.

When we finally got back to where the walk had started, I couldn’t resist the temptation of the little rocky pond/lake and dipped my feet in. Aaahh!, instant relief, but it was very, very cold! Before heading back from Kuźnice we stopped to have a beer and shaslik from one of the cafés and their adjoining barbecue stands. Then the last leg of the walk, down along the main road to the car park and then back to the hotel. We went for the sauna and pool, sharing it with three uncommunicative young Poles who obviously were joking among themselves, probably at our expense. I made sure I got a comment about one of them in to Ness, for their benefit. After the sauna and swim we relaxed in our room for a while, I wrote my diary, and we had dinner in the hotel, tasty highland cooking.

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Roma ("gypsy") mushroom vendor along the road as we drove in Slovakia.
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Peppers, so fresh and full of flavour, at the market in Levoča
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Architectural gems in Levoča
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More vernacular architecture of Levoča

We headed into Slovakia today, for a few days in that country before returning to Zakopane for the weekend, for the highland festival primarily as well as for more hiking. The border crossing was busy, even though it was only a minor crossing on a small road through the Tatra national park, which straddles both sides of the border. We crawled forward. I got cross at the occasional driver who was ignoring the queues, driving forward in the lane for oncoming traffic. Slowly we made it, bit by bit, to the border and across into Slovakia. At first, not much changed. There was less traffic as many cars peeled off for trails that started on this side of the border. Signs were in a different language, but since we could hardly understand the previous one, it made little difference to us.

We left the Tatra mountains behind. Fantastic views of them remained visible in Eddie’s rearview mirrors for a long time. We headed down into the lower altitudes, through stretches of different forest. Soon we came across Roma, gypsies, by the roadside. Some were selling mushrooms, holding out large specimens for drivers to see. Others were selling berries or something else and holding their wares aloft similarly. We saw small groups of children and teenagers and just by the look of them we knew they would swarm all over the car if we stopped. I asked Ness, who was driving, to turn back so I could take a picture of one of the mushroom men. It took us several goes before I had the picture I wanted. We saw other cars who had stopped and were surrounded the groups of brown-faced kids. It was so reminiscent of the Peruvian in-your-face culture, a complete contrast to Poland where we had not really seen any Roma at all. In Slovakia they are a significant minority. The landscape was now very different too (although I’ll probably fail to capture it!), with vast stretches of grain fields, green fields, slowly undulating in a way which reminded me a little of the Great Karoo in South Africa, but fertile and full of agriculture. Far to the south was another range of hills/mountains. The fields seemed to occupy a very wide high valley in between.

We passed a few nondescript and rather drab Soviet-style towns, collections of apartment blocks and industrial estates, such as Poprad. Hard to believe how such a charmless town, with its large Whirlpool and Tatramat industrial estates sprawled along its outskirts, could be in such a scenic place as this, against a fabulous backdrop of fields and the High Tatras visible beyond. The view reminded me a bit of the view of Calgary and the Rockies beyond, but the Tatras were much nearer. We reached Levoča early in the afternoon. The outskirts were ordinary but within the town lay the walled old town, as if completely isolated from the rest. We entered it through the gate in the town wall which took us into a rather Mediterranean, Italian atmosphere, quiet as if it were a Sunday. We had not made a booking here but passed the decent-looking Barbakan hotel, on a street off the main square, the námestie Majstra Pavla. Ness went in to have a look at the rooms and we decided to stay and checked in, and parked Eddie round the back, squeezing through the narrow entrance. The hotel felt dated, well cared for but “out of step”, reminding us of the Uruguayan hotels. We had a nice big room on the second floor which was rather dark but cosy with it, with lots of dark wood. We settled into our room and I “beccie’d” Ness again.

We went out and found the tourist information office at a corner of the square and got some information about walks, and then went for a bit of a tour around the town centre. First we strolled around the main square. It was not a single open square as such but was occupied by a series of important buildings. At the top of the square there was a small public space, and parking for tour buses, then the new town hall, followed by the church of sv Jakub, then came the old town hall, and beyond that the oddly squat domed Evanjelický kostol, the Lutheran church, which looked rather different. It had a broad flat dome on top of a rather boxy main church. The sides of the rectangular square were lined with old merchant town houses. Some had already had “the treatment” and were restored, replastered, repaired. Others were still “languishing” in their original state, with brickwork in poor repair and exposed by crumbling grey plaster. Works were ongoing in various places. Levoča had clearly been a wealthy place in bygone days, judging by the large houses. We visited the Lutheran church first. Our Rough Guide dismissed it as hardly worth bothering with. The peculiar dome, topped with a large cross and covered in what looked like bronze before it goes green, in its original shiny state, and reminded me of an opening scene in the Dracula film, a shot of a similar dome in the introduction. Inside it was spacious, a single open space, and an ornate dome covered in frescoes. It was definitely worth a look.

We stopped for a drink at one of the few pavement cafés, where the clientele seemed to consist, for once, more of locals than of tourists. After a refreshing beer we went over to the Roman Catholic church, timing it just right for tickets (half-hourly slots to get in). Inside, the more traditional church was covered with religious art, large gilded panels and paintings, and the star attraction was the early sixteenth century wooden altarpiece by Master Pavol of Levoča, topped by “finials and pinnacles” and, at nearly nineteen metres, the tallest of its kind in the world. It was full of figures, with a last supper scene across the bottom, Judas resting his head on Christ’s lap. A guide gave some spiel in Slovak, and for other languages you could put a coin in one of the automats at the back of the church. No pictures, as usual. Near the south-eastern corner of the town hall, across from the church, was a cage of disgrace, a wrought-iron contraption, a pillory for women.

After having “done” the main square we strolled round some of the surrounding streets. Nothing here by way of “sights” but they were all the more interesting for the glimpses of daily life and population. The streets were lined with the same houses as on the square, somewhat smaller, some having been repaired but most were in their original crumbling state. Dark-skinned, dark-haired, rather grubby Roma kids were playing and hanging about. Through some open gates you could get a glimpse of the “gypsy alleys” and courtyards beyond. They looked medieval, with paths of cracked slabs (concrete maybe?), looking dark and dingy, like a different world. When I took a picture of the scene through one of the gates, a little boy ran up and started to hit me on the legs, a proper slap. The streets were very interesting, and no doubt their days are numbered as the houses are bought up and restored. Back to the main square. A festival was in preparation. At the top end stood a large municipal looking building, its front looked allright but the rear was abandoned and run-down. We bought ice creams from a corner shop. I didn’t like mine and childishly handed it back. We returned to the hotel and chilled out in room, and later came down for dinner in the conservatory at the back. A group of German bikers were the only other guests, until later. Dinner wasn’t a gourmet affair and took a long time to arrive, but the mood was relaxed and a little “Fawlty Towers”, just perfect. Nice to be in Slovakia, which already feels like a little discovery. We had an early night, under the very thick heavy quilts which weighed a ton!

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Young Roma kids begging, but what you don't see here was the incredible transformation that had just preceded, in the blink of an eye, from happily playing kids to pathetic little beggars, upon the passing of the visitor.
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Inside Spišský hrad
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Made it to the top!
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Mighty, impregnable Spišský hrad

Today we drove out to visit the ruins of Spišský hrad, a short distance to the east of Levoča. We had a leisurely start, breakfast in the conservatory garden room. We drove along the main road towards Spišská Podhradié, meaning “Below the castle”, through a rural, pastoral landscape of undulating fields and fringed with taller hills, mountains almost, visible in the distance to the north and south. Spišská Podhradié was just a small quiet little town, a village really, with a mix of old and new houses, and lots of Romanie faces and complexions. We had already had some views of the ruins of Spišský hrad from the main road, just past the village of Klčov. From there we saw the chalk white (in the right sunlight) ruins spread across the bleak green hills and grey rocks in the distance. As Rough Guide put it, “an irresistibly photogenic shot”.

The ruins command the entire valley, a massive wide open area all around, and it was no surprise to learn that the castle withstood and repulsed the Tatar invasions of the somethingth century. It just looks impregnable. In Spišská Podhradié we stopped at a bend in the road, inside the village, from where we could get more stunning views and pictures. Especially picturesque was the ruined overturned car in the foreground. On our way back later I saw several Roma kids using it as their playground. Roma villagers, as well as non-Roma Slovaks, went about their business, shopping, talking, etc. The Roma faces just look so different and fascinating, although the overall impression you get is one of shiftiness, of mistrusting foreigners, and of untrustworthiness, the stereotype “dark gypsy”. We drove on through the village and missed the car park at first and had doubled back, past the crumbling railway station. Later we saw it was still in use, and people were waiting for the two-carriage wide (wider than British trains) local train.

We parked at the car park at the bottom of the hill along with several dozen other cars from all over, CZ and PL mostly but many others. From here the castle loomed high up on the hill and the top of the tower on the upper castle looked as high as a mountain from here. A cobbled path was in construction and led only a short way up along the green hill, with a meadow on one side, and fields on both, with colourful flowers, blue, purple thistles, yellow, white. Further along it was just a normal path up through the fields, leading straight up and up, towards the gate in the walls of the lower castle.

It was a steep climb. Past a couple of begging Roma boys. Smiling and playing one minute, just before we passed, and then, egged on by their older sister, as soon as they saw us coming round the corner, they instantly transformed themselves into simpering and pathetic beggars, as if a switch had been flicked. So, it was a steep climb and hard work, even just to reach the gate in the walls. Inside the walls, the hill continued to climb up steeply towards the far end, where the upper castle was situated. We walked along the top of the walls around the big green space of the lower castle, probably an area for exercising, stables, etc. Then through the next gate and up the rocky hill into the rest of the castle and more climbing. We stopped for a coffee at the bottom of the upper castle and then completed the climb up to the top.

From here we had fabulous views over the countryside far and wide. The ruins looked picturesque, with archways and window spaces providing beautiful frames for the vistas. We visited the small museum with bits of medieval stuff, armour, weapons, statues, maps. Next we did the final bit, the tower. Several steep and narrow stairs in between the walls led up, so narrow that we could only just squeeze along. Even better views were had from the top. The bit of history about the castle is basically that it dates from the 13th-15th century as the seat of the lords of Spiš and in 1781 it burned to the ground and has been left as a ruin ever since.

Down was far easier! We returned to Levoča, back to our hotel, and collected our laundry. When we said not to bother ironing this provoked a big smile and a “Santa Maria!” from the pleased housekeeper! It was still only mid-afternoon but we had reached our fill for the day. We found a little café, a local rather than a tourist job, on a street on a corner of the main square, where we spent time writing diary (me), reading and playing a few games of Tien Len and/or Escoba and having a couple of beers and a bite (“vegetable bake”). It was a nice uncomplicated little place, modern rather than traditional, playing a CD of 80’s UK chart music. We recognised most of the tunes and hummed along. In the evening we simply had dinner in the good hotel restaurant again (we had gone for half-board as they had “no breakfast-only rooms left”, yeah right). Another great day!

Rules of Tien Len and Escoba

Tien Len: www.pagat.com/climbing/thirteen.html

Escoba: www.pagat.com/fishing/escoba.html

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Must be something in the Slovakian air...
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Getting sweaty in Slovakia
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Haystacks in the fields
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Filtered light in the forest

Either at dinner last night or at breakfast this morning, or probably both, we again saw the group of German bikers (not of the hairy leather-clad type, more likely to be work colleagues). Today we headed for another Slovakian highlight, the Slovenský raj (“paradise”), a little way west from Levoča. Rough Guide describes it as a “karstic terrain with gentle limestone hills whittled away in places to form deep, hairline ravines and providing a dank, almost tropical escape from the dry summer heat of the Poprad plain” (to the north). We drove first to the village of Hrabušice, where we stopped at the friendly tourist information and got a map with trails. The roads were lined with apple trees, laden with small green and red fruit, and the roadsides were full of summer colours of blue, purple, yellow and white flowers. At Podlesok, the entrance to the Slovenský raj, there was a small car park, and lots of cars as well as some tour buses. Same as in Poland, the Slovakians just seem to love getting out into the countryside for the solitude, preferably in large groups!

We paid to get into the park and started our walk. First it was a long flat walk along the Hornad river. This led us to a metal footbridge and then the fun began. From here we made our way up the river gorge. In places we had to use the metal rods, chains and footsteps that had been driven into the rocks. The first bit was probably the hairiest. The footsteps and chain provided were stable, but the rock curved out a lot so you had to crouch and balance yourself carefully, trying to keep as much of your weight as possible close to the rocks (which was hard to do as most of your body was actually suspended over the drop into the river far below). There were lots of other people, all slowly edging their way along, and this actually made it easier, gaining confidence from the fact that so many others were all quite happy to clamber along. There followed many more chains and hairy bits up and over the rocks, and further along we came across the first of many steep metal ladders to climb.

It was good fun, definitely hiking with a difference. Just as well it was dry. The river and waterfalls still flowed, but were probably just a trickle compared to autumn or spring. There was a bit of a party atmosphere with so many people around, good natured and high-spirited. We successfully managed the steep metal ladders and metal walkways screwed into the rocks and climbed up and up through the pretty gorge. We reached what seemed like a plateau, but my GPS told me we still had a climb of 160 metres to go and weren’t even halfway up yet.

The woods made it impossible to judge, but then my GPS suddenly caught up and informed us we had reached the height of the plateau, phew! A bit further on we walked into a large meadow that stretched up the hill, Kláštorisko, with colourful flowers and typical haystacks (draped over wooden contraptions) and lots of tired hikers who had found themselves a nice spot and were taking a break, a nap or pic-nicking. At the top of the sloping meadow, surrounded by pine trees, there was a cafeteria in a large wooden house with a large balcony of decking at its front, overlooking the meadow. The balcony was full of tired hikers downing cold beers and plates of Slovak nosh, such as goulash with bread dumplings, and bryndzove halusky, a dish of potato gnocchi with a heavy sheep’s cheese sauce and topped with a bit of fried pork fat. We did likewise, on the food front, but stuck to non-alcoholic drinks, a refreshing “grep”, grapefruit lemonade, for Ness.

We felt pretty knackered after the steep climb but it was good fun, a bit scary in parts! The way down was much easier! It was a nice long walk down through the forest and this led us back down to the point where the metal bridge was. Some way before this we had a nice stopping point just above the river where we stopped for a while. For the final part of the hike we carried on the same way as we had come, on the blue trail along the river and towards the car park at Podlesok. All in all a very enjoyable, thoroughly knackering and long hike.

We drove back to Levoča, back through the country lanes lined with apple trees and flowers. At the hotel we parked Eddie and then first went for a nice cold beer sat on the small terrace at the front of the hotel, feeling very self-righteous. It was late in the afternoon by now and there were more people about, mostly locals on their errands. A “normal” atmosphere in a provincial town, rather than the tourist-engulfed pavement cafés. In a corner of the square a stage was being erected for the festival. First we went up to our cosy room at the top. We look out the back of the hotel towards a green hill at the back of the town on which a picturesque church stands. Ness took a soothing bath while I tinkered.

Later we came down for dinner in the hotel again, not because it was so good but more because it was convenient and we had already paid for it, and the other options round the square didn’t seem to offer much different, plus it was quite atmospheric. Dinner was washed down with the local plonk and finished with a glass of the local spirit, borovicka. Afterwards we went for a stroll on the main square, in the hope of watching the concert or whatever was on for the festival, but – at 9pm – we were already too late and they were packing everything up. There were still plenty of locals out, just sitting, chatting, and the main focus was the beer tent, a mock “log” (mdf) cabin were there was still a bit of drinking going on, but also falling off and we just returned to the hotel and headed for bed. Great day!

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Praying up and down the main street of Zakopane
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Sculpture or playground?

We headed back to Zakopane today, for the highlight on the annual calendar of festivities, the 38th Highland Festival. We had already booked our room at the Sabala hotel and all we had to do was to make the short drive. We filled up with petrol at the Shell just outside Levoča, checked the tire pressure and drove the short distance to the Polish border. This time we had the superb views looking towards the mountain range of the High Tatras straight ahead of us for a long time. We passed through unloveable Poprad, with its Whirlpool and Tatramat plants, and on to the Tatras and into them. It was a fantastic panorama of mountains with a foreground of golden fields and green pine forests.

We wound our way into the foothills, and smoothly crossed the border back into Poland, which we have grown pretty fond of these past few weeks. Coming the other way, out of Poland, or rather, queuing to cross the border the other way, was a long stretch of traffic. The same as it had been for us a few days ago. We took a shortcut on a smaller road, which didn’t make much difference, through the forest and soon we were back in “Zak”, and checked in at the Sabala. We had nice room again, with lots of wood but this time with two single beds instead of a double, but also with a balcony out over the parking area at the back and the concrete block of flats. Most flat inhabitants had livened up their small apartment balconies with flowers, plants, geraniums, etc.

We popped out and from Redolka at the bottom of the street we bought a proper Highlanders hat, to add to the growing collection, and booked a table at the ultra-typical log-cabin restaurant for this evening. We settled at one of the tables in the hotel bar, outside overlooking ulica Krupowki, anticipating the parade that the programme said was due to take place, but nothing happened. Back in our room we picked up emails. We’re a bit worried about the laptop now, which hasn’t been right for some time now, flicking between a/c and battery, clicking unusually, but we thought it was just the different electricity supply, maybe. Anyway, there’s no Sony Vaio dealer in any eastern European country anyway, so we can’t really do much about it.

Remembering the massive queues for the cable car from our previous visit to Zak, we went in search of the tourist agency where we could buy tickets. This was just down the road from tourist information. The apologetic but very friendly and helpful girl told us we were too late to buy tickets as the company that issues the tickets closes at 12.30pm and then for the weekend, so it’s only possible to buy tickets “at the door”!

We resigned ourselves to a mega-early start (actually, I was rather glad for this – it’ll force us to be up and out early, catching the best part of the day). On the way back to the hotel we got some supplies for tomorrow’s walk. Back at the room I noticed that I had left our excellent laminated hiking trails map somewhere. Ness went out in search for it, finding nothing, and I went back to the tourist information and bought another copy of the same map. We spent a bit of time on our room, diary writing, and later in the evening we went out for dinner to the restaurant we had booked earlier.

We needn’t have booked and there was plenty of room, and we settled at a cosy table for two and had some tasty but very cheese-heavy mountain cooking, and both were in a super mood, glad to be here again, and really enjoying this “travel pudding” now. It’s as if we have found that bit of magic from somewhere again and these past few days have been relaxed, even when we’ve been busy or just on “bus days”, and even the occasional fit of temper (like mine this morning at the petrol station when I was getting hassled by a lorry) is over in a flash. The past few days, and almost all of the past weeks, have been a real pleasure, and we keep being amazed at how much, and how many different “sights” we have seen. It takes a little while for impressions to “bed in” before you realise what you have seen and done.

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Fantastic day out in the Tatras.
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On our way down we met this procession of devout Poles taking their cross for a walk.
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Girls from ... (Turkey? Dagestan? Bosnia? Uzbekistan? Belarus?) in traditional costumes at the highland festival.
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Oooff, should have gone easy on that Polish wodka!
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One of my favourite photos, for the movement in the performers. The composition is almost like a painting. Lucky shot and technically flawed, but still a great snapshot!

We managed to haul ourselves out of bed for the early start – a 5.30am alarm call – and were at reception for 6.15am. At least we had prepared our packs last night before going to bed. We picked up the packed lunches that had been organised for us by the friendly receptionist as a freebie in lieu of breakfast (and Ness had been so looking forward to the hotel egg-chef’s excellent omelette here, never mind). Our cab was there, ready and waiting for us, and we zoomed, well, spluttered but swiftly at least, through town and uphill to the cable car station at Kuźnice. Lots of schadenfreude as we saw people stood at bus stops, waiting for the first bus at 6.35am, and they saw us streaming past, and even more schadenfreude as we sped uphill past the slogging walkers. At the top I let out a victorious exclamation, and the cab driver knew exactly what I meant!

Despite getting here so early, well before the 7am opening, there was already a queue, but much shorter than last time. We waited patiently and eventually shuffled into the terminus to buy our tickets, one-way, and then squeezed into the single car, along with twenty or thirty others. Up we went, climbing high above the valley and suspended high above the ground. In some parts we were only slightly above the top of the tall pine trees, able to watch this part of the forest at our leisure, the “roof” of the forest. In other parts we were high above the ground below, on the long stretches between the massive pylons. There was a halfway station where we had to change to another car, and then we continued up again, even more steeply, rising far above the landscape. Inside the station at the top we were greeted by the smell of … popcorn  from the only place that was open so early. The main cafeteria was still closed, scuppering my plans for a morning pre-walk coffee. We sat at one of the benches outside and had part of our lunch packs for breakfast, breathing in the fresh morning air and taking in the outstanding views. Aaahh, this felt good.

We set out on our planned hike along the ridge, heading west towards the peak of Kondracka Kopka, and from there up to Giewont, another peak, at the “front” of the range (i.e. north, facing out over the Polish plains). Giewont was topped by a tall cross and looks down over Zakopane, dominating the town, despite not being the tallest of the mountains here, at only around two thousand metres. On the open ridge and early in the day, it was cold and fresh and we resorted to our fleeces and jackets, even thinking how nice it would be to have our hats! On one side, to our left, we looked down into Slovakia. On the other side was Poland. We were basically walking along the borderline. Red and white border markers were placed on the high points along the ridge, with “S” on one side and “P” on the other. Based on the map, I had programmed a few waypoints in my GPS.

We made rapid progress on the first part, which was mostly level or downhill, with steep sharp drops on either side of us, hundreds of metres down. Steady footing was definitely required! We had fabulous views on either side. To the north were the populated Polish lowlands. On the other side was the interior of the High Tatras, with more mountains and deep valleys covered in carpets of pine trees, and far beyond, looking deep into Slovakia, beyond the Tatra mountains, towards green farmlands. Wow! We took it slowly. There were only a few walkers around when we set out but later we were overtaken by some faster walkers from later cable cars up. The climb up to Kondracka Kopka was a tough section, and we were both feeling puffed, and proud, when we got to the top. We made a stop here to enjoy the views and had another bite, and then we set off down, on the other side, towards the saddle lower down which was behind Giewont.

From up here we could see how this saddle was a busy meeting point for hikers from several trails which joined here, and they looked like ants from up here. Downhill was tough too, and we were careful not to slip, and at the saddle we made another stop. By this stage we had already decided against the last climb, up Giewont itself. This last bit just looked so steep and having once gone downhill for a good stretch it seemed “counterintuitive” to go up again. We followed the green (or was it the yellow?) trail, down, going against the flow. There was a continuous stream of hikers coming up. The last bit, for them, was a steep winding path up. It was tough for us too, but far less strenuous! The path gradually levelled out but remained tough on our knees. We encountered a long procession, a cross being borne at the front. They had already made a very long hike to get here, and the toughest bit was still to come for them. We continued to go down and reached the log cabin where we stopped for a coffee and sat on the bench outside.

From here I called Mama and Mischa, responding to a voicemail Mischa had left me the other day to say she had gone over to see Mama with Woody. We completed the rest of the walk, which was still a long way, and finally reached Kuźnice, and stopped for a well-earned beer with syrup, and a shaslick, and then we caught a bus back into Zakopane. At the hotel we kicked off our shoes and took a short break before going out again. We wanted to catch the “highland wedding” at 5pm. We crossed to the open park area, where the focus of the festival was going to be. There didn’t seem to be a lot going on, certainly not on the scale and enthusiasm of Tartu’s Hanseatic Days (see Estonia). There were a few stalls selling handicrafts, and one or two outlets of beer and food, some seating, and a blue and yellow “big top”, and a small open-air stage, by the green. We got ourselves beers with syrup in plastic glasses, just in time, we thought, for the start of the “wedding”.

Well, we took seats at the back by the open-air stage and the wedding started a little later. The wedding processions came in from the back of the field, accompanied by typical “górale” (highlander) singing. It’s hard to describe the sound – we bought a CD. They were dressed in the typical highlander clothes of thick pressed wool – see pictures for these. The wedding was enacted, with lots of dancing, twirling, stomping, kissing, and of course górale singing and whistling, with a Polish commentary that would have been lost on us if it hadn’t been for the helpful translations from the Polish-Dutch woman sat next to Ness. We were about to return to the hotel as we had planned to head for the sauna, but instead stayed around for the next “act” and were glad we did! We were treated to a series of short performances from a wide range of nationalities, all putting on a brief but spirited introduction to themselves and their national styles of dancing/singing/music. It was a kind of parade of highland dancing and music from, in order: Turkey, Romania, Turkmenistan, Sicily, Serbia, another Górale piece, Peru, Russia (I think), Belarus, Bulgaria, Dagestan, Macedonia, Hungary and finally, France. I tried to take lots of pictures but these simply can’t capture the music, the twirling and stomping and dancing, and the general mood. Suffice to say, each act was colourful, different in its own way, and applauded enthusiastically, with an encore from the jumping Peruvians. It was quite late by the time this spectacle had finished, and we returned to the hotel where we had a tasty dinner in the large cosy wooden dining room, with more live górale music, and then off to bed, knackered and happy. Another fantastic day, yippee!

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Made it!
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Our man with his madonna

We managed another early start and were downstairs for 6.15am, picking up our packed lunches which we had asked for yesterday. At reception we met Jeff, an American with whom we shared the taxi this morning. He’s a typical, young (30’s?) American and easy to get on with. He is eager to please, affable and conversation flowed easily. He is staying on in Poland for a few days, heading to Krakow and Warsaw after Zakopane. His wife has already returned home, to Chicago, but he has stayed on as he is on a “long” break of six weeks, which is provided by his company once every four years, over and above his normal leave. He plans to spend the next three weeks on vacation and the following three weeks back in the US, doing nothing in particular.

At Kuźnice the queue was short, like yesterday. Half an hour of waiting and shuffling flew by as most of it was spent yacking with Jeff and then we boarded the crowded cable car. We were the last ones to squeeze into the car and Jeff had to wait for the next one. We rose above the landscape and got to the top, where we had our breakfast, following the same routine as yesterday. A bit later Jeff joined us on the open air terrace where we sat. Following our suggestion, he set off to do the same walk we did yesterday. At a fork in the path we split up with him and we set off southeast, following the ridge the other way, which led towards the tall peak of Swinica, 2,300 metres high.

Ness soon started to feel the effects of the past few hikes, calf muscles aching, and after about an hour of up and down across the ridge Ness had to stop. We hadn’t planned a long hike for today anyway, and wanted to make sure we were back in town, at our hotel, in time for the 12pm Highland Parade. So while Ness started to head back I carried on a little further, upping the pace a bit to knacker myself out and it felt good to a go a little faster. From the ridge we had superb views, like yesterday, even though it was hazier today. Ahead, Swinica looked formidable, rising steeply up, almost straight up it seemed. I crossed a field of big boulders (not sure what the correct name is), large grey boulders all down the slope, covered in green lichen, so that from a distance it looked like green stone. A path had been created by somehow moving boulders so their flat faces were facing up. At the bottom of Swinica I stopped and took a look at the climbers slowly winding their way up. The way the sun was behind the mountains so all I could see was the shadowy face Kuźnice reminded me of our hike through Tiger Leaping Gorge.

I headed back from this point, walking quickly but being careful not to stumble or trip as there were very steep drops on either side, hundreds of metres down. I reached Ness, who had been waiting for me as agreed, and we did the last part of the walk together, back to Kasprowy Wierch, the summit where the cable car station was located. The café by the cable car station was now open and doing a brisk trade. We sat outside, had a coffee/tea and shared a bowl of Żurek, tasty Polish sour soup. Then we took the cable car back down and at the bottom we caught a minivan/cab to the town centre. Police were already cordoning off the streets, no doubt for the parade, and we were dropped at the top of ulica Krupowki, still a good walk to our hotel. Along the mostly pedestrianised street there were a few barriers at some of the junctions and some people were clearly taking up positions to watch the parade.

We walked to our hotel and tried to get a table on the balcony of the terrace. Two tables were free but had signs saying “reservacija” and the rest were already taken, so we just shared a table with another couple. Ness went upstairs and freshened up, came back down, and then I did the same, and we waited. The people at our table left and had it to ourselves. A middle-aged pair of gay Brits finally arrived to take one of the reserved tables. The parade never happened, or rather, despite repeated checking with the hotel staff that the parade would in fact pass by the hotel, right in front of us, but it only got as far as a junction near us. Ah well, we just had to be content with the show from yesterday. Ness went upstairs to have a kip and I stayed on the balcony for a little longer, with another beer and continued to write my diary.

Later we went for a sauna and a swim, nice dry heat (97), followed by the icy pool. A couple of Japanese ladies seemed to think it was a no-clothes sauna and that you had it to yourself and were waiting for us to leave before they would go in. In the evening we met Jeff again, back on the hotel balcony and had a few beers and dinner, and chatted. Together we went over to the festival area for the main event… Well, we had already missed the fireworks, which went off above our heads while we were at the hotel, and at the festival area the only thing that was happening was an “open air party with camp fires”. This was a very low-key affair, with just a few people sat around a few large blazing fires, grilling sausages on long sticks. Jeff and I had another beer, in the absence of coffee, and we stood talking for a little longer, swaying under the influence, and then called it a night.