In the middle of an 11-day pilgrimage to his homeland in 1997, Pope John Paul II took a detour, helicoptering over the stunning snow-capped peaks and strolling along the picturesque lakes of Zakopane, a mountain town in Poland’s Podhale region that, to this day, remains gloriously off most international skiers' radars.
Born in the nearby city of Wadowice, the in-the-know pope shook hands and blessed stunned tourists and villagers, and spent a good deal of his downtime hiking and skiing in the 2,500m-high Tatra Mountains, even after he became bishop in Krakow, 100km to the north.
Despite being home to just 30,000 residents, Zakopane is by far Poland's biggest and boldest ski resort, bringing in some two million visitors each year. They come mainly from neighbouring European countries, drawn by the mix of technical runs, easier slopes and cross-country ski opportunities. While my junior shredders seemed more than happy with the simplicity of the nursery slopes and the patient English-speaking instructors, my husband and I were looking for more of a challenge. We wanted to see what the papal fuss was all about.
- Pope John Paul II blesses a crowd of some 200,000 people during Holy Mass in Zakopane, June 1997. (STF/AFP/Getty Images)
To ski the full vertical of this resort on the best of the red and black runs, we were told to head south to Mount Kasprowy Wierch. Served by cable car from the village of Kuźnice, the dramatic 2km ascent is one of the longest (and built in 1936, one of the oldest) cable car rides in Europe, rising in two stages: from Kuznice to Myślenickie Turnie station, and then onwards from Myślenickie Turnie to Kasprowy peak, through a postcard-perfect, snow-covered fir tree forest. At the top we straddled two countries, standing with one foot in Poland, the other in Slovakia. To get down, we were spoiled with a choice of two slopes: the 1,400m Gasienicowa run and the 2,000m Goryczkowa run. Goryczkowa was steep enough to gather speed on and broad enough for turns, and we were blessed with a pile of fresh powder and very few other people. As the breeze whipped the snow in little maelstroms of white, I stopped halfway and tilted my face to the cloudless, sapphire-blue sky.
By late afternoon we were famished, so we headed to the hip end of Zakopane, the 1km-long Krupowki Street. As late as the 19th Century, this street was a narrow, hacked-out path that joined the village centre with the iron works in Kuźnice. Today the street is lined with trendy restaurants and bustling karczma (pubs). As the proud daughter of a Polish immigrant, I'd grown up on placki (potato pancakes) and kabanos (dried sausage). Now my brood was keen to get a handle on the local specialties as well. We opted for bigos (sour cabbage, meat, sausage and tomato sauce); ciapas (a stew of layered cabbage, potatoes and bacon) and czarcie żarcie (spicy potato cakes smothered in goulash). Everything was so affordable that I gorged on the local salty, bread-like oscypek cheese, eye-wateringly cheap cherry vodka and Polish Mountain Tea (tea with a double shot of spirytus, 190 proof and 95% alcohol).
- A Polish highlander sells oscypek, a traditional smoked cheese made out of sheep's milk. (Janek Skarzynski/AFP/Getty Images)
As familiar as I was with Alpine architecture, the town’s unique gingerbread-house character surprised me. Using traditional building techniques, the ornate wooden cottages in Zakopane are entirely constructed without using nails, the local mountain spruce sawn into flat logs that are connected by notches in each corner. Each home has a name instead of a number, and most are decorated with rich floral motifs, delicately carved patterns and intricate woodwork decals – a building style that dates back to the late 19th Century when the Arts and Crafts Movement was in full bloom.