Skiing peaks with a papal blessing

Despite being a prime Polish winter sports location with a rich Highlander culture, the low-key town of Zakopane remains gloriously off most international skiers' radars.

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.

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).

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.

Next morning we took it easy on an impossibly quaint horse-drawn sleigh ride through town. My boys set to work Instagramming two gorgeous historic wooden churches – the 1907 Jaszczurówka Chapel on Balzera Street and the 1845 to 1851 Stary Kościół on Kościeliska Street. Tucked away behind some trees by the Kuznickie roundabout, we thawed out at the Tatra Museum, a grand building displaying priceless examples of artefacts from the region’s Highlander people, the Górale; there were traditional costumes, historic interiors, folk art, musical instruments and carved wooden furniture. While Zakopane's winter perks are palpable – skiing, ice-skating, snowmobiling and dog sled rides – there's a whole chunk of 19th-century European history worth learning about here too.

The native inhabitants of this region, originating from 15th-century Polish, Czech, Vlach, Slovak and Ukrainian shepherds, the Górale are the only Polish ethnographical group that still maintain and cultivate the original ceremonies and customs of their ancestors. Local folk costume, dance and music remain – even today – an inspiration to Polish artists. During the last week of August, Zakopane’s annual International Festival of Highland Folklore sees colourfully dressed performers from all over the world showing off their traditional clothes and folk music at Poland’s oldest folk festival.

That night we listened to live folk music alongside Zakopane locals who were dressed in traditional regional costumes: men in billowy white shirts and thick, boiled wool trousers embroidered with bright wool patterns; women in embroidered bodices and flowing skirts. It struck me that this was not an act for the tourists as it is in so many parts of the country. The town’s rustic allure and carefully crafted wooden houses were not just here to charm visitors. These locals were rightly proud of their rich Highlander culture and were determined to keep it very much alive. I drank to that. "Na zdrowie" (cheers).