Sunday, July 02, 2006

In the Mountains (July 2)

I packed up this morning and left Rzeszow for Zakopane.

It's quite a long train ride. Most of the distance is covered in a fast train to Krakow Plaszow station in 2 hours. The train ride south, in the local, took 4 more hours. Unfortunately, Plaszow station is really in the suburbs (and disturbingly close to the slave labor camp depicted in Schindler's List, where Commandant Amnon Goeth - played by Ralph Feinnes - used prisoners for target practice), so there were no sandwiches for sale when I ran out of the station at my 10 minute lay over. My lunch therefore consisted of chips, cookies, and a chocolate bar with marzipan. Not the healthiest or most satisfying.

Even though the train ride here was slow, it was anything but disappointing or boring (though I could have done without the 1 and a half year old who could only express himself by giving a geschrei). Rzeszow, Tarnow, and Krakow are all located on the border between the foothills of the Carpathians in the south and the wide Polish plain in the north. As soon as we turned south, the train began to climb through hills laid out with small family farms. The plots are so small that I have to wonder how they make a living farming them. The land is divided into small strips of wheat, rye, oats, vegetables, and hay.

The best part are the haystacks. In America you never see haystacks. Almost all our farms arelarge commercial operations where the hay is baled by machine; here, individual farmers stack the hay by hand. The hay stacks have a kind of wooden skeleton and the hay is stacked in and around it. The final result sort of looks like a large Cousin It (from The Adams Family), or, if you prefer, a kind of strange snowman made out of hay. You see them in rows all over the countryside.

As we got higher, the train would pass through small towns, tucked between hills either partially farmed or forested. Finally, we went through a pass and came to a high plain, set like a bowl between the ridges, and cut through by several streams and rivers. This is where the regional capital, Nowy Targ, is located. It's also the home town of my grandmother's family. From there in the distance, I could finally make out the Tatra mountains, the high Carpathian range that separates Poland from Slovakia.

Leaving Nowy Targ (which had a lot of industrial development in the 50s and 60s under the communists), the train began to climb again and as we turned a corner I could finally get a clear view of the Tatras, rising up like a high, dark wall, with much steeper sides than the Appalachians, and wreathed in clouds. Then we arrived at the resort town of Zakopane.

Zakopane, like many of these mountain towns, used to have a Jewish community (though much smaller than Nowy Targ's). The Jews here catered to the tourist trade (if I remember), which really took off after the 1870s. The air and climate in Zakopane were promoted for its health benefits, and in the interwar period, many different Jewish youth groups came here for hiking, rafting, canoing, and in the winter, skiing.

My hotel was built in the 50s and features the largest wooden roof in Europe. The roof is 4-5 stories tall, and originally the hotel had 600 beds. They've reconfigured it a bit and now it only has 300. My room is clean and comfortable, and was able to do some laundry in the sink, and easily hang it up to dry. The only english-language station, unfortunately, is CNN International, which tends to report the same five stories over and over. But, suprise! They had on The Daily Show: Global Edition. I was actually able to watch Jon Stewart (something I can't do at home, actually).

Tomorrow morning after breakfast, I'm taking the bus to Kuznice, where there is a cable car that takes you up to the top of one of the taller peaks near the town. From there I plan to hike back down (about 2 hours, they estimate). Then on Tuesday I'll head over to Krakow.

One thing I'm realizing is that while I've been very happy with my schedule so far, southern Poland is the one place where I could have used extra time. I wish I had a chance to visit Bobowa (home of the Bobover hasidim - and featuring a well-restored synagogue). I'm going to visit Nowy Targ from Krakow on Thursday in order to be there for the weekly regional market, which is supposed to be something to see. I'm hoping I have enough time in Krakow to do and see everything I want to.

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