Monday, July 03, 2006

Kasprowy Wierch (July 3)

Zakopane reminds me a bit of Gatlinburg, TN. Mostly, I think, in that they are both mountain resort towns with gobs of tourists walking about. Zakopane tends to be a bit higher end that Gatlinburg; there are no cars decked out with black lights driving by (in fact, the main shopping street is pedestrian only), and there are almost no t-shirt stores (and the only one I saw only had a small collection of pre-printed t-shirts). In fact, there's a business opportunity for anyone wanting to get a part of the growing tourism industry here by opening your own t-shirt store with sillk screening capabilities.

Most of the stores here tend to be on the high end side, with the tourist oriented chachkas being sold from street stalls. Lots of shoes, wool-related gear (e.g., horrid wool vests, sheep's fur pillows, sheep's fur throw blankets), wooden items, and an inexplicably popular snack made from pressed, smoked cheese. I actually had one of these my first day in Poznan, thinking it was a pastry, and threw it away after one bite. In fact, I wondered if it was edible at all, since it tasted like smoked styrofoam. Apparently, they stem from this region.

My hotel may have a beautiful roof but the beds suck. In fact, there's virtually no matress, just some sort of 1 inch foam over the wooden slats. I ended up sleeping just on my back, but I slept til 6 am when I was awoken by distant music coming from a radio. But whose radio, I wondered. Mine it turned out. There's no way to completely shut off the volume, so I tuned it to a frequency where there is no station.

Breakfast wasn't that great either and I regretted ordering it. The restaurant opened late (8am), which meant I had to wait an hour or so, when I could have been in the mountains. When it did open, the tea came late, as did the butter, and the eggs were soft boiled (not my favorite). I'm not ordering the breakfast for tomorrow.

But the main excitement today was hiking in the High Tatras. I've been worried for days about the weather, since it rained much of last week and Saturday, and when I arrived on Sunday afternoon the mountains were socked in. I spoke with someone yesterday who got to the top and could see nothing due to the clouds. But when I woke up this morning the sky was clear and blue.

I caught the 8:35 bus from Zakopane to Kuznice, where there is a cable car that goes all the way to the top of one of the taller mountains: Kasprowy Wierch. This is a 980 meter elevation gain that is done in two stages. To see pictures of the cable car and the view from the top, click on the links.

Unfortunately there was about a 45 minute wait for the cable car, as I anxiously watched clouds begin to appear in the sky. Soon enough, however, I was on my way. After the first 8 minute ride, we reached the switching point, exited the car, and took the second car all the way to the top. The view was breathtaking. I walked to the summit, which is also the border, sat down on the Slovakian side and looked around.

In front of me was the ridge separating Poland and Slovakia. To my left the ridge climbed to an even higher mountain, the top of which was wreathed in light clouds. Beneath it were a pair of dark, snow-fed pools, set in a bowl carved out by glaciers. To my right, another path, leading to a slighly lower mountain that looms directly above Zakopane. Behind me I could see Kuznice, Zakopane, and in the distance, Nowy Targ and the wide green plateau, ringed by hills. Beyond that, but out of sight, is the Polish plain on which most of the country sits.

There's a restaurant and snack bar at the top, and some people by round trip tickets for the cable car, come up, enjoy the view, eat lunch and return the same way. I had decided, however to hike back down.

My book listed several options, but I decided to stick with the basic and most straightforward -- since this is my first time here -- and hike from the summit back down to Kuznice. None of the maps or signs gave the distance; rather, they list the time they expect you will take (about three hours).

The first half of the hike down is by far the steepest. The trail descends some 630 meters over a distance of about 2-2.5 kilometers (I'm estimating since there were a lot of short switchbacks). That's about 2067 feet descent over 1.5 miles, which is far steeper than the Grand Canyon. The path is almost entirely stone steps, descending steeply. Because I am not as sure footed as a mountain goat or as fleet as a gazelle, but more like a lumbering, unbalanced ox, I walked very slowly down the mountain, watching each step. That being said, I wasn't passed by that many people.

The first part of the way down is above the tree line, with just grasses and small yellow, buttercup-like flowers. Lots of buzzing flies, but I sprayed on some bug spray and while they were still there, they weren't the clouds of flies I saw around the heads of those hiking up. After about 45 minutes, I reached the shrub line, with low, green junipers, I think. More flowers began to appear, such as yellow dandelions, and a very pretty indigo flower, with bell shaped petals. At one point, the path crossed a short (4-5 meter) patch of snow, but I walked carefully and didn't slip. After about 1:45 I reached the tree line, and 10 minutes after that the switching station for the cable cars.

There I had my lunch (large plain bread roll, sweet poppyseed roll, and an apple), and took the now gentler path for the second leg. This part of the trail descends the last 1050 feet to the base, and over a longer distance than the first half. Unlike the first half, it is entirely in the forest, and except for some early views of the high cliffs above, there are no overlooks and panorama views. Instead, it's just quiet walking through the trees. After about 25 minutes, a small stream appeared on the right, and it quickly flowed into a larger and more rapid stream on the left, that accompanied the trail all the way to the bottom.

By the last part of the hike, I could feel my legs getting very tired. I began to stumble over the slightest rock or twig, and so slowed down my descent to avoid hurting myself. I was very happy to reach the bottom. In many ways, I find descents to be harder, and harder on my body, than the more strenous ascents. Though, I have to say, given how steep the ascent is, this may be the one exception. At the beginning I was thinking that I wasn't going to get much of a work out from the hike, since I had "cheated" and taken the car up. By the end, I was sure my thighs and calf muscles will be very sore tomorrow.

I went back to the hotel and took a hot bath. Then I went to the base of the town where there is a funicular that takes people to the top of a hill overlooking the entire town. This time I got a round trip ticket. From the top, I had a spectacular view of the entire town and the range of the Tatra Mountains, mostly overcast by late afternoon, but all peaks still visible. To see some views, go to either or

The area at the top is mostly level with a few small farms, a lot of stands selling chachkas, opportunities for pony and horse rides, and even a few amusement park type rides. I strolled about and got some nice shots of typical Podhale (the name of the region) archicture and pasture land. It really was quite peaceful and pretty.

Tomorrow morning I'm going to take the early bus (about 7:30) to Krakow. That should put me in the city by 10. I may have to ask the hotel to let me put my luggage in storage until the room is ready so I can use the time to explore the city. My guidebook basically builds up Krakow as the highlight of Poland, so I'm looking forward to it (and also to getting an English-language newspaper).

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