Even before the time when my exchange placement at Maastricht University was confirmed, I had been dreaming and drawing up a wish list of European countries and cities to visit during my exchange semester. Poland was not one of them. In fact, had my exchange friend not brought up the issue of how she had not been successful in looking for friends to visit Poland together, I would not even have entertained the thought of going to Poland. It wasn’t because I was against anything Polish; rather, I didn’t know if Poland had anything worth travelling to for.
Poland turned out to be a hidden gem.
As this trip was made during Period 1 of my exchange at Maastricht University, my friends and I booked Ryanair tickets from Brussels Chaleroi Airport to Krakow. It was my first budget flight in Europe and also my first experience with Ryanair, which as such warranted a photo of the plane wing. 😛
Upon touching down at Krakow, we took the public bus to the main train station (around a 40-min journey after factoring in the congestion), where we bought the bus tickets that would bring us to Zakopane (1.5 hours). I was surprised that there were a substantial number of people who wanted to travel to Zakopane, as I had initially thought Zakopane to be an off-beaten track with fewer tourists. Little did I know that Zakopane was in fact one of the most popular tourist destinations in Poland, being famous for its beautiful mountain ranges and ski resorts.
Our hostel was called ‘Top Hostel’, and it was a really good hostel in terms of the furnishing and service. We had booked a 3-bed private room and as such, we were given a cosy loft with a common living room and toilet with a washing machine. There weren’t many people sharing the loft with us, so it was quiet and peaceful. On top of that, breakfast was provided. The only downside was the weak WiFi signal, which meant that we had to go down to the kitchen if we wanted to use the WiFi, thus making it slightly inconvenient.
As we had travelled there in early autumn, there was of course no snow, but the weather for hiking was perfect! The morning after we had arrived, we walked to the main bus station where we bought bus tickets to Morskie Oko (you can simply buy them from the numerous drivers touting their services outside the bus station).
Morskie Oko is the name of the largest and 4th-deepest lake in the Tatra Mountains in Zakopane. As it is nested deep within the mountain range which is also a designated nature reserve, vehicular traffic is not allowed in the nature reserve. As such, visiting Morskie Oko involves a 3-hour hike from the entrance of the nature reserve. All bus companies claim to ferry tourists to “Morskie Oko”, which is a misstatement as they only bring them as far as the entrance where a long, long hike awaits tourists.
Alternatively, at the entrance of the national park, one could pay through his/her nose for a horse carriage ride that brings you almost all the way to Morskie Oko, for a fare of 30 Polish zloties per way, instead of hiking. This is probably useful for people who have difficulty walking long distances, such as the elderly, but as we were young and able, we opted for the hike which would also give us more time to take in the beautiful scenery. The hike is also classified as easy, since it is a paved road leading all the way to the lake. The only challenge was the distance of 9km.
It is important to pack your own food and take it along with you during the hike, as there are no food stalls along the way and the only (and expensive) restaurant is located at Morskie Oko itself. Also, be prepared to shell out money to use the toilets which are conveniently located at regular intervals throughout the trail. We had rudely found out in earlier trips that toilets in Europe are generally not free, and they demand a rather exorbitant price of approximately 50 euro cents for you to answer the call of nature. The toilets right at the entrance of the trail are free, though they are merely portable toilets with thoroughly vomit-inducing interiors.
These are some photos of the breathtaking scenery along the way. The weather that day was absolutely perfect. (I later learnt that we were lucky to have experienced such good weather, as very often Zakopane would be shrouded in drab grey clouds and perhaps even a drizzle).
We made a slight detour off the main trail as we came across a smaller side trail. This gorgeous view of the Tatra Mountains lay awaiting for us.
We discovered that there were actually ‘short-cuts’ throughout the trail, i.e. one could either follow the paved and winding road up the mountain, or one could cut through the forest via the steps constructed.
It did get tiring about 2 hours into the journey, although we stopped for a short lunch break in between. However, the scenery was what kept me going and made me forget my sore legs.
After 3 hours of hiking, we finally arrived at Morskie Oko!
I have to admit that it was A BIT of a letdown, but this was partly due to my imagination of what Morskie Oko would be. In my mind, I had framed it as a pristine and almost untouched portion of nature – a clear and shimmering lake with no one else in sight. Of course, this was too idealistic of me. The fact that there was a paved road leading all the way to the lake, together with the horse carriage services, should have alerted me to the possibility that perhaps Morskie Oko wasn’t all that I thought it to be.
My heart sank the slightest bit when I saw the hordes of tourists crowding around the lake, making it difficult for me to frame my photographs in a way that would cut out the crowds from my otherwise postcard-perfect photo of Morskie Oko. Nevertheless, I tried my best and the effect turned out to be pretty okay!
We headed down right to the edge of the lake and walked along the perimeter for a short distance so as to get away from all the crowds and screaming children. There, we found a more private spot on the rocks where we could sit and take in the view.
Morskie Oko is really quite a sight to behold. The turquoise water glittered in the sunlight, with water so clear one could see the rocky bed of the lake.
The lake is the largest and also one of the deepest lakes in the Tatra Mountains. This, and probably also the fact that it is a national park, explains why there aren’t any people taking a dip in the lake. Many people, however, sat as close as they could to the lake, on the rocks, just chilling out and some were, unfortunately, smoking away. Smoking is technically prohibited in the park, but when there’s no enforcement, people tend to not take the rules seriously. Eventually, when the group of people sitting near us lighted their cigarettes, we could stand it no more and left the lake.
I think all of us were dreading the 9km walk out. It was one thing to hike to the lake, and another thing to hike out of Morskie Oko. Eventually we caved in and paid through our noses for a horse carriage ride down to the entrance. The ride lasted no longer than 10 minutes! From there, we took the bus back to the town centre where we wandered down the main shopping belt of Zakopane, tried the sheep’s cheese that was sold at every other stall and found dinner at a decent restaurant later.
Here’s one thing I like about Poland (and Eastern European countries in general) – food is cheap and good. We could have a sumptuous dinner at an upmarket restaurant at not more than 10 euros equivalent per person. For this particular restaurant, they had a live performance of Polish folk music, consisting of a group of performers playing the accordion, viola and double bass. It was new and refreshing for us. Together with quaint furnishing and traditional Polish dishes, it was a truly enjoyable and memorable meal. (We could have very well dined at a tourist-grade restaurant with fanciful furnishing to attract the tourists, but even if this were the case, it was still a good meal)
With that, we ended our first day in Zakopane, exhausted but with a sense of achievement! The next day, we explored a different part of Zakopane – the neighbouring hills which was easily accessible on foot from the town centre – which I will cover in my next post.