Tetra Mountains of Southern Poland

To travel by sleepy, sluggish train to southern Poland’s Tetra Mountains is to leaf through a child’s dusty fairy tale book, passed down from generations or possibly picked up as a bargain garage sale treasure. High, pointy wooden roof tops showcase chimneys swirling smoke from what’s most definitely the cozy atmosphere below. Lily of the Valley stands tall, guarding grassy hillsides and spotted cows graze among it all. The train squeaks and rumbles as I gaze out at the countryside, becoming more and more certain that I am following the path that once led Little Red Riding Hood to Granny’s house in the woods.

Above: Wood heats many cabins in Southern Poland.

As the train zips by, I see fly fishermen in tall rubber boots casting their lines into a winding stream and large piles of chopped timber lining most yards. Fluffy clouds hover just above the peaked roofs, casting a cool climate on the land. Once in a while, the sun wins the battle and illuminates a strip of crops, bordered by spiky purple flowers and overgrown grass. But for the most part, the gardens are shielded from direct light, soaking up moist nutrients from wet soil. All of this rolls past me at a perfect speed as I bend my knees to my chest and nestle into my seat. The day is a sweatshirt and worn-in jeans occasion, perfect for a good book and a hot drink- so that is just what I do. Curling up on the red velvet train bench, I decide it’s time to sip some tea from my thermos and read my own fairy tale to pass the time.

Above: Log cabins speckle the hillside.

In the outskirts of the ski resort village of Zakopane lies Jaszyzurowka, a quieter village close to the National Park. Tiny log cabins pop up among hills, and rivers wind between trees and trails. A three-story hostel called Good Bye Lenin resembles a family vacation cottage- its hard wood floors and feather comforters with fresh duvets give this cabin a home-like appeal.

Invited to join three 18-year-old English girls who were traveling after their graduation, we hiked for a solid eight hours to the ridge between Slovakia and Poland. One of the highlights of the trek was meeting a little old Polish lady who sold hand-made woolen mittens and Polish cheese called oscypek.

Above: A Polish lady wears her babushka and sells oscypek.

The rain held off the entire trip and patches of light illuminated the grassy valleys below. After many natural stairs and walkways were climbed, we arrived back at the hostel famished. Four pizzas later, the five of us rested, feet up, discussing our aching calves and the day’s trek.

Above: Patches of light brighten the ridge between Slovakia and Poland.

Above: Jason and I after hiking many natural stairs (behind us to the right.)

One night at the log cabin hostel, we rounded up everyone and put together a BBQ, complete with Polish sausage, sauerkraut, home-made mac and cheese, red potatoes with onion and garlic, and dill pickles.

Above: One guy’s plate at Polish fest night…and there were left-overs!

For 6 zloty ($3) everyone feasted and the cooks were given high honors since we performed with only a tiny hot plate stove, no oven and one cutting board! A 20-kilometer walk to Lake Morskie the next day made us thankful for the carbo-loading we’d done the prior night.

Above: Lake Moskie in the Tetra Mountains of Poland.

Zakopane – Tetra Mountains and One Last Night in Krakow

Zakopane

Just as we had hoped, Zakopane was a small community tucked into the mountains. It is the Lake Tahoe of Poland, minus the 240 square mile lake. A summer haven for hikers and bikers and winter resort town for snow enthusiasts. We checked into our hostel, Goodbye Lenin, and payed further homage to the removal of the communist regime from this part of the world. I whipped up a quick pasta dinner so we could carbo-load and we settled into the scene, quickly making friends with fellow travellers and planning our hikes for the remainder of our time there.

The next morning we ate our complimentary breakfast, a service we will never take for granted again before starting off on a day-long 14 mile hike. On the way we made a wrong turn and bumped into our fellow hostelers, English gals Barbara, Caroline and Ollie and joined forces for the ascent. The scenery was breathtaking and after roughly five and a half hours of climbing we had reached the ridge, a long stretch that is the borderline between Poland and Slovakia. The nearby summit is at an elevation of roughly 7000 feet and we were up and over before descending. Three hours later, sore and aching, we were back at the hostel and as a group ordered four large pizzas which we completely devoured and celebrated with some well-earned beers.

The next day we were still sore so decided to just “go lazy” around the small town of Zakopane. I had already worn through my flip flops and purchased a new pair and Erin’s are on their last leg so we shopped around for some new ones for her, had a nice lunch with BBQ’d lamb and a side salad, and brainstormed what we would BBQ that night on the hostel’s grill. Putting together a group of 11, we manned the kitchen and grill with the help of Donna, a newly arrived Aussie and had a true feast. Kielbasa, Erin’s mac ‘n cheese and my garlic butter grilled potatoes all topped with sauerkraut rounded off the meal and received thunderous applause. Fortunately we cooked and didn’t have to do the dishes.

Erin and I hiked to Morskie Oko, the most picturesque lake in the mountains, the next day. Roughly 12 miles round trip, we powered through the heat and had a picnic lunch on the shore. The only downside of this hike is that is extremely crowded with tourists and the best scenery is only at the trailend. It was definitely a good daytrip though and great way to end our small vacation in Zakopane. We packed our bags and joined the English gals for a train trip back to Krakow. I had a craving for some of U Babci Maliny’s pierogies and it was going to be satisfied.

Krakow

We checked back into Mama’s Hostel in the town square, showered and hit the streets for a night on the town. Someone had the bright idea (I think it was Ollie) that we would each be responsible to buy a round of cocktails and before long the wee hours of the morning were upon us.

Needless to say, we slept in and spent the rest of the day together walking around Krakow. Erin and I played tourguide for the girls and took them to all of our favorite spots including U Babci Maliny’s for dinner. They, of course, were not dissapointed. Walking through the town square and enjoying some more live music we had one last drink with the girls before bidding them farewell. Making our way to the train station, we recounted our days in Poland and realized what a great time we had.

Train Troubles

Unfortunately, the train system is in need of a major overhaul. We purchased round trip tickets in Budapest and had called the Krakow station to confirm that our tickets would work and they instructed us that we were okay and our train left at 10:25 that evening. Trying to board, we were turned down by the conductor because we didn’t have a “reservation.” My obvious reply was “Isn’t that why we have the ticket?” Sprinting to the ticket office, we fortunately were able to book a reservation for the later train and were on our way to Budapest. At 4:30 in the morning, our conductor was screaming something in Polish but the only word we could make out was “strike.” We had’t really picked up much Polish but somehow he was able to confirm that the Hungarian train system was on strike and we had to leave the train. We were on the southern border of Slovakia in a town called Kunice, roughly 200 miles from Budapest. Our flight was to leave at 12:30 in the afternoon.

As a group of stranded travelers, our entire train walked to the bus station where we assumed we would just hop a bus and be on our way. Not so fast. Buses only leave to Budapest on Saturday’s. We decided to take the local bus to the border of Slovaki and Budapest and walk across where we would catch a bus. Walking across the border, there wasn’t a bus station in sight. The only bus that was leaving there wasn’t until 11:30 and it was only 5km away to a bit larger of a town. Undeterred, we wished the group good luck, left them at the bus station and started to thumb it. A big rig stopped within 2 minutes but he could only take one. Two hours later, with a storm blowing in, Erin and I retreated to the bus station we had left the group. Somehow, they had all disappeared and we still don’t know how they managed. We both passed out in the bus station while the rain came thundering down.

We were awoken by an older lady who was also waiting for the 11:30. Realizing we didn’t have any Hungarian Forint’s we were essentially stranded. Erin attempted to communicate with the older woman and whatever she said worked because the lady gave us enough money to ride the bus to the train station. Fortunately the strike had ended. From there we were able to make our way towards Budapest, but were stopped halfway due to the strike being back on. It was only an hour this time and around 4 pm we arrived in Budapest. We called the airline and they moved us to the evening flight to Athens. At 4 am we knocked on the door to our room in Athens where Erin’s friend, Katie, was anxiously awaiting our arrival. Nine days of sun, friends, and island hopping would ensue.