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Is it not curious how some small communities have so powerfully shaped the European imagination? Sometimes it is merely one treaty or a single military encounter that propels a place to continent-wide recognition. Yalta, Solferino and Austerlitz are all good examples (though many of us might be hard-pushed to pinpoint these spots on a modern map of Europe).
Other place names, such as Auschwitz, have become commemorated in Europe’s topography of terror. Yet others have slipped quietly into everyday language. Brits chat coolly of Dunkirk-spirit and across Europe we talk of the color magenta — not realizing perhaps that it derives from the small town of Magenta in Lombardy.
Places that make a mark
Nothing of great interest ever happened in Saint-Tropez, and yet this modestly sized beach community in Provence became a lodestone for an immodestly-clad generation.
At the other end of the cultural spectrum, Zakopane is a mere dot on the map of southern Poland. Yet this small town has been extraordinarily influential in shaping Polish and wider European thinking across a range of fields.
From poets to philosophers
Zakopane captured Europe’s attention in the late-19th century. It became the mountain resort of choice for poets, philosophers and politicians from across the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Tucked away on the north side of the Tatra Mountains, Zakopane was remote from the K&K hubs in Vienna and Budapest. It developed into a spot where the liberal intelligentsia could take stock and relax.
It was here that 140 years ago the Tatra Society was founded — an organization that dramatically influenced Europe-wide thinking on conservation and environmental politics. And it was in Zakopane that in 1899 Stefan Zeromski wrote Ludzie bezdomni (The Homeless), a novel underpinned by a strong moral agenda that became a rallying point for social change. No surprise perhaps that Lenin was a Zakopane regular. He lived for a spell just down the valley in Bialy Dunajec.
Zakopane came to embody the ideals of a newly emerging Polish nation and it was a place where folk dared to think the unthinkable. For a few brief weeks in late 1918, Zakopane was even an independent republic (with writer Stefan Zeromski as its president).
Ninety-five years after that heady spell of independence, Zakopane is one of the brightest stars in Polish tourism. It may not have the World Heritage status of nearby Kraków or historic Zamosc, but it remains the premier mountain resort in Poland.
Travelers flock to Zakopane for skiing, summer hiking in the mountains and for history. An extraordinary feast of wooden architecture reminds visitors that the traditional Zakopane style still thrives. And those less inclined to outdoor pursuits can explore the intellectual, artistic and architectural history of the Tatra region in Zakopane’s fine range of museums.
Getting to Zakopane
Zakopane makes a perfect diversion from Kraków. We have experimented with both the train and bus connections from Kraków. The bus is much the faster and more frequent option, but the train is by far the better choice for travelers inclined to wander. It meanders through the Beskid Hills, along the way passing through the World Heritage site at Kalwaria Zebrzydowska — an extraordinary early 17th-century religious theme park. As you move south, look out for superb views of the approaching Tatra Mountains. And if, like us, you travel to Zakopane in deep mid-winter, expect to be greeted by mountains of snow.
The bus journey from Kraków to Zakopane typically takes about 2hrs 30mins, while the train takes at least an hour longer. One-way fares on both train and bus are about €5.
For onward travel beyond Zakopane, there is a useful year-round bus service to Poprad in Slovakia. This service is operated by STRAMA and even in winter still runs twice daily, but more frequently in summer. The one-way fare is less than €6.
But don’t rush on too quickly. As generations of Poles have found, Zakopane has that knack of getting under your skin. A dose of Zakopane spirit (which may or may not include vodka), and perhaps you’ll want to stay for ever.