Mystical Tatras and magical Podhale

View of Zakopane and the Tatra Mountains from Gubałówka
‘The silent, mystical Tatras, those eternal wildernesses / of winter snowy deserts, those hollows / inaccessible among the scraps, where one squeezes in / the darkness and where the whirlwind strikes with the tip of its wings (...)’ – such was one of the poetic encounters with the Tatras of the Ludźmierz-born Kazimierz Przerwa-Tetmajer, one of the most widely read poets of the Young Poland period. Not the first and not the last, by the way! The Tatras won his heart, captured his thoughts. They showed their might, their power and their unshakeable beauty, but also their picturesque and ephemeral face. They charmed and addicted. Not only him. This was the case in the past, this is still the case today.

From the mysterious Tritri to the beloved Tatras

‘Tritri’ – this is what the Tatras, a massive rock barrier at the border of the then known worlds, were called in the 11th century. This name dates back to 1086 and has survived in sources to the present day. The name ‘Tatra’, in turn, first appeared in the pages of history in 1255.

The Hungarians called them Thorholl, Thorchal, Tutur and Thurthul, Tarczal, the Germans called them Schneegebürgm, the Ruthenians called them Toltry or Toutry, and in Old Polish they were also called Tartry. Their name was derived from the Celtic word tertre (hill) or the Dacian karpe (rock). In addition to the name Tatra, Adam Mickiewicz also invoked the term ‘Krępak’. Back in the 19th century, it was still common to call the High Tatras with the name Karpak. Although there are many names, all the time we are talking about the same picturesque jagged ridges and peaks stabbing the sky.

Not only ‘Diary of a Journey to the Tatras’

‘The Tatras! I cried out, in childish exultation, in amazement, in joy, in God knows what feelings. I was already at the height of the Czorsztyn Castle and indeed I had the Tatra Mountains before me in all their splendour’ – this is how Seweryn Goszczyński, writer and poet, describe his first encounter with the mighty rampart of the sky-high peaks. It took place on 28 April 1832.

The result of this amazement was, among other things, the highly interesting ‘Diary of a Journey to the Tatras’, one of the first bibles of tourists travelling to the Podhale region and the mysterious mountains shrouded in legends and myths. ‘The Tatras are part of the Carpathian Mountains, the westernmost part. It is the group of mountains most beautiful among the Carpathian Mountains due to their sublimity and wildness. Almost all of them are exposed in the higher part and covered with ice or snow: we encounter here the glaciers similar to those of the Alps. They lie on the border between Hungary and Galicia,’ he wrote. His base for trips to the Tatras was the Tetmajer family manor house in Łopuszna, a village picturesquely situated on the banks of the Dunajec River. It was from here that he used to go to Zakopane and the Kościeliska Valley, to Podhale.

Stanisław Staszic – father of the Tatra tourism

Although Goszczyński was the one who popularised excursions into the Tatras, he is not regarded as the ‘father of Tatra tourism’. This is the title given to Stanisław Staszic, who travelled along dangerous paths between 1803 and 1805. The result of these wanderings was the work ‘On the Geology of the Carpathians’.

What were the most popular destinations for tourists at the time? They used to go to Kuźnice, the Koscieliska Valley and by the Morskie Oko pond. Less frequent were excursions higher up. Priest Józef Stolarczyk, the charismatic first parish priest of Zakopane, and Eugeniusz Janota (whose students included Walery Eljasz-Radzikowski, author of the first guide to the Tatra Mountains, from 1870) are regarded as pioneers of what we would call today extreme mountain tourism. The work of Tytus Chałubiński also contributed greatly to the popularisation of high-mountain Tatra expeditions.

The Galician Tatra Society (1873), renamed in 1874 as the Tatra Society is also of great merit in this field. After all, it was thanks to it that the first tourist trails were marked and shelters were built – by the Morskie Oko pond in 1874, in Roztoka and in the Five Ponds Valley (link to the description of the PTTK Shelter in the Five Ponds Valley) in 1876.

Already in that period mountain hiking was practised with guides. Most were local mountaineers – among the most famous and willingly hired were Klemens Bachleda (Klimek), Jędrzej Wala the elder, Maciej Sieczka, Szymon Tatar, Wojciech Roj.... In 1909, the Tatra Volunteer Search and Rescue was established with Mariusz Zaruski as its first head.

The Tatras are becoming trendier all the time. Their vastness and their charm but also their gloom have influenced prose and poetry, painting and music. The list of those who let themselves be enchanted by these mountains is very long: Kazimierz Przerwa-Tetmajer, Seweryn Goszczyński, Władysław Orkan, Stanisław Nędza-Kubiniec, Karol Szymanowski, Mieczysław Karłowicz, Wojciech Kilar, Stanisław Witkiewicz...

From the scratches on the summit of Rysy to the Kasprowa domain

Is Rysy the highest peak in Poland? Where do the knights sleep in the Tatras? Where did the name Kasprowy Wierch come from? Was there a desire to forge a niche in Kościelec for the sarcophagus containing Juliusz Słowacki’s mortal remains? Where did an avalanche take Mieczysław Karłowicz’s life? Did Brother Cyprian of the Red Monastery fly to the Morskie Oko pond?

We can learn all this – and much more – by hiking along the paths in the Western Tatras, the High Tatras and the Bielsko Tatras (the latter are located in our neighbour’s across the border). It is worth bearing in mind, however, that of the 785 sq. km they cover in total, only 175 sq. km are on the Polish side, while the rest are in Slovakia. The highest peak of Tatras, which is also the highest peak in Slovakia, is Gerlach (2,655 metres amsl). On the other hand, Rysy, or rather its middle peak, which rises to 2,499 metres amsl, is the highest place in Poland.

If we hiked along the main ridge, we would cover about 80 km from Zdziarska Pass (1,081 metres amsl) in the east to Huciańska Pass in the west (905 metres amsl). In a straight line, they are 57 km long: from the south-western slope of Ostry Wierch Kwaczański (1,128 metres amsl) to the easternmost parts of Kobyli Wierch (1,109 metres amsl).

On the Polish side, as many as 275 km of trails are marked out. All lovers of hiking in the Tatras will find their path: whether it is high-altitude hiking that gives you a thrill, a rapid heartbeat and a sudden rush of adrenaline, or you prefer unhurried walks on flat surfaces. Everyone will find on their way lofty crags, jagged ridges, shattered rocks, paths leading to ‘heaven’, as well as picturesque shady valleys, beautiful ponds (almost 200 of them have been recorded) and huge mountain pastures. And do not forget that the whole of this extraordinary kingdom is taken care of by the Tatra National Park.

Here are the most popular and most visited Tatra valleys:

 Chochołów Valley 

 Kościeliska Valley 

 Mała Łąka Valley 

 Bystra Valley 

 Sucha Woda Gąsienicowa Valley with Gąsienicowa Valley 

 Olczyska Valley 

Waksmundzka Valley

 Roztoka Valley 

 Five Ponds Valley 

 Rybi Potok Valley 

We must also always remember that on the Tatra paths we are only a guest... A welcome one, but nevertheless a guest in Mother Nature’s house.

The oldest tracts in the Podhale region

Ludźmierz, Krauszów, Długopole, Rogoźnik, Nowy Targ, Klikuszowa, Szaflary, Dębno, Łopuszna, Waksmund, Harklowa... these are the oldest villages in the Podhale region. They were described in the pages of history as early as in the 13th and 14th century, and probably most of them existed much earlier. Other areas closer to the Tatras were settled much later... Hence Białka Tatrzańska, Bukowina Tatrzańska, Chochołów, Poronin, Kościelisko and Zakopane are a few centuries younger.

So, how do we discover the oldest tracts in the Podhale region? We have to go to the valleys of the Czarny Dunajec, Rogoźnik, Lepietnica, Biały Dunajec, Białka and Dunajec rivers. These places are also perfect for unhurried walks, to enjoy a moment of relaxation, but also for bicycle escapades. Indeed, the terrain here is relatively flat and the accumulation of unusual attractions is impressive.

Podhale is, of course, a picturesque area with thousands of kilometres of walking and cycling paths, horse-riding trails and car routes, but also a wealth of thermal baths and aquaparks, vast panoramas and wonderful, beautiful viewpoints, but also places where, amidst the peace and quiet you can get in touch with yourself.

Ludźmierz’s Gaździna and a UNESCO gem

While visiting Podhale, it is impossible to miss the sanctuary of Our Lady Queen of Podhale, beautifully called by the locals ‘Gaździna’. She chose this place for her lodge centuries ago, as evidenced by the colourful legends, beautiful stories and pages of chronicles, when the Czarny Dunajec River flowed swiftly near the threshold of the then-wooden temple. This is where the heart of the Podhale region beats, where highlanders from all over the world make their pilgrimage, and where the sanctuary is frequently visited by tourists, both believers and non-believers.

An unusual treasure of the Podhale region is also the ‘brigand’s church’ of St Michael the Archangel in Dębno Podhalańskie, built around 1490. This unique wooden church, one of the most valuable in the Małopolska region, was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Inside the temple, we can see not only the beautiful chancel and nave with their beautiful and rich polychromies from the 15th and 16th centuries, but also the superb late Gothic triptych in the main altar, the cross and tabernacle, as well as the unique cymbals from the 15th century.

It is also worthwhile visiting Łopuszna and the wooden church of St Trinity and the picturesque Tetmajer family manor house. Nowy Targ, in addition to its great ice cream, also tempts with a true historic gem: the wooden temple dedicated to St Anne. One could go on and on with this enumeration.

Podhale microcosm

For centuries the Podhale region, this small microcosm enclosed between the mountains of Tatra and Gorce, Pieniny and Beskid Makowski, between Spiš and Orava, was the birthplace of a beautiful dialect, unusual singing, mountain notes, as well as vibrant dance.

We can see here some great looking costumes: for both highland women and highland men. Let us not forget the unique architecture, paintings on glass, sculptures created by the skilful hands of artists, as well as traditional handicrafts. And to top it all off, there are the simple yet bold Podhale specialities that will conquer our taste buds. The flagship products, e.g., those produced in  the shepherd’s huts include spindle-shaped oscypek, bryndza, bundz or żentyca, kwaśnica or moskole, but there are also some which are less known.

Tatras and Podhale are like intricately interwoven threads. Each is unique, each leads to a different place. Each has a different colour and each colour means something different. Together, however, they form a magnificent work of art. It shows the richness of nature, folklore, attachment to the land and traditions, but they are also attractions that are must-sees for tourists. Such richness is certainly not to be found in any other part of Poland.


Download free VisitMałopolska app
Apple iOS
Windows Phone

Related Assets