I cannot speak for Stuart but I went with no real expectations for the trip, having never visited any parts of Eastern Europe before. All I knew was that we were going to learn and practice winter skills, therefore, it would be cold and snowy. However, what I experienced was above and beyond anything I could have anticipated. Not only was it nowhere near as cold as I had planned for but we were lucky enough to be welcomed with clear, blue skies and sunshine everyday! Perfect conditions to explore the mountains.
Poland, for many, may be associated with the traditional cities and buildings, the brutal history surrounding the war or quite simply the infamous Polish vodka but even so, it remains slightly off the beaten track as a holidaying and travel destination. I, however, can confirm that Poland has so much more to offer, a beautifully diverse and culturally rich country.
We were based in Southern Poland, in the Christmassy alpine town of Zakopane, perfectly located at the the base of the Tatra Mountains, the ridge line provides a natural border between Poland and Slovakia. The large wooden, snow-laden lodges lined the streets with twinkling lights draped around windows and over verandas, the click clack of horse hooves and the jingle of bells on the horse drawn sleighs, as they transported both locals and tourists through the town, created a truly magical feel. The smell of warm, sweet waffles, mulled wine and mulled beer (an acquired taste) filled the air and vendors lined the streets selling the traditional Polish Oscypek (baked smoked cheese).
Our home for the week was just out of the town, in what was advertised as an apartment to accommodate twelve.. There were nine of us in total so there should be plenty of space, yes? Wrong. There were only two bedrooms and only four beds.. Leaving two sleeping on the sofa in the only living area and one on the floor of our room. Luckily we are all pretty adaptable and with the week’s activities being quite hectic, I think we were all ready to sleep wherever we landed. Accommodation hiccup aside the week was amazing!
We spent a day learning ice axe arrests… Which, put simply consisted of us throwing ourselves down a snow slope on the side of a mountain and making sure we stopped correctly and efficiently using our ice axe… Easier said than done… Actually making the move to intentionally slide yourself down a mountain is really quite tricky and going head first on your back was particularly difficult. Yet, after a slight tumble and a second attempt to get the axe to hold, I stopped. Only to then trudge back up the hill to try again. Stuart on the other hand had no fear, committing to the cause and launching himself down, he slid with some speed but also stopped perfectly every time! You may be wondering why we need to learn how to stop ourselves using an ice axe? Are we really putting ourselves in situations where we need to know that skill? Well, yes, we will be in those situations and in fact all too soon for Stuart. On day three we spent the day on a glorious ridge walk, all geared up with helmet, ice axe and crampons; amazing invention, which make walking through snow a total breeze (unless you get the spike caught in the bottom of your trousers…. This is not ideal) unfortunately for Stuart he did just that and slipped off the ridge path, I won’t lie my heart stopped for a split second but he caught himself nearly as soon as he fell.. Phew!!!
The activities continued for the rest of the week, we snow shoed through forests, a harder workout than anticipated and sledged down every path and hill available. We also had the chance to hit the slopes and learn/practice our skiing skills. Somehow having been the only one to have skied before, I became Stuart’s mentor, the comparison to Melman the Giraffe from the film Madagascar was quite accurate, arms and legs everywhere and my apprehension for how the day would progress increased but in true Stuart fashion he got stuck straight in and went big, hitting the main slope after only 1-2 hours and he smashed it.. Forget snow plough straight in to parallel turns, not bad for a beginner! Yet another skill to add to our ever increasing repertoire!
To conclude, Poland has it all! Beautiful mountains, spectacular views and diverse culture. As well as activities to suit everyone; from the bold adventurer to the avid skier and I haven’t even mentioned that Zakopane is a thermal spa town, which makes for the perfect way to relax after all that adventuring 😉