Skiing is seen as an expensive sport for the elite, and with good reason. The upfront cost of equipment, attire, and sky-high lift passes at even higher-priced ski resorts can be enough to burn a hole in the average person’s pocket. But with planning and research, you can get a powder hit without blowing your budget.
Let Sabi Phagura introduce you to the lesser-known ski town of Zakopane in Poland.
Not long ago, resort skiing was the only option for people searching for their annual ski slope action. But it doesn’t always take into account the needs of skiers who yearn for the wilderness and calm of the mountains away from the crowds. And this is what helps the ‘Winter town’ of Zakopane, which means ‘buried’, come into play.
Not only does it gives experienced skiers a chance to check out a new ski destination, but it also gives new skiers a chance to get initiated with the sport without the watchful eyes of advanced skiers. The area is a real alternative to skiing in France, Switzerland, Austria and Italy.
Wanting to check what the town has to offer (especially for beginners), I went to Zakopane as a guest of Snowmads for five days. Within moments of arriving after a 1.5-hour transfer from Krakow airport, I immediately saw that it was noticeably different from any other ski destination I had travelled to.
“There was none of the snobbishness that can accompany ski resorts, the vibe was chilled, and the area was devoid of apres-ski rowdiness.”
Zakopane is an ideal ski resort for beginner skiers for several reasons. First, the resort has gentle terrain with easy wide slopes suitable for novice skiers. Secondly, it has several ski schools in Zakopane with experienced instructors specialising in teaching newbies.
It’s why Maks Raychell set up Poland’s first eco chalet Chalet Stardust. He wanted to set up his business in an affordable, adventurous and fun area accessible to both advanced and new skiers alike.
This particular ski area holds a special place in Maks’ heart because it was where he learnt to ski as a child. Having skied all over Europe over the last 15 years, he felt that modern-day Zakopane was unique to anything he had experienced and, therefore, would make for a perfect affordable place to ski and enjoy winter away from the crowded resorts and doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.
The delightful Chalet Stardust sits in a chilled part of this historic town. But if you are in the market for a bit of lively action, the town centre is a brisk 20 minutes walk away; here, you will find plenty of culture, live music, bustling markets and many bars, clubs and clubs and restaurants.
But back to the chalet and its alpine charm and history. It was built 120 years ago as a guest house, and since then, it has been home to many tourists, skiers and alpinists. But it almost didn’t survive, as during the Second World War, it received extensive damage due to the Nazi occupation.
It was built by Polish Navy Captain Jan Figus, an avid traveller who traversed to the far corners of the world before returning here.
During his extensive travels, he bought back artefacts that wouldn’t have been seen for many years later in Poland, which today adorn the chalet walls, including an African tribal mask and a giant turtle shell found already empty floating in the ocean.
Maks and his partner Rosie Toms run the cosy chalet on a self-catered or bed-and-breakfast basis. Both options include a hearty breakfast to kick-start the day and daily sweet treats for when you return from the slopes. And for those looking for something a little punchy, a stocked-up honesty bar with a range of Hungarian wines and local artisan and craft ales is enough to quench any apres-ski thirst.
Guests choosing the part-catered option get a hot meal rustled up from locally sourced foods, available for two nights of their stay. Snomads also provides airport transfers for an additional fee.
The ground floor lounge and dining area, with its stunning views of the Tatra mountains in the far distance, was a relief to step into after an arduous crack of dawn journey. The mountains are the highest in the Carpathians, forming a natural border between Poland and Slovakia. Occupying an area of 785 square kilometres, 175 of them lie within Poland.
Once settled into my room within the sustainably-built timber chalet (one of four bedrooms which sleep 12 in total), Maks gave me a run-through of things to do in the area. Wanting to stretch out my legs and get familiar with my surroundings, I took a leisurely walk into the centre.
Setting my sights high, I ended up getting a funicular to Gubałówka. The glass roof allowed me to watch the panorama of the Tatra Mountains during the journey before I had an opportunity to view the town below from a dizzying height of 1122 metres above sea level.
Nosal Ski Center sits opposite Snomads Stardust Chalets and is a highly-rated ski area offering a range of lessons through its various programs. Experienced instructors specialise in teaching beginners who can either have private lessons or partake in group lessons.
Novices can also be freed from any headaches by opting to take out special packages that include rental and lift passes as part of their lessons.
I’ve dabbled with skiing over the years but am fully aware of my limits, putting myself in the beginner category. Maks assured me that if I spent a few days skiing here for a solid few hours, I would never feel like a beginner again – it’s like riding a bike.
I’ll be taking up this option in the future, but for now, I am more interested in cross-country skiing (which I love) and ski touring (which I have never done before).
Ski touring, or ‘skinning’ as it’s also known, is a challenging sport in which you ascend the slope on skis before skiing down them. It was the only way skiers scaled a mountain before the advent of ski lifts. Maks told me ski touring gained huge popularity during lockdown when ski lifts were closed, and people strived to maintain optimum health.
The main difference between the skis is the ‘skins’, which are attached to the bottom of the skis to provide grip. Special ski bindings are added to allow free heel movement to allow for a natural walking rhythm, while lighter ski boots give the wearer more flexibility. These combinations allowed us to ascend the hill effortlessly.
It was awkward at first because I was not used to dragging my feet in skis, but once I adapted to this walking style, climbing the hill became seamless and rhythmic. It hardly felt like we had ascended much until I stopped to take a look around me (as well as catch my breath) to realise we had gained height quicker than I thought.
Suddenly I was looking at the village below and got a real sense of achievement. It was enough to drive me on even when my skis slipped a few times, and Maks gave me precise instructions on adjusting my footing to get back on track again.
As ski touring is more about the uphill than the downhill, I took to it like a duck to water. I consider myself a natural hiker, so this seemed to be right up my street. However, I must confess I didn’t ski down it, opting for a lazy ride back to ground level aboard a lift. The optimistic need only remove the skins, lock the boots and bindings and ski downhill.
Ski touring is both exhilarating and challenging and allows mountaineers to drink up parts of the mountain when they’re on or off-piste. One of the days, I just strapped crampons to my boots using my own efforts as I had seen others do on previous days. I wanted to get as close to the Tatra mountains as often as possible during my stay.
Things to do
There’s plenty to do in Zakopane, both on and off the slopes. Sadly due to weather conditions, I was unable to go on a sleigh ride, but if you get a chance, Maks told me it’s a great way to experience unique places in the district, including Kościelisko, Chochołowska and Gubałówka in the Kościeliska Valley.
Aside from heading into the centre to enjoy bars, restaurants and shopping, a trip to a thermae bath is a must not only to release any muscle soreness from the slopes but also to relax and take in the mountains without lifting as much as a toe out of the water.
Taking a break from the slopes, Maks and Rosie took me to Terma Bania in Bialka Tatrzanska, a short half-hour’s drive from the chalet.
With 14 pool basins, over 300 metres of water slides, geysers, water cannons, jacuzzis, and artificial waves, I found it tough to choose what to experience first. It was akin to being in a sweet shop as a child. But with three hours to indulge, I managed to cram in as much as possible for a relaxing chilled-out afternoon. The year-round attraction can do wonders to bring out the inner child in anyone.
No destination is complete until you have tried the local delicacies, and for pointers on the nights I didn’t dine at the chalet, Maks and Rosie advised me on places to head to and highlighted some of the food to sample while I was there.
As a fish lover, I indulged in plenty of mountain trout, and the one I ate at Bąkowo Zohylina Wyźnio hit the spot. The restaurant is rustic in character, with plenty of amazing antiques, relics and heirlooms gracing the walls.
Oscypek (pronounced os-tseh-peck) is a traditional smoked cheese made of salted sheep milk hailing from Poland’s highland Tatra Podhale region. It’s found all over Zakpane, with many street food vendors displaying it in glass cabinets on carts. It is traditionally consumed grilled with a side of lingonberry jam and is often added to salad and pasta dishes.
Meat lovers will find themselves in paradise in Zakopane as lamb, pork, and beef are abundant on most menus. Some of the best warming dishes to indulge in when you return from ski slopes are roast leg of lamb, pork knuckle in Góralski style, and of course, kwaśnica, a popular intense, brackish and spicy soup, boiled based on sauerkraut which usually contains mutton.
Polish food tends to be on the hearty side, but when you’re torching the fat on the slopes, who’s counting calories? There are meat-free options, too, such as moskole, which are traditional cakes baked on a griddle.
According to tradition, they came to Tatra from Russia during World War 1 and are made of boiled potatoes, flour, water and salt. Got a sweet tooth? It’s worth trying yeasty cakes called highlander kremarz – a cake with honey and cream, the highlander apple pie and kalach (sweet bread).
Zakopane not only provides affordable access to the ski slopes for beginners but also acts as a great base for accomplished skiers and snowboarders who would like to push themselves exploring off-piste skiing.
I particularly enjoyed the laid-back charm of this winter town, which seems devoid of snobbery. Add to that the cosy homely chalet coupled with the hospitality offered by Maks and Rosie, and it felt like I made the most of all that the mountains had to offer with a group of friends I wouldn’t have met had I stayed at a hotel.
Snomads – Where and How?
Stardust Chalets can be found in Droga Oswalda Balzera 23, 34-500 Zakopane) For more information on Snomads, please visit www.snomads.co.uk.
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