Imagine the picture...there is no one around save for the shepherd who smiles across at you and offers you a wooden mug brimming with delicious sheep's milk. The sun is shining; you take a long walk down a lush valley, a tramp across an alpine meadow and a gentle scramble to an imposing rock face. This is quickly followed by an exciting ascent and a safe return. Where is it? In Poland! In the Tatras.
The Tatras are the biggest and the most beautiful rocky mountain range in the long chain of the Carpathians. This is serious mountain country in that many of the peaks are remote and rugged. They are, after the Alps, the second highest group of mountains in Central Europe. Their granite peaks rise to altitude of 2650 m, and they are remarkable for their varied relief and distinctive rocky scenery. As they are a formation relatively young in the geological scale, the natural processes of weathering, erosion and denudation are still vigorous in the Tatras. The mighty and lofty masses of bare cliffs with their menacing sharp crags rise up steeply from deep valleys and post – glacial cirques.
Generally speaking the Tatra peaks are more inaccessible than most mountains of the same elevation. Because their accumulation surface is too small they have no glaciers, though they reach up to the zone of eternal snows usually found in mountains of the same latitude. The magnificent soaring lines of the Tatras are all the more clearly outlined.
In comparison with other European high mountains the Tatras are a relatively small rocky chain. They cover an area of some 750 sq. km. From west to east they stretch for 56,5 km as the crow flies, and their width, from north to south does not exceed 18,5 km.
On this small patch of land, granite and limestone ranges are piled up in a close-knit circle. Their peaks, crags and saddles bear several hundred different geographical names.
The whole chain is divided into three groups: the Western, the High, and the Belanske Tatras. The High Tatras form the central group. Both their main ridges and their side branches are of granite. All the highest peaks rise in this group, ten of them reaching a height of 2600 m upwards: Gerlachovskỷ ¶tit (2654 m), Gerlachovská veĽa (2642 m), Zadnỷ Gerlach (2616 m), Lomnickỷ ¶tit (2632 m), Py¶nỷ ¶tit (2622 m), Lodovỷ ¶tit (2628 m), Lodova kopá (2611 m), Lavinovỷ ¶tit (2608 m), Gerlachovská Kopa (2628 m) and Kotlovỷ ¶tit (2601 m). The highest peaks in the massifs of Gerlachovskỷ ¶tit and Lomnickỷ ¶tit are to be found not in the main ridge, but in their side ranges.
The Western Tatras, mostly limestone in the north and granite in the south, rise to a height of 2250 m (Bystra). They stretch from the Hucianska Pass (910 m)in the west, to Liliowe Peak (1952 m) in the east, and they include almost half the entire area of the Tatras.
In the west, the High Tatras join the Western Tatras by means of the Liliowe Pass, and in the east they join the Belanskie Tatras by way of Kopske Sedlo (1749 m).
In a valley at the feet of the Tatras, at an altitude of 900 m, lies Zakopane (pop. 27000) the largest tourist centre in Poland and a well known health and climatic resort. Zakopane is the capital of winter sports and mountaineering. The World Skiing Championship (FIS) took place there in 1929, 1939 and 1962.
The Tatra mountains straddle Polish/Slovak border and can be find in the Western Carpathians. The state of frontier between Poland and Slovakia divides the Tatras into two territories: the Polish and the Slovak Tatras.
Although the major part of the chain lies in the Slovak side of the border, this does not in the least detract from the Polish Tatras with regard to their immense attractiveness to tourists and their magnificent scenery. The importance of this area as an international tourist and mountaineering centre, its value as a health and holiday resort do not depend upon the size or the number and height of the peaks, for the two parts do not differ much from each other from the point of view of beauty of scenery or exclusiveness of their alpine natural features.
The highest Tatra summits, the largest valleys, the biggest number of lakes, streams and waterfalls lie in Slovakia. The Polish side has a rocky amphitheatre of the most breathtaking beauty in the hollow of Morskie Oko, as well as charming forest glens, including the incomparable Koscieliska Valley, and the biggest and deepest mountain lakes in the Tatras.
The frontier between Slovakia and Poland runs mostly along the crest of the main Tatra ridge, from Wolowiec to Rysy. A tourist convention concluded by the two neighbouring countries makes it possible for the tourists to cross the border, winter and summer, both in the Tatras and is the foothills.
The exceptional value of this small area has been appreciated by both Poland and Slovakia. Following the popular wish and that of the highest authorities is both countries, two mountain nature reserves have been set up; the Polish Tatrzański Park Narodowy or TPN (Tatra National Park) and the Slovak Tatransky Narodny Park (TANAP). They are the guardians of the age long primeval beauty of these mountains.
It took several thousand years for the vegetation of the northern and eastern slopes of the Tatras to reach its present pattern. The lower forest belt comes up to, on the average, an altitude of 1000 to 1250 m. Here spruce prevails with an admixture of fir, sycamore, beech, maple, ash, yew and larch. In the clearing grass is grown for hay.
The upper forest belt, at an altitude of from 1250 to 1550 m, is almost entirely made up of spruce with an admixture of rowan trees. In the higher parts of this belt grow the Carpathian birch and stone pine. Here also stretch mountain meadows or alps, occasionally used for grazing sheep and small herds of cattle.
A wealth of plant-life, peculiar to the Tatras, fills these two forest belts. The mountain vegetation of an infinite variety of form and colour, is one of the greatest charms of this rocky world. According to the altitude, climate and the kind of soil, it changes its appearance, colour, luxuriance and size. On the limestone rocks of the forests in the Western Tatras and on the granite cliffs of the High Tatras we often find different varieties of willow, anemone, primrose, bluebell, mountain sedge (Carex), mouse ear chickweed (Cerestium), sesleria (Distichium montanum), gentlan, houseleek and saxifrage. Growing exclusively on limestone are asters, pinks, poppies, lady’s slippers and edelweiss, while on the granite rocks are perched bluebells, valerians, oxeye daisies, rushes, bluegrass and many others. To what is known as “indifferent” plants belong certain varieties of violets, buttercups, pinks, aconite, knotgrass and alpenclocks (Sordanella carpatica). Among the most popular flowers are crocuses, edelweiss, asters, globeflowers, goldilocks, aconite, gentians and autumn crocuses.
The forest belt on the southern, Slovak side of the Tatras presents an slightly different picture. The wood are more uniform, mostly composed of spruce and lurch with a small admixture of dacidugus trees and an occasional fir. There are no beeches. On the other hand, in some valley, on the border of the mountain pine belt, grow remnants of old alpine pine woods of considerable size.
The dwarf mountain pine belt above the timber line reaches to an average altitude of 1800 m. The mountain pine (Pinus mughus) is not a tree but a shrub. It grows on the slopes and in hollows in large thick patches. Drophip rose and rock currants are also occasionally found here.
In the granite parts of the Tatras the mountain meadows rise to a height of about 2300 m, in the limestone part to 2150 m. On the crags and peaks higher up the only vegetation consists of alpine lichens, weak grasses and here and there some typically alpine flowers. The most unusual specimens are those that have survived from ancient times such as the famous variety of garden angelica (Archangelica officinalis) from the Teritiary and the even earlier post-glacial pines and silver weeds which are found in Arctic tundras.
The animal world of the Tatras is no less attractive. Two kinds of mammals live here. The forest here are inhabited by bears, lynxes, wild boars, stags, roe-deer and many species of rodents. The other groups is made up of alpine animals such as the chamois, the marmot, some varieties of vole (Microtus nivalis, Pitymus tatricus). Among the birds inhabiting the lower forests are magnificent specimens of capercaylies, eagle owls, red kites, spotted eagles (Aquila pomarina), falcons, buzzards, woodpeckers and owls. The pipit and the alpine accentor (Prunella modularis) belong to specifically alpine species. Higher up, among the peaks, an occasional majestic golden eagle is found and the plain–looking wall creeper.
The Tatras offer almost the full range of outdoor activities. In late spring, summer and early autumn most if not all of the tops should be available to the reasonably fit walker. This would include the peak that dominates Zakopane (Giewont, 1894 m), the highest peak in the Polish Tatras (Rysy, 2499 m) and several dramatic ridge walks (Orla Perc – the Eagles Trail; the Tatras’ Black Cuillin and Czerwone Wierchy, are both around 2000 m +. The views are stunning and the truly international amongst you can criss-cross the border to your heart’s content). There are innumerable other possibilities and popular routes include the glacial lakes (especially Morskie Oko) and the verdant valleys of the western Tatras (for example Dolina Koscieliska).
Much is however easily accessible from the resort town Zakopane. Access to the hills generally is greatly aided by the cheap and widely available of the national park (Tatrzański Park Narodowy, 1:25000, 1:50000) and the clearly marked trails identified by blue, green, red, yellow or black markings. These reach out to all corners of the Tatras. Off the marked paths the going gets tougher. The height, aspect and relief of the mountains themselves can mean snow all the year round although in summer this is in small patches. The weather can change suddenly and given the nature of the terrain an awareness of alpine condition and how to handle them is needed to stay safe.
Fair weather climbers who enjoy pitching themselves against rock as opposed ice, snow and frozen turf (of which more later) will find a seemingly inexhaustible supply of routes both close to the valley floors and on the high crags. There are some restrictions on rock climbing in the national park and details of the exact extent can be obtained from the park authorities. It should be said that at the time of writing, these rules are seemingly not rigorously applied providing climbers are discreet in their approaches and do not flaunt their racks and ropes outside the park entrance. A small fee is payable by tourists for entry into the park.
Although the mountains are relatively modest in height they are truly alpine in form. Sharp ridges, soaring pillars and huge faces (up to 900 m) are characteristic of the region. The Tatras divide into two identifiable areas. The east contains the highest peak. The rock here is mainly granite. Complex crack systems predominate and there are climbs of all grades. The west is principally limestone country and is generally less dramatic but no less impressive than the high Tatras to the east. Again climbing of all grades can be found.
Summer activities also include mountain biking (plenty of local hire shops), water sports (especially white water rafting) and caving.
The winter scene
In late autumn the weather closes in on the Tatras with the high mountains attracting ice as early as October. Zakopane is fast becoming a major centre for skiing and winter climbing. Ski-mountaineering opportunities abound with good lift services to the main ridge (on Kasprowy Wierch, 1955 m). The terrain provides fine ski-ing but care should be taken with distinct avalanche possibilities especially from the ridges in the eastern Tatras.
It is the winter that brings the local climbing talent out onto the hills. Polish climbers have long had reputation for their strength and commitment and nowhere is this demonstrated more than in the Tatras. The Himalaya may see the results but the Tatras provide the schooling. Not only does this involve the ascent of the steep and exposed faces by ice, snow and mixed climbing but a new and fascinating slant exists – that of climbing on frozen grass!
The experts say that this form of climbing offers grater possibilities than the more conventional styles of ice screws and warthogs can be placed. Apparently the grass sticks to even the steepest of faces, especially those facing north!
Places to stay and see
The region is well served by mountain refuges (seven). The huts in Roztoka Valley or Morskie Oko are well worth staying at but they can be very crowded in the summer and at peak ski-ing time. The polish mountain rescue service provides free cover in the mountains and staff from this service are based in the huts.
Zakopane is a bustling town full of character and, of course, visitors. As a tourist centre it has the predictable facilities on offer. Prices may be high when compared with the rest of Poland but by western European standards it is very inexpensive. Vegetarians are not neglected even if the polish diet is heavily dominated by meat. You can also relax in the sulphurous and thermal water of the local spa (at Antlowka).
Outside of Zakopane there is plenty to do and see. The nearby town of Nowy Targ (24,000) has a colourful market on Thursdays and warrants a visit. A little further afield Krakow, the old imperial capital, is worth seeing for the castle (Wawel) and the old Jewish quarter. It was here that much of Schindler’s list was filmed. The tiny synagogue (Remu’h) and its cemetery is a very poignant reminder of the fate of local Jews under the Nazis. To the west and a full day’s return trip from the Tatras lies Oswiecim the site of the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau. For those that visit the impression is apparently a lasting one.
Getting there and getting about
Travel has never been so easy. By air it is less than 12 hour away, door to door. Overland it might be 30 or so.
Krakow is 2 hours north of the mountains on a bus (£2 single).
Once in the region local transport be it by bus, train or taxi is cheap and reliable.
The Tatras offer the walker and climber an opportunity for a truly rewarding experience in a wild and largely unspoilt setting. Coupled with this is the chance see the rich and diverse culture of the Polish people.