Zakopane, Poland: skiing with divine guidanceAdrian Bridge heads into the Polish Tatras and enjoys a skiing holiday offering great value – and a few fresh challenges.

Zakopane, Poland: skiing with divine guidance
Article Zakopane, Poland: skiing with divine guidance originally published at 8:00AM 31 Dec 2009 by Adrian Bridge

It is not often that you get to ski on slopes that have received a papal blessing, but that is one of the pluses of a winter holiday with a difference in the Polish resort of Zakopane.

The late Pope John Paul II hailed from these parts and during his years at the helm of the Catholic church in Kraków, he liked to retreat to the nearby Tatras and have a quick schuss with the best of them.

Slightly bizarrely during what turned out to be the most memorable of the three days I spent in Zakopane last February, I ended up teaming up briefly with a British man of Polish ancestry whose brother had actually skied with Karol Józef Wojtyla, as the pontiff-to-be was then known.

We had joined forces as part of an intrepid group that, despite thick snowfall and a chilling wind, had decided to brave Zakopane’s most challenging run – the six-mile descent from its highest peak, Kasprowy Wierch.

As we made the dramatic ascent of the mountain in one of Europe’s longest – and oldest – cable car rides, we looked up at the ominously heavy-looking clouds and prayed that the spirit of John Paul II would be with us – or at least that we would receive divine guidance.

Our prayers were answered – with guidance taking the form of Alan Garcia, a passionate skier and entrepreneur who in 2005 set up Sunshine World, a company specialising in affordable winter holidays to Zakopane for British skiers and snowboarders.

Alan was determined to make the most of the conditions – a huge fresh fall of snow that meant we would be able to go off-piste and deep into the powder. He furnished me and my brother, Viv, with extra wide skis – “fatties” – with which to take on the challenging terrain.

I’d never skied in powder that deep before (in parts it was almost up to head height) and needless to say, I came a cropper several times. But in the brief periods where I made any sort of progress, it was immensely exhilarating. I had broken new ground – and in Poland of all places. He skis in mysterious ways…

The afternoon spent coming down from Kasprowy Wierch – initially through the powder, then back on piste, then along winding paths through a wonderfully snow-laden fir tree forest – was the highlight of the holiday. “The best day’s skiing for many years,” declared Julian, my British-Polish friend with the papal connection.

For experienced skiers – and Viv and I both fall into that category – that afternoon provided the physical challenge and variety of run and visual stimulation we always look for in a winter holiday. It was the perfect way to round off three days spent exploring the various ski areas close to Zakopane.

Prior to that – on the pistes of Bialka Tatrzanska, Symoskowa, Harenda and Nosal – the limitations of a skiing trip to Poland had become apparent. While very good for beginners or people who have only skied once or twice, none of the areas offered the sort of range that would keep someone used to the Alps happy for much more than a couple of hours. Indeed, during the course of a morning at Nosal, we found ourselves taking a single chair lift (it was amazing to see they still exist) about 15 times to complete the all too short black run back to base. It was a challenging run through beautiful forest. But 15 times?

Another drawback is the fact that none of the areas is connected – you ski in one but then have to pack up your things and be driven to the next. Nor, incredibly, are the ski lift passes valid for all areas, with each requiring its own.

At Bialka Tatrzanska there is a better variety of slope. During a late afternoon session under floodlights (which remain on until 9pm), we first skied with Alan, a man who exudes an almost childlike enthusiasm for winter sports. Experienced we may have been, but he quickly taught us a few new tricks, some great warm-up exercises, and explained better than anyone before how best to ski on carvers. He also promised, should I return, to turn me into a snowboarder within a week (an offer I have yet to take up).

We were in Zakopane during the February half-term at a time when Sunshine World was hosting more than 200 guests (almost the only Britons in the resort). The beginners in particular seemed very happy with the simplicity of the nursery slopes and the helpful native English-speaking instructors.

Most, like us, were enchanted by Zakopane itself. The fresh snowfall meant that with its picturesque wooden chalets, long pedestrianised main street, running stream and horse-drawn sleighs, the town looked almost impossibly pretty (if there were any communist-era eyesores they were mercifully covered by the snow).

We also liked the prices – most items were less than half, or even a third, of what you might pay in the main western European resorts. Unlike colleagues who returned from the Alps last year with horror stories about how expensive everything was, we found Zakopane very affordable, dining out every evening (a range of hearty Polish, Italian and Swiss fondue-style restaurants) and never batting an eyelid at bills of £10–£15 a head for three courses (smoked sheep’s cheese, 12-inch Polish sausages and gherkins, pancakes with chocolate sauce) and copious quantities of wine. A beer (or bison vodka) at one of the town’s many buzzing bars? That’ll be £1.25. A two-mile taxi ride? About £2.

Our accommodation in the modest Chalet Gong was simple but perfectly clean and comfortable (and by the end of three days we even managed to get a smile out of the proprietor, Stanislaw).

When we wanted a bit more comfort, we retreated to the Belvedere Hotel, a favoured haunt of Poland’s former president Aleksander Kwasniewski and a place where you get a sense of Zakopane’s traditional role as the winter meeting point for Poland’s artistic and intellectual elite. Here we enjoyed the pool, spa, and the hotel’s very own tenpin bowling alley.

More adventurous spirits in the town tried some of its other adrenalin-fuelled offerings – including snowmobiling and quad biking – and the younger set carried out extensive research into its thriving clubbing scene (though they didn’t look too great for the 10am bus the next morning).

Would I recommend Zakopane to friends? For very serious skiers wanting to stretch themselves to the limit over a week, definitely not. For beginners wanting to try out skiing without feeling intimidated or not chic enough, definitely yes. For intermediates on a short break who enjoy the thrill of the slopes – and fresh cultural stimuli – why not? For anyone looking for an excellent value winter holiday – absolutely!