Being able to backpack around Europe for the past couple months has been an incredible experience, but - I hate to say it - we’ve reached a point where things are starting to blend together. Yes, we’re visiting lots of different countries and each place we go has its own unique flair, but our overall routine is pretty much the same everywhere: arrive in city, walk around city, look at beautiful buildings, eat amazing food, ride public transport, sleep, repeat.
The one thing that's been missing since we left Ireland is nature. Both of us were starting to feel really cooped up and were getting pretty desperate for some fresh air and green and open sky instead of city life. That’s why we decided to visit Zakopane, located in the south of Poland near the Slovakia border, for some much-needed relaxation time to reconnect with nature and recharge our mental batteries a bit.
The mountain town of Zakopane is two hours from Krakow, and buses (~15 zloty/person) leave every hour from the main station in Krakow, so we just turned up around 1:00 on a Sunday and were able to hop on the next bus. Zakopane is an extremely popular destination for domestic Polish tourists, and summer is high season, but with it being Sunday our bus was almost empty - I’m guessing if we had gone at the start of the weekend it would have been jam packed. The drive itself takes you through some insanely beautiful little mountain towns and it seemed like everyone on the bus had their noses pressed to the windows the entire ride.
As I mentioned, Zakopane is extremely popular with Polish people. It's a lot like any small mountain resort town in the States, with lots of outdoorsy types visiting in the summer to hike in the nearby Tatra mountains. But it’s primarily a ski town, and we're told winter sports here are world class - many of the hotels and hostels are designed to accommodate skiers and the nicer ones are typically wooden lodges with hot tubs and lots of amenities.
Alas, we did not stay in a mountain lodge because by the time we knew our travel dates, there were slim pickings left (that’s the downside to our style of travel). Still, we were actually really pleased with our pick - Top Hostel - because it was located directly on the main pedestrian road in the center of Zakopane. This meant we were right in the heart of all the food and entertainment options, while still being well situated for our hikes into the Tatras.
We had just enough time for two full days of hiking, and that turned out to be plenty. After recovering from our Krakow boat party hangovers with lots of Polish food and a good night’s sleep, we set off in the morning for our first trek. It was kind of challenging to find any reliable information online (in English) about the hikes, so we had to rely on a couple random blog posts to get a sense of the route we wanted. We figured it would take about six hours and since we saw lots of people hiking in sandals and denim shorts, we thought we’d be fine. After all, we had chosen an 18km hike through two valleys - long, yes, with moderate elevation gain, but nothing too challenging.
Or so we thought. Pretty quickly, it became clear that we were in for a tough time. At least half of the hiking path required us to climb up these extremely steep and haphazardly assembled ‘steps’ made of rocks, many of which were wobbly and all of which were very slippery. Both of us have a fair amount of hiking experience, but this was definitely one of the more challenging routes we’ve ever done. For me personally, hiking (or really any intense physical activity) is way harder to THINK about doing than to actually do, which is to say I get these mental blocks where I feel like I can’t possibly keep going, even though I objectively know my body can handle it. But I do it because I want to challenge myself to push through that, and this certainly was a test of my abilities.
I didn’t give up, and Alex, who’s better at overcoming those mental blocks than I am, didn’t give up on me either. We huffed and puffed the whole time and had to take breaks more often than I’d like to admit, but when we reached the top we were rewarded with jaw-dropping panoramic views of the two valleys we’d hiked through, and that made it all worth it. Even better, about 30 minutes later we came upon a restaurant tucked into the side of the valley and enjoyed a massive 4-course lunch complete with zurek (my love), pierogi, savory pancakes, and lots of goulash, all with the beautiful backdrop of the Tatras behind us. Definitely one of the most satisfying meals we’ve ever enjoyed.
Needless to say, by the time we got back home that evening, covered in dirt and sweat and smelling really terrible, we were pooped. It was hard to even think about doing it all over again the next day. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) for us, we’d made a friend in Krakow who decided to come meet us in Zakopane and he had his heart set on trekking out to Morskie Oko, a glacial lake nestled deep within Tatra National Park. It’s probably the most popular place in the Tatras, so we knew it was a must-see. Luckily we’d read online that the hike out to the lake, while long (~9km), is on a paved road with a low incline, so we figured our weary bones would be able to handle it.
Fate had other stuff in store for us, though. We woke up with an alarming amount of energy - I guess our bodies really needed some intense physical activity after months of not working out - and we made the game time decision to challenge ourselves with another long hike that would take us to Morskie Oko the long way, via the Valley of the Five Polish Lakes.
Remember how I said that first hike was one of the hardest we’d ever done? That’s only because this one was about a hundred times more challenging. I have genuinely never exerted my body this much - I’ve run half-marathons and done dance marathons and lifted hundreds of pounds of weight and I like to think I’m a healthy and physically fit person. But this hike…this hike crushed my body and soul. It chewed me up and spat me out and threatened to ruin me. It started out pretty easy - fewer of those horrid steps early on than the previous day’s route, with more manageable inclines and longer stretches of relatively flat earth on which to recover. But we quickly discovered that we had gotten more than we’d bargained for when we reached a fork in the path and opted to turn left, following the signs for the Valley of the Polish Lakes.
What we didn’t realize was that if we had taken the right fork, it would have taken us to the valley as well (despite the misleading signposts), but via the valley floor - a relatively easy route. The left fork, the one we took, instead snaked up the extremely steep sides of the valley, reaching the peak at the top, twisting down the next valley, and eventually up to the first lake. I have never regretted a single day I've spent outside in nature, but this came close at times. The entire route uphill was on stone steps even more uneven and terrifying than the ones on our previous hike, and required us to scramble across long stretches of rocks. It was probably the most technically challenging route you could possibly do without needing any special equipment. Plus, on our first day we had the relief of lots of tree cover through most of the hike, but this one was out in the open under a blazing sun with no clouds in 90-degree heat. No amount of water would have been enough, and I had to constantly stop to catch my breath and slow my heart rate.
I’ve never battled with my own brain so much as I did during the climb to the top, and with every step I could feel my legs shaking and my knees creaking. My entire body was drenched in sweat, I couldn’t wear sunglasses because they kept slipping off my face (yuck, I know), and no matter how far we climbed it felt like there was still a million more steps to go. Every person I passed seemed to be suffering just as much as I, so there was a strange camaraderie up there, but it didn’t make it any easier to get through. I’m genuinely not sure how I made it or how I forced my legs to make it all the way up the peak and into the next valley, but it probably has a lot to do with my hiking buddies, because they never gave up even when I kept insisting I couldn't go on. When we rounded the peak, we were rewarded with the most stunning thing I’ve ever seen: a view of two beautiful lakes, but even better, a mountain lodge that served beer!
I’ve never had a drink more refreshing in my entire life than that summit beer, but as it turned out, the worst was yet to come. To get to Morskie Oko - which is not part of the Five Lakes valley - we had to climb yet ANOTHER peak and then circle down into another valley. I’m not going to go into details, but let’s just say that starting that leg of the hike with shaking legs and a little bit of a buzz from the one beer my dehydrated self drank was probably not the best move. But somehow all of us made it to Morskie Oko in one piece, and I bet I don’t need to describe how much food we consumed at the restaurant there.
One thought that kept occurring to me during the hike, which I think helped me get through the worst parts, was ‘we don’t do this because it’s easy - we do it because it’s awesome.' I'm not sure where I've heard that before, but it really stuck with me. This hike was the hardest thing I’ve ever put myself through, and no one else could make me go on: I had to keep pushing myself forward. Those are the kind of life lessons I value the most, and I genuinely feel like I grew a little bit as a person from facing and overcoming the challenge. I returned home blistered and broken and bruised, but I felt so overwhelmingly happy and proud of myself that I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
All of this is just to say that I think I really needed a few days in nature to push my body and mind to their limits and get back a part of me that’s really been missing as we’ve traveled through cities for the last couple months. Alex and I both felt rejuvenated - and yes, also fucking exhausted - as we headed back to Krakow with just enough time to munch down on a couple fresh warm paczki before catching a night bus to Budapest.
I don’t think we could have picked a better place to get away from it all for a few days, and it set us up to move forward with fresh eyes and a more positive outlook. We’re really looking forward to another change of scenery once we get to the Greek Islands and can just relax on the beach, but there’s nothing quite like the mountains to make you feel centered.
NOTE: Zakopane is ridiculously photogenic, so we have tons more pictures of our time there in the gallery. Let us know what you think!