Poland is perfection as Helen McGurk discovered on a trip with her family
We had just popped into a takeaway pizzeria in Zakopane for a margherita with olives, but within minutes were downing icily-sharp vodka with the affable owner and his friends.
The assembled and their two blue-eyed huskies, were in fine fettle and as we waited for our order insisted we join them in a complimentary shot of the potent firewater, which was presented with a large gherkin and even larger sausage chaser.
‘‘Ukrainian vodka...is best,’’ said the owner as he poured from the unmarked bottle.
I’m no vodka expert, but I’m sure the stuff was only a whisper away from pure ethanol, nonetheless it was a lovely gesture which fortified us for our trudge through the snow back to our hotel.
Zakopane is a beautiful fairytale town at the foot of the Tatra mountains in southern Poland. It’s a haven for skiers of all abilities, and those of none (ie me).
Before arriving in Zakopane, my family of four enjoyed a two-night stay in Krakow, the undisputed architectural gem of central Europe and template for Disney’s fairytale city.
Ryanair fly three times weekly from Belfast to Krakow, a magical city, which looks like it has emerged straight from the pages of a children’s book.
Everywhere you look there are baroque churches and gothic cathedrals, cobbled streets with clopping horses, pavement cafes and candlelit bars, with the castle, (the Wawel), dominating everything.
We were staying in Krakow’s historic Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, which has been booming ever since Steven Spielberg shot most of Schindler’s List here.
Our hotel, the Golden Tulip, was well priced and convenient to all the sights. Our family room had wonderful views over a beautiful church and the buffet breakfast was substantial, with an array of Polish curiosities, as well as some more familiar offerings.
Whilst in Kazimierz, a visit to the Jewish History Museum in the Old Synagogue is a must, offering a reminder of Jewish culture and religion that was all but obliterated during the Holocaust.
Sixteen years ago I stayed in this same district with my friend - a trip which was marked by much laughter and many tears.
The laughter? The airline lost our luggage but gifted us long white bobby socks and white T-shirts to wear, emblazoned with the Lot Airlines logo, and thus attired we sought out the sights, which included the magical underground world of Wieliczka’s salt mines.
Whilst in Kazimierz we met a lovely man called Mieczyslaw (Mike) Staner. Mike survived the Second World War, after having lived in Krakow ghetto and been deported to the Nazi concentration camps of Kraków-Płaszów and Mauthausen, near Linz. He agreed to take us to Auschwitz -Birkenau. It is a trip I shall never, ever forget - indeed an experience one should never forget - and one that was made more poignant for having Mike as our guide.
Today Kazimierz is home to all the latest bars and clubs, trendy restaurants and quirky boutiques. We ate in Alchemia, a candlelit bar snuggled into the corner of Plac Nowy. Krakow is a walking city, and fairly easy to navigate - the glorious Market Square, Rynek Glowny, dating from the 13th century, and boasting the splendid Renaissance Cloth Hall, a towering Clock Tower and St Mary’s Basilica, are must sees.
Friends from Warsaw met us for coffee in Jama Michalika, one of the oldest cafes in Krakow, with Art Nouveau furniture, mirrors, stained glass, lamps and cabinets and an interesting menu that featured ‘dishes of wild birds and domestic ones’.
Next day we set off from Krakow by bus to Zakopane. The estimated travel time was two hours, but due to seriously heavy traffic it took three. However, the journey was anything but boring as we passed incredibly pretty wooden houses, roadside stall holders selling sheepskin rugs, mustachioed men in horse and carts, with the brooding pate of the Tatras peering down from on high.
We visited in February when it was still snowy and the Christmas trees and twinkly decorations were still up - which was a little odd, but very magical. The streets were lined with stalls selling the local smoked ewe’s milk cheese, which looks like it’s been carved from wood - you can learn more about this special cheese at the Museum Oscypka Zakopane.
Zakopane has a pleasing selection of restaurants with open fires, walls bedecked with antlers and sheepskin rugs on benches, and hearty dishes with fantastic names - my favourite ‘slaughter of the pig’ - a dish that included everything apart from the squeak!
Our base was the Grand Hotel Stamary, a five minute walk from the bus station, and within easy walking distance of the main street, bars and restaurants. As the name suggests it’s an impressive, four-star establishment, with a pleasingly old-fashioned feel.
We had lovely large room, with a massive bed, sofa bed for the kids and sumptuous carpet.
The breakfast was something else, with lots of hearty Polish food - sausages, dumplings, and desserts - yes, for breakfast! I watched, baffled, as very slim Polish ladies tucked into waffles with huge dollops of cream, then went up for more cakes and pastries.
There’s a spa area with swimming pool, multiple types of sauna and steam room and treatments available to book.
Zakopane is renowned for its great-value, child-friendly skiing. Never having skied before, we opted for a lesson at Nosal, where you can also hire all your skiing paraphernalia.
Our instructor, was a 20-something bossy boots with a venomous attitude to beginners.
‘‘Fall over and practice getting up,’ she barked
We lay in the swirling snow like upturned cockroaches, fighting to right ourselves.
‘‘Come on, get up, what is wrong with you? ‘‘ Her tactics may have dubious, but in no time we were able to drift down a gentle slope and turn and stop.
Next day we took a cable car to the top of the Kasprowy Wierch, where accomplished skiers can tackle the steeper slopes. The journey high above the treetops and peaks takes around 15 minutes with a breathtaking panorama when you reach the top. There are also commanding views from Gubałówka mountain, which can be reached by funicular train.
We were lucky enough to be in the region for the Highlander Festival in nearby Bukowina Tatarzanska, a jolly carnival with people in the region’s unique dress, folk music and cuisine.
Everything exceeded our expectations in Poland - the food, the weather, the value for money, the people. We loved it so much, we’ve already booked to go back next year!
Factfile: Ryanair fly three times weekly to Krakow from Belfast from £14.99, www.ryaniar.com. For information on Grand Hotel Stamary visit firstname.lastname@example.org. For information on the Golden Tulip Hotel visit: www.goldentulipkrakowcitycenter.com. To find out more about Poland visit: www.poland.travel/en