Think Poland and the word ‘Mountains’ probably isn’t immediately synonymous with the country. But whilst it doesn’t have the extensive mountain ranges cutting swathes through its land a la the likes of Switzerland and Austria, the Tatra Mountains certainly do make the excursion here worth your while, as my trek to reach the summit of Mt Giewont abundantly proved.
The Tatras lead on to the mighty Carpathian Mountain range, which forms a formidable natural border with Slovakia to the south – and mountain peaks poke above the buildings of nearby Zakopane. In contrast to, say, somewhere like Innsbruck – where the mountains seemingly raise straight from the rooftops – they are a little bit pushed back and away, but still provide an impressive framework for the town nonetheless.
Which, of course, is not to denigrate the town of Zakopane in any shape or form. It boasts distinctive wooden architecture, the legacy of one Stanisław Witkiewicz, an architect who built several wooden villas in the area. Couple this with a pleasant main thoroughfare in the form of Krupowki, and it all adds up to a charming little place.
Starting nice and early, I headed first to Polana Strazyska, from where you get your first real good look at Giewont’s summit. Legend has it that sleeping Knights await under these, waiting until Poland needs them, and the three peaks do resemble the profile of a sleeping Knight as viewed from the side. If you push on for a few more minutes then you’ll see Siklawica, a two-tiered waterfall that, whilst rather slender (I understand it’s more dramatic after heavy rainfall), makes for pretty enough viewing, probably because of the neat hollowed-out carving behind the water curtain.
I doubled back and veered West to tackle the remainder of the ‘red route’ path up toward the summit, which for the first part shares the ‘black route’ trail with Dolina Grzybowiecka. With coloured marking reminders cropping up less than every 100 metres or so you would have to work very hard indeed to get lost (or wander off the trail in to the den of a bear…). A hugely impressive feature to help keep all trekkers on track.
If you’re thinking of attempting an assault on Giewont, a word of caution – it is not easy. I’m saying this as someone who has climbed Mt Kilimanjaro and done the UK Three Peaks Challenge; whilst I would not put it in the same bracket of difficulty as those two particular climbs, it nevertheless makes for an intense, one day experience, and not for the unfit or inexperienced.
Case in point – the paths were noticeably steeper in Dolina Grzybowiecka than in the previous sections of the red route. I was blessed, lucky me, with a warm sunny day, but here I found myself grateful for the cooling, overhanging trees sheltering me from the suns rays.
When the red and black routes diverge at around Grzybowiec, you get your first real views of mountain vistas. And very fine they are too! This being Autumn, I was lucky to get a combination of multicoloured Autumnal hues of the trees in the foreground, and the beginnings of snow on some of the majestic rocky edifices of the peaks around. Very photogenic!
The steepness of the gradient increases the closer you reach the summit, as does the sheer brutality of the rocky ground underfoot. But the distinctive summit of Giewont – topped by a 15m steel cross, making the climb a pilgrimage in more ways than one – kept spurring me on.
Just as well, really, as the rows of support chains hewn in to the sheer rock face tells you all you need to know – it’s a bit of a mad scramble for the very last section! Fun though, and the trick is to pull your weight through your upper body, to give those hard working legs of yours a much needed rest!
So finally, I made it to the top, and yes, it really was so worth it.
Those watercolour painting Autumnal trees are even more impressive from up here, spread out like a vast, easy to appreciate tapestry of vivid colours. A little further away are the towns – Zakopane chief among them, of course – built across the rolling hillsides of the lower foothills to the North.
And then, of course, there are the Tatra Mountains, some up close and stark in relative close proximity, and some in semi-silhouette in the middle and further distance, stretching away across the horizon in craggy magnificence. Crowded as it is at the top, I do recommend lingering here as long as you can to savour those sublime views.
I opted to take the blue route back toward Zakopane – a vague notion to climb nearby Kopa Kondracka was quickly squished, as I wanted to return to base at a reasonably early time! – which made for a pleasant descent back down toward Kuznice, where Tatra National Park HQ is based. The plunging green valley views, plus mountain scenery, remain, with some cable car action thrown in for good measure.