Great time, or great story?
After college graduation, I was fortunate enough to have spent a month travelling throughout Europe with best friends: beaches of Croatia with Natasha, castles of Salzburg with Rachel, mountains of Zakopane with Anna. Over the course of the summer, there was one phrase I kept repeating: it’ll either be a great time, or a great story. Either it will be a pleasant day with birds singing and sun shining, or it’ll be four days straight of pouring rain, cold temps, and fog (remember that one, Anna?). Whatever the case, there’s a bright side to be found - whether at the time, or looking back at how you got through it together.
Throughout my three months in Poland, I still hold true to that phrase and philosophy. Sometimes, though, you are lucky enough to get a little bit of both. My weekend trip to the Tatras with my cousin Szymek, and his two friends, Jacek and Oskar, was definitely one of those times.
Camping in -10° celcius
The journey (as most others weekend trips during my time in Poland) began with a BlaBlaCar ride. For those of you who haven’t used BlaBlaCar, it’s basically modern-day hitchhiking. If someone’s going from one location to another and have empty seats, they post on BlaBlaCar and you can snag a ride of a great price, conversation and good music included. It’s incredible how quickly someone can turn from stranger to friend. My BlaBlaCar on Friday after school took me to Krakow, where I met up with my cousin and his friends. From there, we were just a few hours away from Zakopane, a mountain town on Poland’s southern border.
Some catching up and Russian folk music later, we arrived at our destination, what looked like an empty field (from Google maps bird-eye view), where we could probably try to set up camp. I’ve spent quite a few nights in a tent in my life, but never in a random field, in temps that were quickly approaching -10 degrees celsius. The tent was no problem, but the fire gave us a little trouble. Between no fire, lack of feeling in my hands and feet, and my cousin’s car that doesn’t like to start when it’s too cold, I have to admit I felt some worry creeping in.
BUT after putting on a full-body suit my cousin bought in Argentina for his planned travel to Antarctica, all was good in the world again. Sparks on the fire were slowly turning brighter, as were the stars in the sky. The full moon, slowly tracing it’s arc across the sky over the course of the night (we stayed up until almost 4am), just added to the awe. The world is beautiful - especially when you’re warm.
Crampons and Short Sleeves
After a breakfast the next morning of kielbasa made on the (now much easier to start) fire, we started on our way towards Dolina Chocholowska, the base of our planned summit, and where we hoped to spend the next night. The weather was ideal. Mid-March, the Tatras are still covered in snow, but the sun was shining, and it was nowhere near as cold as the night before. I’ll always remember this trip as my first time hiking through snow - with crampons and poles and everything. Mountains covered with a blanket of snow add a whole ‘nother level of magic. In case you couldn’t tell, this was most definitely the “good time” part of the trip. Sometimes words can say a lot, but sometimes, it’s best for views to speak for themselves:
From Kitchen to Club
After a day in the sun and snow, and some fueling up (see below for the faces of tired and hungry people waiting to hear their order called from the kitchen), we took to relaxing. The only catch? No beds were left in the shelter. What to do..? Sleep in the hallway :) We found a cozy corner, laid out our sleeping bags, and were set for the night. But the night was still young! No sleeping quite yet.
According to my cousin, Szymek, “The best parties are in the tourist kitchen”. That night he was right. Ordinarily, in the tourist kitchen, there is just a couple tables, a fridge, and hot water. Tonight though, there was another group, some our age, some older, laughing over snacks and beer. Before we knew it, tables were merging (along with the drinks and snacks on each) and hands were shaking. Meeting people in a shelter, you know they must have at least something in common with you. If anything, sun-burnt faces, from a good day on the trail are always a least common denominator.
The night continued with traditional Polish folk songs sung at the top of our lungs, led by a semi-pro folk singer who joined the group, and finished with a real club - Disco Polo, smartphone strobe lights, and dancing. Safe to say I was not expecting to be clubbing in the Tatra shelter when I woke up that morning.
Fresh cheese and the Time Change
And what adventure would be complete without a bit of transportation trouble? We left the shelter the next morning with all the ease in the world. Some sipped coffee, some sipped tea, we stopped along the trail to the parking lot to buy fresh sheep’s cheese from a kind old woman who had been living in the mountains her whole life. We took photos, we took breaks. But then we checked our phones. What from Oskar’s watch seemed to us as 9:48 was actually 10:48. The spring time change. Of course. Frolicking turned to sprinting, as we each had BlaBlaCars or trains to catch. When we got to the Krakow train station, my cousin didn’t even park the car. I jumped out, sprinted towards anyone who looked like they worked there, asked where I could find my train, and tried to not waste a second. Good thing too, because as soon as I stepped on the train (okay maybe 30 seconds later) it started moving. Never has a train seat felt so comfortable.
I hope reading this, made you at least a bit as happy as it made me to write about it. As self-proclaimed Polish good-will ambassador, I can’t help but share the beauty of this country. If you enjoy hiking, think about including the Tatras on your trekking bucket list. If you’re looking for incredible views, friendly people, lasting memories, I can’t recommend enough.