These articles were published in the Spectacular Slovakia travel guide, published annually by The Slovak Spectator since 1996. The latest editions can be obtained from our online shop.

Over the hills and far away...

By James Thomson

    Krupówki, Zakopane’s main shopping street.
 Krupówki, Zakopane’s main shopping street.
 Photos by James Thomson

Well, actually not that far away. Zakopane, the nearest town of interest in neighbouring Poland is an easy cycle ride from Trstená , which is as close as the Slovak railway network will take you.

Approaching by rail is recommended since the Orava valley, though picturesque, has only one main road running through it. This is heavily patronised by Polish truck drivers and hence not an ideal cycling environment.

However, almost all the lorries head north from Trstená so the road east is relatively stress-free. It's flat until Vitanová, after which there are a couple of short, sharp hills. After that, astonishingly, it's plain sailing all the way to Zakopane.

'Astonishingly' because Zakopane is Poland's premier mountain resort. Poland, it is true, is not renowned for its mountains. But these are the High Tatras , shared with Slovakia, and not to be trifled with: as in Slovakia, the roads generally skirt this range rather than traverse it.

As soon as you cross the barely-there border, the look of the houses changes: many are wooden (some with a stone ground floor); they are taller (typically three, but sometimes four or five storeys); set back from the road; the roofs are more steeply pitched; and the wooden fretwork more detailed than in Slovakia.

Some things are almost the same: by the side of the road are huts where sheep's cheese is made and smoked, reminiscent of the traditional Slovak salaš.

The mountains which rear up as you ride south are familiar if you've seen their southern face, but Zakopane is a bit of a shock. It has wooden buildings (including a wooden church), pine trees and even a certain charm. But don't come expecting a quaint mountain retreat: this is a resort of a different order of magnitude from almost anywhere in Slovakia.

    A typical wooden house in the mountains of southern Poland.
 A typical wooden house in the mountains of southern Poland.
 Photos by James Thomson

The main, pedestrianised street, Krupówki, heaves with tourists. It's lined with the kind of brand names you'd expect in a large city: McDonald's, KFC, and even Costa Coffee, a British chain. There are dozens of other local and international eateries, clothes shops, nightclubs and stalls hawking souvenirs. Poprad it ain't.

There are not many cultural sights to detain you: the focus seems to be on skiing/hiking, shopping and partying.

And eating. If you can tear yourself away from the burgers and fried chicken, there are several traditional hostelries worth a look. One, U Wnuka, on Kóscieliska (the road towards Trstená) just beyond the wooden church, is reckoned to be the oldest. It's in on old wooden house and seems authentic. Given the mountain climate, the local cuisine is pretty filling. The moskol po pańsku (potato pancake, 'highlander style') does the job, though isn't quite as tasty as its Slovak equivalent.

The menu also offers, intriguingly, something called piwo grzane (hot beer): tempting, given the often cool temperatures, but probably not advisable if you have a return ride to Slovakia looming.

The distance from Trstená to Zakopane is only 35 kilometres. If you fancy more hills (such cyclists do exist) get off the Orava valley train at Podbiel and head east towards Oravice on the lightly-used back road which takes you over a picturesque, tree-lined saddle in the mountains before joining the main route at Vitanová.

These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2009, which you can obtain from our online shop.

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