Some 80km long, with peaks of up to 2500m, the Tatras are the most spectacular part of the mountain range extending along Poland’s border with Slovakia. They are as beautiful as any mountain landscape in northern Europe, the ascents leading along boulder-strewn trails beside woods and streams and culminating in breathtaking, windswept peaks. The peaks are topped with snow for most of the year, making it a great area for skiing (from mid-Dec to March). The mountains are a protected national park and as such harbour lots of wildlife: if you’re lucky you could glimpse rare species such as lynx, golden eagles and brown bear.
The main base for skiing and hiking on the Polish side is the extremely popular and lively resort of Zakopane. There are good road and rail links with Kraków 60km to the north, as well as several mountain resorts across the border in Slovakia.
Skiing here is cheap, with the premier slopes of Kasprowy Wierch just a few minutes out of town, and plenty of places in the centre to rent equipment. Hikers may want to avoid the 9km path to the lovely but busy Morskie Oko Lake in high season, but there’s no shortage of other, more secluded trails. Świat, at ul. Zamoyskiego 12 (t 693 022 944, w www.swiat.biz.pl), organizes rafting tours (with English-speaking guides) on the nearby Dunajec River. Zakopane’s market at the bottom of ul. Krupówki sells a wide range of traditional local goods, including oscypek (smoked sheep’s cheese) and small woodcarvings. This latter local tradition is intriguingly displayed in the whimsical wooden tombs of the nearby Old Cemetery (Stary Cementarz).