Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Tale of the Honeymoon, Part III

We've actually gotten some more news lately about the big move. We found out that they do have an apartment lined up for us. Apparently it has three bedrooms, two bathrooms, living room and kitchen. That sounds surprisingly large to me. I wonder what it's like. We've also gotten several e-mails from people already living and working on Koje Island. They have a variety of advice about what to bring with us - mattresses (the Korean ones are apparently rock hard), familiar medicine, favorite foods. I wonder what my advice to newcomers will be after I've been there for a few years.

Part III: Zakopane, May 26-28

I wish I could say that our journey to Zakopane was uneventful, but I'll have to admit that we had a bit of trouble at the bus station in Krakow. We took the train from Tarnow to Krakow, and when we got off the train, I was completely disoriented. Buses to Zakopane used to be very easy to find, in a parking lot right in front of the train station. But they've changed everything around and added a truly enormous shopping mall to one end of the train station. It's very easy to emerge from the underground tunnel beneath the tracks and be immediately overwhelmed by floor after floor of shopping, with no friendly tourist information desk like before. Eventually we got straightened out and found a bus headed to Zakopane, albeit crammed full of Polish boy and girl scouts. (Isn't it odd when foreshadowing happens in real life?)

We asked the driver if there would be room for us with the group of kids, and he indicated that there would. We put our bags in the under-bus storage and headed on board, but the driver told us not to be so anxious and that the bus wouldn't leave for another 20 minutes. So we went to get a snack and use the bathroom, and when we came back 10 minutes later, the bus was gone! With all our stuff. Cue a tremendous sinking feeling in Ellen's stomach. Fortunately a nearby bus driver witnessed our distress and pointed us to where the bus had moved. We were able to get on and ride with our bags to Zakopane. We won't leave our stuff on the bus again!

The trip was disappointing because the weather was hazy and the views of the mountains were partly obscured. Also, we weren't able to sit together. I was sitting next to an adorable little boy who fell asleep on my shoulder halfway through the ride, much to the delight and hilarity of his fellow scouts. How embarrassing.

Finally in Zakopane, we took a taxi to the hotel Sylwia had recommended to us. It had a stunning view of the mountains and was in a quiet neighborhood a bit outside of town. We fought our urge to nap and decided to get a look at the town and then climb the ski slope to the north of the town (Gubalowka), from which we could get a great view of the Tatras. We walked down Krupowki Street to the ski lift and then started climbing. At the top, we not only had a wonderful view, but also the chance to ride the "gravity toboggan" a kind of rolling bobsled that goes down a curvy metal course with spectacular views of the mountains and the town below. Keegan was thrilled. Back in town, we had dinner in a suitably touristy restaurant, complete with a goralski (highlander) band and finally tasted real Polish kielbasa, straight from the grill, with mustard and beer, which is the only meaty dish that I really cannot resist. Fortunately, it is only truly available in Poland, so most of the time, I am not tempted.

Tuesday morning we slept in and then headed to the bus station to catch a ride to Morskie Oko, the Lake Louise of the Polish mountains. It's a popular place for tourists in Zakopane, but I was not prepared for the number of buses we saw in the parking lot, or the number of schoolchildren we saw heading up the trail. The weather was warm and sunny, and the trail was long, wide, only gently sloping, and absolutely crammed with elementary, middle, and high school students traveling in packs of 30. I was really disappointed by the numbers of kids - we found out later that we had timed our visit right during the most popular time for school trips. The weather is usually glorious at the end of May, and high school seniors are busy with the Matura exam, so younger classes use the time to take a trip. What really rubbed it in is the fact that neither of us had ever had the opportunity to take a several-day-long hiking trip with 29 of our closest school friends. At any rate, we finally made it to the lake, only to find that the hostel, the viewing area in front of it, and the shore of the lake were absolutely teeming with kids. I have been to Morskie Oko three times now and have never seen it this crowded.

We didn't linger at the lake but instead decided to keep walking around the lake so we could climb a bit further to a second lake, Czarny Staw (Black Pond). Not as many kids made it past the hostel and the first view of the lake, so we were able to get some quiet. The trip up to the second lake was snowy and steep, but the views along the way and at the top were definitely worth it. In front of us, we saw Czarny Staw, still mostly frozen, and behind it Rysy, the highest peak in Poland, still covered in snow. Behind us, we could see Morskie Oko from above, with the schoolkids no more than quiet, tiny specks. As we congratulated ourselves for finishing the climb, we heard a helicopter and then saw a red rescue chopper emerge over the ridge. It circled the lake a few times, dropped off two men high on the slope of Rysy, and then landed near us on the lake shore. Everyone at the lake took a ton of pictures and was beside themselves with excitement. Finally, the helicopter circled back around and picked up the men before flying away. That's definitely the only way I'd ever get up Rysy's slopes.

On the way back the lake was quieter, so we had a chance for photo ops and a cold beer at the hostel before starting the long walk down. Back in Zakopane we had just enough energy for a plate of delicious spinach pierogi and some grilled oscypek (sheep's milk cheese) with cranberry sauce before falling exhausted into bed.

On Wednesday we planned another hike in the Dolina (valley) Koscieliska, but when the bus arrived at the trailhead, we saw, again, hordes of schoolchildren. We had hoped that the day's misty weather and the fact that it was midweek would deter some classes, but our hopes were dashed. So we pulled out our map and chose a different hike, a trail that led to the top of a mountain called Czerwiec. This was one hell of a steep trail. Both of us were soaked in sweat and breathing hard as we moved at little more than a crawl up the trail. But eventually we emerged into a truly beautiful alpine meadow. I'm sure that on a sunny day, the views from that meadow were spectacular, but the misty view had its own charm, so we did our best to enjoy that too. Eventually, we approached the treeline and encountered another couple who warned us of snow higher on the trail. Indeed, we found a broad patch of snow covering a steep uphill and decided not to go any further, especially since the mist had gotten very close (we were essentially in the clouds) and we knew we wouldn't get much of a view anyway. We changed out of our sweaty shirts and settled in for lunch. As we sat there munching, we watched a man with a snow ax and good hiking boots come tearing down the snowy patch, almost at a run. I was astounded. Don't think I'll ever be that brave - sorry Keegan.

When we got down from the first hike, my legs were quivering with tiredness, but we decided to hike another little stretch of trail nonetheless. This stretch led up and over a ridge, and as we climbed into another beautiful meadow, the sun began to come out, the clouds began to clear, and we could finally see the huge mountain we had been climbing earlier in the day. I must confess that we were rather pleased with ourselves. While on this stage of the hike, we heard a cuckoo calling over and over again. I had never heard a cuckoo that was not actually a clock. They sound strikingly similar. It was hard not to feel that judgment was being passed when everything we did was accompanied by a running commentary of "Cu-koo, cu-koo, cu-koo!"

Back in Zakopane, we headed straight back to the hotel to take advantage of the pool and hot tub. I don't think I would have been able to walk on Thursday had we not taken the time to loosen up a bit in the water! After our swim, we went to a restaurant close to the hotel where Keegan tried beer with raspberry syrup for the first time. He liked it! We were in bed asleep by probably about 9:00. And thus ended a wonderful leg of our trip, one which we vowed to repeat on numerous anniversaries in the future.

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