Who knew there were mountains in Poland? It’s certainly cold enough to ski in winter, but most of this vast, northern country is notably flat.
Except on the Slovakian border — in Zakopane, to be precise, where snowy peaks and a fresh mountain climate have long attracted Polish vacationers. Less than two hours from Krakow, Poland’s premier winter resort boasts not only some of the best skiing in Eastern Europe, but also an intriguing cultural mélange and a rich Jewish heritage.
This time of year it’s especially pretty: Poles go all-out for the winter holidays, with horse-drawn sleighs rattling down the swirly cobblestone streets under the glow of swooping lanterns. Candles glow from windows along Krupowski Street, Zakopane’s quaint main drag, where souvenir shops beckon with delicacies like mountain-berry jam and a smoked, salty dark-yellow sheep’s cheese, typical of the region.
Zakopane may be the most rustic town in Poland. But its charms have been an open secret since at least the early 19th century, when the urban set discovered this mountain setting and developed it as a health resort. By late in the century, artists and intellectuals were flocking to the village: composers, painters and writers, such as Joseph Conrad, all found inspiration and relaxation amid the summer forests.
Jews arrived in large numbers around that time, many seeking to participate in a nascent tourism industry. According to various sources — and some vintage photographs in the Tatra Museum, the main cultural complex — Jewish life in this corner of Austro-Hungarian Galicia was remarkably diverse, far from the closed-off shtetl that may come to mind.
Many of those urban intellectuals and artists were secular Jews; a religious community of several thousand included a subset of chasidim. In this Alpine idyll, Jewish settlers found fortunes not only as merchants and innkeepers, but also as doctors, lawyers, craftsmen and artisans. Synagogues and Hebrew schools flourished along with Hebrew sport clubs (remember, in Zakopane, outdoorsiness is mandatory) and even a Zionist political party.
While the town was actually developed two centuries earlier during a metallurgy boom, much of what makes Zakopane unique dates from that fin-de-siècle era. Peaked-roof wooden buildings — with pointed eaves, carved facades and ornate etched-glass windowpanes — remain as vestiges of a golden era for Polish architecture.
Soon enough, the Germans would march in and initiate a reign of terror. By the ’50s, tourism was once again flourishing, but the Jews were gone, either executed or deported by the Nazis. But Zakopane has not forgotten its Jews. The Jewish cemetery — dedicated with great fanfare in 1931 — was recently restored; in 2004, the town unveiled a Holocaust Memorial alongside the plots.
Most of Zakopane’s sights harken back to the town’s glory days, and there is enough to justify the trip even for those (like me) who are neither skiers nor mountaineering enthusiasts. A good place to start is the Tatra Museum, whose vintage buildings and ethnographic relics offer a glimpse into traditional Slavic village life.
The original museum was a curious hodgepodge of provincial art, artifacts and folklore dedicated to Dr. Tytus Chalubinski, a Warsaw physician and social activist who was instrumental in promoting Zakopane as a health resort.
What really makes this collection memorable is the chance to wander through the beautifully restored turn-of-the-19th-century villas that are part of the museum complex, with vintage furnishings, embroidered costumes and photos that give a feel for the way Poles lived before the war. Oksza Villa, a former sanatorium restored just a few years ago, boasts gorgeous woodwork throughout, from its high-beamed ceilings to intricately carved balconies; today it houses a gallery of 20th-century art.
All told, there are more than a half-dozen house-museums that showcase not only local art, but also exhibitions on regional history, geography, culture — including the Gorals, the indigenous Slavic tribe whose dialects still prevail here — and local folklore. The most engaging of these exhibits are housed within the Gąsienica Sobczak family house, a modest but lovely wooden manse, and Villa Koliba, a masterpiece of what came to be known as the Zakopane style. The latter is situated on the oldest — and prettiest — street in the Old Town, where Jewish merchants’ villas once stood.
Both museum buildings are the product of Stanisław Witkiewicz, the architect who determined that Zakopane should have its own aesthetic, distinct from the Tyrolean chalets that peppered so many mountain resorts. Witkiewicz, a local hero, tirelessly championed the local style and gave these streets a lasting visual imprint.
Perhaps that’s why, even crowded with Christmastime tourists, Zakopane retains an aura of refuge. In this outpost of Galician tranquility, the fresh mountain air greets weary urbanites — as it always did — with a distinctively Polish flavor.