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Polish Tatras: old and new mountain cultures meet in the highest peaks of the Carpathians.

Jan Staszel Furtek was talking about his spinka, the shepherds' brooch that he wore on his chest, elaborately fretted in silver to symbolise faith, love and strength. Beside me on the bench rested a slab of sheeps' cheese and a mug of warm milk, taken that morning from the flock outside. The year was 1993, and I was in Poland's Tatra mountains. Before leaving Jan, I photographed him standing beside his sheep in that Carpathian glade. Three years later, I returned with a copy of the photo. As he was a migratory shepherd, I knew I would have trouble finding him, but early one morning I saw a horse-drawn cart lurch from the forest, followed by a few hundred sheep. They were heading for the lonely wooden cabin in the centre of the polana.

"We'll stay about three months," said Jan. "Till the grass is finished." He was angry. Earlier in the spring, hikers had broken into the hut and left a mess.

"Any bears?" I asked, remembering an encounter I'd had in the Tatras three years before.

"There's a big female," replied Jan, "with two cubs. They come down sometimes. But they're not a nuisance. Not like tourists."

Nowhere else in Europe is the clash of old and new mountain cultures more evident. Jan is one of the last shepherds to graze his flocks in the Polish Tatras. The 1,200 sheep in this range are now swamped by an annual invasion of 3.5 million humans, who arrive in two major tidal waves: childrens' groups in May-June; families in July-August. England's Lake District National Park attracts 14 million visitors annually, an average coverage of 6,000 people per square kilometre; in the Tatras this figure is 20,000.

Virtually all of these visitors pass through the town of Zakopane--a Polish Chamonix. Beyond Zakopane's timbered eaves rise rumpled forests and silver cliffs that climb to a filigreed skyline. The magical intensity of the nation's southern rim has drawn generations of Poles.

But this is a range that is deeply compromised by politics. Along the crest of the Tatras runs a border--to the south, Slovakia has the greater share of the range, with a national park of 795 square kilometres; Poland has a meagre 172 square kilometres. Into the Polish pocket is compressed a little of everything Carpathian: icy corries and vertiginous cliffs; dark forests that are the lair of hears and lynx; caves and gorges and those wistful pastures, the seasonal homes of the goralski shepherds.

The crowds visit the Tatras because these are Poland's only real mountains; indeed they include the highest peaks in the Carpathians. Paths into the Tatras have a rhythm that repeats from valley to valley; from sylvan gloom they rise to sun-filled polanas and urgent streams, then through the thinning, tapered trees past glacial lakes to burst out below uplands of rock and turf.

Paradoxically, the only let-down is the most visited 'sight', the lake of Morskie Oko--the 'Eye of the Sea'; accessible by road from Zakopane, in summer it's so packed with picnickers you couldn't swing a marmot.

Among the clustered peaks, two have been elevated to shrine-like status; Giewont because it's the summit that sits most squarely above Zakopane and has the profile of a sleeping knight; and Rysy because it's the highest point in Poland. In summer, both grow queues on paths that skitter up crags protected by metal chains bolted into the bedrock. The Tatras are made for the gregarious walker rather than the lover of solitude.

guide books

The High Tatras, by Colin Saunders and Renata Narozna, Cicerone, 14.99 [pounds sterling]


The 1:30,000 Tatrzanski Park Narodowy map marks the principal walking trails

The 1:50,000 Vysoke Tatry (Sheet 21) map covers the High Tatras on both sides of the border

Also at 1:50,000 is the Freytag & Berndt map Hohe Tatras und Westlichte Tatra (Sheet WK CS 1)
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Geographic Code:4EXPO
Date:Jun 1, 2003
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