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Rail route of the month: Slavic magic on a mild journey to Zakopane, Poland | Poland holidays



Nine trains go away Kraków every weekday to climb as much as Poland’s premier mountain retreat, Zakopane. In 1936, the quickest trains to Zakopane took underneath 2½ hours. Virtually a century later, after infrastructure renewal work lasting a number of years, simply a type of 9 trainsmatches the 1936 time. Such is the state of railways in some elements of rural Poland.

Anybody in a rush to achieve Zakopane from Kraków will take the bus, which runs nonstop and takes two hours. However the practice is a gentler, greener choice. With time on my arms, I go for one of many slower trains, which guarantees 48 intermediate stops. Sure, 48. There’s a touch of Slavic magic within the litany of stations alongside the route: Sieniawa, Skawina, Stronie, Stryszów, Szaflary.


We rattle south from Kraków’s primary station, passing on our proper St Nicholas Church, which has a wonderful Armenian votive cross in its backyard. Then to the left is among the two Jewish cemeteries within the Kazimierz district. Quickly we’re crossing the Vistula River on a powerful bridge with a fancy lattice of girders. Till 1846, this meandering river marked the frontier between the Free Metropolis of Kraków (Rzeczpospolita Krakowska) and the Austro-Hungarian empire.

The monastery church of Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, a part of a Unesco pilgrimage park. {Photograph}: Krzysztof Nahlik/Alamy

We shudder to a cease at Zabłocie, a neighborhood which in Kraków’s heyday as a city-state was the place Habsburg bureaucrats may monitor the comings and goings there. It was from right here that the salt mined at Wieliczka was shipped downriver, and the place bustled with business power. Today, it’s the place vacationers come to see the previous enamelware manufacturing facility featured in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s Listing.

We cease at a medley of suburban stations, lots of them model new or lately rebuilt. Sanktuarium is essentially the most putting, serving the memorial advanced and sanctuary devoted to the late Polish pope, now canonised as Saint John Paul II. This rail route touches on many locations that featured within the early lifetime of the longer term pope.


Via the Beskid Hills

Our stuttering escape from Kraków affords views of contemporary church buildings, rusting railway sidings and concrete flyovers. Oriental domes within the distance sign a nightclub reasonably than Byzantium. We proceed, slipping softly by Skawina, which for many years endured air pollution from an aluminium smelter, after which cruise by orchards planted way back by Bernardine (Franciscan) monks.

From Skawina the route south to Zakopane is single observe. We’re heading south, to the Tatras Mountains, close to the Slovakian border, however first we cross the Beskid Hills. The great thing about this practice journey right now is the way in which the practice dances with the topography. Right here and there it adjustments path, often putting assertively south however extra generally following the warp and weft of the panorama. In locations the hillsides tilt extra sharply, however simply often the panorama opens out sufficiently to disclose wonderful views of the Excessive Tatras.

Steam engines in a siding at Chabéwka. {Photograph}: Andrey Shevchenko/Alamy

Excessive on the hills we glimpse the monastery church of Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, the place Pope John Paul II celebrated his lastmass on Polish soil in 1979. I used to be within the crowd on that memorable day. Right here the railway cuts by a exceptional Unesco world heritage website – the Seventeenth-century Mannerist Architectural and Park Panorama Complicated and Pilgrimage Park, a form of substitute Holy Land. That is essentially the most bold of Europe’s sacri monti, and 400 years after its creation it’s nonetheless within the care of the Bernardines, who stage dramatic re-enactments of Christ’s Ardour at Easter.


A fellow passenger, an aged lady with robust arms and hennaed hair, crosses herself because the practice glides slowly previous a monumental crucifix. Noting my curiosity within the passing panorama she tells me that, on some Catholic feast days, the trains make particular stops to permit passengers to alight instantly into the park. Few landscapes are so wealthy in spiritual symbolism as these of Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, and the advanced is so enormous that one may go to many occasions with out retreading the identical devotional itinerary.

Bolshevik connections

We attain the Skawa Valley, latterly reshaped by a significant new dam challenge. The railway crosses the river on a daring new bridge then skirts the reservoir. Our practice has to reverse twice as we make stop-go progress by the Beskid Hills. At Chabówka there’s a exceptional assortment of outdated steam engines within the sidings. From right here we climb south, cresting a mild summit after which dropping all the way down to Nowy Targ, the place Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was briefly imprisoned.

Interval buildings in Biały Dunajec, the place Lenin as soon as lived. {Photograph}: Mike Hardiman/Alamy

I all the time have blended emotions in regards to the final leg of this journey, from Nowy Targ as much as Zakopane. Rising numbers of picket homes are a touch of the feast of vernacular structure which provides such fashion to the Polish Tatras. However at this level the railway additionally parallels the principle freeway to Zakopane, which is lined by billboards and quick meals shops. We cross the 700-metre contour simply earlier than Biały Dunajec, the village the place Lenin as soon as lived. “That is virtually Russia,” Lenin wrote in 1913 of this space, alluding to the truth that the border of the Tsarist empire was not distant. Our practice pauses at Poronin station, to which Lenin would often cycle to gather his put up. A landmark Bolshevik congress was held within the village in 1913.


Forward, the distinct line of the Excessive Tatras marks the southern sky. These are the hills the younger future Pope would often roam, following the paths Lenin had hiked whereas pondering developments again in Russia. For poets and philosophers, for future saints and revolutionaries, the railway to Zakopane has lengthy been laced with inventive power and the promise of pure mountain air.

Zakopane station is 835 metres above sea degree, so stays snowy effectively into spring. {Photograph}: Alamy

“Subsequent cease Zakopane,” says the guard in each English and Polish as he walks by the practice. And some minutes later, we slide to a cease at Zakopane’s lately refurbished station. It’s 835 metres above sea degree, so snow lingers effectively into spring. However I’m effectively ready and head out into the hills, following a path I keep in mind being signposted years in the past as considered one of Lenin’s common routes. Pieties have modified, and today footage of John Paul II are affixed to a tree by the path.

Journey details

The quickest every day practice from Kraków to Zakopane is a mid-morning departure taking 2hrs 26mins. All different trains take over three hours, the slowest virtually 4 hours. The one-way fare on the sluggish, native trains is 22.50 złoty (£4.50). Tickets have to be purchased on the station earlier than boarding the practice. Solely on the sooner trains can seats be booked, at Fares differ, however advance tickets are usually £6 second class and £11 firstclass.


Nicky Gardner is co-author 0f Europe by Rail: the Definitive Information. The Seventeenth version was revealed this month and is on the market from the Guardian Bookshop

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