When Wanderlust web intern Natasha Singh took on the Tatras mountains from the Polish side, she learned a few things along the way. If you're planning on scaling a few peaks yourself, read on...
As intimidating as it might seem, hiking in the mountains during the night has significant benefits, such as fewer people on the trails and the eerie wilderness atmosphere – plus the fantastic views of snow-capped peaks shimmering in the moonlight. Don't forget your camera: during sunrise, the mountains change colour from a deep maroon to bright scarlet.
I'd been in extreme temperatures before, both hot (over 40°C during a heatwave in Malta) and bitterly cold (bike riding at -22°C in the middle of Swedish winter), but once we reached the spectacular Szpiglas peak (2,172m above sea level) after hours of hiking through the night, the only thing I could think about was – dammit – why didn't I pack a second pair of ear warmers?
I wore four layers, including using a sleeping bag as a blanket (keep in mind that camping isn't allowed in the Tatras National Park), yet the wind was like a knife. We stopped for a rest and I fell asleep briefly, and awoke freezing inside a cloud of fog passing between the mountain valleys.
I highly recommend bringing along a light survival blanket (very cheap, easy to carry, and available from most camping/outdoor shops) which is basically like a big sheet of foil – it insulates your body to help keep you toasty.
I was trekking with Polish friends who've been exploring the region since their childhood, so I didn't worry about getting lost – but when one of them insisted on telling the tragic tales of those who braved the Tatras and lost their way, legs or lives, I started to wish I knew who to call if something went wrong.
So for future reference, keep these numbers handy: the Tatras Voluntary Search and Rescue Team has an emergency number, which is 985, or a regular one for general enquiries: (+48) 601-100-300.
What if you want to climb the Mięguszowiecki Szczyt Wielki on your way to lake Morskie Oko? Or you're lost somewhere in Szczyrk and have no idea how to get back? Keeping in mind that most Polish people don't speak English, you'll make life much easier if you can at least pronounce where you are going (and hopefully you'll recognise it when you hear it, too).
All those consonants can look pretty intimidating – but you'll be glad you know them once you're there. Other good things to learn in Polish are the numbers one to fifteen (to recognise bus/train platforms), na levo (to the left) and na prawo (to the right), czest (how you should greet fellow Tatras trekkers on your route), and most importantly – the word piwo (pronounced pee-vo), the Polish for beer.
From the refreshing ogórek kiszony (cucumber pickled in brine and herbs) to the sinfully rich chocolate-and-cream sponge cake known as wuzetka; if there's anything to love about Poland it is most definitely the food. Hours of hiking, combined with lungfuls of invigorating air, sure whets up one's appetite – which is why many hikers usually carry kabanos with them, a dried sausage that doesn't spoil easily and is a great protein-filled snack. They're usually made from pork, but we found a fish version which was as delicious as it was stinky.
However, save some of your appetite, because the Tatras mountain range also has its very own dish: oscypek, a smoked cheese made from salted sheep's milk. You can buy it from a stall or local market served on a stick, or go to a restaurant and have it breaded, deep-fried, and served with cranberry jam and mashed potatoes. This delicacy is on the EU's Protected Designation of Origin Geographical Indication, so it should be on every traveller's must-eat list. It is also one of the most scrumptious things I've ever eaten).
Finish off the meal with some sweet cherry kompot, so addictive that the dish's name is even used as a slang term for heroin in Polish – so make sure you know who you're giving your order to!
If you're travelling during November-January, be sure to try the bizarre yet ingenious concept of hot beer (grzaniec). It's like a beer version of mulled wine – after a day out in the cold, a pint of this will make you feel like a whole new person.
The Tatras mountains are best accessed from the town of Zakopane, only a two-hour drive from Kraków if you're renting a car. If you don't have a car, a day ticket for the bus is available for 16 złoty (just over £3), and takes roughly 2.5 hours – you can access the timetable here. Want to attend a Tatra Photography workshop in Kraków? Get a £100 discount with Wanderlust's Hot Offers.