Zakopane (pronounced zah-koh-pah-neh), in the foothills of the High Tatra Mountains, is Poland's leading mountain resort. It's absolutely mobbed during the winter ski season, so advance preparations are in order if you're coming from late December through March. The summer hiking season is also busy, especially in August, when the town hosts an annual folklore festival, though it's not quite as overrun as in winter. During the rest of the year, it's possible to sense some of the beauty and rustic charm that first began drawing artists and holidaymakers here in the 19th century.
Zakopane plays a role in Poland's literary and cultural history that may be unprecedented as far as mountain resorts go. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, members of Poland's intellectual elite decamped here in a bid no less ambitious than to reinvent, or at least reinterpret, Polish culture. Many of the country's leading young writers, poets, painters, and architects gathered here and found something uniquely Polish in the unspoiled nature and solid mountain cottages of simple people.
The two world wars and the decades of Communism that followed put an end to the Zakopane art colony, but some of that special, funky feeling remains. Certainly, the huge wooden 19th-century houses here -- known throughout Poland as the "Zakopane style" -- are some of the most beautiful you'll see anywhere. And in and among the trees and the gardens -- and away from the crowds -- you can still find traces of a uniquely Polish resort that feels very much of a different age.
Zakopane has three main "seasons." The most important is over Christmas and New Year's, when it can feel like half of Poland has descended for a week-long after-Christmas party. Hotel reservations are nearly impossible to get, and rates are jacked up to the stratosphere. If you feel like this might be for you, be sure to reserve months in advance. Ski season runs from January through March and can be almost as crowded as Christmas. Summer walking season starts in June and runs through mid-September. Hotel rates are still high, but the crowds are less oppressive. The best time to come to have the mountains to yourself is in May or October. The air can be chilly, but the paths are blissfully free of tour groups. Bear in mind, though, that the trails on the highest elevations, including the trails that run across the mountain to Slovakia, are closed from November to mid-June.