Zakopane, the capital of the Polish mountains, also plays the role of a cultural centre, attracting outstanding artists to the Tatra Mountains for over a century. A walk in their footsteps is an immersion in the fascinating history of the Podhale region, permeated by a love of art and mountain nature.
The town’s history dates back to the 16th century, when King Stefan Batory was to issue the first settlement privilege here. The city flourished a few centuries later – in the second half of the 19th century, its charms, as well as its climatic and therapeutic qualities, were discovered by the physician Tytus Chałubiński. In 1886, it was recognised as a health resort, and in 1889 it already had 3,000 inhabitants, modernised by the “providential husband of the Polish Tatras”, Count Władysław Zamoyski. The Tatra Mountains began to attract not only spa patients, but also artists, thirsty for the beneficial air and encounters with the beauty of the local nature. Such eminent artists as Henryk Sienkiewicz, Władysław Orkan, Stanisław Witkiewicz, Stefan Żeromski, Kazimierz Przerwa-Tetmajer, Jan Kasprowicz, Mieczysław Karłowicz, Karol Szymanowski, Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (Witkacy) visited or lived there.
To this day, the city serves as the cultural centre of the Podhale region. Here you can participate in exhibitions, meet extraordinary personalities, discover the beauty of local handicrafts and listen to traditional highlander music
The place to start exploring the cultural corners of Zakopane is the Tatra Museum. One of the oldest in Poland, it was established back in 1889 by the Tatra Museum Society. In the main building, at 10 Krupówki Street, a beautiful pre-war construction designed by Stanisław Witkiewicz (façade) and Franciszek Mączyński (technical design), there are exhibitions showing the history of the region and the wealth of culture and nature.
Attention is drawn in particular to the ethnographic section, through which we can learn, among other things, what life was like for a highland family in the mid-19th century. Wooden equipment, tools, leather products, sculpture, ceramics, musical instruments and old clothes – thanks to them, we can move back in time, immersing ourselves in the Podhale tradition.
To discover its undeniable charms, you should also visit the beautifully decorated Villa Koliba – a museum of the Podhale style. The magnificent building, located on Kościeliska Street, was created according to the design of Stanisław Witkiewicz, Witkacy’s father and a highly regarded artist. It was thanks to him that in the second half of the 19th century, a unique architectural and decorative style was created, referring to the local tradition and craftsmanship. In the interior open to the public, we can visit: the dining room, living room and bedroom on the ground floor, the room of the building’s owner Zygmunt Gnatowski and the servant’s flat on the ground floor. This pearl of woodcarving still delights to this day and shows visitors that Zakopane is a fascinating place, not least because of its highly original aesthetics.
Festival excitement and local initiatives
A walk in Zakopane can be a great excuse to visit local artists’ galleries and cultural venues. Wooden gems can be found in the Gallery of Antoni Rząsa, the late sculptor. Here, you can discover the artist’s oeuvre, talk to the family who runs the gallery and take part in workshops. Lovers of young art will undoubtedly find many interesting works in the building of the Antoni Kenar Visual Arts School Complex, where the Strug Gallery operates. You should also take the opportunity to take a closer look at the figure of the school’s patron, sculptor, mountaineer, teacher and – years ago – principal. A moment of rest can be experienced in a place that combines a café, a gallery and a viewing area – STRH at the famous Krupówki promenade, in the very centre of the city. Here you can have a good meal, a cup of coffee or beer from the local brewery, and see an art exhibition in an atmospheric, wood-panelled interior. A highlight is the terrace, which offers a spectacular view of the Tatra Mountains at any time of day. In search of modern souvenirs, go no further than the Tatra Bazaar at 22 Kościuszki Street, and fashion lovers should visit Fashion Street Krupówki 29, where they will find global brands in regional interiors.
The Zakopane Cultural Centre is a catalyst of artistic life in the area. Thanks to its activities, we can participate in numerous events and admire exhibitions regularly held in the Municipal Gallery. It is worth following the programme of the multiple festivals in Zakopane, particularly the famous International Festival of Mountain Folklore, the Art Film Review, Jazz Spring, the International Festival of Organ and Chamber Music and the Zakopane Literary Festival. These events attract renowned artists from Poland and abroad to the Tatra Mountains.
Treasures of Art
The 20th Century Art Gallery in the Oksza villa, a branch of the Tatra Museum, holds true treasures from the hands of such eminent artists as Rafał Malczewski, Leon Wyczółkowski, Zofia Stryjeńska and the legendary Witkacy. It houses one of the richest collections of the latter artist, including an exceptionally vast selection of photographs.
Władysław Hasior was one of the most acclaimed contemporary artists associated with Zakopane. His extraordinary, internationally acclaimed works – famous banners, spatial compositions or sculptures – found their place in the Gallery, which opened in the 1980s and is located in the former lodging room of the “Warszawianka” sanatorium. Hasior, who died in 1999, was a truly global artist; his works can also be found in Paris, Stockholm, Rome, São Paulo, Edinburgh, Kraków and Warsaw, among others.
For music and theatre lovers
Classical music lovers should visit the world’s only Karol Szymanowski Museum (a branch of the National Museum in Kraków), located in the recently renovated villa Atma. This Polish composer, the greatest after Fryderyk Chopin, often stayed in Zakopane and towards the end of his life moved to the Tatra Mountains and lived on Kasprusie Street. A recent refurbishment has introduced numerous multimedia resources into the historic interior, which is decorated in the Zakopane style, allowing visitors to learn more about the life and work of the eminent artist. Numerous concerts and meetings devoted to classical music and the history of Zakopane are held here, so it is worth checking the programme of current events regularly.
The Witkacy Theatre has long attracted the attention of Melpomene lovers. It was established in 1985 by students and graduates of the Drama Department and Drama Direction Faculty of the State Theatre Academy in Kraków, who were united by the idea of searching for artistic freedom, fascination with Witkacy’s theory of Pure Form and disagreement with the rhetoric of the communist authorities at the time. The institution, directed from the very beginning by Andrzej St. Dziuk, is located in the former Hydrotherapeutic Centre of Dr Andrzej Chramec and has become known as a magical place on the map of Zakopane. The building has long been associated with the arts; in the first half of the 20th century, it was a meeting place for the intellectual and artistic elite. The theatre and its director have won numerous awards, including the Grand Prix and the Talia Statuette of the 18th National Comedy Festival TALIA, an award from the “Teatr” monthly and an award from the Association of Polish Stage Artists. It also hosts the All-Poland Retro Song Festival, organised under the Fogg family’s honorary patronage, popularising the inter-war period’s cultural achievements and Polish songs.
A fairytale place
Kornel Makuszyński’s name often evokes childhood memories in Polish readers. The writer and publicist left behind fantastic literature for children and young people, including such classics as “Przygody Koziołka Matołka” (“Matołek the Billy-Goat”), “O dwóch takich co ukradli Księżyc” (“The Two Who Stole the Moon”) or “Szatan z siódmej klasy” (“Satan from the seventh grade”). Although many of them were written in Warsaw, it is in Zakopane that we can visit a museum dedicated to the creator, located in the Villa Opolanka. Here, before the Second World War, Mr and Mrs Makuszyński spent their spare time, often entertaining the cream of the artistic community, before settling permanently in the town after 1945. The collection donated by the writer’s widow, Janina Gluzińska-Makuszyńska, contains valuable books, photographs, historical and literary writings, manuscripts, correspondence from readers and a rich collection of letters from eminent personalities of culture and art. As Makuszyński was an art collector, he left behind a valuable collection of paintings and sculptures, designs, antique furniture and numerous objects belonging to the old decorative arts (clocks, glass, porcelain) – it is also open to the public.