Tag Archives: may day

The strange lure of Zakopane


Zakopane is a small town (population: 28,000) in the extreme south of Poland situated in a valley at the foot of the Tatra Mountains. Few people outside of Poland have ever heard of it, but it is the number one tourist destination for Poles in their own country. About 3 million of them go there every year (genuine figure). This May Day holiday weekend saw about 250,000 of them descend on the place from all over the country. Nobody seems to be exactly sure why though.

I’ve never been to Zakopane for the following reason: whenever the subject comes up in conversation it always seems to go something like this:

Polish person: It’s a holiday weekend, everybody will be going to Zakopane. It’s such a small crowded place and there’s hardly anything to do there. Have you ever been?

Me: No.

Polish person: You should go!!

Me: !?

Maybe I’m missing something, but if these conversations tended to include the words ‘fun,’ ‘delightful,’ ‘fascinating,’ or ‘relaxing’ more often I might feel differently. Every winter holiday and more or less every other public holiday seems to bring out some bizarre lemming-like herding instinct in the Polish people. They pack up their cars and head to Zakopane. The main road heading to the town, the infamous Zakopianka, is inevitably choked with barely moving traffic for days on end. It takes hours to get there even from Krakow, which is barely 100 km away; it must take days from Warsaw.

I’m sure the mountains are very pretty, but southern Poland is stuffed full of mountains; there must be other towns with equally dramatic backdrops?

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Poland’s flag days

The Poles are big on flags. Almost all buildings, public and private, have numerous neat little sprockets mounted in the exterior walls for holding flags. And they’re used often. This time of year, from the first to the third of May, is perhaps the peak period for displaying the national flag. The red and whites start to go up on residential buildings a few days before the first, and by the second most buildings are festooned with them.

A fine display of Polish flags outside the offices of the President of Krakow on Constitution Day.

It’s kind of confusing for non-Poles because there are actually three events crammed into the very beginning of May. The first of May is the well-known May Day or International Workers’ Day holiday. This was vigorously celebrated in Poland and throughout the rest of the Eastern Bloc during the period of Soviet domination. By sheer coincidence the third of May is an historically important date for the Poles because it is the anniversary of the day in 1791 when Poland adopted it’s first modern constitution (incidentally the first proper codified constitution in Europe). The Soviets were not so keen to have this commemorated, especially since the 1791 constitution was overthrown within a year by invading Russian armies. During the communist era Poles would sometimes ‘forget’ to take their flags down after May Day and ‘accidentally’ leave them up until the third as tribute to 1791.

With the collapse of communism the situation became slightly confusing for a while. Flags were required to be flown from public buildings on then first, as before, but now also on the third. It was a hassle having to take them down on the second just to put them up again the next day so, in 2004, the second was designated Flag Day giving three clear days of uninterrupted flag waving. At least that’s my version of events.

On private buildings the flags go up randomly some time during the week and come down again when the building’s administrator gets around to it. Throughout the week the streets are alive with comedic scenes as portly balding gentleman with fags hanging from the corners of their mouths struggle with stepladders or hang precariously out of windows holding each other by the legs. The death and injury toll is probably horrendous.

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