Remember the Singing Nun? In the Tatra Mountains of southern Poland there are hiking nuns. We have encountered at least four, crucifixes, rosaries and all, walking boots beneath the hems of their habits on high and tricky ridges. Maybe, I wonder, there's a whole order of them up here. And lo and behold – there is. The convent is not very far up a cobbled trail from the bottom cable car station in Zakopane but it is quite possibly the only one in Europe – maybe the world – which takes defensive measures to keep out bears. The are brown bears in these mountains, and though there are so many hikers that you won't see them unless you stray far off the marked paths. There's an electrified tape on top of the convent fence and there are warnings as you set out that you should stay calm if you run into one, and retreat calmly.
This is high season in Zakopane, a ski resort in winter, and it is staggering how many Poles take to the trails. You can now book tickets for the resort's cable car, which four years ago replaced one installed in 1936, but if you do, you take a chance on the weather. If you don't – and wait for a sunny morning – you will have to queue for several hours for the ride up. We go for the former option and luckily the day dawns sunny and warm. There is edelweiss by the cable car middle station, in a spot inaccessible to souvenir hunters. At the top we head west along a switchback ridge, walking on granite stones laid as long ago as the end of the 19th century. Though we have started in Poland we dodge in and out of neighbouring Slovakia. The border is marked here and there by white posts.
Even up here, at almost 2000 metres, you are never alone, but the views of distant peaks and green valleys scooped by glaciers compensate for the groups of hikers breathing down your neck. To our right is the mountain known as the Sleeping Knight, barely recognisable as such from here, but from the valley the perfect outline of a sculpted tomb memorial, the noble brow tipped back and the cross on top appearing as a straw between his lips. We descend on a difficult, uneven path to a crowded mountain eaterie, where most of the crowds sweating there way from town throw in the towel. From then on there are so many walkers still toiling up they might well be on a pilgrimage.
We slake our thirsts with cold Tyskie beers on Zakopane's heaving, pedestrianised Krupowki Street. All human life is there. Near the bottom there's a market where you can buy anything from wood carvings to leather fashions (about £120 for a waist length woman's jacket). On the street itself there are bars, restaurants, sports equipment and shoe shops. Characters from Star Wars parade for the kids. In the evenings there's a big queue for placki – potato pancakes with sour cream and sometimes gulasch. And everywhere there are stalls selling the local smoked ewe's cheese, oscypek, which is slightly chewy and often served grilled in restaurants, with cranberry sauce. We buy some at a smoke house on the way to the nearby village of Chocholow, whose main street is line with the wooden houses characteristic of the region, the logs which form their walls caulked with wood chippings. One house here was built entirely from one big spruce tree.
There are plenty of attractive wooden villas in Zakopane, too, some with elaborately carved balconies and wood shingled roofs. Churches, too, with delicately created wooden altars. Behind the oldest of them, dedicated to St. Clement, is the town's old cemetery. Provided you have an interpreter it is a place to linger. Zakopane has been a mecca for painters, scupltors, writers and sportsmen. Buried here is a ski jump champion who refused an offer to teach the occupying Germans and instead smuggled refugees and secret agents through the Tatras, an Olpympipc rowing medallist who fought in the Warsaw uprising and lived until 2004, a former rector of Warsaw Polytechnic who survived Dachau. Even amid the Poles at play, reminders of grimmer times are rarely far away.