The Tatras are the highest part of the Carpathian range of mountains that sweep through Central Europe. They run for 53km along the boundary between Poland and Slovakia, although the majority of the range is in Slovakia. The Tatras are not that high and only cover a relatively small area, but in terms of the beauty and diversity of the landscape, they are hard to beat. The mountain range is divided into three areas - the Vysoke Tatry (or High Tatras), which is where most visitors go, the Western Tatra and the Bielskie Tatry (or White Tatras) which is an extensive nature reserve, closed to the casual visitor.
The Tatra is also the name of a Czech vehicle manufacturer. They are still in the truck business but they no longer produce cars.
Getting to the Tatras
Probably the easiest way to get to the Polish side of the Tatras is to take a plane to Krakow and then take the train (five hours) to Zakopane. If you want to get to the Slovak side then Bratislava airport is currently rebranding itself as a low-cost hub (Vienna East!). Alternatively, Vienna to Bratislava is only about an hour and-a-half by train. From Bratislava take the train via Poprad to Stary Smokovec. Poprad also has an airport.
Crossing between Poland and Slovakia used to be very complicated, as the Czechoslovak authorities feared that the 'Polish disease' (the Solidarity movement), would cross the mountains. Now that both countries are in the EU, crossing the border is much simpler than it used to be, although the standard way is still via the checkpoint at Lysa Polana. If you're travelling by public transport you can get a bus from Zakopane to the frontier, walk across and get your passport stamped and then get another bus the other side to Stary Smokovec.
It is well worth crossing the border during your visit to see the different cultures, but probably not worth the hassle if you only have the time for a day trip.
Where to Base Yourself
On the Polish side, the best option is Zakopane. It's a lively town of 20,000 plus inhabitants, and has a good range of accommodation and restaurants. A small armada of minibuses leave from here to the various valleys/trail heads that you might want to get to. As well as very tasty Polish food and beer, there is also an excellent Mexican restaurant in Zakopane, with cheap and tasty guacamole. There is a Polish website, with information in English, on the facilities.
On the Slovak side, the main town is Stary Smokovec, but there are a lot of accommodation options - especially campsites - near Tatranska Lomnica. Some of the former Soviet workers' campsites are particularly impressive - they were built to give Stakhanovite steel workers a week's collective holiday out of the pollution and are designed on a gigantic scale. The toilet blocks seem to have been built with the aim of allowing an entire shift to urinate at any one time, and as for the disco...
Another accommodation option available on both sides of the border is to stay with one of the local inhabitants. If you take the train to Zakopane, you are likely to find people meeting the train who will offer this option or the possibility of a camping site1.
For the Slovak Tatras, there are a number of hotels in Stary Smokovec, some of them attached to spas and offering treatments of various kinds. You can get around the Slovak side of the border on the excellent and cheap light rail system. It is also worth noting that the Slovak side has strong Germanic links and it is well worth trying the language of Goethe if you speak German but not Slovakian and your interlocutor doesn't speak English.
On the Polish side, English and German are not that prevalent. Be prepared to learn at least some basic Polish vocabulary. The situation is evolving rapidly, however, with more and more Western tourists finding the Tatras and local businesses and tourist services responding to this. The older generation in Poland are more likely to speak Russian but it's probably not advisable to switch into Russian unless they suggest it, as it is still viewed by a number of Poles as the language of the oppressor.
Walking in the Tatras
There are masses of marked trails to follow. Some of them follow gentle paths through the valley bottom and some of them climb to the tops of summits. A particular feature of the marked paths in the Tatras is the extensive provision of iron ladders, handrails and chains whenever there is a risk of a slip or it gets a bit tricky. This can get a bit annoying as you can feel like you're being nannied, but it does mean that someone who is fit but has no climbing experience can get access to some quite exhilarating scrambles.
The excellent signposting is handy as maps of the Tatras are not that great, and there is only one English language guidebook. The maps are available through specialist booksellers in the UK, or in the main centres.
Good options for walks from the Polish side include Giewont (1694m). This is the mountain you can see from Zakopane with the cross on top. It is very popular with the locals, so popular in fact that the last section has a one-way bit on it - you go up one path and down another. Also very popular is the cable car up to Kasprovy Wierch from Kuznice, 3km south of Zakopane. This is a good idea as it allows you to spend the whole day on the tops, with easy access to lots of great mountain ridges, including the fantastic Orla Perc or 'Eagle's Path'. Unfortunately you can expect to queue for a long time, potentially exposed to the hot summer sun. Whatever else communism may have done for the Poles, it seems to have left them with an inexhaustible level of patience in regards for queuing. A cunning plan is to go on Sunday morning, when some of the Poles will be at Mass.
Another good walk from either the Polish or Slovakian side is Rysy. The summit of Rysy touches the frontier between the two countries and is the highest peak 'in' Poland. At 2499 metres high it is a more serious proposition and care should be taken with the weather and equipment. It can be done in a day, or you could stay at a mountain hut on the way up. If you go up from the Slovak side, you may see a pile of bags of coal where the road ends and the path begins. Take one of these up to the mountain hut and you'll be rewarded with a free cup of tea. Bargain.
If you want to climb the highest peak in the Tatras, Gerlach (2663m)then you will either need to go with a mountain guide, or be an 'organised mountaineer' (see below) and have the right gear. It follows a winding ridge and looks like a smashing route, although this Researcher's two attempts were thwarted by heavy rain and thunder and lightning respectively. Be aware that the easy way up, with the ladders, is for the guides and their groups only. You can come down that way though. The summit and the starting point for the climb are both in Slovakia.
Easier options in Poland include the beautiful lake of Morskie Oko, and the valleys of Dolina Chocolowska and Dolina Strazyska.
Other Things to Do
For an antidote to all that being looked after and not leaving the path, try the caving at Dolina Koscieliska. Take a torch, a spare battery and ideally a helmet2. You can enter at will - the route is marked by splashes of paint3 and takes about 20 minutes to go through although it will feel like longer. There are a couple of stretches where you have to crawl on your hands and knees for a good distance in order to progress - this is always guaranteed to get the adrenalin flowing.
For a more comfortable look round a cave, try the Belianska show cave at Tatranska Kotlina in Slovakia. It's not particularly spectacular but it is one of the few rainy day options. In the winter, downhill skiing and cross-country skiing are an option. Although they are probably not worth the trip from the UK or further afield, they are popular regional centres, and the facilities (especially ski-lifts) are being modernised.
Zakopane is also a centre of Gorale culture. The Gorale are the Polish highlanders, the local inhabitants of the Podhale/Tatra region. They are well known in Poland for their music4, traditional clothing, wood-carving and wooden houses. You can see many examples of these ornately carved wooden houses in shops and homes around the region. Examples of their craft can be purchased throughout the region, and you may well hear the music being played. There was extensive emigration from this area to the US. You can still get the local Podhale newspaper in Chicago, apparently.
The Tatra National Park
The rules for the National Park on both the Polish and Slovakian side of the border are extremely strict. They have all the normal prohibitions in a national park - no picking the flowers, shooting the animals or playing Eminem at full volume on your stereo - and then some more. Wild camping is a big no-no, and unless you are an 'organised climber' you are not allowed to leave the marked paths.
Becoming an 'organised climber' in Slovakia is not complicated - go to the mountain guides in Stary Smokovec with proof that you are a member of a mountaineering club and they'll explain what you can and cannot do. This Researcher never managed to find out exactly who we had to see in Poland to get certified, but it must be possible. If you manage it, you can then get access to the climber's hut at Morskie Oko, below some of the best cliffs for rock climbing5.
The strict rules are undoubtedly a bit of a pain, but try and look at it their way. The Tatras are one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in Europe. There are still bears in the bushes, wolves in the woods and chamois on the cliffs. All this despite being one of the most popular mountain walking areas in Europe, especially with the Poles but also increasingly with Western Europeans. Would they still have this range of flora and fauna if they let people wander all over the place?
You can read more about the National Park at their site.
For more information this website has details on accommodation and leisure facilities in the region.