The Biker Bucket List: Tatra Mountains and Kraków
This is less an all-out Biker Bucket List riding trip and more a chance to see one of Europe’s most beguiling cities, plus do some great riding into the bargain.
Whether you add this to a European tour or fly and ride, head to Krakow and the Tatra mountains for a perfect mix of history and twisty roads.
Southern Poland, especially when you get to the Tatra Mountains on the border with Slovakia, is as beautiful as anything you’ll see on an Alpine tour, with mainly superb Tarmac on epic twisties.
Thanks to the region’s turbulent past, often changing hands between warring states, there is also a vast amount of non-biking experiences you can add to an itinerary, with historic Krakow a great place to start and finish and also to hire a bike from.
For those in the know, Polish food culture also presents many highlights, so after a days’ great riding, you can look forward to rich, hearty dinners (admittedly featuring a lot of pork). And boy, are the prices cheap – even in the most touristy cafes in the main square, you can get a three-course meal for less than £8. And then there’s the vodka…
Where to go?
Krakow is the largest city in the region, rich in history (no less than 12 museums) and thankfully largely untouched, at least in the centre, by military bombardment and Soviet architecture. It’s also the place where you can hire a bike for around €50 per day, although the choice is pretty limited to 600cc bikes.
Where to hire a motorbike in Krakow:
You could easily spend a whole week in Krakow. The city’s medieval architecture is impressive and before you head for the roads you may want to spend at least half-a-day walking the centre, starting from the Rynek Glówny (Main Square), itself a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to both the Cloth Hall and the imposing gothic St Mary’s Basilica, and heading over to the 14th Century Wawel Castle, one of the best-preserved castles in Europe and home to the State Art Collection. Assuming you’ll be making more of Krakow on the return, if you have more time at the start we’d recommend the underground museum under Rynek Glówny where, starting with recently unearthed buildings, you can chart the history of the city since it’s founding. It’s also a great way to keep out of the sun on hot days.
If you’re in town only for one night and you want authentic Polish food in a lively atmosphere, CK Browar, at Pocwale 6 on the western edge of the historic centre, is a cavernous joy – mainly because they serve the beer in 5 Lt taps they bring to your table. And they have their own brewery. And a nightclub. Classy.
Krakow to Zakopane
For the best riding on a 3-4 day itinerary, Zakopane is the place to head to. A small town at the foot of the immense Tatra Mountain range, it offers plenty of accommodation and dining options and a loop to ride that takes in the Tatra National Park and a dip into Slovakia.
Leaving Krakow south on the S7 you soon are offered glimpses of the mountains you are heading to. The road is a gentle smile’s worth of sweeping bends rolling between the undulating gentle valleys and small foothills that introduce the Tatras.
After a short spell on the E77, you head deeper into the proper start to riding country. The single-lane 47 is by turns fringed with heavy woodland and open meadows, occasionally interrupted by small towns, all the time offering a succession of long curving bends skirting round ever-rising hills onto to Zakopane itself. There’s a good chance you’ll encounter queues in the towns and filtering is illegal in Poland but, frankly, the locals do it and if you are happy to as well the impact is minimal. Or leave your trip until later in the day, when the traffic should be lighter.
As this only takes a couple of hours you then, once you have checked into your accommodation and ditched your baggage, you have a choice, do a loop to the north or head directly over to the famous Morskie Oko.
Heading north back along the 47, cut along the 961/960, to the 49, turning right at the roundabout before taking a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it left that takes you to Czarna Gora. At Trybsz, go right for a fast run to the lake at Jerioro Sromowskie, where you turn right on the 542. This road takes you to a Best Biking Road, 543: Zadak to Kamienka that starts just below the lake and takes you over the border to Slovakia. You can create a loop back to Zakopane by staying on the 543, with long views across open countryside, until turning right onto the 77 heading toward Podrad, taking the right onto the 66 at Spissaka Bela. This takes you skirting around the foot of the Taras, with stunning views of the mountains, until you reach the 960, where you’ll see plenty of signs to Morskie Oko.
Depending on how you’ve planned your day, take the short trip to the car parks at Morskie Oko, for the trip into the mountains or take the 960 another BBR favourite, with its epic twisties, back to Zakopane.
Morskie Oko is a day-trip in itself once you are there. Morskie Oko is one of the deepest lakes in the Tatras, surrounded by stunning mountainous and wooded scenery. You can’t ride there so at the car park you can grab a snack before heading on foot for a two-hour, gentle sweeping climb along a smoothly-surfaced track, or you could cheat and pay roughly £6 and take a horse-drawn cart to the lake area (where there is still a 20-minute walk). You’ll be rewarded by some of the most stunning scenery you’ll see – the Alps included.
A word of warning, though, Morskie Oko is extremely popular with the locals at weekends and you may find the roads too busy to enjoy the bends properly. But, time it right and you’ll be rewarded with drop-dead views. You can also climb further and indeed stay on the mountain overnight if you have the right camping gear, and you are in the summer months.
After the climb, or indeed a good day’s riding the mountain roads, you can fuel up at Karczma Regionalna Przy Młynie at ul.Bulwary Słowackiego in Zakopane. It’s a traditional, old timbered restaurant serving regional food at good prices and is a great option if you don’t want to eat in some of the gaudier joints in the centre of town.
Riding in the Tatra Mountains
To be honest, there’s so much non-biking activity in and around Krakow that’s it’s tempting to just head back via the 47 and E77, but if you have the time (we didn’t), use Zakopane to explore some of the other roads in the region. The small town could easily be a base for a whole week’s worth of riding around Southern Poland and Slovakia, dipping in and out of the national parks and alternating between sweeping open country fast rides to getting twisty on the mountain roads.
If you want more riding, take practically any road off the main roads and you’ll find great lanes that take you through rolling foothills, secluded straights buried in pine forests and twisty mountain roads with good quality safety barriers – just in case. The scenery is stunning – you’ll be stopping regularly for vista checking.
Get a feel for the mountain roads (turn your sound down to avoid the terrible soundtrack…)
Soaking up the views is mandatory around here, but also ride to the road surface. We found the tarmac and road conditions to generally be pretty good on main routes, but off these you should remember that being mountainous, the area gets a lot of rain and snow in winter, leaving the occasional pothole as a parting gift.
Being so high up, the area can also get wet any time of year, so wear appropriate gear for a sudden change – you can literally leave a sunny patch and round the corner find yourself in drenching mist. If you hear air-raid style sirens head for shelter – a serious thunderstorm is on the way (more likely at night).
Back in Krakow
If you do head back to Krakow you can spend a couple of happy days off the bike following the tourist trail. Highlights include the Salt Mines at Wieliczka, which are pretty mind-blowing with their huge underground caverns, salt sculptures and long tunnels. You can take a guided tour for a couple of hours that takes in 1% of the 287 km complex.
We didn’t get a chance to see it, but Nowa Huta, literally New Steel Mill, is one of the Soviet era’s most impressive feats of social and industrial engineering. Home to over 200,000 workers in a mixture of Socialist Realism and less ambitious 60’s architecture, mixed with heavy industry plant, the area will fascinate anyone interested in the rise and fall of Communism.
In five, deeply traumatic years, the Nazi’s transformed Krakow’s relationship with the rest of the world. The Ghetto and Jewish Quarter are also popular on the tourist trail. You might have seen the Spielberg film Schindler’s List – in Krakow you can visit the factory, now a museum of the period, where Oskar Schindler, a Nazi spy, set up a pots and pans company to supply the German war effort using an enslaved Jewish workforce. At the factory museum, a short ride from the city centre, you can see how the city of Krakow survived the Nazi occupation and how Schindler himself rescued nearly 1,200 Jews from near-certain death by bribing his fellow Nazis and organising an escape from the city.
Others were not as lucky. Auschwitz Concentration Camp is either 90minutes by coach or quicker if you are on a bike. It’s not for us to explain why this is a must-do element of a trip to Krakow. We would simply say that it may be wise to put the visit at the end of your itinerary, as the emotional effects could be deep and you want your riding itself to be based on full enjoyment of the roads…
When to go
Southern Poland is definitely a late Spring-through-to Autumn experience. In the height of the Summer months, you may be challenged by a lot of holiday traffic, but you can slip away from the roads we’ve recommended here and find some of your own, less busy, epic rides quite easily.
In the Tatras, the weather can change quickly from dazzling sunshine to a downpour so breathable waterproofs are more essential than looking cool in leathers.
Rules of the road in Poland
Fines are on the spot and can be up to £250.
Motorways: 140 kph / 87 mph
Dual carriageway: 100/120 kph / 62/75 mph
Open road: 90 kph / 56 mph
Towns: 50 kph / 31 mph (rises to 60 kph / 37 mph between 11am and 6am)
You’ll need your driving licence and to be able to produce a photo ID when asked. If riding your own bike, you’ll need to produce your V5 Registration Document. If you are hiring a bike out there, you’ll need to produce evidence that you have permission to drive.
Poland has a near-as-dammit zero tolerance approach to drinking and driving. If you ride and have had a drink, even a single unit of alcohol, you can be charged. The legal limit is 0.2 milligrams per millimetre of blood. That’s a quarter of the UK limit. If you are found to be over 0.5 ml/mg, you could be looking at a prison sentence.
Get yourself sorted:
We think this is the ideal 3-4 day epic biker break: Bookend a couple of days’ worth of Tatra mountain riding on a hire bike in one of Europe’s most historic and beautiful cities.