Tatra Mountains and Podhale. Vibrant highland folklore

Dancers in highlander costumes
Podhale is the cradle of highland culture and art, next to which the unique Zakopane style developed. Vibrant highland folklore, unique, richly decorated colourful costumes, energetic music and singing, unique traditions, extraordinary handicrafts and valuable artistic creations - all this is hidden under the name of Podhale culture and is waiting to be discovered when staying at the foot of the Tatra Mountains.

Zakopane, discovered by Dr Tytus Chalubinsky at the end of the 19th century, has gathered circles of artists and scholars inspired by the proximity of the Tatra Mountains and the highlander culture, among whom a specific artistic colony was born. Highland folklore and tradition are cultivated and passed on to subsequent generations. To this day, Zakopane continues to attract, inspire and protect what is most precious - its cultural heritage.

The Podhale highlanders’ costume

Apart from the characteristic nicknames preserved in some families to this day, what distinguishes the highlanders most from other ethnic groups is their costume. Both men’s and women’s clothing is characteristic of each group of highlanders, often including elements typical of a particular family or lineage. Although the costume has evolved over the years, and its features and decorations are very different depending on the village or even the family, the main parts of the garment remain the same. The traditional men’s costume consists of white trousers with decorated legs and a white embroidered shirt. In addition, every man must wear a belt, also known as an armband. Narrow belts without decorations are the most common, but there are also wide, decorated belts, the so-called bacowski (shepherd’s) belts or zbojnicki (robber’s) belts. A decorative element of men’s costumes is a highland pin characteristic of the place of origin or even the family. A metal pin in the shape of a rhombus with rounded tops may be of various sizes, more or less decorated. A hat made of black felt and kierpce (moccasins) complete the outfit. Men’s outer garments include a serdaki (vest), waistcoats and a cuchy (coat) put on over a white shirt. All items are decorated with floral motifs.

The women’s costume is certainly more varied and decorative. Apart from the traditional but richly decorated white shirt made of linen or batiste, an embroidered corset (festive) or serdak (casual) is essential for the costume. Depending on one’s financial status, the corset is made of velvet or silk and is carefully fitted to the woman’s figure. The most beautiful corsets are decorated with embroidered ornaments with floral motifs (Lilies, Amaranths, Carlina) and beads. The front of the corset is laced with a red ribbon tied in a large bow. Another element of the women’s costume is a long skirt, vast and wrinkled, made of fabric with a repeated decorative motif, usually floral. Under the skirt, an apron is worn, which also adds volume to the skirt. Of course, an inseparable element of the outfit, also for women, is kierpce (moccasins). In addition, every woman should obligatorily have a scarf, and the most precious jewellery are beads. The more strings of genuine beads a highlander woman wears and the more scarves she has in her wardrobe, the higher her social status. The tradition of highland clothing has been preserved and is cultivated in families, especially on feast days and on Sundays.

Dance and music

It is no coincidence that highlanders are often said to have music in their blood and dance in their feet. Music has always accompanied highlanders in all moments of their lives … during everyday chores, when grazing sheep and during the first Tatra expeditions, liturgical events, religious holidays and family events. The violin (and typical highlander plucked instruments) and the bass are the primary instruments used in a highlander band. Bagpipes, pipes and gusle are also often used. A basic highlander band should consist of a prima, which plays the main melody, second fiddle and a bass (a small double bass). Quite often, bands consist of four or five musicians. Multi-voiced highlander songs are filled with harmonised shouting, and the lively, characteristic rhythm of highlander music will make anyone dance. The highland dance displays the male’s strength, fitness and vitality, with the female partner as a decorative element. The characteristic feature of the dance is the lack of close contact with the partner. It is the man who imposes the atmosphere and the tempo. Lively music and energetic dancing with many turns and jumps provide an unforgettable experience. Highlander music is best listened to live, which is very often possible in highlander inns and restaurants. Sometimes you can even get up to dance and feel the unique energy and temperament of the highlanders first-hand.

The traditions

Highland rituals, inspired by the most important traditions and festive events of the year, are still alive today. In Podhale, many families still cultivate Christmas, Easter, Carnival or Midsummer Night rituals. Joyful carol singing and “podłazy” rituals are revived at Christmas when carollers and groups of young highlanders go from house to house. The colourful, decorative and hand-made palms are one of the most beautiful traditions associated with Easter, in addition to the crazy “polewanka” or “śmiergust” (traditionally, boys throw water over girls and spank them with pussy willow branches in some regions) on Easter Monday. Gazdów parades (Gazda - is a highlander who owns a farmstead), highland carnivals and sleigh rides in the snow occur in winter. During the Gazdówski Parade in Koscielisko, rides of traditional horse-drawn carriages, kumoterki (a two-person highland couple race through the snow in a small sleigh used by a kumotra (man) and kumoszke (woman)) and skirling races are presented. At the same time, the Highland Carnival in Bukowina Tatrzańska features reviews of carollers and dancing groups from different parts. In every place in Podhale, sleigh rides end with a bonfire and a highlander party in a chalet. When planning a visit to Zakopane, it is worth looking at the programme of cultural events and getting to know highland culture and folklore at its best.

Regional cuisine

When in Zakopane and its surroundings, it is impossible not to try traditional highlander cuisine. Kwaśnica, moskol, oscypek and mutton are the most famous specialities of highlander cuisine. The not very fertile land yielded mainly potatoes, cabbage and cereals, as well as sheep and lamb farming. Highland cuisine is simple, not very exquisite, but it smells of tradition and the smoke of a shepherd’s hut. Indeed, everyone will find a speciality to their liking. Dairy products take first place, among which the traditional smoked sheep’s cheese, cow’s cheese or mixed cheese - oscypek - should be singled out. You can learn about its tradition and production methods in the Museum of Oscypek in Zakopane. It is a widespread addition to many dishes or a snack, loved by everyone in the form of hot oscypek with cranberry, to die for! Bundz and bryndza, homemade butter and goat’s milk are products you must try when visiting Podhale. Each taste different and differ in the recipe of preparation. Very popular and delicious are pancakes or dumplings with bryndza, an unforgettable taste! Vegetarians should definitely try trout from a mountain stream, and meat lovers - lamb and mutton in various forms. Another popular dish is placek po zbójnicku - a huge potato pancake served with pork stew - and kwaśnica, a hearty sauerkraut soup often cooked with mutton and served with potatoes or bread. In addition to dishes with traditional cheeses, vegetarians have moskol, a pancake made from boiled potatoes, flour, water, salt and egg, served with garlic butter.

For dessert, you must try bombolki, yeast dumplings covered in butter and honey. It is good that Zakopane and its surroundings offer a range of outdoor activities, because surely after a real highland feast, everyone needs some exercise.


What deserves attention is the unique highland architecture. Wooden highland architecture has survived to this day. It is worth taking a walk, primarily through Kościeliska Street or going to Chochołów, where you can look at examples of traditional construction. Wooden huts were built with outer studs and sealed with moss or straw. The buildings are characterised by high, sloping roofs decorated with a traditional motif: a sunflower and a claw on top. The main construction element inside was a pine tree, on which the house’s date of construction was placed. Traditional highlander buildings consisted of two rooms - a black and a white room - and a hallway. The black room was where the family’s everyday life took place. Meals were prepared and eaten here. It was also used for daily work, such as weaving, and for sleeping. The white room was the room for special family celebrations and guests. Elegant clothes, ceramics and instruments were stored here. Such a prototypical highlander house is Chałupa Gąsieniców Sobczaków on Droga do Rojów, a branch of the Tatra Museum, where you can see the traditional rooms and the equipment. In addition to traditional highlander architecture, a unique Zakopane style developed, the creator of which was Stanisław Witkiewicz. When designing beautiful, lofty villas decorated with ornaments and woodcarving, the artist drew heavily on traditional highlander art. The villas that have survived to the present include Villa Koliba and Villa Oksza, which houses exhibitions of the Tatra Museum, and the House under Jedlami, which can be viewed from the outside.


Traditional glass painting, wooden sculptures, works by students of the School of Wood Industry, paintings and photographs are all part of the artistic heritage of the Podhale region. Works of art deeply rooted in the highland culture were often inspired by tradition and folklore. The most important names include Stanisław Witkiewicz, Walery Eljasz, Wojciech Brzega, Zofia Stryjenska, Karol Kłosowski, Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz "Witkacy", Rafał Malczewski or Leon Wyczółkowski. The Tatra themes dominated many of the works, but highland motifs referring to the rich culture also appeared frequently. The artists of Young Poland were also inspired by the highland culture, and today it remains a reference for many artists dealing with broadly understood contemporary art. The most valuable works of art and folk art are presented in Villa Oksza, Villa Koliba and the Centre of Native Culture in the Red Manor.


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