Rants and Raves

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Thursday, January 11, 2007

Gorale, Polish highlanders

This is an article I published a few years back in the Warsaw Insider, an English-language monthly published in Poland. Since it was a tourist article, I had to gush a bit. But now I can tell a couple of stories about doing it.

I interviewed the wojt (governor) of Bialy-Dunajec through the good offices of my wife-to-be Monika, since my Polish wan't quite up to that level of complexity, and there was a different accent and dialect to deal with. He was very helpful, but when he took us around the county seat and showed us the meeting hall, he introduced us to the council which was sitting at the time. As soon as he said "journalist" we could feel a cold wave going around the room. See my point in the article about how the Highlanders have felt slighted by the lowland media.

We must admit that when the Wojt was describing local customs, we had to supress some chuckles at how he kept going on about "many weddings, funerals etc. are non-alcoholic these days" and "fights used to break out at these events but nowadays..." Hey, both her and my people were highlanders way back, we know all about the drinking and brawling mountain men regard as manly sport.

And what we still chuckle about to this day, was when our goralka landlady was heading off to a highlander festival in costume, I had the opportunity to ask her about that Bulgarian saying quoted below. "Do you have this saying I heard in Bulgaria, "The flatlands grow onions - the mountains grow men." She answered excitedly, "No, but it's true!" and off she went.

My lady and I looked at each other and thought, Omigod, did we just start a new "traditional" highlander folk saying? Sometimes I wonder just how many corruptions of the Polish language I am personally responsible for?


“The flatlands grow onions. The mountains grow men.”
Bulgarian Highlander’s saying

Before beginning our research for this article, we already knew for sure certain things about Gorale, the highland people of the Tatra Mountains. We knew that they were proud, independent, hardy, self-reliant, have strong traditions of cooperation and hospitality, an economy traditionally based on herding and a long history of sending their young men into the army. We knew this because it could be a description of almost any of the mountain cultures of the world. More than any other peoples, highlanders are shaped by the land they live in.

The mountains are beautiful but a hard land to live in and they breed hardy people. In historical times transportation from the lowlands was tremendously expensive so people made most of what they needed themselves. Men often made their living as herdsmen, spending long periods of time alone in the mountains. People necessarily became independent and self-reliant but also necessarily had to be ready to help one another to survive and prosper and hospitality became an almost sacred obligation.

Because transportation into and out of the mountains was so expensive and arable land tends to occur in isolated pockets separated from others by long stretches of land unsuitable for agriculture, farming was largely for subsistence. What was produced for export were commodities that could take themselves to market, such as live animals and in the Tatry Mountains, lumber, which could be floated down the Wisla river all the way to the port of Gdansk.

The Tatry Mountains lie in the Southeast of Poland on the border with Slovakia. They form part of a connected series of mountain ranges that extend from the Sudety Mountains on the Czech border, through the Carpathians and down the Balkan Peninsula. The people of these mountains have a culture that varies from region to region in dialect, dress, musical styles and other elements of material culture but nonetheless possesses a unity that extends across the various national borders and separates them from the lowland peoples.

The Tatry are a favorite destination for tourists in Poland and from all parts of Europe. In winter there is the skiing and in the spring and summer there is hiking and climbing among the spectacular beauty of the mountains. Zakopane, in the heart of the Tatry, is the most popular destination, winter or summer, but there are any number of surrounding communities with accommodations even cheaper than the already pretty reasonable rooms in the city if you don’t mind being a bit distant from the restaurants and clubs of the city center. Now the winter capitol of Poland, Zakopane was, not too many years ago, a small town known to outsiders as an artist’s colony.

Everywhere you see the distinctive architecture of the mountain people. Houses are constructed of whole tree trunks, squared and notched at the ends. The corners are beveled off so that when the beams are fitted together the joins form a “v” shape and are sealed with straw rope hammered into the crack between beams. The whole is surmounted with a high peaked roof, traditional wood shingles, terracotta or sheet metal and often decorated with elaborate woodcarvings.

You also see the traditional highlander’s dress: the long colorfully embroidered skirts, velvet vests, tasseled scarves and white blouses of the women, the felt trousers, cape and wide brimmed hat of the men. Traditional costumes are worn by people in the service industry, of course, and on Sundays but we have also seen Gorale shepherds wearing the same clothes, only travel stained and worn, when bringing the sheep in from the mountain pastures.

Everybody who goes to Zakopane buys a traditional hiking stick/weapon of the Gorale, called in various dialects ciupaga, welazka, siekierka or laska, whose handle is a tomahawk head. We gained great face with our landlady by buying a ciupaga with a real steel head rather than the decorative brass or wood that the tourists generally favor.

To find out about Gorale culture we went to Zakopane where we contacted Maria Biegun, owner of a pension we favor when in Zakopane, former women’s shot put and Judo champion and proud Goralka, active in Gorale cultural affairs. Through her gentleman friend Wojciceh Opiela we met and interviewed the wojt (governor) of the gmina of Bialy Dunajec, Jan Gasienica Walczak. Pan Inz. Walczak shared his knowledge of his people with us and proved to us that the ancient traditions of Gorale hospitality had survived the years of the communist interregnum when he vowed to roast some local bureaucrats who were less than helpful to us in our quest for information. Perhaps they cannot be blamed though, we got the impression that Gorale feel that their culture has been slighted, even insulted by journalists in the past.

The life of a typical highlander begins with a christening. The baby is taken to church by its’ godfather and godmother, called in the Podhale dialect, kumoter and kumoska. If the christening is held in the winter they will go in a one or two-horse sleigh called a kumoterki, decorated with carvings and the horses caparisoned in the Goral style. The next day there will be a party. In these times there is a growing tendency for the parties to be non-alcoholic.

First Communion occurs between the ages of fourteen and sixteen, depending on local tradition. The ceremony differs little from lowland Polish custom except that, if the priest agrees, the young boys and girls may be dressed in their best clothes, decorated according to the custom of their region.

When it comes to marriage nowadays there are no more matchmakers. It was explained to us that today’s youth have ample opportunity to meet at clubs and discos. Nonetheless certain old customs are still adhered to. The engagement is recognized when the young man formally asks for the young lady’s hand at a dinner in the presence of both of their families. A wiano (dowry) is collected, traditionally of bed linen, quilts, pigs, chickens etc. Nowadays it is whatever they want and need. The parents may build them a house beforehand.

Young men, called pytacy (“inviters”) go throughout the village to invite people to the wedding. Before the wedding day there are parties for the bride’s party and the groom’s, after which the couple are formally escorted to the bride’s house for the blessing on their union. The starosta wesela (host of the party) gives a speech, where it is expected that everyone will cry.

Then the druhny (“bridesmaids”) will fetch the groom to the church and the groom’s party will fetch the bride, for Mass and the nuptials with the pytacy leading the procession.

After the ceremony there is a reception and a party, a jolly affair called ocepiny from the word, czepek, “bonnet”. In the traditional bonneting ceremony the bride is seated, her maidens garland removed and a matron’s bonnet placed on her head. The bride is “kidnapped” by the pytacy and must then be “ransomed” by the druhny with songs, skits, chocolates and the traditional smoked cheese, oscypek, which is often made in the shape of toys for children to play with – and eat later.

The groomsmen and bridesmaids have a song duel with traditional melodies to which lyrics may be improvised making fun of each other – but cannot be vulgar. The staroscina (hostess) will sit in the center of the crowd wearing a traditional podolek (apron) while the people gather around and sing traditional songs, przyspiewki to celebrate the wedding and urge people to be generous to the newlyweds. Guests approach one at a time with gifts of money in their hands, held out in front of them so that everyone can see the amount of their gift.

In these times two bands are often hired for the occasion, a traditional Gorale band and a modern pop band. Traditional melodies, nuta pytacka, are danced to. Traditional Gorale dancing is technically difficult, physical and exhausting. Today’s young people may learn the basic steps at home or in a group. The governor’s two teenage sons started learning at home and have been participating in a group for ten years now. The custom is that one couple dances at a time, one may interrupt by singing special lyrics but in old times this was sometimes the source of misunderstandings and fights.

Along with the wedding guests, there is a long-standing tradition that laziki (“drop-ins”), young single men, may come in and dance, though they may not claim a place at the table. Today they may come and sit at a table outside where cakes and sweets are sent out to them and a special bottle of vodka, unless the occasion is non-alcoholic.

The day after the wedding there may be an optional party, the poprawiny, held so that everyone can consume the leftovers.

In recent years, a new custom has grown up, the roczek, a dinner party after church held for a few intimate friends to celebrate a baby’s first year.

Funerals ceremonies traditionally start at home and if a highlander dies in hospital the body is first brought home. There is a sitting by the open casket with prayers and remembrances, after which the casket is closed and carried out. When crossing the threshold the casket is knocked three times on the threshold so that the dead will remember his home but not come back to haunt it. Gorale music is played, on a sad note with no singing. At the gravesite after the prayers and eulogy, people walk by to throw handfuls of earth on the coffin and express their condolences. Afterwards there is a banquet for family and intimate friends, which is in these times non-alcoholic.

Other important festivals in the life of the Gorale include St. Wojciech’s Day, April 23 when the sheep are taken to the high mountain pastures and St. Michael’s Day, September 29, when the herds return to the valleys. On the first Sunday after St. Michael’s Day the juhasi (shepherds) and bacowie (the bosses of the mountain shepherd’s huts) go to church to give thanks to Matka Boska Ludzmierska (Our Lady of Ludzmierz) the Gazdzina (patroness) of Podhale region. The baca (boss) would bring gifts of toys made of smoked cheese for everyone in the village, called redykolka, from redyk “flock” and made from recipes kept secret within families.

Like many herding peoples, the Gorale shepherds have phenomenal memories. A man with a flock of a thousand sheep will be able to recognize every single one of them and will be able to look over his flock and instantly know if one is missing! The governor personally knew one six-year-old boy who knew every sheep in his father’s sizable flock.

Highlander cooking is based on cabbage and potatoes. Several kinds of regional dumplings and noodles are made from potatoes and a kind of pancake called placek zbojnicki, which is served with goulash. Look for: kluski gruland, bukty and maluski on the menu. Cabbage is made into sauerkraut and the making is traditionally a family affair. Cabbage leaves are laid in the bottom of a thoroughly cleaned barrel and then grandfather and the kids beat the cabbage until the juices run out. Try kwasnica, sauerkraut soup.

If you are a vegetarian you might consider avoiding Zakopane. The center of town is permeated with the smell of meat being roasted over wood fires. Try the szaszlyk, meat roasted on skewers or kotlet barani, mutton cutlet with oscypek cheese. We found that after a day spent in vigorous hiking up and down the steep trails in the pure mountain air, the body craves meat and the smell from the many outdoor restaurants was indescribably, irresistibly appetizing.

There are many fine restaurants in Zakopane but you must be sure not to miss the Chata Zbojnicka,, the “fighting Men of the Mountains”. There you will be met by young men in traditional dress who brusquely inform you, “Men first” when you enter. You sit at long wood benches before massive wood tables with a lot of people who are total strangers – at first. After fruitlessly trying to order another beer, “Prosze pana – piwo” (“Please sir, a beer.”), I was taught to shout “Hej! Daj mi @#&* piwo!” (“Hey, give me a @#&* beer!”)

And woe be he who comes in a tie! He will be ceremoniously escorted to a headsman’s block (with commentary, “Hey is that an old sock or what?”), have the tie pinned to the block with a knife while the headsman sharpens the axe and then the tie is chopped off! If one is a good sport about it he will have many glasses of vodka pressed upon him by the waiters and guests. This is followed by much dancing and group singing.

Gorale sports are as vigorous and physical as their dancing. If you want to take up climbing, some of the best climbers in Poland live in Zakopane – and several of them speak English. During the winter you can see races of kumoterki and young men who race on skis pulled by horses with the slush flying from their hooves, getting thoroughly drenched.

The highland culture spreads across the mountains, irrespective of national boundaries. Polish Gorale can understand the highlanders just across the border in Slovakia perfectly well. We were told that they use a somewhat more colorful embroidery with more red in it and that their music is the same, except where it incorporates Slovakian elements into it. Further away in the mountains, the dialect becomes harder for Polish Gorale to understand because of the Hungarian words incorporated into it.

The Gorale dialect differs from lowland Polish in accent and in a number of different words. Freedom, in standard Polish is Wolnosc. In the Gorale dialect, Sleboda. Fajny (super, great) is swarny; dzierzawa (leasehold) is harenda.

Like many highland peoples around the world, their young men are much sought after as soldiers, because they are hardy and valliant, touchy about their personal honor but disciplined. Today though, all that remains of the Pohale regiment is the Strzelcy Podhalanscy battalion of the Polish Army. This past August in Bialy Dunajec a monument was dedicated to its founder, General Inzynier Andrzej Galica.

The mountains abound with legends: the sleeping knight Gievont who awakes when Poland is in danger and the tales of Janosik, a kind of Polish/Slovakian Robin Hood who fought the powerful landowners. Our informant the wojt, told us that this could only be a legend. He said that the legendary Janosik fought for the serfs but, he said, the people of Podhale have always been free, never serfs.

Somewhere in Dolina Koscieliska, they say there is an army that sleeps in a mountain cavern, awaiting the hour of Poland’s danger. Once, it is said, a smith was commissioned to shoe the horses of all the army and promised a rich reward. Once the job was finished he was presented with a sack containing the nail parings of the horses. Disgusted, he emptied the sack outside the cavern and went home. Once home he discovered that all of the nail parings that had clung to the rough surface of the sack had turned to golden thalers!

Today you can go to the Tatry and find the treasure of the mountains, which lies in the beauty of the scenery and the hospitality of the people. And make no mistake the culture of the Gorale is a living culture, not a museum piece. The economy has adapted to a large degree to tourism but this is a logical extension of the ancient tradition of hospitality, not a disruption of tradition.

As in any living tradition, times change customs and new customs arise over time. Today there is a competition for the Najswarniejsza Goralka, the finest highland girl, chosen not only for her beauty but for her resourcefulness, cookery and embroidery. There is also the Parade of the Gazdy , the owners of a certain amount of land and sheep, corresponding to landed gentry in English. And recently Zakopane has been host to an annual International Highlander Festival with participants from all over the mountain lands of Europe.

Of all the traditional cultures in the modern, industrialized world, highland cultures have proven to be as durable as the mountains. The people are shaped by their land and their love of it and only by removing them from it can their heritage ever be truly lost.


  • At 8:33 PM, Blogger Unknown said…

    You captured the color and zest of my Gorale ancestors so well. Consider submitting it to the Tatra Area Research Group's online newsletter, where many more Podhalians can have a hearty laugh, shed a sentimental tear, or just shake their heads bemusedly....

    Thanks for giving this Pol-Am another reason to be proud of her romantic ancestry!


    P.S. Send article to:
    Paul Binham/Editor-in-Chief

  • At 9:49 AM, Blogger Steve said…

    Thank you Stefania, I'll do that.

    And for those of you who don't speak Polish, the acronym TARG spells "market". The name of a local town in the mountains is Nowy Targ.

  • At 4:24 AM, Blogger Unknown said…

    I just came back from a trip to Poland, and I am trying to figure out two questions about Gorale traditional clothing.
    Where do the shells on the men's hats come from? Are they indigenous to the area?
    The same questions about the women's coral necklaces.
    I can't seem to find the answers and it's irritating me!

  • At 10:11 AM, Blogger Steve said…

    Shells are not indigenous, but traded to the area. Norman Davies reported a legend that each shell used to stand for so many trips down the Visla to the sea, but discounted it.

    I think it's probably just that shells and coral are foreign and therefore exotic to Gorale.

  • At 7:38 PM, Blogger Unknown said…

    Between the times of the roman empire to the early 1800's
    merchents from Italy would go threw the highlands to the baltic sea to get amber.In order to get threw safely they would pay the Gorale with the shells, silk, and coral necleses.

  • At 4:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

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