Zakopane and Podhale have not had good press for at least a decade. Patodevelopment, advertosis, destruction of nature, animal torture and greed feature regularly in the media. Exaggeration? Unfortunately, no. This is documented in the book "Podhale. Everything for Sale."
"Zakopane - the native Las Vegas". "Podhale - Poland in a nutshell and on steroids". "In Podhale, construction law has not caughton." For a long time, these bon mots of dubious quality have desensitized us to the degradation of the landscape, nature and cultural heritage of Zakopane and its environs. The adage about building law is what the author of "Podhale... "Aleksander Gurgul calls an "embarrassing joke" and, seriously, equipped with a good reporter's skill, he takes on the sins of Podhale: construction self-interest, pat-development, investor fires, reklamosis, destruction of nature and, from another register, violence against women and the torture of animals.
dutifulness and violence
The common denominators of the Podhale pathologies seem to include strong traditions, the memory of poverty, very specific religiosity, tough and difficult characters, and - towering above it all - money.
How much does it take to convince a highlander to sell his sacred patrimony? (...) The matter is usually taken care of by a fifty-percent hit.
This is how the chapter on the Zakopane pat-developer begins , harmonizing well with the title of the book. However, it is a work and about something more. About widespread violence - against space, nature, people and animals. When we look at "Podhale..." is looked at from this perspective, the inclusion in the volume of chapters seemingly incompatible with the rest becomes clear: those about domestic violence and martyred horses. It is these paragraphs - treating violence understood literally - that suggest an interpretation according to which the way space is affected in Podhale is also a kind of brutal rape.
Alexander Gurgul fell into Podhale like a halny and took with him everything that is most interesting, but also cruel (...) And a halny is an element, it leaves people in a dilemma," reads the cover blurb written by reporter Marcin Kącki.
A catchy comparison, with good intentions, but a bit hurtful to the author. For Gurgul is not the type of reporter who explores the terrain for a short time as part of a writing project, only to then expressly provide readers with a readable and moderately careful synthesis. A thirty-five-year-old from Krakow, he has experienced the Podhale region since he was a child, and as a journalist he has covered it since 2014, working in the Krakow editorial office of "Gazeta Wyborcza" (the Zakopane branch of "GW" exists only since 2021). He has been collecting materials for the book for the past two years, but there is no question of content overload. There is as much as necessary. The text is brisk, factual, free of formal fireworks and forced punchlines, which only strengthens the author's credibility. Some topics "drawn out" in time until this year's spring puenta, by the way, can not have a punchline.
death by self-will
What was the impulse to devote to Podhale no longer articles, but a larger publication? During an author meeting in Poznań, Gurgul explained:
The turning point was the death of a woman and her grandson caused by a massive windbreak. It was erected without a permit, one of a plethora of self-constructed buildings in and around Zakopane.
He added that there have been other deaths in similar accidents or building disasters, including puzzling fires in wooden buildings - a scourge that frees up attractive plots of land for new intensive development. Violence against space and heritage thus kills not only the landscape, but people as well. So it's already a crime story and it's worth finding out what and who is behind it, although - as the reading of "Podhala" reveals - the relevant players do not want to talk, and if they have said something - they change their minds and do not wish to be quoted.
a lot, because small
Why is there such a large number of phenomena in Podhale, yes, typical of other places in Poland, but present in greater concentration? The pursuit of money is one thing, but Gurgul sees the sources of many pathologies in the small scale of the city, where everyone knows each other and often protects each other. Toxic solidarity makes it difficult for law enforcement, historic preservationists or building supervisors. It's not easy for whistleblowers, either. Civil society in Podhale is only just being born and is increasingly successful in blocking harmful investments.
So this is not just a description of greedy, ruthless highlanders and investors from outside Podhale, but also of Zakopane residents who are fighting to preserve local identity and nature. On the other hand, a clear accusation can be leveled against the increasingly crowded tourists: attendance records are broken every year, except during the pandemic season. It is thanks to them that further degradation of Podhale is possible. Anyway - nothing new, only that it's stronger than before. Gurgul quotes Stanislaw Witkiewicz, who sounds very current, in "Podhale."
Disregardingthe instincts of greed that could be kindled in a people so poor by scattering handfuls of money, the highlanders were pampered and flattered without measure (...) The visitor who wants to get everything as cheaply as possible does not see that he is doing the same as the highlander who wants to take as dearly as possible(...)
the superfluity of life
Besides, it's hard to understand what pushes tourists into a space so trashed and far from a holiday idyll. Gurgul said in Poznan that the magnet is the unique Tatra views, but - is this really the most important reason? It seems that herd instinct and the simple association "mountains - Zakopane" combined with a reluctance to look for less obvious surroundings prevail. Similar, by the way, to the top destinations on the Baltic. Only that, as Gurgul shrewdly notes, at the seaside the season lasts several months, and tourists use the entire coast. Meanwhile, Zakopane is one, and the season lasts basically the whole year. If the Podhale people looked at the "surrendered" land less shortsightedly, perhaps they would exploit it in a more conscious manner.
Reason, however, probably won't prevail over a predilection for the mythically conceived American-style freedom favored by highlanders with ties to the Podhale dispora in the US. Again let's give the floor to Witkiewicz, who - this time with delight - wrote that:
Zakopane gives one superfluity of life that we Poles don't have much of: freedom.
And who knows if it wasn't Podhale that materialized most fully the Polish dream of unlimited freedom. If so, the rest of the country, warned by this brutal experiment, should revise their daydreams as soon as possible.
Aleksander Gurgul, "PODHALE: Everything for Sale."
Czarne Publishing House, 2022