Taken from the Polish word for mountains, góry, the Górale are an ethnically diverse group of mountain people inhabiting an area stretching west to east from the Ostrawica Valley in today's Czech Republic to Poland's Biały Czeremosz Valley. Also known as 'Polish highlanders,' in total there are an estimated 600,000 Górale, whose origins can be traced back to wandering 15th-century Ukrainian, Polish, Czech, Slovak and Vlach shepherds, and who in Poland are divided into two main ethnic groups living in the Małopolska and Silesia regions.
By far the most well known Górale are the so-called Podhale Górale, who inhabit the highland area south of Kraków between the Western Beskid Mountains in the north and the Tatra Mountains in the south. The two principle towns in this region are Nowy Targ and Zakopane, of which the latter is considered to be the unofficial Podhale Górale capital. Ethnically distinct from the Poles in a number of ways including linguistically,
The local Górale dialect is divided into four groups - podhalański, sądecki, spiski and żywiecki, of which podhalański is the most common and well known. Fairly understandable to the average Polish ear, the dialect is, like the people themselves, made up of many influences, embracing words from former nomadic times including the occasional word from the now almost extinct Vlach population, who many believe to be the original ethnic group who went on to become the Romanians.
A chiefly bucolic, outdoor people, the Górale like their food fatty, and, not surprisingly, eat a large amount of cheese and meat-based dishes. The popular salty smoked cheese oscypek - made from sheep milk and found everywhere in both Kraków and Zakopane - is a classic traditional Górale staple, as is korbacz - a milder version made from cow milk, bundz (sometimes bunc) - a type of cottage cheese best eaten in May, and moskol - the local variation on the potato pancake. Meat is traditionally roasted, grilled or cooked over a wood-stoked fire, and features pork as well as the two classic mountain meats, mutton and lamb. Like other peasant cultures, soup plays a large part in the local diet. Kwaśnica, a soup made from sauerkraut and meat with a side dish of potatoes or bread, should be sampled before filling your face with a large plate of grilled animal.
Still keen to dress up whenever the opportunity arises, especially when there are tourists around, traditional men's Górale clothing is typified by white wool and felt trousers with embroidered patterns, moccasins (kierpce), a white linen shirt fastened together with a metal pin and a black waistcoat. For more formal occasions a white felt cape (cucha) is added over one shoulder and a large ornamental leather belt is tied around the waist, the width of which denominates the man's place in the social pecking order. If a man has a feather in his cap it signifies he's unmarried. Górale women traditionally wear flowing skirts with bright floral patterns, a decorative white cotton blouse held together with a wide red ribbon, and finished off with moccasins and a flowing, white cotton bonnet. Most patterns on clothing represent the flowers and plants to be found in the region.
In a world before television and where winters dragged on forever, the Górale made good use of their creativity. Still practised throughout the region, folk art can be found everywhere, and is typified by crude wooden sculptures, usually carved from local pine and generally depicting religious themes. With its origins in the mid 14th-century in the area that's now the Czech Republic, painting on glass reached its height in the 19th century and was used to brighten up homes throughout the Podhale region. Almost entirely lost to the world at the start of the 20th century, painting on glass (or rather on the back of a piece of glass) saw a revival after WWII and is currently enjoying a renaissance. Featuring both rural and religious themes some of this work is extraordinary. Usually painted in a naive style using intensely bright colours, find examples all over Zakopane including many for sale. Local genius Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (aka Witkacy) is generally believed to be the first serious artist to use Górale themes in his work. Read more about him in this guide or see some of his work on display in the Zakopane Style Museum, the first timber house to be built in the so-called Zakopane Style, and perhaps the most interesting and certainly the most visible of all the local art forms to be found in Zakopane.
There's nothing a Góral likes more than dancing. An integral part of Górale culture, the góraliski, or mountain dance, has seen some unwelcome changes recently, apparently to make it more appealing to the 1.5 millions tourists who clog Zakopane every year, but it remains something worth looking out for when in the area. Góraliski borrows dances from many cultures including Slovakian influences and dances borrowed from Wallachian shepherds who roamed the area in the 15th and 16th centuries. Controversially believed to be the forerunner of the Polka, Górale dancing is not done in pairs as in many other types of folk dance, but involves lots of revolving around each other, with touching only permitted briefly during predetermined turns during the dance known as zwyrt. Accompanied by a lively beat in 2/4 time with some startlingly unconventional melodies and harmonies, traditional instruments are almost entirely made up of stringed instruments and include fiddles, double basses and instruments unique to the area such as the stringed geśle and złóbcoki as well an indigenous bagpipe lovingly referred to as a goat. Find CDs for sale at the market at the northern end of ul. Krupówki, check out the international festival of highland music held in Zakopane every August or wander in any of the multitude of folk restaurants scattered around town during most evenings and see it being played live.