Polish village now ski resort

The transformation reflects the inventiveness of the nation since a market economy took root.

Posted: March 25, 2012

BIALKA TATRZANSKA, Poland - Just a few years ago, winter was a dead season for the Kotelnica Mountain, quiet under a quilt of snow.

Today, Kotelnica vibrates with activity from ski fans who flock to the new resort, one of Poland's trendiest.

The transformation happened in just a decade and reflects the inventiveness and enterprise seen in Poland since a market economy arrived with democracy in 1990.

People in this 17th-century village at the foot of the Tatra Mountains in southern Poland were making a modest living on farming and sheep breeding, with additional funds coming from relatives who had gone, in a long-standing tradition, to the United States for work.

Then, in 2000, about 50 farmers put their heads together and started a joint venture to develop a ski resort, similar to the ones that some had seen in Austria or Switzerland, when Poles were finally allowed to travel abroad freely in the 1990s.

"They thought that we should also do something like that, with equal success," said Wladyslaw Piszczek, who is both the mayor of the village and president of the ski-resort venture.

Each member contributed money. The group also took out a $650,000 bank loan and bought an Italian ski lift from another community in Poland that had never had it installed.

Ten years later, Bialka Tatrzanska, about an hour-and-a-half drive from the Renaissance city of Krakow, is a major Polish center for skiers and a popular family winter-sports venue.

A recent ranking of Poland's ski centers by the Onet.pl Internet portal listed it as the country's second most popular ski resort based on quality of slopes and other amenities. In first place was Krynica Gorska, which has been around longer and boasts more challenging slopes.

Bialka Tatrzanska has a school employing about 80 instructors. It has six large and nine small ski lifts that take 15,000 skiers per hour to the top of the Kotelnica and Bania mountain slopes.

A thermal spa - built with a loan of $26 million - opened this season and a second hotel is under construction. They have created hundreds of jobs.

At the foot of the Kotelnica peak, the village of fewer than 2,000 residents now thrives on visitors who mostly lodge in private houses, eat at the inns, and shop in new supermarkets. About 10,000 tourists can be accommodated at a time.

"Now all of Bialka and the entire county live off" the ski resort, Piszczek said.

Bialka's reputation has spread across Poland's borders, with Russian, Ukrainian, German, and even English heard on the slopes.

Vasyl Grib and his friends drove 600 miles from Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine.

"It has everything you need: many ski routes, good ski service, restaurants, good accommodation for every pocket, and it is cheaper than in Ukraine or in Western Europe," he said, standing in line to buy a ski pass.

Getting it all to work smoothly was a challenge.

In 2000, Piszczek had to travel to Chicago to track down 10 of the Kotelnica landowners living there to get them to sign lease agreements. Some of the other elderly owners did not trust the new business, and it took some coaxing from their grandchildren to get them to lease their land for building the lifts, Piszczek said.

Doubts eased after the local vicar of the time, the Rev. Stanislaw Maslanka, announced from the altar that he was contributing money to the venture because he saw it as a chance for Bialka to thrive.

This season, a heated and canopied chairlift and two new routes were added. The plan is to connect the slopes of Bialka with those of Bukowina Tatrzanska, about 3 miles away, through routes and lifts.

This year's cold and snowy winter, which caused countries in southern Europe to grind to a halt, turned Bialka into a skier's dream destination.

In January and February, which is high season, it costs about $250 for a 14-day pass for adults. By contrast, a 14-day pass in Austria's Salzburg region is around $475, although that buys access to hundreds of miles of local ski routes.

"Bialka is much smaller and less varied than the centers in Austria or Italy, but it's cheaper and closer to home," said Ewa Cicha, 37, from Piaseczno, near Warsaw, skiing with her 8- and 6-year-old children. "For the price of a week there I can spend two weeks in Bialka."

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