BIALKA TATRZANSKA, Poland — Just years ago, winter was a dead season for the Kotelnica Mountain, quiet under a quilt of snow.
Today Kotelnica vibrates with activity from countless ski fans who flock to the new resort, one of Poland’s most trendy.
The amazing transformation happened in a decade and reflects the inventiveness and spirit of enterprise seen in Poland since a market economy arrived with democracy in 1990.
This 17th-century village at the foot of the Tatra mountains in southern Poland was making a modest living on farming and sheep breeding, with some additional funds coming from relatives who had gone – in a long-standing tradition – to the United States for work.
Then, in 2000, some 50 farmers put their heads together and started up a joint venture to develop a ski resort, similar to the ones that some of them had seen in Austria or Switzerland, when Poles were finally allowed to freely travel abroad in the 1990s.
“They thought that we should also do something like that, with equal success,” said Wladyslaw Piszczek, who is both mayor of the village and president of the ski resort venture.
Each member contributed a sum of money, while they also took a 2 million zloty (now $650,000; (EURO)480,000) bank loan and bought an Italian ski lift from another community in Poland that never had it installed.
Ten years on, Bialka Tatrzanska, about an hour and a half drive from the Renaissance city of Krakow, is among Poland’s leading centers for skiers of all ages and levels, a favorite family winter sports venue, though less demanding and more modest compared to many Western European resorts.
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 some 80 instructors who stay busy in their black-and-orange jackets from morning until well after dark. It has six large and nine small ski lifts that take some 15,000 skiers per hour to the top of the Kotelnica and Bania mountain slopes. The longest route is 1.4 kilometers (0.9 mile).
A thermal spa – built with a loan of some 80 million zlotys ($26 million; (EURO)19 million) – opened this season and a second hotel is under construction. All of them have created hundreds of jobs.
At the foot of the Kotelnica peak, the village of less than 2,000 residents now thrives on visitors who mostly lodge in private houses, eat at the inns and shop in newly-built supermarkets. Some 10,000 tourists can be accommodated at a time.
“Now all of Bialka and the entire county live off” the ski resort, said Piszczek.
Bialka’s reputation has spread across Poland’s borders, with Russian, Ukrainian, German and even English heard on the slopes, although not much foreign publicity has been done.
Vasyl Grib and his friends drove 1,000 kilometers (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 and get 10 of the Kotelnica land owners living there to sign lease agreements. Some of the other elderly owners did not trust the new business and it took some coaxing and persuading from their grandchildren to get them to lease their land for building the lifts, Piszczek said.
Doubts thawed 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.
The venture’s own capital wasn’t sufficient, so the managers started taking bank loans, cautiously at first, but recently drawing some 30 million zlotys ($9.7 million, (EURO)7 million).
This season, a heated and canopied chairlift and two new routes were added. The plan is to soon connect the slopes of Bialka with those of Bukowina Tatrzanska, some 5 kilometers (3 miles) away, through routes and lifts.
This year’s cold and snowy winter, which made countries in southern Europe grind to a halt, turned Bialka into a skier’s dream destination.
In January and February, which is high season, prices are around 770 zlotys (S250; (EURO)180) for a 14-day pass for adults. By contrast, a 14-day pass in Austria’s Salzburg region runs higher at around (EURO)360 ($475), although that buys access to hundreds of kilometers (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.”