A Gorale Wedding
South of Krakow we finally leave behind the wide, flat plains typical of most of Poland. As the road begins to twist and turn towards the Slovakian border it also starts to rise and fall and after clearing a 2,500-foot pass we find ourselves in Nowy Targ, the last big town we shall see. Lenin was imprisoned here in 1914, in the last days of the Austro-Hungarian empire. This is the start of the region they call Podhale, and all its signs promise a natural wonderland: skiing, walking, canoeing, climbing, a huge national park.
Everything begins to look different. The roofs of the houses grow wider and steeper, wood replaces brick, and the word Tatras keeps cropping up on signs, houses, hotels and villages.
The Tatras or Tatra Mountains are part of the Carpathian chain. They’re a small range whose highest peaks are across the border in Slovakia, but the Poles make the most of them.
There’s little accommodation to be had and the best we can find in the long, thin, strung-out village of Bialka Tatrzanska are modest lodgings at the Pensione Stokrothka (which I’m told, though I’m not sure I believe it, means ‘Pensione Daisy’). The people who have lived here the longest, the Gorale, have a culture very different from anything else in the country, conditioned by life in the highlands and unchanged for centuries.
The Polish fascination with Gorale culture seems to grow largely from a love of continuity in a country that has been conditioned by impermanence.
We’re here at the invitation of a young couple, Beata Goryl and Mariusz Budz, both local ski instructors, who are to be married in true Gorale style, with a reception at the local fire station (in the absence of village halls they are often the only places that have enough room).
We meet up with Beata at the house of her father, a vet, where she is visited by two men on horseback called pytaci, guardians of the ceremonial tradition and ringmasters for the day’s events. They are also obliged to keep up a steady stream of observations, verses and general ribaldry in high falsetto voices.
Beata, who is small and lovely in a white dress, patiently bears a cap with a metre-long tail made of plaited pine branches that hangs way down her back, and which she cannot remove until every obstacle to her marrying Mariusz has been removed.
The pytaci are despatched to fetch the bridegroom from his house. He’s expected to put up a token show of resistance, but within the hour they’re back, not just with him but with a covered wagon with a band in it and ten horse-drawn coaches.
If Beata looks long-suffering, Mariusz, in thick woollen trousers, wide leather belt, grey, ermine-trimmed waistcoat and round-brimmed black hat with a white feather in it, looks plain terrified. I’m not surprised. Two fiddlers and a cellist are stood by the fence singing, the pytaci are improvising their witty quips and he has to go upstairs to the bedroom for the public removal of his shirt by the bride, and its replacement by a new one. Like much of the ceremony, this little ritual seems to be about renouncing old links and endorsing others.
After all this is completed, a horse-drawn carriage takes the happy couple down the road to the church for the wedding ceremony. This is a comparatively simple matter, though with ten bridesmaids and ten pages the photocall seems to take longer than the service. By mid-afternoon the guests are filing back to the upstairs room of the big, three-bayed, pointy-gabled fire station to eat and drink.
By eight o’clock the vodka, specially distilled for the wedding and bearing the names of the happy couple on its label, is beginning to take its toll, as the final moves of the day’s ceremony are played out and the pytaci try one last time to keep the bride and groom apart.
Unfortunately they’re now a little over-relaxed and losing the plot somewhat.
I feel enormous relief when Beata, deemed to have passed all the tests, is given a bonnet to replace her cap and can at last become Mrs Budz without further interference. The bridesmaids and the pages trade blurrily sung insults with each other, arms linked and weaving about like a rugby scrum on ice. I discover a potently pungent combination of vodka and oscypek, the smoked goat’s cheese made in heaven, which I first tasted at the Podhale restaurant in Warsaw. The band, two violinists and a three-string cello, then takes over and fast and fierce and slow and decorous numbers tumble over each other in quick succession, and often at the same time. Outside the cold night air begins to tighten its grip and by midnight we’re all tucked up in bed at the Daisy, completely and pathetically unable to keep up.