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Podhale Highlanders

Podhale Highlanders

Podhale Highlanders (also referred to as ‘Podhalanie’) – the best-known group of the Polish Carpathian Highlanders (it is with them that the whole, highly diversified region of the Polish Carpathians is often identified), inhabit the majority of the extensive Orava-Nowy Targ Valley. In the west, the Podhale ethnographic border runs along the Czarny Dunajec river valley, encompassing the villages situated on both sides of the river; in the east, the border is delineated by the Białka river (its left bank, with the exception of the Spiš village of Nowa Biała), in the north – the Gorce range and Mount Żeleźnica, and in the south – the Tatras. There are two subregions within the Podhale region: the so-called Rocky Podhale (Tatra Highlanders) in the south, at the very foot of the Tatras; and in the north – the Nowy Targ Valley, also referred to as the Lowland Podhale (Nowy Targ Highlanders). The border villages of the Rocky Podhale are as follows (from west to east): Chochołów, Ratułów, Skrzypne, Leśnica, Białka Tatrzańska and Bukowina Tatrzańska.

The contemporary range of the Podhale Highlanders is sometimes extended in the east to include the villages located on the left bank of Dunajec, such as Maniowy, Kluszkowce, Czorsztyn and Krośnica, and in the northwest – the environs of Rabka-Zdrój, Raba Wyżna, Sieniawa and Spytkowice. Other publications treat the above-mentioned regions as areas characterized by a transitional culture, with strong Podhale influence. The ethnoHOMESTEAD approach is in keeping with the latter version.

The name ‘Podhale’ is relatively young; as a geographical term it appeared in scientific publications at the beginning of the 19th century, and in a broader sense covering also the ethnographic group – only in the second half of that century. The term is not an ethnonym.

In the west, the Podhale Highalnders border on the Orava Highlanders; in the south, across the Tatra ridge – on the Slovak region of Liptov; in the east, along Białka – on the Spiš Highlanders (including the village of Nowa Biała). In the north, across the Gorce range – on the Zagórze Highlanders; and in the northeast – on the Ochotnica Highlanders.


In the First Polish Republic, a substantial area of Podhale constituted a royal land administered by the Nowy Targ Starosty. The villages of Ludźmierz, Rogoźnik and Krauszów belonged to the Cistercian monastery, while the villages of Łopuszna, Harklowa, Knurów, Dębno and Szlembark, located to the east of the Starosty, were private property. The Cistercians, who established themselves in Ludźmierz in 1238 (relocating their seat to Szczyrzyc several years later), engaged in intensive settlement activities which resulted in the foundation of the oldest settements in Podhale, e.g. Nowy Targ, Długopole, Ludźmierz and Krauszów, and arguably Waksmund and Szaflary.

In the Nowy Targ royal land, the lieges were in a better position than in knight’s lands or even royal lands administered by other starosties. Manor farms were relatively soon closed down here, the quit rent economy was embraced, and the subjects were offered a possibility of buying out the labour due. There were also other entitlements: hunting rights, grazing rights to be exercised in mountain pastures and clearings, forest usage rights (with some restrictions imposed on timber extraction), fishing rights, etc. An important privilege of the Podhale inhabitants, as royal subjects, was the right to lodge plaints at royal courts (which they actually sometimes exercised, asserting the freedoms granted by the privileges).

Before the First Partition of Poland, in 1769, Podhale (together with other Polish lands) was occupied by Austria, incorporated into the Kammergut royal demesne (1773), and later on sold to private owners.

The second half and end of the 19th century was particularly relevant for the history of Podhale, and especially the Rocky Podhale. It was then that, as a result of both the wave of increased scientific interest in the Tatras, and the development of tourism (mountain hiking to be soon followed by skiing as well), crowds of visitors began flowing from, inter alia, Cracow, Warsaw and Lviv. At first, they would mainly stay in the district of Kuźnice, property of the Zamoyski family, and later on also in the closest, little, sub-Tatra settlement of Zakopane. The place became popular also thanks to recommendations made by doctors (not least among these Tytus Chałubiński) who praised the health benefits of the Tatra “air.” Thus began the fascination of intellectuals, artists and “high society” for the Rocky Podhale and its inhabitants. It was instrumental in the remarkable rise of the Podhale culture, in time turning Zakopane into “Poland’s winter capital.”


Economywise, Podhale used to be one of the poorest regions in Poland. In the Nowy Targ Valley, there was a predominance of arable farms, where apart from oats and potatoes grown was rye, barley, and here and there small quantities of wheat and flax, which however was not enough to provide livelihood for the local families. Extra money was made by pursuit of woodworking crafts, especially carpentry, but also weaving, cloth-making, shirt clasp-making (Ratułów), cart driving, and ultimately – as of the first half of the 19th century – mass migration “in search of bread” (chiefly to Congress Poland and Hungary, and later to more distant places). The inefficient agriculture in the Rocky Podhale was limited to growing oats and potatoes (since the 19th century); bread crops did not thrive here. The main source of income for the local population was animal grazing and husbandry, and above all sheep mountain pasturing combined with cheese making at shepherd chalets. In Podhale, grazing rights were hereditary and bound to the farmer’s homestead. Mountain pastures were usually a communal property; likewise, seasonally used shepherd’s buildings, e.g. shepherd chalets and huts were shepherds’ joint property. Professional sheep farming was a prestigious and respectable occupation (as well as hereditary in famous shepherd families), which greatly influenced almost all spheres of the traditional Podhale lifestyle, ranging from clothing to food, folklore and arts. In mountain pastures also cows were grazed, but in an individual manner – “every farmstead looking after its own animals”; cows were herded and tended by girls – the so-called krowiarki (cowgirls).

It is noteworthy that in the Tatras mining and metallurgy were pursued over many centuries (from the 15th century until almost the end of the 19th century). For instance, under the reign of the Jagiellonian Dynasty, the Kościeliska and Chochołowska Valleys were the industrial centres of metal ore extraction and smelting (mainly iron and copper). The ironworks in Kuźnice (belonging to the Zamoyski family’s demesne) was in operation until the 1880s. For centuries, the Tatras were the stamping ground for prospectors looking for precious metals; the prospecting was motivated by numerous legends about plentiful “mountain treasures.” This subject was also connected with age-old traditions of Tatra brigandage, perpetuated in the folklore of the Rocky Podhale.

The traditional Podhale architecture was predominantly wooden. Residential buildings were based on framework constructions made chiefly of spruce beams of considerable size, cut into half-logs (płazy); outbuildings were constructed from thinner okrąglaki (logs); the gaps between the beams were filled with moss, and later with wełnianka ­– thin shavings. Roofs, of a rafter construction, were gablet or gable ones with gable eaves; in the Lowland Podhale they were sometimes covered with straw, and in the Rocky Podhale – always with shingle and dranice (timber torn into planks along fibre). Walls were made of raw wood; once a year, housewives would scrub them with ley (which is practised till today in Chochołów). Farmsteads usually constituted dense, multi-building development; farm sheds were perpendicular to the cottage and located to the west to protect it against the wind. Occasionally, there were farmsteads arranged in a quandrangle, the so-called okolicne obory, or okoły enclosed with a sturdy fence and a gate. A Podhale-style house was typically broad-fronted, with a centrally located entrance hall and two rooms: a “black” one (with a chimneyless stove for a long time) and a “white” one at either side. Rich farmsteaders had a larder behind the white one, and sometimes also a wyżka – an additional framework-construction attic room. Poorer cottage houses were composed of one room and an entrance hall. In the eastern part of the Nowy Targ Valley, one could also find a Spiš-Silesia type of house, where a connecting entrance hall was at the gable wall, providing access to both the rooms (the black and the white one) and the larder, all arranged in enfilade. The distinctive features of the Podhale-style architecture included perfect building proportions, technical perfection and a tendency to embellish details: rooftops, vaulted door frames, doors (e.g. covering decorative clapboards), sosręby in chambers (crossbeams ornamented with lavish carvings), etc. The crowning artistic achievements of Podhale carpenters are wooden churches, both the ancient ones (e.g. in Dębno, Łopuszna, Harklowa) and the ones erected several dozen years ago, in the communist era of the Polish People’s Republic, sometimes without permission from the then authorities (in Brzegi – 19950, in Murzasichle – 1955). The works of the ancient constructors became inspiration for the so-called Zakopane architectural style, which was originated and propagated by Stanisław Witkiewicz.

Next to the Cracow and Łowicz costumes, the costume of the Podhale Highlanders (the best-known type of costume in the Polish Carpathians) is regarded as the Polish national dress. Having evolved from the tradition of the authentic peasant outfit, it is a living phenomenon that keeps developing. It is a far cry from the 19th-century original derived from the same Wallachian-Balkan-Małopolska stem as other types of costume worn by Carpathian highlanders.

In men’s ancient outfit, linen shirts were short, with loose sleeves, fastened in the bosom with a brass or pakfong (originally cast) clasp, which is considered one of the most archaic elements of the Podhale costume. Young shepherds also used to wear brass necklaces and glass beads (brembolce, gąbice), which served as amulets. According to tradition, shepherds “impregnated” shirts with sheep’s butter. Homespun cloth trousers of a Hungarian cut, were narrow and long, reaching below the ankle; the upper part had two flies, originally trimmed with white and brownish grey wool only. Later on, there appeared string-woven, multi-loop ornaments and modest chain stitch embroidery, which in time developed into large, mutlicoloured parzenica patterns. Along the legs and the back seam, a narrow strip of red cloth ran. The trousers were supported with a long, narrow belt (loosened around the hips), which was at the end decorated with brass buttons. Also, broad, Liptov-style leather belts were worn (mainly while travelling); they were button-studded and fastened with several oblong buckles. It was common for the Tatra highlanders to wear short, sleeveless waistcoats of undyed sheepskin, finished with black edging (oprymy). They were embroidered with coloured wool, and later on lavish saffian appliqués and more ornamental embroidery were added. In popular use was also a dark, cloth cucha jacket (gunia), at the hips flared with gussets; on holidays a longer version was worn; it was decorated with a pąsek – trimming made of red cloth strips. White cucha jackets were a rarity; they were worn on a daily basis, viewed as mediocre ones, they were modestly trimmed with brown and white string. In the 20th century they were all the rage as an ornamental, festive outer garment, richly trimmed with multi-coloured embroidery featuring roses, carline thistles, peacock tail eyes, etc. As for headgear, black, felt, narrow-brimmed kłobuk hats were worn; they were decorated with pakfong chain, a leather belt with metal studs, red tape, or a strap with little seashells or little, sanded animal bones. Young shepherds and farmhands would stick bird (eagle, falcon, black grouse) feathers, yew sticks or arolla pine bunches in their kłobuk hats. In winter, wealthier farmstead owners used to wear long, white long-sleeved sheepskin coats, trimmed with long-hair skin, sometimes decorated with red-sapphire geometrical embroidery; they were made by furriers from the village of Białka Tatrzańska. Also, red, lavishly ornamented sheepskin coats were imported from Liptov. In winter, it was common to wear fur barankula caps of black lambskin and thick mittens, manually woven of wool on a simple, small board pattern. Cowhide kierpce shoes were the commonly used footwear; they were laced up around the leg with straps. Rich farmsteaders used to carry leather bags with a lid, a strap and a brass buckle, and decorated with ornamental embossment. They were bought on the Hungarian side of the border. In common use were also large, rectangular shepherd’s bags with tasselled lids, woven out of sheep’s wool in brown-white strips.

At poorer homesteads, women’s more ancient festive dress (in the 19th century) was made of homespun cloth, while at wealthy homesteads (e.g. ones belonging to village leaders) also of muslin, silk and cloth. A linen blouse, strongly tucked, with long sleeves and a nodołek added at the waist (to function as underwear) used to be complemented by nearly ankle-length, wide and richly gathered skirt of homespun linen or percale, in time dyed navy or imprinted with a dainty pattern (at the fabric imprinting shop in Chochołów); a silk, muslin or linen zopaska (an apron); a close-fitting, brocade or cloth bodice, or a white sheepskin waistcoat. In winter, dark-coloured guńka jackets of homespun cloth were worn, with a white, linen shoulder shawl (płachta) flung on top, and for major festive occasions – a thin, linen rańtuch (an ample shawl) of rąbek fabric (fine linen). In time, they were supplanted by a variety of factory-made shoulder shawls (odziewacki). Kierpce served as footwear. Married women used to cover their heads with linen związki in the form of a long, linen towel wrapped around the head and tied at the nape. Unmarried women had their heads bare and wore their hair in plaits. Affluent women from village-leading families used to wear cloth coats called sukienki; they were close-fitting, had sleeves, were lined and trimmed with fur and braid. Fine coral beads were the most precious ornament of women’s outfit.

As from the 20th century, the Podhale women’s dress, like the men’s dress, underwent quick development, especially in regard to ornamentation. Ever greater popularity was gained by shirts more and more decorated with whitework embroidery, flowery skirts of wool fabric, woollen cropped jackets trimmed with black, artificial lambskin, as well as velvet bodices richly embroidered in thread or with beads and sequins. Favourite motifs included carline thistles, edelweisses and Turk’s cap lilies, which in time made their way into ornamentation of many other highland groups distant from Podhale, together with other elements of the “authentic” Highland costume.

Maria Brylak-Załuska



Antoni Kroh, Tatry i Podhale [The Tatras & Podhale], Wrocław 2002; Maria Misińska, Podhale dawne i współczesne [Ancient and Contemporary Podhale], Prace i Materiały Muzeum Archeologicznego i Etnograficznego w Łodzi [Works and Materials of the Archeology and Ethnography Museum in Łódź], an ethnography series, no. 15, Łódź 1971; Stanisława Trebunia-Staszel, Śladami podhalańskiej mody. Studium z zakresu historii stroju Górali Podhalańskich [Tracing the Podhale Fashion. A Historical Study of the Podhale Highlanders’ Dress], Kościelisko 2007