Poland has a number of beautiful cemeteries, but none more so than the Zakopane Cemetery. Known as Pęksowy Brzyzek or “the Old Cemetery” (depending on your Polish pronunciation), it’s absolutely beautiful. Home to numerous notable painters, skiers and heroes, it’s an unmissable point of interest in Zakopane.
I absolutely love cemeteries — a fact that will come as no surprise to you if you’ve read other posts on my blog! I think cemeteries are beautiful places of reflection, and I love nothing more than a quiet walk through one. Cemeteries preserve not only individual histories, but also give a window into culture and customs.
The opportunity to visit beautiful cemeteries was not necessarily one of the top reasons that I visited Poland, but it was one of the main reasons I loved it so much. It appears to me that Polish culture puts great significance on cemeteries, and caring for the departed. Cemeteries from large ones like this Zakopane cemetery and those in Krakow are so clearly cared for, but so too are the tiny ones in little villages.
Of the several cemeteries I visited in Poland, the Old Cemetery in Zakopane was my favourite. It is so unique, with ornate tombs and headstones, and famous internees. Although it may be small, it is perfectly formed — and I highly recommend a visit while you are in Zakopane.
History of the Old Zakopane Cemetery
The name “Zakopane” roughly translates to “buried”, so it is fitting that one of the main attractions of the town is the beautiful old cemetery.
As you enter the cemetery, the first thing you are likely to notice is an old wooden church. This is the Church of Our Lady of Częstochowa, the oldest wooden church in Zakopane. It dates to 1847.
In 1851, the cemetery was established just a short distance from the church. The land was donated by resident Jan Pęksy — hence the name.
Over the years, the cemetery became the burial ground du jour for famous people from the Podhale region around Zakopane. As Zakopane and the Tatry Mountains are so beautiful (they even got me hiking!), many painters and writers had a connection to the area. Thus, many creatives are buried in the Zakopane cemetery.
Zakopane is also famous for its skiing — the dazzling ski-jump is one of the city’s main attractions. Therefore many of the other famous people buried at the old cemetery in Zakopane are famous skiers.
About 250 of the 500 graves are “meritorious people”. Still others are everyday people who lived their lives in Zakopane and the surrounds.
It is not clear why the cemetery became so unique in terms of the carved and ornate headstones. One theory is that because so many of the people buried there were artists (including sculptors), this influenced the beautiful style of the headstones.
Whatever the reason, the end result is a beautiful old cemetery that is a definite “must visit” in Zakopane.
Visiting the Old Cemetery in Zakopane
Visiting the Zakopane Cemetery is easy. It’s close to the centre, and relatively small. You probably only need an hour or so to visit it. You might like to bring some flowers or a momento for the grave; it is not uncommon to lay these kinds of items on stranger’s graves in Poland.
How to find the Zakopane cemetery
The Old Cemetery in Zakopane is really easy to find. Simply head to the main street, Krupowki. At the end of the street, take the underground subway to cross the road. You should see a bustling market ahead of you.
Instead of heading straight towards the market, turn left. About 100 metres down the road, you should see the entrance to the church. You may also see the small chapel next to it. You will know you’ve reached the cemetery!
Head through the gates. You can enter the old wooden church for free. Then, follow the path to the entrance of the cemetery. There will probably be a security guard sitting there, and a crowd. It’s hard to miss!
Opening hours for the cemetery in Zakopane
The cemetery is open roughly from “dawn to dusk” however the owner of our hotel advised visiting between 9am and 5pm because the gates might be closed earlier.
Once you enter the cemetery you are welcome to stay for as long as you like, until closing time.
Entrance fee for the Zakopane cemetery
The entrance fee for the cemetery is 3 zł for an adult. You pay it in cash (there is no card) to the security guard on the entrance.
I understand that this fee has been in place since 2014, and has caused some controversy. While I understand the local perspective regarding having to pay to enter a cemetery, I also felt that it was only fair to make a small contribution as a tourist.
The cemetery is very well maintained and appears to be quite a tourist magnet, so I felt it was a very fair price.
What to expect
The cemetery is very unique, perhaps somewhat akin to the famous “Merry Cemetery” in Romania (which I sadly missed while I was there). It is not as colourful, however there is more variety in the graves.
I’m used to seeing Australian graves where there are row after row of fairly uniform headstones. By contrast, Pęksowy Brzyzek’s tombs are all different. Some are made from stone, many are carved from wood, and others are large rocks.
Most of the graves are adorned with flowers and lanterns. Although the inscriptions are in Polish, you can still get a bit of an idea about the people who are buried there through photographs and the inscriptions.
It was a little bit busy while we were there, with a large group of school children visiting. However, it still had a peaceful serenity about it. It is definitely one of my favourite cemeteries I’ve visited.
As mentioned, over 200 of the people buried in the Pęksowy Brzyzek cemetery in Zakopane are famous people. You will see many graves adorned with ribbons representing the Polish flag, as well as flowers and other decorations.
There are many authors, poets, architects, historians, Olympians, politicians, war heroes and more buried in the cemetery. Here are five of the most notable graves that you should try to find when you visit!
Perhaps the most famous person buried in the Old Cemetery in Zakopane is Helena Marusarzówna. Helena remains a national hero in Poland to this day, and her story makes it clear why.
Helena was born in Zakopane in 1918. Unsurprisingly, she grew up on the slopes and became an excellent skier at a very young age. By the early 1930s, she was the best female skier in Poland, and one of the best in the world. She won a total of seven national titles in Poland.
During World War II, Helena was part of the Polish resistance that fought against the Nazis. She bravely carried messages, helping to fight against the occupation. In 1940, she was captured by the Germans.
Despite being tortured, Helena refused to give up any information about her activities or her associates. Tragically, she was executed shortly thereafter along with three other women who fought against the Nazis. She was just 23 years of age at the time.
Her remains were located in the 1950s and moved to Zakopane, where she was given a big funeral.
Helena has become a hero in Poland, and has been decorated with numerous posthumous medals. She also has a number of streets named after her, in Zakopane and Krakow.
The grave of Kornel Makuzyński is one of the easiest to spot in the Zakopane cemetery. This is thanks to the many stickers and children’s toys that adorn it.
Once you have seen Kornel’s grave, it will come as no surprise to find out that he was a writer of children’s books and literature.
Kornel was born in modern-day Ukraine in 1888. At that time, his birthplace was part of Poland he identified as Polish. He began writing poetry at a young age, eventually moving onto children’s books.
In the 1930s, Kornel wrote his most famous work, about a goat trying to find a fictional town where they make shoes for goats (ohhhkay?). The series of books were a huge hit in Poland, and continue to be widely read today. They are also popular in Israel amongst people of Polish origin.
Kornel died in Zakopane in 1953, but his popularity continues. As well as his well-loved grave in the Old Cemetery in Zakopane, there is also a museum devoted to his life.
I have already mentioned that Zakopane inspired many artists, and in particular sculptors. Perhaps none were more famous than Władysław Hasior. He is widely considered one of the best ever Polish sculptors.
Władysław was born in southern Poland in 1928. At age 20, he began studying to become a painter and studied first in Zakopane before moving to Warsaw.
In the late 1950s, he won a scholarship to study in France and relocated to Paris for several years. He had a deep connection to his homeland, however, and returned in the 1960s. He exhibited many times in Poland, and also taught.
His work was deeply inspired by the Tatry Mountain region and Zakopane. His sculptures are famous throughout the region and wider Poland, but it was fitting that he was buried in Zakopane.
You can’t miss his grave in the Old Cemetery in Zakopane — just look for the huge metal cross. It looks more like a modern art installation than a grave… and I think Władysław would have liked that.
Another famous ‘resident’ of the cemetery is Stanisław Marusarz, who was also a famous skier in the 1920s and 30s. He was, in fact, the brother of Helena Marusarzówna.
Like his sister, Stanisław was a skiing prodigy who excelled in Poland and abroad. At the time, skiing was dominated by people from the Nordic countries and especially Norway. As such, his success was a point of pride for Polish people. Even the Norwegians thought he was good – the best skier… after the Norwegians.
Another similarity between Stanisław and his sister Helena was their membership of the Polish resistance during World War II. He also joined, fighting against the Nazis, and was captured the same year as Helena and was sentenced to death.
Unlike Helena, he was able to escape and after the war returned to Poland. Here, he decided to re-start his career as a skier and achieved many great results, despite the fact that he had lost his best years to the war. Unfortunately, he was never quite able to beat those pesky Norwegians.
Skiing remained a passion for Stanisław all through his life. At age 53, an official asked him to demonstrate a jump off the ski ramp… which he did, flying over 66m through the air – a jump that was just a few metres off his world-record attempt back in the 30s. Pretty cool, hey.
Stanisław died in Zakopane in 1993, and was buried in the Old Cemetery.
As you can see, painting and skiing are particularly popular in Zakopane — and Wanda Gentil-Tippenhauer is famous for them both!
Born in 1899 in Haiti, Wanda would settle back in Poland with her Polish parents. Literature ran in her blood; her mother was the first person to translate Shakespeare into Polish.
Despite this, Wanda was more drawn to the visual arts and decided to study drawing. She did so, originally in Hamburg, Germany, and then in Warsaw. Wanda would go on to have an acclaimed career, teaching and exhibiting art.
She loved teaching so much she continued it in secret even when it was banned during World War II.
For much of her life, Wanda lived in Zakopane. She particularly loved the Tatra Mountains, and gained much inspiration from them. She came to know the trails through the mountains well, and became the first female mountain guide in the Tatras.
Wanda also loved travel, travelling all over Europe and the USA (definitely a woman after my own heart).
She eventually died in Zakopane in 1965 at age 65. It’s hard to miss her beautiful grave; it is one of the biggest and most ornate wooden graves in the cemetery.