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Zakopane at top of tourists' lists

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If you look up, you'll see him...above the town, a craggy mountain peak forms the remarkably accurate outline of a sleeping man. The Sleeping Knight, the legend goes, will awake from his slumber if trouble comes and rise to save Zakopane.

Which is definitely not necessary at the moment.

In this alpine mecca, affluent crowds stroll the busy streets. Tourists pile onto a funicular that goes up to a scenic lookout. In town, families shop for balloons and sweets, leather shoes and salty cheese. They sit in cafes and hike the alpine trails and spend money on everything from spa treatments to folk dinners.

Americans might not have heard of Zakopane (ZAK-o-pan-eh), but the mountain resort town has been a favorite ''Little Switzerland'' piece of Poland forever — or at least since the 1800s — visited by everyone from movie stars to Vladimir Lenin to Sir Edmund Hillary.

The Sleeping Knight, Giewont Summit

Think of it as kind of a Polish Aspen.

Two hours south of Krakow and near the border with Slovakia, Zakopane is known for its great skiing and signature wooden chalets seen nowhere else in the world — plain pine faded to brown, with steep roofs and gingerbread decorations. The feeling here is a bit Slavic and a bit Austrian, mainly because Austria occupied this part of Poland in the 19th century.

Zakopane, which means ''hidden place,'' is treasured by Poles for its folk culture and stunning beauty. It is in the Tatra Mountains, the highest range in the Carpathians.

The European Union is putting millions into this region to improve roads and tourism infrastructure by 2013 (in fact, the two-hour drive between Krakow and Zakopane is a bit longer than usual because the highway is being widened and improved).

There is even talk of putting an airport near Zakopane within five years, which would open it up to more travelers who might never have heard of the place.

If that happens, the Sleeping Knight can keep right on snoozing on his pleasant mountaintop…

Sorry, this is the Detroit Free Press story, and cannot be displayed in full on

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