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The Warsaw Voice » Special Sections » August 1, 2013
Rural Tourism
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Warmia-Mazuria: The Land of a Thousand Lakes
August 1, 2013   
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Warmia-Mazuria province is among Poland’s foremost tourist destinations with lavish nature and a vast number of lakes that encourage active recreation.

Located in the northeastern part of Poland, Warmia-Mazuria was once part of the historical region of East Prussia, which was controlled by Germany until 1945. Following Nazi Germany’s defeat in World War II, East Prussia was divided between the Soviet Union and Poland.

Today the area is poetically nicknamed the Land of a Thousand Lakes, though in reality the Mazurian Lake District is home to almost 2,000 lakes.

In 2009, the Mazurian Lake District made it to the finals of a global online poll that aimed to pick out the “new seven wonders of nature. The poll was held by the Swiss-based New7Wonders Foundation and the Mazurian Lake District came in 14th in the vote among 28 finalists.

The region’s largest lakes are Śniardwy and Mamry, which are 113.8 and 104.4 square kilometers in size respectively. Lake Wukśniki is the deepest lake at 68 meters and Lake Jeziorak is the region’s longest at 27.5 kilometers.

Many lakes in Warmia-Mazuria are linked by canals and rivers that form an extensive network of waterways. The most famous of those is the 19th-century Elbląg Canal, remarkable for its elaborate system of locks. Built as a connection between Lakes Drwęckie and Drużno, the canal was initially used to float timber. Since the water level difference is close to 100 meters, inclined planes with tracks had to be built to carry vessels over land. The only such system in Europe, it makes the Elbląg Canal a major tourist attraction with tens of thousands of tourists taking boat excursions along the canal every summer.

The countless lakes are a major draw for sailors and wind surfers with a yachting center in the town of Mikołajki between Lakes Tałty and Mikołajskie. Canoers, in turn, flock to the Krutynia River, which is considered the most picturesque canoeing route in Europe. Cutting across the Mazuria Scenic Park and the Pisz Forest, the river flows through a number lakes stretching along a total of 100 kilometers. The distance takes seasoned canoers several days to cover, but tourists can start and end their expeditions at different locations on the way.

In a testimony to the region’s natural wealth, more than 6 percent of the province’s area is protected under the European Union’s Natura 2000 program, which is designed to conserve natural habitats and protect endangered and particularly valuable species. Warmia-Mazuria is home to over 43 bird habitats and 17 other areas subject to protection under the Natura 2000 program, including those in the Nietlickie Marshes, Pasłęka River Valley and Lakes Dobskie, Drużno, Łuknajno and Oświn.

The largest woodlands, such as the impressive, dense Pisz Forest, are located in the central and southern parts of the province. Most of today’s Pisz Forest is covered by coniferous trees with a prevalence of pine and spruce groves.

Mazuria is also home to an endemic, fast-growing pine variety that can reach up to 40 meters in height and stands out with its slender tree crowns. The region’s vast forests, such as the Napiwoda-Nowe Ramuki Forest, shelter many endangered bird species and the Borecka and Romnicka Forests in the eastern part of Mazuria are fine examples of primeval wilderness.

The local forests teem with deer, moose, wild boars and lynxes, and the rare European bison can be sighted in the Borecka Forest. The most picturesque areas are protected as scenic parks. These include the Mazurian Scenic Park, the Iława Lake District and the Dylewo Hills. There are also several nature reserves, including the well-known Lake Łukajno bird reserve near the town of Mikołajki where mute swans, Eurasian coots, grebes and corn crakes live alongside other rare bird species. There are also several reserves established as refuges for cormorants.

Warmia-Mazuria abounds in historic architecture that further enhances its tourist appeal. The region’s complicated political and ethnic heritage makes it a mecca for history buffs. The Order of the Teutonic Knights, who arrived on the wave of the medieval crusades, made an indelible mark. The knights conquered the region and ruled it for the next few hundred years. The combined forces of Poland and Lithuania waged an unrelenting campaign against the knights at the start of the 15th century, finally emerging victorious at the 1410 Battle of Grunwald. The battlefield is now a major tourist attraction, with historical reenactments staged every year to mark the battle’s anniversary.

Other must-see sites in Warmia-Mazuria include a wealth of Gothic churches from the Middle Ages, among them the Warmia Bishops’ Castle in Lidzbark Warmiński, the Warmia Chapter Castle in Olsztyn, and the Collegiate Church in Dobre Miasto. One of the most remarkable historic sites is the cathedral complex in Frombork that includes a museum dedicated to the great Polish medieval astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, who formulated a heliocentric model of the solar system which placed the Sun, rather than the Earth, at the center. In addition to medieval architecture, the province boasts Baroque palaces in Kadyny and Morąg.

More recent history is reflected by the Wolf’s Lair bunker complex in Gierłoż near Kętrzyn. Once used as Hitler’s field headquarters, the site is where a failed attempt to assassinate the Führer took place in 1944. The events were depicted in the 2008 historical thriller Valkyrie starring Tom Cruise.

Popular heritage sites also include the Folk Architecture Museum and Ethnographic Park in Olsztynek with cottages, farm buildings and entire homesteads from the historical East Prussia region. In the Wojnów village on the Krutynia River, visitors can see a church and monastery of the Old Believers, a religious movement that separated from the Russian Orthodox Church in the 17th century.

Greatest hits of rural tourism
Warmia-Mazuria has a distinct tourist appeal based on its pristine environment and unpolluted nature. Rural tourism is just one of many forms of tourism that focus on culture and recreation in the region, according to A Study of the Potential of Rural Tourism Products in Poland and Their Competitiveness on the Regional, National and International Markets for Tourist Services, a document compiled by the Polish Tourism Development Agency and commissioned by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development. This opinion accords with the Strategy for the Development of Tourism in Warmia-Mazuria Province Until 2015 as well as plans to promote Warmia-Mazuria as a brand. Even though rural tourism in the province is secondary to recreational tourism, its role is expected to increase every year, in part owing to the growing popularity of eco-tourism and organic agriculture, both of which thrive in Warmia-Mazuria.

Tourism services in rural parts of Warmia-Mazuria province are provided by some 2,500-3,000 people, 35-40 percent of whom are farmers. They are aided by the Regional Tourist Organization and a number of local tourist organizations active in areas around the towns of Szczytno, Nidzica, Mikołajki, Olecko, Ostróda, Iława, Mrągowo. Several local organizations specialize in rural tourism and they include the Mazuria Eco-Development Association of Rural Tourism Farms and the Warmia-Mazuria Agritourism Association.

Warmia-Mazuria province is home to a number of rural tourism farms with original products and activities for guests. The best of these have been put on the “Greatest Hits of Rural Tourism” list compiled by the Polish Tourism Development Agency.

One of them is the Pottery Village farm at Kamionka near Nidzica, where visitors can buy locally produced clay pots, handmade paper and folk dolls. Local artists make their wares according to traditional methods and represent various dying crafts. The Pottery Village comprises several handicraft shops and an education center where training sessions, conferences and study visits are held. Other local attractions include live demonstrations of traditional wedding customs Mazuria-style. Visitors can also take a tour of a 200-year-old barn and a Regional House with traditional furnishings and decor, a smithy with genuine blacksmithing tools.

One rural farm called Three Spruces, in the village of Galwiecie near the town of Gołdap, offers a varied mix of activities for fans of nature, quiet surroundings, astronomy, birds, geology, photography and active recreation. The central building is a traditional Mazuria house built in 1896. Perched on a hill, the house overlooks the picturesque Lake Ostrówek and the Romnicka Forest. Modernized and converted into a tourist facility in 2000, the house has guestrooms furnished with stylish wooden beds, hand-woven bedspreads and folk costumes from different corners of the world. Visitors to Three Spruces will also find an extensive collection of books, maps and guidebooks to the region in both Polish and German. The lady of the house treats her guests to regional cuisine with organic ingredients.

Regional cuisine
The cuisine of Warmia-Mazuria is a hybrid of Polish and German influences, reflecting the region’s history as part of the German-controlled East Prussia region. Typical German ingredients and foods include sauerkraut, sausage, meat dishes and dumplings, while Polish culinary traditions are represented by homemade sour cream, herbs, a wide variety of cold meats and traditional Polish soups, including tripe and different kinds of borscht. A well-known local specialty is smoked fatback with sweet peppers, sour cream and fresh butter seasoned with marjoram, caraway and cardamom. Mazuria is also famous for its fresh smoked fish, especially eel and the brown trout. Gourmets appreciate the region’s traditional soup made from fish and crayfish with herbs and birch bark.

A local specialty called klopsiki królewieckie (Meatballs of Königsberg) is made from veal with some pork and beef thrown in for good measure. The meatballs used to be served with a white sauce of capers and sour cream. Other German contributions to the cuisine of Warmia-Mazuria include the “farmer breakfast” made of omelet and fried potatoes generously sprinkled with green onions. The German culinary heritage also survives in different kinds of dumplings and roast beef with juniper-flavored gravy.

Warmia-Mazuria province has several delicacies that are unique to the region and one of them is ser welski (cheese of Wel). Its history dates back to 1906 when a small dairy opened on the Wel River to process milk from large herds of cattle grazing on lush meadows nearby. Cheese made at the tiny dairy was found to have a highly distinctive flavor. The cheese continues to be produced to this day using traditional methods but with contemporary hygiene standards.

Those who inhabited the region years ago were famously partial to alcoholic drinks, most notably unpurified, strong vodka known as okowita. East Prussians were also keen on countless kinds of tinctures, liqueurs and flavored vodkas. The most famous of those was the honey-based Bärenfang, or bear vodka. Legend has it the vodka was used to stun bears and catch them alive, which supposedly explains why there are no bears in Warmia-Mazuria at present. The last bear was killed here in 1804, but that, of course, never prevented the locals from continuing to make the bear vodka. By the end of the 19th century, Bärenfang became the national drink of East Prussia and recipes on how to turn honey into alcohol were passed from one generation to the next.
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