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The Warsaw Voice » Special Sections » March 3, 2014
Rural Tourism
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Opolskie Province
March 3, 2014   
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With its natural beauty and rich cultural heritage, Opole province in southwestern Poland has strong potential for rural tourism, which could become one of the region’s main selling points.

Part of the large, historical region of Silesia, Opole province is the smallest one in Poland. It is also one of the country’s most attractive areas with scenic mountain ranges, rivers, lakes and woodlands as well as a wealth of historic buildings and a distinctive local culture. Visitors appreciate the province for nature reserves and scenic parks that teem with wildlife, including many protected species of animals, plants and mushrooms. Its natural beauty also includes an extended network of rivers and diversified land formations dotted with glacial rocks.

Much of Opole province is covered by forest protected as four scenic parks, along with numerous nature reserves and landscape protection areas. The largest woodlands in the province include the forests of Niemodlin, Lubliniec, Racibórz and the Stobrawa River. Protected areas account for over 30 percent of Opole province, the most remarkable one being the Stobrawa River Scenic Park, which also spans a section of the Oder River valley. The park is populated by around 170 kinds of birds, including many endangered species, and provides shelter for another 40 protected animal species and almost as many rare plant species. The park’s three nature reserves are located in its western section. One of them, the Le¶na Woda reserve, stands out with natural mixed forests, and the ¦miechowice reserve is famous for its two-centuries-old European larch trees. The third reserve, Lubsza, offers the best access for tourists and boasts huge old beeches.

The Scenic Park of Góra ¦w. Anny (St. Anne’s Hill) is a site of both natural and cultural interest. The local attractions include a picturesque complex comprising a shrine of St. Anne, a Franciscan monastery and other sacral buildings atop a hill of volcanic origin which rises 400 meters above sea level.

Aside from the lush nature and scenic views, Opole province draws visitors with more than 160 historic castles, palaces and manor houses. Adventure seekers like to roam along enchanting tourist trails that take them across the Opawskie Mountains, the Góra ¦w. Anny area and the ancient Silesian Forest. The province has several special tourist trails with themes such as small wooden churches, Cistercian monks and Medieval polychrome wall paintings from the town of Brzeg. Visitors to Opole province can find a wealth of architectural masterpieces in small towns and then check in at guesthouses in the province’s clean and modern villages.

The principal city of Opole is well worth a visit to view a cathedral that dates back to the Piast dynasty, the first rulers of Poland. One of the city’s districts is often referred to as “Opole’s Venice” for a canal called Młynówka that cuts through the area. Opole became a city in the 13th century and over its almost millennium-long history, it has been part of the Habsburg empire, Prussia and Germany as well as Bohemia, albeit briefly.

Sites with remarkable architecture outside Opole include a castle in Moszna, the ruins of an 11th-century palace in Kopice, the castle of the Piasts of Silesia in Brzeg and a late Baroque palace in Kamień ¦l±ski. History aficionados also like to explore a fortress in the town of Kędzierzyn-KoĽle, medieval city walls and picturesque ruins in Strzelce Opolskie, and the town of Nysa whose historic buildings and scenic location have earned it the nickname “Silesia’s Rome.”

The next highly recommended tourist site in Opole province is the village of Krasiejów in Ozimek district. It rose to prominence in the 1990s when archeologists found one of the world’s biggest sites containing well-preserved fossils of Triassic reptiles from 225 million years ago. A theme park called Jurapark has been established on the site and the local attractions include life-size models of prehistoric tetrapods.

Folk traditions and customs
Throughout its history, the area of present-day Opole province has been a melting pot of cultures, populated by Germans, Czechs and Poles, including those who were relocated from eastern Poland after World War II. This legacy of this ethnic and cultural mix is a range of unique customs along with a distinctive dialect, folk outfits and cuisine. Many traditional dishes from Opole Silesia, as the region is also called, are easily available locally and visitors can join in folk festivals, learn about dying crafts and visit outdoor museums to see what living in a Silesian village was like several centuries ago.

Surviving folk traditions include “walking the bear,” a festival that is usually held on the last Saturday before Lent. During the event, people in villages dress up as chimney sweepers, forest rangers, Gypsy women, devils, priests, medics, policemen and newlyweds, forming a colorful procession accompanied by a marching band. One of the party members puts on a bear skin and becomes “the bear” that, led by the others on a string, symbolizes all the misery people have to endure. In a similar fashion to trick-or-treating, the procession goes door to door, requesting farmers to “bail” themselves out of misfortune with money, alcohol and candy. To mark the end of festivities leading up to Lent, people in Opole province also cultivate a folk custom known as “burying the bass.” Dressed up as a funeral procession, they get together for a mock funeral ceremony for musical instruments. In December, housewives from villages in Opole province gather indoors to pluck goose feathers and sing together. In late summer, annual harvest festivals are held across the province. Villagers make harvest crowns and on the celebration day, they take them to churches adorned with symbols of good harvest for thanksgiving services. As is tradition, the processions are led by county administrators with spouses. During harvest festivals, it is also customary for families to put up scenes of rural life in front of their houses.

While modern life made its way to rural Opole province a long time ago, local villages are still home to blacksmiths, wicker weavers, potters and other craftsmen who practice dying professions. Their products are highly popular with tourists.

Local rural attractions
Opole province is one of Poland’s least recognizable regions as far as tourism is concerned, according to a report compiled by the Polish Tourism Development Agency and entitled A Study of the Potential of Rural Tourism Products in Poland and Their Competitiveness on the Regional, National and International Markets for Tourist Services. That said, it is by no means unattractive. Despite being comparatively small, the province offers a wealth of historic buildings and other attractions that could make it a popular tourist destination. The province is home to more than 20,000 architectural gems and almost 9,000 historic objects which, combined with the rich natural beauty of 35 nature reserves, offers great potential to develop a strong rural tourism sector, as confirmed by experts from the Polish Tourism Development Agency. The potential is further enhanced by an air of tolerance fostered by the harmonious coexistence of cultures, traditions and ethnicities. The experts add that rural tourism in Opole province should become one of the region’s main tourist products, hinging on the distinctive culture of Opole Silesia (customs, traditional products, etc.) and the natural assets of the region. This kind of approach is reflected in the slogan that promotes the province across Poland, “Opole Province in Bloom.”

In a bid to make the most of the potential in the province’s villages, in 1997 the local authorities launched a Rural Restoration Program. It has since become Poland’s largest and longest-running regional program designed to stimulate activity in rural communities and almost two decades on, it is regarded as one of Opole province’s hallmarks.

Opole province has several recommendable rural tourism farms with original products and activities for guests. Three of these have been put on the “Greatest Hits of Rural Tourism” list compiled by the Polish Tourism Development Agency.

One of them is Babskie Ranczo (Women’s Ranch) in the village of ¦miechowice near Lubsza. It was designed specifically as a recreational facility for women with horse riding lessons as one of the main attractions. The second “greatest hit” is Ekofarma Jabłoniowy Sad (Apple Orchard Organic Farm) in Szczedrzyk, Ozimek district. Located where the Mała Panew River flows into Lake Duże Turawskie, the farm sits on 11 hectares of meadows and arable land and encompasses an orchard. The farm buildings are over 100 years old and include the only home apple juice factory in the region. The third farm from the Polish Tourism Development Agency’s list is Agrorelaks in Brynica, just outside the Stobrawa River Scenic Park. Along with breathtaking landscapes, Agrorelaks guests are offered a number of recreational activities such as horseback riding. The farm specializes in breeding the Silesian horse.

Traditional cuisine and regional dishes
The long-standing interplay of different cultures has produced a number of distinctive dishes and food products that originate from Silesia, the Czech Republic and eastern parts of Poland. Many specialties from Opole province, prepared according to unique and traditional recipes, have been officially listed among Poland’s traditional products.

A staple regional product from the Opole area is the kołocz (or kołacz) ¶l±ski pie. Once round, the now rectangular pie has a long tradition that dates back to the Middle Ages. Rather than ordinary food, the pie has always been regarded as ritual bread baked for special occasions. Made of yeast dough, the kołocz ¶l±ski is usually stuffed with poppy seeds, cheese or apples and served during all family events and celebrations. Newlyweds traditionally give it away to all their neighbors before wedding parties.

Distinctive dishes from the Silesia region, where Opole province is located, include the kluski ¶l±skie dumplings made of cooked and mashed potatoes, flour and eggs. They are usually served with all kinds of roasted meats and gravies, especially on Sundays and during important family celebrations.

Another local specialty is the Opole beef roll, made of a large slice of beef wrapped around smoked bacon, onions and pickles. The dish is usually served on Sundays as the main course, always with the kluski ¶l±skie dumplings and a salad made of cooked red cabbage, spices and bacon. The locals also eat kartoffelsalat, which is a salad made of potatoes, bacon and, sometimes, carrots, onions and pickled cucumbers.

Traditional cold cuts from the Opole region include the żymlok opolski biały made from bread rolls, pork offal, onions and spices. This cold cut is called biały (white) because unlike similar products, it does not contain animal blood. Poles outside Opole province are also familiar with the rough minced liver sausage which goes by a variety of names, including leberwurst and kiszka w±trobiana. For generations, the locals have made the sausage after slaughtering a pig, but before processing the pork into sausages and ham. Bits of meat, liver and marjoram can be easily seen when the rather tough-textured leberwurst is sliced. The local specialty has a distinctive, mild flavor with a strong marjoram scent.

Pig offal and pieces of inferior but lean pork are also processed into presswurst. This cold cut usually contains brawn, hearts, tongues and blood in addition to thoroughly cleaned large intestines, bladders and stomachs.

Among the most famous traditional dishes from Opole province are buchty ¶l±skie, large, round dumplings made of yeast dough. Recipes for buchty ¶l±skie have been passed on from generation to generation for more than a century. The dough is prepared from flour, yeast, milk, sugar and eggs, with a pinch of salt. After it rises, it needs to be formed into balls and parboiled. The dumplings are served either hot or cold and usually as a sweet dish with fruit preserves or sprinkled with melted butter, sugar and cinnamon. Alternatively, they are a delicious side order to go with the main course, such as the traditional ¶l±skie niebo (Silesian heaven) dish made of smoked meat stewed in gravy with prunes.

The locals also like to eat cabbage leaves stuffed with buckwheat, potatoes and onions. Once a traditional Christmas Eve dish in eastern Poland, stuffed cabbage is now a popular dish eaten in Opole province. Cabbage leaves for the dish need to be first scalded and after stuffing, they are cooked and sprinkled with freshly melted, hot pork fat.

The best way to explore the rich cuisine of Opole province is to visit one of the region’s many inns and restaurants or spend a night or two at a rural tourism farm. Apart from providing accommodation to guests, such farms treat them to regional dishes.
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