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The Warsaw Voice » Special Sections » August 29, 2014
Rural Tourism
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Poland’s Lake District
August 29, 2014   
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The Mazurian and Sejny Lake Districts in northeast Poland are among the country’s most attractive regions, with landscapes and superb natural conditions that are perfect for all forms of active as well as rural tourism.

Poetically nicknamed the Land of a Thousand Lakes, the Mazurian Lake District is in reality home to almost 2,000 lakes. The region’s largest lakes are ¦niardwy and Mamry, which are 113.8 and 104.4 square kilometers in size respectively. Lake Wuk¶niki is the district’s deepest lake at 68 meters and Lake Jeziorak is the region’s longest at 27.5 kilometers. Some of the Mazurian lakes are linked by canals and rivers that form an extensive network of waterways. The most famous of those is the Elbl±g Canal, remarkable for its elaborate system of locks and a system of ramps with tow ropes that can transport boats over land from one stretch of water to another.

The Mazurian Lake District made it into 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 countless lakes are a major draw for tourists. The town of Mikołajki between Lakes Tałty and Mikołajskie is a major yachting center. One of the region’s most remarkable rivers is the Krutynia, regarded by some as the most picturesque canoeing route in Europe. It cuts across the Mazuria Scenic Park and the Pisz Forest, where it flows through a number of lakes. The largest woodlands, such as the impressive, dense Pisz Forest, are located in the central and southern parts of the Mazuria region. Most of today’s Pisz Forest is covered by coniferous trees with a prevalence of pine and spruce groves. Mazuria is 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 most valuable natural sites in Mazuria are protected as nature reserves, including the Lake Łuknajno 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.

East of Mazuria is the Suwałki Lake District, which is part of a larger lake district that extends beyond the Lithuanian border. Tourists are particularly fond of its eastern section, often referred to as the Sejny Lake District in reference to the nearby town of Sejny. It offers many crystal-clear lakes, picturesque rivers and scenic forests, while local tourist centers provide visitors with comfortable accommodation and many recreational facilities and opportunities to pursue more challenging forms of tourism. The region has for centuries been home to a variety of cultures, and this cultural mix—especially the strong presence of Polish and Lithuanian folk culture—is what attracts many people to Mazuria and the Sejny area. Local sites of tourist interest include environmentally friendly buildings made from clay and wood, while a special trail takes tourists on a tour passing through the workshops of local craftsmen, including a blacksmith, weaver, beekeeper and wood engraver.

Greatest hits

The Mazurian and Sejny Lake Districts are strong tourism brands most commonly associated with outings in the open, unpolluted nature and relaxing surroundings. The Great Mazurian Lakes aside, the region offers a host of natural attractions. Many of these assets could allow Mazuria to develop a strong rural tourism sector, but so far the local lakes have mainly been associated with active and recreational tourism, while rural tourism only plays a complementary role, relying on local traditions and the idyllic feel of the Polish countryside. An estimated 2,500 to 3,000 people make a living out of tourist services in rural areas in Warmia-Mazuria province, where the Mazurian Lake District is located. Farmers account for between 35 and 40 percent of the figure.

The unpolluted neighborhood of Sejny offers excellent conditions for rural tourism. The area’s good soils and large farms favors organic agricultural production, which can be combined with services for tourists. The locals are famous for their openness and hospitality, and the distinctive local culture further enhances the region’s tourist appeal. Rural tourism in the Sejny Lake District started to develop several years ago and the sector has since grown to around 70 farms with a total of several hundred accommodations for tourists. A local tourist association called Ziemia Sejneńska promotes rural tourism in the region and organizes farm stays for visitors. Visitors to Sejny and its neighborhood appreciate the scenic nature and the many forms of active tourism available in the area. The most popular ones include canoeing expeditions down the Czarna Hańcza River, horse riding, bee product tasting at local apiaries, country-style banquets, baking of a traditional cylindrical cake called sękacz, meetings in artistic welding workshops and Lithuanian folk culture demonstrations.

The Mazurian and Sejny Lake Districts are 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 Garncarska Wioska (Pottery Village) farm at Kamionka near Nidzica, where visitors can buy locally produced clay pots, handmade paper and dolls wearing folk outfits. Local artists make their wares according to traditional methods and represent various dying crafts. The Pottery Village is housed in a reconstructed Mazurian homestead, comprising 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 and a smithy with genuine blacksmithing tools.

A rural farm called Trzy ¦wierki (Three Spruces), in the village of Galwiecie near the town of Gołdap, offers a varied mix of activities for nature lovers, quiet surroundings, birds, geology, photography and active recreation. The central building is a traditional Mazuria house built in 1896 by the Symanzik family. 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, trunks and folk costumes from different corners of the world. Visitors to the 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 the Mazuria region is a hybrid of Polish and German influences, reflecting the region’s history as part of the East Prussia region. Typical German ingredients and foods include sauerkraut, sausages, 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. 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.

The most distinctive regional foods include a local variety of cheese known as ser welski. 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, which, combined with its remarkable taste, make the cheese a hit with buyers.

Those who inhabited the region years ago were famously partial to alcoholic drinks. 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 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, sometimes known by its Lithuanian name of Meschkinnes, became the national drink of East Prussia. Recipes on how to turn honey into a drink with 35- to 40-percent alcohol content were passed from one generation to the next.

Some of the most popular foods in the Sejny area include the kartacz dish of potato-based dough stuffed with minced meat. Potato dough is also used to make the soczewiaki rolls stuffed with ground lentils, often mixed with fried onions and bacon. Another specialty of the region is sękacz—a sweet cake made from sponge dough with a high content of fat and baked on a rotating spit over open fire.
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