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The Warsaw Voice » Special Sections » November 3, 2014
Rural Tourism
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Podlasie Region
November 3, 2014   
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The Podlasie region in eastern Poland offers pristine natural surroundings and a unique cultural environment that makes the region an attractive destination for tourists.

Podlasie is home to some of Europe’s most valuable natural areas, including the Bia這wie瘸 Forest, the August闚 Forest, the Knyszyn Forest, and the Biebrza Marshes. A region with a long and rich history, Podlasie used to be a melting pot of cultures and ethnic groups whose heritage lives on.

The most remarkable of the region’s four national parks is the Bia這wie瘸 National Park, with a history dating back to 1921. The park encompasses sections of the primeval Bia這wie瘸 Forest that have been preserved almost intact to this day. The Bia這wie瘸 National Park and parts of the Bia這wie瘸 Forest across the border in Belarus are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Every year, the park draws more than 100,000 visitors.

Podlasie’s Biebrza National Park is the largest national park in Poland, spanning the Biebrza River valley all the way from the source to where the river empties into the Narew River. The Biebrza Marshes, the largest wetland in Central Europe, are regularly visited by nature lovers. The area is particularly popular with birdwatchers and avid nature photographers.

Another protected area, the Narew National Park, was primarily established to protect the local swamps, wetlands and waters, which account for 90 percent of the park’s total area. The Narew National Park stands out with its unique Narew River valley rich in flora and fauna. The area’s extended system of river channels has no match in this part of Europe.

The region’s fourth national park, the Wigry National Park, is a local treasure with 42 lakes and a famous water trail on the Czarna Ha鎍za River. Canoeing fans also like to come to Podlasie’s August闚 Forest, which lies on the August闚 Canal, a well-known inland waterway.

More than nature

In addition to natural beauty, the Podlasie region has a rich cultural heritage shaped by different cultures and religions. Poles, Ukrainians, Jews and Tatars lived in the area side by side for centuries. This interplay of cultures is manifested in local sculpture, tapestry-making traditions, in songs and in dances.

The region’s largest city, Bia造stok, is home to a number of historic landmarks such as the Branicki Palace, one of finest surviving aristocratic residences in Poland. The palace is sometimes referred to as the Versailles of Podlasie, a nickname it partially owes to its Baroque park, the most meticulously preserved garden of this kind in Poland.

Around 30 kilometers east of Bia造stok lies Tykocin, the oldest town in Podlasie with a surviving street plan from centuries ago. Picturesquely perched on the bank of the Narew River, Tykocin has a wealth of historic sites such as one of Poland’s oldest and largest synagogues that at present houses a Jewish Culture Museum.

Another local gem is Drohiczyn, a town where the only king of Ruthenia was crowned in the 13th century. The town’s landmarks include Castle Hill and the white walls of the Drohiczyn cathedral, home to the local bishop and a seminary dating back to the 17th century.

According to the Analysis of the Potential of Rural Tourism Products in Poland and Their Competitiveness on Regional, National and International Markets for Tourist Services, a document compiled by the Polish Tourism Development Agency, Podlasie’s natural and cultural qualities enable the region to develop distinctive and highly interesting rural tourism services and products. Tourists can expect to be offered services and products based on a harmonious combination of the region’s natural beauty with its multicultural heritage, including traditional customs, folk crafts and arts and regional cuisine.

Rural tourism has taken off in Podlasie. Many farms have started offering accommodation and services targeted at different groups of tourists, and accommodation standards in rural areas, especially at rural tourism farms, have improved significantly.

“Greatest hits” of rural tourism

The Podlasie region is home to a number of rural tourism farms with original tourist products. Several such products have been put on the “Greatest Hits of Rural Tourism” list compiled by the Polish Tourism Development Agency.

One of these products is the Zio這wy Zak徠ek (Herbal Nook) farm in the Grodzisk district near the town of Siemiatycze, 70 kilometers west of the Bia這wie瘸 Forest. Tucked away in a beautiful forest, Zio這wy Zak徠ek encourages visitors to explore herbal medicine or just relax—and to relive the times when the scent of flowers and herbs penetrated villages and when houses had thatched roofs. The farm has one of the largest herbal collections in Poland. As a tourist product, Zio這wy Zak徠ek also comprises the Podlasie Herbal Garden, which in 2011 was officially awarded the status of a botanical garden and has Poland’s largest collection of therapeutic and aromatic plants. The local Nature Education Center offers a wide range of activities for children, adolescents and adults. The complex has 120 beds and is also home to the Dary Natury (Nature’s Gifts) company, which is a well-known producer of herbs and organic food.

Another top Podlasie tourist product is the Folk Handicraft Center in Niemczyn, Czarna Bia這stocka district. Located next to the Knyszyn Forest, Czarna Bia這stocka is a retreat for folk artists who pursue dying professions. Visitors to nearby villages can see many handicraft shops where potters, blacksmiths, spoon makers, sculptors and hand weavers have worked for generations. The Folk Handicraft Center in Niemczyn was specifically established to protect and cultivate this tradition and enable local craftsmen and qualified instructors to pass on their knowledge and skills. The center organizes various handicraft workshops to let visitors try their hand at pot making, wood carving, wicker weaving, paper making, drawing and working with felt and leather. Organized groups can also take a tour of studios managed by local craftsmen. During such a tour, visitors can see how functional and decorative pottery is made in a traditional way—how clay is conditioned, how it is molded on a potter’s wheel, and how ceramic items are baked in huge kilns. In the spoon-making shop, tourists can see pieces of wood turn into spoons, ladles and forks in a matter of minutes. In the smithy, they can watch a blacksmith at work.

The third “Greatest Hits” entry is the Tatarska Jurta (Tatar Yurt) farm in the village of Kruszyniany in the heart of the Knyszyn Forest, some 3 km from the Belarusian border. Often referred to as a melting pot of cultures, Kruszyniany is inhabited by followers of three major religions—Catholicism, Islam and the Eastern Orthodox Church. This special heritage has been highlighted in Kruszyniany with a 6-kilometer ecumenical trail that gives tourists a rare opportunity to visit a mosque, a Muslim cemetery, a small Orthodox church, and several other historic sites of religious importance. Visitors to the Tatarska Jurta farm can pitch up a tent and get the full-on “Polish Orient” experience, complete with traditional Tatar cuisine and accommodation in genuine Tatar yurts.

One more recommendable tourist product is the Pi徠ka znad Biebrzy (The Five by the Biebrza River) initiative by five farms that joined forces to promote active tourism. They offer activities including rafting, canoeing, angling, Nordic walking, horse riding, bicycle trips and a Biebrza River photographic safari.

Tourists who like active recreation can take a five-day biking tour of five villages. Called “Around the Center of Europe,” the tour takes visitors to farms in Sztabin, Hamulka, Okopy and Jaziewo that, apart from accommodation, offer an array of distinctive attractions, depending on what each farm specializes in.

Traditional cuisine and specialties

The Podlasie region takes pride in its distinctive cuisine and a range of unique, traditional food products. The regional cuisine combines simple Polish rural dishes with strong Lithuanian influences. Many regional specialties are made from potatoes and include stuffed dumplings, potato pie, potato sausage and potato pancakes.

Kartacze is one of the most popular traditional foods in Podlasie and a staple dish in neighboring Lithuania. Formed of potato-based dough, kartacze is stuffed with minced pork. Some cooks stuff kartacze with sauerkraut and mushrooms, poppy seeds or cheese. Depending on the type of potatoes used, the color may vary from light to dark gray. They are served hot and sprinkled with pork scratchings and fried onions.

The people of Podlasie are also partial to the babka ziemniaczana potato pie. The pie comes in different variations, served with a choice of side orders and relishes. The main ingredients are grated potatoes, fried fatback, flour, eggs and onions.

The popular potato sausage is made from grated and partially drained potatoes with different kinds of groats, such as buckwheat groats. Mixed together, the ingredients are stuffed into a thoroughly cleaned and washed pig intestine. The sausage and most other potato-based dishes are traditionally served with fried bacon and onions.

When they hear about Podlasie cuisine, many Poles will instantly think of s瘯acz cake. This is baked over an open fire, with thin layers of dough poured onto a slowly spinning cylinder. S瘯acz is a complicated and time-consuming delicacy to make and takes a lot of skill. The largest s瘯acz cakes can be as high as one meter.

The flavors of Podlasie also include groats with pork scratchings and a variety of homemade sausages and cold meats. The most famous of these is kindziuk dried sausage, originally from Lithuania and made of pieces of raw or lightly smoked ham and fatback. The palc闚ka (finger sausage) is another recommendable kind of dried sausage, made from pork and game with spicy additions.

One of the most popular Tatar contributions to the local cuisine are ko責uny dumplings. Stuffed with raw meat, the small dumplings are boiled in soup stock.

Regional specialties also include the distinctive rennet cheese from the village of Korycin. Made according to traditional recipes by homemakers from Korycin and nearby villages, it originally used rennet from dried calf stomachs, which were grated and processed into powder. The natural enzymes have since been replaced with rennet used in the dairy industry. The Korycin cheese comes in many different flavors depending on producers’ ideas and preferences. Originally a local delicacy, the cheese has become popular in other parts of Poland over the centuries.

Local consumers are also partial to dried podlaski cheese with a rich hard-cheese taste and distinctive buttery flavor. The cheese owes its unique taste and aroma to a six-month drying and maturing process and the variety of herbs added to it.
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