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The Warsaw Voice » Special Sections » December 13, 2015
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Rural Tourism in the Podhale Region
December 13, 2015   
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The Podhale region at the foot of the Tatra mountains in southern Poland has beautiful landscapes, lush nature and appealing folk customs that make it a perfect setting for rural tourism.

Podhale is a geographical and cultural region that straddles the upper section of the Dunajec River. Agriculture and sheep herding has played an important role in Podhale for centuries, leading to the emergence of a distinctive rural highland culture. Podhale captured the public imagination in the 19th century when its natural attractions and climate started drawing visitors from other parts of Poland. Tourism began to develop in the area, especially in the town of Zakopane, which rose to prominence with new sanitariums and spas.

Podhale is an interesting region in terms of its local culture and customs, as local villagers are well known for preserving the traditions of their shepherd predecessors and they continue to speak the distinctive local vernacular. Old customs also live on in traditional outfits that are worn on many occasions and in folk music and literature. Arts and crafts from Podhale are famous across Poland, with an easily identifiable style that can be seen in woodwork, furniture, household items and the region’s hallmark glass painting.

The hills and plains of Podhale are dotted with quaint villages and small towns. Many of them are popular destinations visited by crowds every year, which is why some travelers choose to wander off the main tourist routes and stay at less renowned, but just as picturesque locations. The principal city of the Podhale region is Nowy Targ. This is worth a visit for its historic market square with a large town hall from the 19th century that houses the Museum of Podhale.

South of Nowy Targ is Zakopane, one of the country’s most famous tourist resorts that draws thousands from Poland and abroad every year. They come to hike in the mountains and to practice winter sports, which, coupled with the town’s enormous popularity, has earned it the nickname of “the winter capital of Poland.”

Popular tourist destinations in Podhale also include the village of Chochołów, with a history dating back to 1592. The main tourist appeal of Chochołów is its meticulously renovated highland cottages from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Built of wooden beams with naturally rounded edges, the cottages are a classic example of the Podhale style in architecture. One of the oldest villages in the area, Ludźmierz, is home to a Shrine of the Blessed Virgin Mary, founded by the Cistercian monks in 1234. The shrine is one of the most popular pilgrimage destinations in the region.

Another popular village in Podhale is Łopuszna, first mentioned in historical accounts from the early 15th century. The village’s historic sites include nine old manor buildings with farm houses and an old highland-style cottage. The interiors of the buildings have been restored and are frequently used as venues for temporary art exhibitions. Łopuszna is also home to a beautiful wooden church with a shingle-roofed steeple from the early 16th century.

While Zakopane and the quaint villages are the main draw of Podhale, the region boasts a unique combination of natural and cultural heritage that makes it one of Poland’s top tourist destinations. Tourism in Podhale relies heavily on culture, health resorts and active recreation, but the scenic landscapes and pristine nature make the region ideal for other forms of tourism, including rural tourism.

Greatest hits of rural tourism

Podhale is part of Małopolska, a province with a well-developed network of farms with accommodation for tourists. The most recommendable farms have been included on the “Greatest Hits of Rural Tourism” list compiled by the Polish Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Tourism.

Twenty attractively located farms that specialize in growing and processing herbs are linked by a picturesque tourist trail with the appealing name of Małopolska Wieś Pachnąca Ziołami (The Herbal Scents of the Małopolska Countryside). Several of them are located in Podhale. The farm owners know everything about the properties of different herbs. Experts in herb growing and harvesting methods, they know how to dry the herbs and arrange them into bouquets or use them as spices and for medical purposes. Herbs and spices grown in the farms’ gardens include lovage, tarragon, peppermint, oregano, thyme, rosemary, sage, marjoram and sweet balm. The farmers use vegetables and herbs from their home gardens as ingredients of healthy regional dishes to which they treat visitors. Many also offer herbal baths, aromatherapy, different kinds of massage and beauty treatments based on the relaxing and energizing properties of various herbs. Located on the edge of villages near forests, the farms are run by avid herbalists and environmentalists who make every effort to cultivate the local heritage.

One of the trail’s farms in Podhale is Rzepka (Turnip) in Czarna Góra, near the touristy villages of Bukowina Tatrzańska and Białka Tatrzańska. This farm is located in a mountain pass 850 meters above sea level, offering a panoramic view of the Tatra Mountains and the nearby Gorce Mountains. It is also close to the Białka, Poland’s only river of the Alpine kind. The farm’s owners keep goats and horses, and the lady of the house is a horse-riding instructor who uses natural teaching methods. She likes to treat her guests to homemade dishes that make use of herbs and organic ingredients.

Sixteen other rural tourism farms in Małopolska province have joined forces in a project called Małopolska Villages for Children. Facilities available at these farms ensure that children of different ages can enjoy a variety of activities in an attractive and safe environment. Each farm has an enclosed playground and kids can play with pets and farm animals. Learning through play, child visitors to the 16 farms find out about rural traditions and local culture, the wildlife of Małopolska province and the region’s tales and legends. The owners also offer regional dishes using ingredients from organic crops.

Małopolska Villages for Children in Podhale include the Akiko Villa boarding house and farm in Harklowa near Nowy Targ, next to the picturesque Gorce Mountains National Park. The lady of the house was born and raised in Japan. With a forest close by, children can be taken on walks during which they can watch birds and other animals and pick herbs, mushrooms and forest fruit. The Akiko Villa stands in a working farm with goats, sheep, chickens and trout.

Regional cuisine and dishes

Podhale takes a lot of pride in its cuisine which, despite its simplicity, offers delightful flavors. The cuisine is heavily influenced by the fact that the geological features of Podhale and its climate have made farming difficult. As a result, staple dishes from Podhale are traditionally made of whatever a farmer in the mountains was able to produce and keep for himself rather then sell at a meager profit. The local cuisine heavily relied on boiled potatoes, turnips and bryjka dumplings made from flour boiled in salted water. Flour used in Podhale was usually made from barley, oats and corn.

One of the most distinctive highland dishes is the kwaśnica sour soup made of sauerkraut and meat, usually served with potatoes and bread. The soup has a sharp, tart taste and, if prepared by the book, it cannot contain vegetables such as carrots. Otherwise, it becomes the traditional Polish soup called kapuśniak and has little to do with the genuine kwaśnica, but is sometimes wrongly served under this name. Other popular dishes in the area include prażucha, a thick kind of paste made from roasted barley flour, water and fried bacon and served with soured milk. The locals also enjoy moskole, pancakes made from mashed boiled potatoes, flour, water, salt and eggs. This dish took its name from Russian captives who brought it to Podhale during World War I. At present moskole are mainly available as a regional specialty in restaurants.

To most Poles, a typical Podhale dish is the oscypek variety of smoked cheese. Usually sold as spindle-shaped blocks of different size and with the edges ornamented in Podhale style, this cheese is made from sheep’s milk. Making oscypek cheese has been a traditional occupation of experienced shepherds on mountain pastures and recipes for the cheese are handed down from generation to generation. Fresh sheep’s milk is first poured into a wooden vat through a linen cloth to remove bits of grass and other impurities. Then, powdered rennet is added to the milk, causing it to coagulate and the resulting product is pressed in hot water and then molded. Later, it is placed in salted water for a day, after which oscypek blocks are left to mature and then smoked.

Another popular kind of cheese from Podhale is bundz, made from cottage cheese produced from sheep’s milk. First, the cheese is put into decorative molds and immersed in boiling water until its shape is fixed. Then, it is put in salted, cold water, after which it is smoked. After the milk coagulated by rennet is removed, the remaining fluid is used as a beverage that Carpathian highlanders call żentyca.

In addition to giving milk and wool, sheep in Podhale are used as a source of meat, usually eaten as mutton chops and roasts.

Typical sweet dishes from Podhale include kołacz pies, poppy-seed cakes, apple pies and sweet pies made from potatoes mixed with yeast dough. The locals and tourists also relish honey-based kremarz cakes layered with cream. Podhale delicacies are said to go down best with mulled wine and highland-style tea with plum vodka.
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