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Emerging From Behind The Iron Curtain

01/11/2016 13:28

If you were to read much of Britain's press you may think Polish lifestyle could be accurately summed up by Rihanna's latest hit - 'work, work, work, work, work'... and a lot of incomprehensible words. And perhaps joyless ennui, from the country's fairly recent communist history.

But travel to the country and you find this is a stereotype which doesn't do justice to the country's love of the slow life - history, food and culture. All of these I found in abundance on a recent trip to Podkarpackie, Poland's southeasternmost region comprising the foothills of the great Carpathian Mountain range. Among the more popular tourist destinations - Warsaw, Krakow, Wroclaw and others - the region is relatively unknown, but, with good reason, it's putting its name on a map, helped by recent investment to the airport serving the region's capital, Rzeszow, and the area around it, known as 'aviation valley'. In the past decade, Ryanair has added many flights there and Brits now have the option of travelling to the area with the low-cost airline from Stansted, Luton, East Midlands, Bristol and Manchester.

If you have any lingering suspicion the country's food might, at least a little bit, resemble stodgy Soviet meat-and-veg style fare, any visit to a restaurant there will very likely set you straight. It is true meat and vegetables are prominent, but in a way that's lovingly sourced, slow cooked, and presented with finely crafted sauces. This is in addition to Polish specialities like pierogi with ruska (Polish dumplings with cheese and potato filling); golabki (cabbage leaves with spiced minced meat); wild mushroom soup; apple pie; and the national dish bigos - 'hunter's stew'.

At the superb four-star Dwor Kombornia Hotel & Spa you can choose between saddle of rabbit with roasted artichoke and horseradish sauce, lamb with Jerusalem artichokes and rosemary, roasted duck fillet and much more, along with the delicious, ultra-light cheesecake, the restaurant's pride and joy, made with home-brewed milk and cheese.

The hotel, set in 10 hectares of scenic hills, is also known for its wine cellar, where you can learn of, and sample, the booming trade being done by Poland's wine industry following, first, the fall of the Iron Curtain then, in 2004, its entry into the EU. In the nine years after this, wine sales in Poland grew a remarkable 56%. The cellar has a fine collection of hundreds of wines, from Poland, neighbouring countries (turns out for a long time Romania was the world's fifth biggest producer and even now the 13th....they basically just drink nearly all of it themselves!), and elsewhere. The hotel owner's son, Mikolaj Skotniczny, gives you a fine education on all of it.

Among the many wonderful castles and palaces in the region are Baranow Sandomierski, Lancut, Dubiecko and Krasiczyn castles and Sieniawa Palace. A little north of the airport, on the banks of the Vistula river, lies Baranow Sandomierski, a grand, renaissance castle dating back to the 16th century, since when it has seen various owners, evident in its variety of art and décor. The castle is brought alive with live history lessons from regally attired hosts and the handsome grounds include a golf course, driving range and golf academy.

Krasiczyn is a another renaissance castle, notable for its striking white hue and towers on all four corners, which offer fine views down to the interior courtyard and out to the woods, currently coloured in lovely autumnal yellow and copper-orange, and river San. It also has a rather ominous dungeon, complete with objects which wouldn't be out of place on Game of Thrones.

Sieniawa Palace is a grand, stately palace, stretching back to the early 18th century. A major centre for Polish intellectual and cultural life at points, it has seen various influential historical figures, including tsars and American generals, pass through its doors, and it bore witness to a major part of WWII. In 1939, the San river, just 700 metres away, became a frontier between the Nazis and the Soviet Union and the palace became the headquarters of the Soviet military in the region. In June 1941, under plan Barbarossa, the Third Reich began the invasion of the Soviet Union, with Adolf Hitler personally taking charge of the troops crossing the river - and the military soon occupied the palace, taking valuable art and causing major damage. Following this damage, and deprived of care from the state, the building sadly fell into disrepair after the war, but the government undertook a thorough reconstruction at the turn of the century. So visitors can now see it returned to its former glory and, quite literally, sleep like royalty.

Lancut Castle is probably most impressive of all. Lying in the town of the same name, in English country house-style parkland which includes an orchid house, tennis courts and luxe horse stables and carriages, it is a stunning, ivy-covered aristocratic residence built in the mid-17th century by various architects in 'palazzo in fortezza' style (loosely, fortress palace). In the second half of the following century, then owner Izabela Lubomirska brought in exceptional artists to make various changes, fashioning rooms with contrasting decor to reflect new fashions and her tastes. The mix of styles speaks not only to the aristocrat's forward-looking ideas but to the area's complex history. What is now known as Podkarpackie, which directly borders Ukraine and Slovakia and is under 50 miles from Hungary and Romania, has been much contested throughout history and so has absorbed various influences and become a cultural meeting point between East and West. The castle bears testament to this fascinating hotchpotch, exhibiting classicist, baroque, gothic architecture - and more - and strong influences from Vienna to the West and, to the East, as far as Turkey. Especially in the attire depicted in many of the portraits, which, following the early 17th century Turkish expansion into Europe, has gradually become Poland's national dress.

In the meantime, much of Britain, sadly, seems to want to shut itself off from Europe. Podkarpackie is just one place in Europe which illustrates there's a lot we stand to miss out on...

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