For those of you reading and dreaming about travel plans for the coming year, here is a place that I'm almost sure that you will not have even heard of, Oporow. Certainly prior to visiting some friends of my wife, who live about 20 minutes away, in July 2005 neither had I!
And indeed, why on earth would you have taken any notice of a place that you are unlikely to find on anything but a Polish published map. There will not be detailed instructions on how to get there, frankly if it were not for Kasia (my wife's friend) giving us directions, we would not have found the place at all. You will need wheels of some sort to get here though as it is well off of any beaten track.
Where are we? Poland, the obvious answer, in more detail we are very close to the geographical centre of this large and, in tourist terms, highly under-rated (and therefore developed) country. Warsaw, the capital city is an hours' drive to the east of here, whilst Kutno is the largest town near to here that you are likely to find on the map. Is this a place worth seeking out? Read on and I will endeavour to help you decide that one for yourself.
There is in my previously published "Poland in General" review, a section dedicated to "Polskie drogi" (Polish roads), suffice to say here, that to drive to Oporow from the main road, you will require firmly attached fillings! The minor roads leading to this village have many holes in them and loose surfaces in places too, driving generally in Poland is not for the feint hearted at any time of the year, these roads were actually some of the worst experienced.
Having arrived in this "one horse town" type village you pass an averagely attractive, very 'Polish' church (stunning inside though!), a very typical small wooden shop which is a general store, and then to your left is a beautiful lake (surrounded by fishermen), to your right is a slightly dilapidated brick wall with wrought iron gates, behind which is the Castle.
What you have not really seen is a house or a village centre in the English tradition, a lot of Polish villages are a little like this, very rural and spread one house at a time for maybe a mile or so out from the church at its centre.
My wife's friend Kasia was obviously quite enthusiastic about showing us this local tourist attraction. Judging by the state of the road outside and indeed the rather scruffy looking wall along that road, my first impressions were not all that positive. We park the car on the dirt verge, between road and wall, the temperature is 30 deg. C outside and getting out of the air conditioned car is like walking into an oven, as the occasional car passes on the road a cloud of hot dust is raised.
Through the iron gates and you could be entering a different world. Of course the atmosphere is still almost unbearably hot but the dust and decrepitude is left behind. You have entered an oasis of calm and shade from the midday sun, there are large leafy trees overhead, a small lake to one side and a moated "castle" to your left. The inverted commas are there due to this not exactly looking like the typical castle, English or otherwise. Amusingly to the right of the castle is a very English looking park keepers' cottage, whitewashed, leaded light windows and roses around the door.
Thanks Kasia you've brought us to some old Miss Marple set!
The castle itself is approached and then entered via a quite conventional draw bridge, under which flows a moat, well stocked with carp - the Poles traditional Christmas Eve feast dish. Never mind fish, you are safe for a few months yet, I do not have a taste for carp so from me they are safe for good!
This is not a large building by castle standards, four square with a conventional pitched roof to each 'wing' and a square tower, again topped with a pitched roof, on the far side from the draw bridge. Constructed of red brick, the roof tiles also being red, in many ways from the outside it is a really rather unassuming little place.
There is a pay kiosk in the entry hall where Kasia parts with some (very hard earned - she is a prison psychologist) cash. Not wishing to make her blush but the ticket she handed me quite clearly has 6 zl printed on it (adult charge approximately £1), on my 11 year old sister in law's ticket 4 zl. Oh well I suppose even in Poland you do not expect much for a £1 so we were ready not to be disappointed .
Partly in order to understand what we were looking at and to add to my collection of rather unusual guide books, I splashed out 10 zl on a very well presented Polish / English guide book. Flicking through it at the desk I was starting to think that it referred to somewhere else altogether, so beautiful were the interior pictures on its pages.
Oporow the village had its roots in 14th century and was the seat of the Oporowski family - hence the name. The castle was built around 1440 and was the home of Wladyslaw Oporowski, remaining in his family until the 17th century after which it passed through several families. Since 1949 it has been a museum and underwent considerable renovations between 1962 and 1965. Importantly, most impressively this castle is pretty much now as it was built over 550 years ago, in Poland this in not entirely unusual.
The parkland surrounding the castle is much later in date, having been formed in the 19th century.
The word museum is actually surprisingly apt when applied to Oporow Castle as the furnishings, wonderful as they are, have all been placed there as an example of how things would have looked i.e. none of the contents are original. Knowing something about the way Poles live today, I can only say here that in past times there was far more finesse and craftsmanship involved - applied to even every day items. The furnishings in Oporow are by no means extravagant, more modestly luxurious.
As you walk through the beautifully proportioned rooms, not too big but large enough to be spacious, you could actually picture yourself living comfortably in this 'castle'. It is a rare experience for me, in all of the stately homes, and indeed castles, that my wife and I have visited over the last four years it shares this distinction with just one other - Beaulieu in the New Forest.
The rooms downstairs follow the square layout of the castle surrounding an open courtyard in the middle. This is a rather romantic space as it is overlooked by a minstrel's gallery upstairs in the tower, along with a short - maybe 20 ft - castellated (the only sign of this traditional feature) walkway leading from it.
I wish that I were able to remember in detail all the superb furnishings here, looking at the photographs now, does trigger certain hi-lights. The dining hall for instance with probably the best parquet floor that I have ever seen. It also contains a superbly hand painted, wood beamed roof, unusual circular portrait paintings (how come we do not see more of those?) and an ancient and breathtaking tapestry. The hand carved table and chairs are of the very finest quality too. This room alone is well worth the admission price. Before moving on, mention must be made of the highly ornamented late Renaissance style stove. My first experience of such a feature was also in Poland in the wonderful Lancut Palace, this one is every bit as good aesthetically.
In huge dark wood wardrobes you will find collections of fine porcelain and silver wear. Cleverly lit and glass fronted these unusual displays too are well worth seeing. Thrown in for good measure are some suits of armour, always popular with the children.
The 'salon' or lounge as we would probably recognise such a room is a case in point of classic good taste. Plain white walls and ceiling, with a simple almost art deco white marble fireplace, it relies on fine art and furnishings to provide the décor along with another superb wood block floor - far more attractive in appearance than even the most lavish carpet. Not being an expert in wood, the floor is a mid brown (possibly light oak) whilst the hand carved doors and window frames are in a very dark wood such as ebony.
Also in ebony is the superb staircase leading to the second floor. Here you will find yet more examples of fine art, some beautiful clocks, both long carriage type and mantel clocks mounted in superb ceramic casings.
The main bedroom contains a wonderfully carved oak bed, again the wall decorations are plain white, although there is yet another hand decorated, painted wood beamed ceiling which draws the eye. This is a room in which I could truly get a decent nights' sleep, the 15th century equivalent of "good carma" if you like!
From here there is a very short passageway leading out onto the aforementioned minstrel's gallery. We all agreed that this was the most romantic part of really what had turned out to be a castle full of very good surprises.
Back down the elegant stair case and it is time to leave the castle and take a stroll in the equally attractive grounds. Strangely, having viewed the extraordinary interior, the exterior of this seemingly modest little castle suddenly looks much more beautiful.
There are photographic opportunities aplenty here, as is usual with moated houses and castles. The huge, much larger than life, twin lions facing the back of the castle across the moat, separated by a flight of steps mysteriously leading straight into the water. On the other side of the castle is a beautiful wooden well, all around you are very well kept borders and lawns, probably the finest that we have seen in Poland.
That such an oasis could exist right in the middle of an otherwise rather unappealing area of this large country is part of the charm of this place. For charming it indeed is, I truly enjoyed the visit to Oporow Castle, but I suspect that very few English travellers have ever found it, partly due to its location, it is way, way off of any beaten tourist route which makes me all the more privileged to have seen it.
Oporow Castle is open daily from 10.00 to 16.00, except for Mondays and the day following a holiday. If you speak Polish (the castle is looked after by slightly older Poles who speak no English - again, not uncommon) then the telephone number is 024 285 9122. Unfortunately there does not appear to be a web site.