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Orava (Polish: Orawa, Slovak: Orava, Hungarian: Árva) is a historical region situated in Central Europe in the Orava river basin. The major part of Orava is currently located within Slovakian territory, while its smaller north-eastern part belongs to Poland. It surrounds the Tatra Mountains from the west and north-west, borders with Podhale and Liptov.

The Polish part of Orava (Orava Basin) from the north and west is limited by the Beskid Żywiecki Chain and includes the western part of the Orava-Nowy Targ Basin. The eastern Orava border runs along the main European watershed, separating catchments of the Black Sea (by Black Orava, Vag and Dunaj) and the Baltic Sea (a small north-eastern section of this area lies in the basin of Czarny Dunajec). The Orava Basin is the largest region in Poland that belongs to the Black Sea Basin.

Babia Góra (loosely translated as Old Wives' or Witches' Mountain) rises high above the whole region - this mountain is the queen of the Polish Beskids (1725 m above sea level), and its natural environment is protected within the Babia Góra National Park.

The largest villages in the Polish part of Orava are Jabłonka (the informal capital of the region) and in terms of population - Lipnica Wielka. In total, there are 14 villages included in Polish Orava. Jabłonka commune (Polish: gmina Jabłonka) consists of seven villages: Jabłonka, Chyżne, Lipnica Mała, Zubrzyca Górna, Zubrzyca Dolna, Orawka and Podwilk. Lipnica Wielka commune consists of two villages: Lipnica Wielka and Kiczory. The remaining five belong to the Podhale communes: Piekielnik, Podszkle and Bukowina-Osiedle to Czarny Dunajec commune, Podsarnie and Harkabuz to Raba Wyżna commune.

There are almost 28.500 inhabitants living in Orava villages. The whole region belongs to the nowotarski district (Polish: powiat nowotarski) with its central office in Nowy Targ and to the małopolskie voivodeship with the capital in Cracow.

A main road that passes through Orava is the national road no. 7 (DK7) leading from Żukowo near Gdańsk to the border with Slovakia in Chyżne. It is also a part of the European route E77 which connects Psków with Budapest passing through 7 countries altogether and having 1700 km. Another popular road is the voivodeship road no. 957 (DW957) connecting Orava with regions of Podhale and Ziemia Suska.



Orava (Polish: Orawa, Slovak: Orava, Latin, Hungarian: Arva) is a historical region under the Tatra Mountains (Polish: Tatry) which boundaries are marked by: from the north High Beskid (Polish: Beskid Wysoki), from the west - ridges of the Kisuckie Mountains and Little Fatra (Polish: Mała Fatra), from the south - the Choczańskie Mountains and the Western Tatras, from the east - a watershed of the Orava and Dunajec, passing across the Orava-Nowy Targ Basin (Polish: Kotlina Orawsko-Nowotarska). The vast majority of the area of ​​this land are mountains, among which - in addition to those above, worth mentioning is the centrally located Magura Orawska Chain. Only the north-western part of Orava includes a fragment of the Orava-Nowy Targ Basin, which extends from Namiestów in Slovakia to the Pieniny Mountains, being a wide mountain chain. In the literature, Orava is divided into Upper Orava (Polish: Orawa Górna) - lying at the foot of Pilsko and Babia Góra, and Lower Orava (Polish: Orawa Dolna) - located to the south from the line Trzciana (Slovak: Trstená) - Twardoszyn (Slovak: Tvrdošín) - Magura Orawska.

In the middle of the area talked-about, there is a river of the same name which begins at the downflow of two Orava's rivers: Black and White. Orava, passing into the Wag in the Królewian area, belongs to the Black Sea catchment. [...]

The northern border of Polish Orava is the Babia Góra Chain which on the line from Babia Góra to Police creates a ridge devoid of southward side branches. The slopes of this chain are quite steeply going down to the height of about 1200 m above sea level, then creating a gently sloping surface of foothills. They consist of flat mountain ridges crossed by shallow valleys of streams with tiny culmination points.

These are Działy Orawskie (loosely translated as Oravian Divisions) with Pająkowy Wierch - 934 m above sea level (loosely translated as Spider Top). In the touristic literature Działy Orawskie are partly named as the Podhale Chain. To the south of Działy Orawkie lies a vast part of the Orava and Nowy Targ Basin - the Orava Basin (about 600 m above sea level). The eastern border of Orava goes across this basin, passing along the European water divide (poorly marked in the wetlands areas), between the catchment of the Baltic Sea (basin of Dunajec) and the Black Sea catchment (basin of Vag).

Across the northern part of the Orava Basin flows river Black Orava (Czarna Orawa) which drains - still within Poland - into a dam reservoir built in the 1950s, colloquially called the Orava Sea (Orawskie Morze) or the Orava Lake (Orawskie Jezioro). Black Orava has its beginning in the Harkabuz village from the confluence of two streams: Black Water (Czarna Woda) and Deep Stream (Głęboki Potok). For its upper course the name Orawka is sometimes used. Flowing to the south-west direction, it includes waters: Bębeński Potok, Zubrzyca and Syhlec (right-bank tributaries), and Bukowiński Potok and Piekielnik (left-bank tributaries). The streams Lipnica and Krzywań as well as Chyżna and Jeleśna Woda drains currently straight into the reservoir. The tributaries of Czarna Orawa have their sources on the slopes of Babia Góra, Orawskie Działy and in a swampy bottom of the basin, except for Jeleśna Woda which starts flowing from the northern slope of Skoruszyna and in a certain section forms a country border. The streams are characterized by small falls, which is visible in numerous meanders, river bents and oxbows. Only the upper courses of the tributaries of Czarna Orava are faster.

Varied in terms of the morphology, Orava until the 16th century was overgrown with primeval coniferous forests. Currently, you can meet larger forest complexes only in the north - on the slopes of Babia Góra and Police and in the south - in the region known as Bory Orawskie (can be translated as Oravian Coniferous Forests). The ridges of Działy Orawskie are covered only by relatively small, scattered forests.

Characteristic for Orava are already mentioned Bory Orawskie - a wide-spread complex of peat moors, marshy meadows and often swampy pine forests which occurs in the southern part of Polish Orava and expands further to the east towards Podhale. Their flat and seemingly monotonous landscape is the most striking feature of this land close to Tatras and Babia Góra.

Creation of the Orava-Nowy Targ Basin and Działy Orawske is closely related to the upheaval of adjacent Beskids and Tatra orogens. The bottom of the structural basin was subsiding and shaped so-called geosyncline. This process with various intensity runs and lasts from the Tertiary until today. Simultaneously with bowing of the basin, its edges (wings of the geosyncline) were rising. The water flowing down from created inclined slopes cut them into shallow valleys - this is how the landscape of the Działy Orawskie was shaped.

The bottom of the basin at that time was filled with successive layers of sediments. Originally, they were assumed to be marine sediments. However, modern research have not confirmed a theory that in this area existed a sea which - as the legend wishes - by cut of a royal sword, found its estuary through the Pieniny dalles. As evidenced by the research, larger water basins were never here. Primeval rivers flowing from the adjacent mountains were creating only backwaters and swamps, at the same time drifting gravel, sand and loam in. Their thickness is currently about 1300 m. Water-impermeable layers of loam make it difficult for water to flow out from the lowest parts of the basin, forming thereby the widespread wetlands. In the southern part of the basin, there are fluviglacial gravels of Tatra origin lying on the loam which form a great inflow cone. They were transported during the glacial period when the incessantly receding springs of Czarny Dunajec cut through hills between the present chains of Gubałówka and Magura Witowska. As a result, they captured Tatra streams, and fast-moving water from diffluent glaciers carried rounded boulders of granite and limestone towards the Orava Basin. The final landform has been shaped thanks to erosive work of rivers, and also by human activities for several hundred years.

Zbigniew Ładygin, 7 days in Polish Orava, Warsaw-Cracow 1985.


The name Orava, originally relevant to the river, afterwards adopted also for the land, is derived from prehistoric times. Its etymology is not definitively explained. One version supposes that this name corresponds to a term of ‘murmuring river’ and a reason of that should be sought in the word-formation of old Slavic dialects.

The oldest traces of human stay in the area of Polish Orava come from the older Stone Age - Paleolithic. People inhabiting Orava 11 thousands years ago, stayed here only seasonally doing hunter-gatherer economy. They formed a rather broad encampment, the remains of which were found by archaeologists near Lipnica Wielka.

The Black Orava valley was also an interesting area for nomadic people at the end of the Neolithic times, the evidence of that are findings from surroundings of Jabłonka, Orawka, Podwilk, Zubrzyca and Podsarnie.

Particularly plentiful findings from the area of the Slovak Orava in form of fortified castle-towns and cemeteries come from the Bronze Age and the early Iron Age. The settlement of the Orava valley in this period was a result of a demographic explosion that took place in Europe at that time. The permanent settlement of Orava existed until the fourth century CE, after that - during the migration of nations and in the early Middle Ages - all traces of human stay in that area disappeared.

Human appeared again near the ‘murmuring river’ only in the late Middle Ages.

The history of Orava lying at the border of two powerful states, is inseparably associated with the history of Hungary and Poland. Hungarian king Stefan I, who reigned together with Bolesław I the Brave (the later saint), proceeded with organization of the strong kingdom. For this purpose, he performed the administrative division of the country into counties called zhupi (the word is derived from Slavic župa) headed by zhupans designated by the king. The Orava county was established as one of the last. Being originally a royal property, Orava belonged to the so-called forest county with the capital in Zvolen and only from the 13th century, when it went into the private hands of the Balass family, the process to separate it started. At that time, under not very clear circumstances, the Orava Castle was built or possibly its extension from the existing fortification. In the 14th century, having been bought out of private hands, Orava became the royal property again.

A contributory factor to the development of this land, lost among the mountains, was a trade route running through this area. It was not the prime route, but still so important that in the nearby Twardoszyn there was a Hungarian customs station already in 1265. The most important among Orava goods was salt from Wieliczka. The trade in salt was restricted by numerous reservations and because their breaking had a direct impact on the interests of royal purse, one of the lords - Casimir the Great - in 1368 established a customs chamber in Jabłonka. In the 15th century other products started to be transported. Among them, copper played an important role. The trade in this sought-after metal was monopolized by Hungarian Thurzo family who at that time acquired rich mines near Banská Bystrica. They had been selling copper in Cracow where a large storage yard came into being, and in the nearby Mogiła, even a steel mill was built.

The second half of the 15th century was in Hungary a period of fighting for the crown of Saint Stefan. Even though Maciej Korwin was a king, the conspiring nobility wanted to put teenage Kazimierz Jagiellończyk on the throne. At that time, Polish magnate Piotr Komorowski was by the authority of Hungarian king, the lord of the Orava Castle. The Jagiellonian, having gathered the knights, set out to the south. Komorowski enabled him to march through his territories. The battle ended in a defeat though. Komorowki was most adversely affected, because Maciej Korwin removed him from Liptov for the insubordination, forcing him to sell the Orava Castle for a small amount of money. In fact, Piotr Komorowski received the State of Żywiec from the Polish king as compensation.

The first half of the16th century was also not successful for Hungary. Because of domestic intrigues and consequently civil war, the country disunited. The territory of modern Slovakia came under the Hapsburgs’ rule, and the southern part of Hungary proclaimed autonomy under Turkish supervision. Since then, the Thurzo family became interested in Orava again. In 1556, the former bishop from Nitra Region, Francis Thurzo, became a zhupan of Orava by its buying out, for a sum of 18338,25 Hungarian gold coins. However, Orava became a possession of the family only in 1606 when Emperor Rudolf conveyed the lands lying over White and Black Orava to Francis's son - Jerzy Thurzo for his loyalty and services to the house of Habsburg.

Until then, Upper Orava was almost uninhabited. The nearest settlements on both sides of the border were divided by several dozen kilometers of wildernesses and wetlands. Formal owners of these lands located between the Nadasd estate (Trzciana) and the border of the Kingdom of Poland (cit. from documents published in the work of W. Semkowicz) was Hungarian Plath family. When the Thurzo family members became owners of the Orava Castle, they began colonization on the 'nobody's lands', which obviously led to fierce disputes with the Plath family. In their actions, they took advantage of two favorable circumstances: the influx of shepherds wandering through the Carpathian Mountains and the exodus of peasants out of the Polish lands plagued by war. For the settlement of the Upper Orava the second factor played a key role. The peasants from Żywiec, Oświęcim and Zebrzydów arrived on the Upper Orava territory under Babia Góra and Pilsko, attracted by considerable reliefs in rents, and above all, by a privilege allowing them to use land without paying for it for several years (‘wolnizna’ in Polish). There were more and more runaways, numerous protests made by Polish lords did not help. A particularly strong conflict was between the Thurzo family and a lord of Żywiec region - Nicholas Komorowski - a descendant of Piotr mentioned before. Both sides, in respectful letters, turned to the royal authorities, which did not hinder them from the reconnaissance, cattle capturing, people abduction and burning villages. Nevertheless, the colonization action went without major problems and in the first decades of the 17th century it was basically terminated.

Nevertheless, the peasants did not have a peaceful life in Orava. In the 17th century a wave of reformation went through Slovakia. Jerzy Thurzo in 1610 at the religious congress in Žilina (Polish: Żylina) adopted Protestantism. The Polish population of Upper Orava, strongly attached to Catholicism and having their icon of Black Madonna of Częstochowa in the church in Trstená (Polish: Trzciana), made an active resistance to those religious rules implemented by the principle of ‘cuius regio eius religio’. That provoked severe repressions from the Orava Castle's side, especially the Thőkőly family, administering Orava after the Tchurzo family. The peasants did not cease to practice their religion. In chronicles at neighboring Polish parishes can be found the names of people from Orava who were baptized or got married in the Catholic Church. ­The Counter-Reformation campaign started. It was conducted by Polish priests from Podhale headed by priest Jan Sczechowicz from Ratułów and supported by the Catholic Habsburg family with the Emperor Ferdinand III himself. The support in terrain was Czymhowa - the estate of the Plath family - as you remember, they were the enemies of the castle. Those actions succeeded and were crowned by the process against the persecution of the Catholic Church in Orava, ordered by the royal court in 1659.

The second half of the 17th century was also tragic for the Orava inhabitants. The Lithuanian army of Hetman Sapieha came through here, going towards Wiedeń. Here the Hungarian uprisings of Thőkőly and Rákócz reached. Both insurgent groups and regular armies, presenting total lack of discipline, plundered and robbed many villages struggling with difficult living conditions in the mountains.

In the beginning of the 19th century, hardly anyone remembered the Polish inhabitants of Orava. The Polish were busy with their tragedies: partitions and consecutive uprisings. Highlanders (called also gorals, Polish: górale) from Babia Góra and Pilsko, hard working in the infertile mountain lands, being alternately influenced by Slovaks and Hungarians, completely lost the sense of attachment with their ancestors’ country.

It is said, that the first one who noticed - still widely spoken - Polish language in Orava was Andrzej Kucharski - a philologist and ethnographer. He noted his remarks in the letter written to his Czech friend Andrzej Jelinek on his return (in 1828) from a five-year journey in Slovakia: From the Orava capital I went to the Beskids (...) and having passed a combination of Slavic dialect and Polish language or rather Masurian, how Polish highlanders say, I got to the other side of the Beskids. Kucharski was not very aware of the origin of the 'Masurian dialect' in the Orava county. We had to wait a very long time for more thorough insight of Polish researchers. Until the outbreak of the First World War, a little mention was made about Orava. The most interesting and precursory descriptions from this period are: Orava by Ludwik Zejszner (1853), the cycle of works: The Poles on Upper Hungary by Maksymilian Gumplowicz (1900-1903), Orava and its Polish population by Grzegorz Smólski (1910), and Józef Zawiliński's sightseeing memory from the borderland Polish language (1912). The appearance of the Polish dialect in Upper Hungary - this name was used for Slovakia at that time - was also noticed by the Czech scholars: A. V. Sembera (1376) and J. Polivka (1885).

These and other publications had sparked more interest in Polish affairs in Hungary. The first national activists in Orava appeared: Julian Teisseyre, Jan Bednarski, priest Ferdynand Machay, Eugeniusz Stercula, Piotr Borowy, Alaffaieksander Matonóg, priest Marcin Sikora. Orava region was supplied with often being confiscated newspaper ‘Gazeta Podhalańska’, which had been published since 1913 in Nowy Targ, having its regular correspondents under Babia Góra.

In 1918 Poland was reborn. The Austro-Hungarian monarchy collapsed, whereas Slovakia and Czech Republic united together, for the first time became a sovereign state. Already on November 6, 1918, the National Council of Polish in Upper Orava was established in Jabłonka, demanding an incorporation of those lands to Poland, and at the same time Polish patrols entered there. There began a six-year diplomatic struggle for affiliation of the southern Polish borderlands of Spiš and Orava (Polish: Spisz and Orawa). At the turn of 1918/1919, the situation was so tense that might lead to bloodshed. Luckily, a demarcation line was approved and diplomatic means to reach a final agreement were undertaken. The country launched a social action, it was initiated in October 1918 by the Tatra Society which established the Commission of Spisz and Orawa. Its target was to present to the Polish society the rights to these lands based on scientific studies. The materials prepared by the Commissions were submitted to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Not much later, on the initiative of Kazimierz Przerwa-Tetmajer, the Spisz and Orawa Committee was formed in Warsaw which, having merged with the same committee organized in Cracow, established soon the National Defense Committee of Spisz, Orawa, Czadca and Podhale. In the spring of 1919 at the congress in Zakopane, prof. Władysław Szajnocha was elected its chairman. In the board worked such outstanding figures as: Colonel Andrzej Galica, Kazimierz Przerwa-Tetmajer, Stefan Żeromski, Valery Goetel, and Władysław Semkowicz.

Nevertheless, Spisz and Orawa affairs had tried to be solved internationally by even sending a delegation of representatives of the gorals from Spisz and Orawa to Paris, under the guidance of priest Machay: Piotr Borowy from Rabczyce and Wojciech Halczyn from Lendak, resulting in an audience with the president of the United States of America Thomas Woodrow Wilson.

Since an agreement had been impossible to reach, the coalition Supreme Council accepted the Polish proposal to make a referendum regarding the disputed territory. At the end of January 1920, the delegations of France, England, Italy and Japan came to Cieszyn - general headquarters of the international commission supervising the referendum. At the end of the winter of the same year, a troop of eighty French alpine riflemen went into Jabłonka. The situation of Poland in the areas included in the plebiscite was extremely unfavorable; as early as at the beginning of 1919, Polish military detachments were pulled back to the line of the former Hungarian-Galician border. Additionally, there were stationed posts of the Czech gendarmerie in all the villages of Upper Orava. Czechs exercised also a temporary administrative authority.

In the summer of 1920, Poland position was desperately critical. A breakdown of the front line occurred in the war waged against our eastern neighbor, and the Soviet army arrived near to Warsaw. Simultaneously, the international prestige of the Czechoslovakia state was increasing. Due to almost complete lack of understanding of the Orawa and Spisz case by Polish diplomacy, an event of July 10, 1920 could not be a surprise: an agreement which canceled the planned plebiscite was signed in Spa, and a final settlement concerning border dispute was handed over to the Conference of Ambassadors. The final decision was made very fast, because already on July 28: Poland got only small parts of Spisz and Orawa, leaving outside the borders around 15 thousand of Polish people from Orawa and 25 thousand from Spisz. In August, Polish administration took over the lands including the following villages: Jabłonka, Zubrzyca Gorna, Zubrzyca Dolna, Orawka, Podwilk, Podsarnie, Harkabuz, Bukowina-Podszkle, Piekielnik, Chyżne, Lipnica Górna (Mała), part of Lipnica Dolna (Wielka) and Głodówka i Sucha Góra.

Owing to the fact that the imposed border line did not satisfy any of sides, bilateral talks were held and finalized only in 1924 with the signing of the so-called Cracovian protocols. The agreement included among others to exchange Głodówka and Sucha Góra in return for the rest of Lipnica Wielka. The both villages returned later within Poland territory as a result of the agreement with Slovakia made in November 1938, while during the Nazi occupation, the whole Upper Orava was incorporated to the fascist Slovakia of priest Tisa. In 1945, the border became again the same line as in 1938.

Zbigniew Ładygin, 7 days in Polish Orava, Warsaw-Cracow 1985.