Monument to Piety
Kind of hard to miss...
With all southern-bound trains booked solid, I am “stuck” in Kraków for a day-and-a-half. There is only one train a day headed for Hungary, and mostly foreigners compete for couchettes and beds, destined for the most predictable of destinations: Budapest, Prague, and Bratislava. At this point, I have little intention of spending time in any of these cities.
So, having already given Kraków three plus days over a week ago, I wander idly through the Stare Miasto, with no real goal in mind. I fight the thought that I am wasting a day here because I truly wish to be elsewhere. I have details to attend to except to change over a few dollars, get a train reservation and a couchette, and revel in my favorite activity while in Kraków…lunch right before a delightful nap. As I dart in and around dazed and camera-strapped tourists, I utter to myself, “Why don’t these people move? They are in my way! Don’t they know where they’re going?” I am familiar with my way around, where to eat, what to order, and where to get online and which trams go where.
Tourists are so annoying.
This stopover in Kraków only confirms what I
Especially packed on Sundays...
concluded the first time. It is Poland’s Disneyworld, its showpiece to for all to see. Thousands who come to Kraków will leave here with this city as its sole impression of Poland. Many will venture nowhere else, not dare stray of the well-beaten path of classical Eastern European attractions. These tourists will say they have been to Poland, but only through the pre-planned order and convenience of Kraków. But that is like saying you’ve been to the U.S. through a package tour of Universal Studios and the Magic Kingdom. Kraków is perfect for the mainstream visitor vying for the taste of a foreign country without having to put in the effort. I knew this already having come from Lviv. It is now, sadly and for all its charm, just another Barcelona, Amsterdam, or Florence. Those looking for a truer Poland need not stop in Kraków anymore.
I have tried so hard to avoid Polish jokes while here, mainly because the men here are muscular hunks that could step on me for fun. But at times the Poles make it hard for me to resist. Just tonight, while strolling with nowhere in particular to be in Kraków, I passed by
All Is Fair Game
Going on a trip? get your car blessed...
a “Drink Bar”. That’s right. Not a wine bar, whiskey bar or tequila bar, but a “drink bar”. That’s what the sign said. A bar that specializes in….drinks. They make it so hard to not make fun of them sometimes.
Gazing up and down the departure times out at Kraków’s railway station, I searched for a daytrip to kill several hours before departing on the night train I had recently booked. Wrocław was too far to go and be back on time. And why in the world would I want to go to Warsaw? So, I settled on Częstochowa, a very fortunate and wise decision.
Like Wrocław, Częstochowa is unpronounceable. It works out to something like “Szhes-to-ho-va”. If this is too difficult for you, just let out a forceful sneeze into a handkerchief. You’ll be close enough to where Poles will say, “Oh, you went to Częstochowa!”
Portuguese pilgrims flock to Fátima. The faithful worldwide descend upon Lourdes and the Vatican. Tourists and the faithful alike retrace the steps along St. James Way to Santiago de Compostela in Northern Spain. Devout Québécois congregate at the Basilica at Sainte Anne de Beaupré. The Poles, consequently, have the Jasna Gora
A Community Unto Itself
Modern pilgrims carry cameras and camcorders...
in Częstochowa, a massive display of Catholic passion. The story goes that a painting stroked by the apostle Luke rests here along with a turbulent history of sieges, takeovers, and political turmoil. Częstochowa is the epicenter of the Catholic faith in Poland and goes a very long way of not just defining Poles’ devotion to the Church, but also a longer way to understanding Polish identity as a whole.
The Jasna Gora’s setting is very similar to that of Pochaiev in Ukraine, only switch the Orthodoxy for the Catholicism. A walled non-secular community of priests, monks, rectories, chapels, and support staff, it dominates the center of Częstochowa to the point where all you need to do in town, I was told, is to look up and find the spire. (Interesting, though: Upon arriving at the Częstochowa train station, the only spires I could locate were these of smoke stacks to closed factories in shambles.) Forced to assume the slow, deliberate pace of the throngs of people entering the complex in front of me, it becomes evident that the line between tourist and pilgrim at Częstochowa is rather smeared. People here come across as technologically astute pilgrims, prepared to record
No room inside? The mass spills onto the sidewalks...
every element of their experience here with camcorders, digital cameras, and laptops. Most make very certain that their time here will not be lost to memory.
Gregorian chant oozes out of the speakers mounted throughout the arcades, chapels, and alcoves. Mass takes place simultaneously and in multiple locations. The number of parishioners overflows to the point where exterior courtyards are packed with those participating in Mass being said inside. At given intervals, the multitudes drop in unison to their knees in silent prayer. It is an impressive sight, as if they were all acting in concert.
After less than thirty minutes, I realized that I was in no way killing time for the departure of a later train. Without a doubt, Częstochowa discloses a very intimate aspect of the Polish character.
With prayer book in hand, well-dressed families follow the Stations of the Cross magnificently displayed in the form of sculptures set on stone mounts on the outside of the fortifications. This is repeated thousands of times by others following in their footsteps. They recite a prayer at each station, kneel, cross themselves, and continue to the next station. Very few speak. Couples, old women, and children bring sentimental
Can these people be that full of sin?
articles to be blessed by priests make themselves available at tents through the Jasna Gora. A very young couple even drove their car into the walled monastery. The priest, without hesitation, doused the car with holy water, wishing the two a safe journey on their vacation. Sixteen confessional booths are set up in one of the lower cloisters, all with lines ranging from ten to fifteen deep. Men and women, young and old, wait extraordinary patience. Again, they speak very little.
In front rises an enormous statute of John Paul II. Families fight to have their photo taken at its foundation. Even in death, Poles absolutely adore this man. John Paul II is the most famous Pole who ever lived and a deity unto himself in the eyes of all Poles. Their adulation reaches beyond words. They consider him a savior for Poland and you can actually sense the outpouring of emotion individuals feel towards him. Many are in tears.
A visit to Częstochowa demonstrates that the concept of being a Catholic and a Pole is interlocked and symbiotic. One cannot exist without the other. No place of pilgrimage I have ever been is revered more than the
Eighth Station of the Cross
The stations ring around the far side...
Poles do this place. Their devotion is almost tangible. Here, Poles make no distinction between the faith and the institution; they are one and the same. Many in the West have turned their backs on the Church, having adopted a buffet style Catholicism. They select that which suits them and dismiss the other less attractive ingredients. Poles will have none of this in Częstochowa. No one here need be reminded that through Poland’s recent and tragic history, having been used and abused by their neighbors, the Church has persevered and has embodied a country’s identity and even more importantly, its survival as a nation.
Poles are not just those people who occupy land from the Oder to the Belorussian border. There exists, because of Częstochowa, a reality that all Poles are bound by a special set of circumstances. It is a riddle and the answer rests here, somewhere inside these walls. If you understand the emotion, zeal, and faith that Częstochowa inspires in them, then you will have gone a long way to understanding what it means to be Polish.
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