Pilgrimage to Czestochowa

Jasna Gora monastery and complex in Czestochowa, Poland

The main reason to go to Czestochowa is to see the spiritual heart of Poland, if you will.  The Black Madonna – a key religious item (supposedly painted/carved onto a table by St. Luke, the Evangelist) and an item also tied to Polish history – resides at the Jasna Gora monastery/fortress.  I was expecting to be visiting another important site, take a few pictures, and learn something.  But I learned something I was not expecting to learn as I did when I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau

A Monastery Fortress – Jasna Gora

The Jasna Gora monastery seemed daunting at first.  It sits atop a hill and surrounded my massive fortifications.

Jasna Gora monastery and complex in Czestochowa, Poland

However, a visit to the info office at the monastery quickly made it very accessible to us.  As quick background, back in the 17th century (or was it the 16th?), the monastery resisted the Swedish armies that had just conquered and ravaged most of Poland and I think may have been the only place not taken thereby ensuring the continuity of Poland at the time (someone with better history, please correct me or add to this info!).

To get to Czestochowa from Krakow, the best way was a 2hr+ train ride.  Upon arriving at the train station, we took a cab to the monastery on recommendation of a Krakovian who said there wasn’t much to see along the way. We were glad we did because of the timing of our arrival at the monastery.

The painting of the Black Madonna hangs in the altar of the chapel next to the Basilica.  The painting is not always exposed and the screening (covering up) and un-screening of it are key events which we got to witness almost by coincidence in the timing of our visit – pretty cool.

Chapel with the Black Madonna in Jasna Gora in Czestochowa, Poland

The chapel fills up with pilgrims or locals, people kneel during the un-/screening, and big trumpet (or horn) music plays for the important moment.  At the info office, we were informed that the next screening was 15 mins away – so our timing was great (this only happens twice per day).  An hour and a half later the un-screening would take place so we would be there to see it – this worked well because it was the right amount of time to see the 3 small museums in the monastery in between events.  The un-/screening was not as momentous for me though I’m aware how important it is religiously here and how it played a key part in Polish history.  I imagine if I were Pole, I would have experienced differently but seeing it and seeing the locals at those moments definitely gave me a view into Poland.

One nice surprise was the second story of the chapel (we accessed it via the Knights Hall).  The stations of the cross (plus 2 extra stations) were painted around 2000-01 by a painter named Duda Gracz. They are fairly graphic but basically place the stations of the cross with key personages or events (mostly from Poland).  For those familiar with the stations of the cross, one depicts Veronica helping Jesus. In this version, it is Mother Teresa.  In the one where Jesus walks past his mother, the Black Madonna is the figure shown.  The Holocaust is also represented very vividly.

The museums in the monastery are simple and small sized but the arsenal one was my favorite as it eventually displays photos and key items from the Solidarity movement in the 1980s. Very moving to see.  Part of it is built around one of the exterior corner walls of the fort so that was pretty neat.  Walking around the fort is really neat.

View of Czestochowa from Jasna Gora

Looking towards the main avenue from the fort

Jasna Gora building in Czestochowa, Poland

Jasna Gora building in Czestochowa, Poland

Out and about down the Main Thoroughfare of Al. NMP

Once done with Jasna Gora, we walked down the main thoroughfare (known as Al. NMP due to its long name) and stopped at a cafe for a snack.  The first cafe we tried only had desserts (no pastries) and was very smoky (while there are non smoking sections in some restaurants I ate at.  Those non-smoking sections were usually worse off than the smoking sections).  The second place, a few doors up, had the front door open so it was very pleasant inside and, besides desserts, had pastries.  The almond/apple tart I had was delicious.  That and a cafe au lait totaled a whopping $3.25. Nice.  The place was spotless, the restroom clean and the cafe had good ambiance.

We kept walking down Al. NMP until we saw a plaza with a very large cross and a status of Pope John Paul II in from of St. Zygmunt Church.

St. Zygmunt Church in Czestochowa, Poland

St. Zygmunt Church in Czestochowa, Poland

We arrived to the area near the train station, typical of many train stations around Europe.  With extra time in our hands, I had some time to snap a few shots along the way.

Stands near the Czestochowa, Poland train station

Stands near the train station

Train station at Czestochowa, Poland

Train station in Czestochowa, Poland

Czestochowa, while not seemingly as exciting as Krakow in the short duration of our visit, certainly helped me know Poland a little better and is a great destination for those wanting to see more of Poland – a place unencumbered by the importance of Warsaw or the fame of Krakow.

Details of Trip to Krakow

Today is Sunday and this coming Friday, I am off to Poland as I mentioned in an earlier entry.  A lot of final details to still take care of and, because I have a very loaded work week, for once I actually have to pack more than 2 days in advance (usually I pack in the 2 days prior to a trip, at most!).

One part for which I am ready is the cold.  It will be very cold.  But that is why we have coats, gloves, and scarves.  I had to upgrade in the glove department but the rest was all good.  Will be using my Gore Tex boots most of the time to handle any ice or snow though the area of the city I will be staying at is likely to be well kept in terms of snow and ice.  However, the same may not be true elsewhere.

We opted to rent an apartment in Krakow as we realized we could make it our home base for the things we wanted to see and visit.  This was a great decision as it would make a lot of things easier (no packing-unpacking moving from one hotel to another) and much cheaper than a hotel ($90 per night for a 2 bedroom which translated to $45 per night for each of us).  It is located close to the city center.  The owners wanted full pre-payment, which may be a common approach, but we settled for 20% upfront, the rest upon arrival.  A few weeks later, they have been very helpful with many details so we are likely to go ahead and settle up before getting there to avoid carrying all the cash and for them the hassle of getting the money to them in the UK from their local contact.

In terms of planning, there is a lot of info available on the Internet, as you can imagine.  Plenty of resources from the local and the national tourism websites:   http://www.krakow.pl/en/turystyka/  and http://www.poland.travel/en-us/pot_front_page.  Also, the following interactive map has been an excellent Krakow resource:  http://www.cracow-life.com/map/map.php.  Finally, the following link will be very helpful to plan train travel (what I was able to Google in terms of train travel was not as good as this link sent to me by the apartment owners):  http://www.intercity.com.pl/?page=home_page.

We are likely going to be visiting Auschwitz, Wadowice, Czestochowa, and the Salt Mines in Wieliczka in the 5 days we have in town and then, of course, explore Krakow itself for which we are allowing ourselves a couple of days.  We also have received recommendations in terms of restaurants from the apartment owners and from perusing various websites.  We are ready for good food!

Finally, though we expect we will find enough English speakers, I have been trying to learn basic phrases and words just in case we find ourselves lost in a small town.  It is a curious language for me and some words remind me of Latin – whether a real or imaginary connection, I don’t know, but it makes remembering some of the stuff easier.

I am ready to get there and explore a new place!  I will be blogging about my trip as it happens so stay tuned.

Any final advice? 

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