Wadowice: Birth Place of a Pope

Among the key figures of the 20th century is the late Pope, John Paul II. He not only was a giant in the Catholic religion but his role in the fight in his country against Communism (and with consequences in the rest of Eastern Europe at that time) was pivotal to big change. We took a short trip to the town of his birth and childhood, Wadowice, to learn more about his early life and the town that saw him grow.

John Paul II statue in his hometown of Wadowice, Poland

As far as transport, mini-buses and regular buses depart Krakow, where I was visiting, with regularity. The former from a non-descript parking lot across from the Galeria Krakowska (a regular shopping mall) (the tourist info office pointed us to it). The latter from the bus station on the other side of the mall. There is also a Pope train but it seems not to be running or not in the day we were going, one of those details beyond my tourist Polish…

Going on regular bus has the added advantage that it will stop at the bus station of the town you want whereas a mini-bus requires you knowing what stop to get off on (which is hard if you have never been to the place). Unfortunately, we went over in a mini-bus… So once the time was close to get to Wadowice, I kept my eyes peeled on the approaching town and then just asked for Wadowice centrum to let the driver know where I needed him to stop (in a mini-bus you have to tell them to stop by walking to the front).

Once in town, things were pretty easy. It wasn’t as small a town as I expected but not big either. We immediately ran into the tourist info office where we oriented ourselves to the key sites to visit. Being that it was still early, we decided to first try one of the famous Wadowice cream cakes. The Pope apparently greatly enjoyed them as a kid and they came back in fashion either when he became a bishop, cardinal, or Pope. Wow, loaded with fat and calories but absolutely delicious [did I already say good eats??]. A touch of brandy nearly makes them heaven on earth!

Cream cake, the favorite of Pope John Paul II as a kid

First off, we visited the apartment where he was born and lived most of his childhood. It was moving for me to see the pictures of this kid who would come from this town to be one of the top figures of his time. Seeing the room where he was born with a picture of him as a baby was special. The apartment-come-museum is fairly small and well signed in English (not always true in places I’ve visited in the country). Much to my surprise, it was free though I’m finding out that is not uncommon for religious sites here (Jasna Gora in Czestochowa was also free). Oh, and we had to wear big old slippers over our shoes – since I was wearing my boots, they didn’t really fit so I had to slide over the floor instead of taking steps. I found myself still doing that shuffle at the museum next door (after taking the slippers off an hour or so before!).

Side of the building where Pope John Paul II was born in Wadowice, Poland

Side of the building where Pope John Paul II was born

Room where Pope John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla) was born in Wadowice, Poland

Room where Pope John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla) was born

We then visited the main church where he served as an altar boy and where he was baptized. It clearly has been renovated since he became Pope as it has acquired preeminence given the ties to him. (His childhood bedroom faces the church.) We got there during daily Mass (which is always a “short” Mass, 20-30 mins depending on the church) and it was fairly full but that could be because it was the holiday for the patron saint of Poland. The interior of the church was actually one of the prettiest I’ve yet seen in Poland.

Main church where Karol Wojtyla served as an altar boy in Wadowice, Poland

Main church where Karol Wojtyla served as an altar boy

We walked around town on this winter day and enjoyed seeing life going on as well as the side streets and buildings.

Around the main square in Wadowice, Poland

Around the main square

Side street in Wadowice, Poland

Side street

Around the main square in Wadowice, Poland

Around the main square in Wadowice

On the way back, we took a regular bus (about 60 cents more expensive). The buses, though, have more space and better windows to see the views along the route. The countryside in this part is more developed than I expected but we did pass some forests and saw beautiful rolling hills, some still with snow on the ground from a few days ago.

I don’t know if non-Catholics (or non-history-aficionados) would find Wadowice interesting enough to take the side trip but for me it was most definitely a special journey to make. It reminds me that any child has potential for greatness no matter the circumstances of their childhood.

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? 

Planning a Trip to Southern Poland

Well, this entry will be different than the others. Why? Because it is not about a trip taken but about planning a trip to be taken. I have to admit, I enjoy planning a trip a lot. It is as if the trip has almost begun as I begin to plan, imagine, and make more concrete what the actual trip will be.

Decision to Visit Poland
As a friend and I were discussing that we should travel together for a weekend or a week, we began randomly talking about what could we do.  Talking about possibilities TOTALLY energizes me!  EVERYTHING is possible at that early moment in planning.  In talking, we decided that instead of a weekend in the U.S. or nearby, perhaps we ought to take the entire week and go further.

Where to go then?  Immediately we narrowed it down to Europe or Latin America just due to the constraint of a week max.  Our mind went to the big capitals of Europe.  We ran through countries like Portugal, Spain, Poland, Ireland, Germany, France.  We ruled out Italy as we had both been there a couple of times (doesn’t mean we don’t love Italy, we do, but we were feeling like exploring something totally new).  We ended up narrowing it down to Ireland and Poland.  So it was either going to a place known for its beauty, friendliness and pubs or a place we didn’t know as much about and knew nothing about the language.

We began throwing around that maybe seeing where Pope John Paul II had been born may be interesting (we are Catholic, this line of reasoning may not apply to others 🙂 ).  So, we decided to study that area of Poland to see if there was enough to explore.  I had a notion that Krakow was a place to see but I don’t know that I could have explained exactly why.  Never fear, some Internet searching, some visiting local bookstores and checking out a few books and we got the info we needed.  There was so much to see and explore in Krakow and its vicinity to fill a week and not get it all done.  We also felt that we might as well go out on a limb now that we are relatively young (late 30s, early 40s) whereas Ireland seemed an easier place for later in life.  So, with perhaps not the best set of criteria but criteria we felt good enough with, we chose to go to Poland.  The fact that we are going in winter is not scaring us.  We will just bundle up and enjoy low tourists fighting with us to enter places, etc.!

So what a realistic itinerary for a week in Poland??

Destination settled.  Not quite…  So, how much of Poland should we aim for?  How much was realistic without being too aggressive?  How was the transportation network?  Well, we didn’t know enough nor people who had gone.  Again, the resources mentioned above plus posting questions on the Internet answered our questions.  Southern Poland, in fact just one part of southern Poland, would easily fill a week and more if we really wanted to.  Krakow and the nearby salt mines would fill a couple of days at the very least.  We realized Czestochowa would be an interesting day trip.  We obviously knew we had to go to Auschwitz-Birkenau.  We clearly were going to see Wadowice to see where JP II was born.  We realized we may be able to even squeeze in a day trip to ski at Zakopane.  Wow!  So much to do and so many other places we probably would not have time to go see!

Details, details

Well, the rest is planning details.  Fly to Krakow, or fly to Warsaw and take a train down?  Stay in Krakow as our home base or move around these towns?  So many possibilities.  We haven’t nailed it all down yet but we think we will fly to Warsaw and take the less than 3 hr train to Krakow and at least get a glimpse of the countryside in winter.  We will not be able to see anything outside of the south except perhaps for a day in Warsaw on our way out of the country (which may not do it justice but Warsaw may be an easier place to return to than Krakow).  We are likely using Krakow as the home base and we are looking at renting an apartment since then we don’t have to be lugging stuff around – plus it is cheaper and more comfortable.

So, that’s where we are.  Enjoying the questions, details, and unknowns about the trip as we continue our planning.  I will be writing about this awesome trip soon enough!

Anyone have any tips about Krakow or any of the places we are considering visiting?  Does anyone else enjoy trip planning as much as I do??

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