“From my earliest years, my own devotion to Mary was deeply joined to my faith in Christ. The shrine of Kalwaria helped me greatly in this” – Pope John-Paul II.
Whilst in Krakow there is one day trip that must be compulsory for Catholics – and pretty interesting for detached agnostics like myself, too. That is a trip on ‘Pociag Papieski’, ‘The Pope’s Train’, the best introduction an outsider can have to religion, Polish-style.
Pope John-Paul II (Jan Pawel to Poles) was born as Karol Wojtyla in the small town of Wadowice 30km south-west of Krakow in 1920. A powerful influence on his youth was the nearby Calvary of Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, a pilgrimage route for devout Poles determined to follow in the steps of Christ since the early 17th Century. Later of course he became Archbishop of Krakow before his elevation to the Papacy in 1979. Now a brand spanking new train line (only officially opened in May 2006) links these sites for modern-day pilgrims. For 22 zloty you can buy a day return, allowing you to get off and on at will. However, please bear in mind that the tickets are only valid on this train, which only runs three times a day in each direction!
Running from Krakow Glowny the express train is a delight. It has a very distinct livery of gold and white (the colours of the Vatican flag) on its external paintwork, the seat coverings, and even the ties of the friendly English-speaking conductors. Also on the outside can be seen the image of a dove and the words ‘Totus Tuum’, Latin for “I am completely yours”, words of devotion to the Virgin Mary and the motto of John-Paul’s Papacy. Inside flat-screen TVs hang from the ceiling, showing documentaries (in Polish) of the Pope’s career, paying particular attention to his visits back to his homeland. What is apparent from these is that as far back as 1999, six years before his death, he was suffering very badly from Parkinson’s disease, but was determined to continue spreading his message.
First stop on the route is the stunning modern basila at Krakow Lagiewniki, scene of the Pope’s last address to Poland in 2002. From there it continues to the pilgrimage centre of Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, and from thence on to Wadowice, taking about an hour in total.
Wadowice is a pleasant little Polish country town, revelling in the fame of having produced one Pope, and having been visited by his successor earlier this year (while in the neighbourhood Pope Benedict XVI also blessed the train). The Pope’s childhood home is now a museum run by the Nazareth Sisters, where you can see the infant Karol’s actual cot. Outside there are plenty of stalls and shops selling religious iconography, some simple and moving, some tacky and kitsch (ever wanted a John-Paul action figure with opposable joints? Here’s your chance!)
I found Kalwaria much more moving. There are two train stations in the town. Get off at Kalwaria Zebrzydowska Lanscorona – it’s nearer to the centre. Despite this you’ll still have a five minute walk up an inclining street to the heart of the town. Bear left at the roundabout. The road winds up the hill slope, with occasional road signs. At the top there is a junction. The main road continues on, where there is another sign for the sanctuary. However a smaller road splits off to the right, with a high blank wall on its left. If on foot take this turning – a left turn at the top will take you a shorter route past the seminary.
The Basilica of Our Lady of Angels was founded four hundred years ago by Mikolaj Zebrzydoski, the then mayor of Krakow. Intending just to found a Benedictine Monastery, he saw in the rolling pine-clad hills a similarity to the Jerusalem of the Gospels. Yes, I was surprised too. And so he constructed a Via Crucis, or Way of the Cross, with a series of chapels representing the stages of Christ’s Passion as he carried the cross to the place of his execution at Golgotha. His grandson carried on the task until there were 37 chapels representing the story of the crucifixion. This soon developed into a fully-fledged centre for pilgrimage as the devout follow the paths and reflect upon the death of Jesus.
As you walk you pass houses as well as the chapels. Quite a few have little tables set up holding bottles of water or jars of local raspberries, working on a ‘suggested price’ and ‘honesty box’ system. Otherwise there are cafes near the basilica itself or down in the town. Entry to the church is free though there are obvious collection boxes. All in all, it’s a very interesting day out.