Imagine it’s the early 1600’s, you live in Poland and pilgrimages to the Holy Land are all the rage. Oh man, do you ever want to go to Jerusalem. But it’s not going to happen: you don’t have the money, your health is poor, and your boss won’t give you enough vacation time. Hey, don’t stress about it—Kalwaria Zebrzydowska has got you covered.
A guy with the most Polish name ever—Mikołaj Zebrzydowski—-conceived of Kalwaria Zebrzydowska after making his own Holy Land pilgrimage. He was visiting Southern Poland and he noticed the landscape resembled that of the Calvary in Jerusalem (full of similar hills and valleys.) Mr. Zebrzydowski decided to go ahead and make his own Calvary right there. It took about 50 years to complete (from 1602 to around 1650 or so) and it was an instant hit.
To get to Kalwaria Zebrzydowska we took an hour long minbus ride South from Krakow. After we departed the bus, we located our destination by looking up and finding a church peeking through the mist on a lush green hill.
While it might sometimes seem like I’m writing with a voice of authority, the truth is that I often just show up places not entirely sure of what to expect, and this was certainly the case with Kalwaria Zebrzydowska. I knew it was a pilgrimage destination and a UNESCO World Heritage Site notable for having fine Mannerist architecture, but I didn’t actually understand that this was going to be a hike. As you can see by the map, the site is made up of 42 different shrines designed for pilgrims to follow along a trail. In all, I’d guess the walk is around 10 kilometers, but if anyone knows the correct distance please let me know.
We had a choice between following the Path of Christ or the Path of Our Lady: we went with the Path of Our Lady.
The walk begins with the Basilica of our Lady of Angels. When we looked inside it was full of young girls in white dresses having their first communion. This was the one site where we saw plenty of visitors (and you can see by the size of the plaza that it was designed to accommodate crowds of pilgrims.)
From the Basilica we hiked uphill into a wooded area, following a path from shrine to shrine. Because of the fog each shrine would disappear behind us just as another would appear out of the mist ahead.
At first we saw a few pilgrims seeking out the shrines (and several girls ruining their white tights and shoes with mud). After the first half dozen shrines we were on our own. Bird calls filled the air around us, it started to rain in earnest and our wet feet made squishing sounds.
The rain was a good excuse to put on the Infamous Blue Traveling poncho. Here you can enjoy both the bird songs and the majesty of the famous poncho.
Each of the 42 shrines is unique. A few can be entered, but most just have windows—inside them you can get a glimpse of paintings of the passion, crosses and other religious paraphernalia.
I especially enjoyed the Mannerist architecture of the shrines. Since I associate pilgrimage architecture with Romanesque and Gothic styles, the playful and sometimes weird details of Mannerism could seem at odds with the sober theme of the Calvary.
Say hi to Saint Veronica.
Doesn’t this shrine look like a Mannerist mushroom?
And this one is a wee gingerbread house.
Often when reading about popular pilgrimages of past centuries, I wonder where people ate, slept, and went to the bathroom. Well, I’m not sure how things were 400 years ago but these days there’s only one bathroom at Kalwaria Zebrzydowska: at the beginning of the hike. HOB and I had to make a side trip to “see what’s over there in the woods” before our bladders burst. Stupidly, I had forgotten to pack a picnic, so we ate a yucky, salty donor kabab in the town below the shrines.
HOB was crabby about his wet feet but I didn’t mind because it made me nostalgic for our early traveling days, when we often went about in bad weather, with cold, wet feet, wearing ponchos (and munching on unhealthy kabobs because we didn’t know any better.)
I’m glad we visited Kalwaria Zebrzydowska but I would like to make this hike again more mindfully. While the experience was certainly spiritual, I think we missed the point of the journey: to commemorate the passion of Christ and the Virgin Mary. The next time I am a pilgrim here, I’d like to respect the tradition by following the story of Christ’s suffering as a parallel to the suffering of all of the Jews, political dissidents, gays, Roma people, and others killed in Poland during Word War II. Throughout our trip around Poland, HOB and I tried unsuccessfully to comprehend the scale of loss to humanity that took place in this country during the Holocaust. This unbearable loss, this massive suffering should never be forgotten and perhaps Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, designed for the purpose of empathy with the oppressed, could be the right place for us to respect the memory of all those lost lives.
And the next time I would also pack a picnic.
How we got to Kalwaria Zebrzydowska: day trip by minibus from Kraków .
Where we slept: Apartamenty Astur. Price: €42 for a double. Recommended: yes.