After spending the past few days in Warsaw, it was time for us to leave for Kraków, Poland, a drive of nearly four hours by bus. But on our way, we made a stop at the Jasna Góra Monastery, the country’s most famous place of pilgrimage, which contains the Black Madonna of Częstochowska, which many believe contains miraculous powers.
The Black Madonna was painted by St. Luke the Evangelist; and during this time, Mary told him about the life of Jesus, which he later incorporated into his gospel. In 326 A.D., St. Helen found the painting in Jerusalem, gave it to her son and had a shrine built for it in Constantinople. During a battle, the picture was placed on the walls of the city, and the enemy army fled. The Black Madonna was said to have saved the city from destruction. The picture was owned by many other people until 1382 when invading Tartars attacked a Prince Ladislaus’ fortress, where the painting was located. A Tartar’s arrow lodged into the throat of the Madonna. The Prince transferred the painting to a church in Czestochowa, Poland.
In 1430, the church was invaded and a looter struck the painting two times with his sword, but before he could strike it another time, he fell to the ground in agony and pain, and died. The sword cuts and the arrow wound are still visible on the painting. When the Russians were at Warsaw’s gates in 1920, thousands of people walked from Warsaw to Czestochowa to ask the Madonna for help. The Poles defeated the Russians at a battle along the Wisla (or Vistula River). As for the reason the Madonna is black, it is because of the soot residue that discolors the painting, which is the result of centuries of votive lights and candles burning in front of the painting (http://www.marypages.com/Czestochowa.htm). Countless numbers of visitors travel to Częstochowska on a daily basis to pray to see the Black Madonna in person, and pray to this timeless religious icon.
Upon continuing with our drive to Kraków, we passed an old, eerie-looking mansion, which we soon found out was a vacation spot for “good” Nazis who had been executing and following through with the orders they had been given. These Nazis were sent there for 2-3 weeks at a time as a reward, but the building currently serves as a university where classes are taught to college students.
After arriving to our hotel and dropping off our belongings, we took a group excursion to Wieliczka Salt Mine, located in Wieliczka, twenty minutes outside of Kraków. The Salt Mine, which begins when you descend 380 steps by staircase, is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site that accommodates over 1 million tourists a year. The Mine illustrates the historic stages of the development of mining techniques in Europe from the 13th to 20th centuries, with hundreds of millimeters of galleries with works of art, underground chapels, and statues sculpted in the salt. The cathedral in the pictures was built by three self-taught men, and the result is immaculate, to say the least.
Following our trek through the Wieliczka Salt Mine, we came across a ministry located across the street from our hotel. Pope John Paul II stayed while visiting Poland in August 2004, before he passed away in April 2005. One night while staying in the ministry, hundreds and thousands of people gathered outside to pray and light candles in honor of the Pope. He opened his window and said, “I understand that I’m the Pope but I need to sleep too, so you should also go home and go to sleep.” Even still, candles and pictures of Pope John Paul II can be found outside of the ministry.
We spent the evening walking around the city, and ended up finding a pierogi festival. Naturally, we decided to try some of the pierogies (traditional Polish dumplings), since that’s all we had heard about since arriving in Poland. There were so many different flavors and types of pierogies, so it was a great experience to really get a feel for a big part of the local cuisine. When we were finally all pierogied-out, we tried to walk it off by stopping at an outdoor market on the way back to the hotel, thus concluding our first night in Kraków.