I wouldn’t necessarily want to be in Poland during the winter, but I certainly enjoyed being there in the fall. Krakow and Warsaw were the main destinations, but I really wanted to see more of the countryside.
When we had a choice of out-of-town day trips, we quickly decided NOT to go to the Salt Mines, which were something like nine stories underground! They are probably most interesting, but I wanted to be outside in nature.
This led to a day trip to a place called Ojcow National Park (you pronounce that “OUT-soof”, believe it or not!) It was a marvelous change to see this pine filled forest, and the limestone outcroppings, which had, over the years, formed strange and wonderful shapes, as well as providing cliffs and valleys as background for the changing tree colors.
It turns out we made the right choice for several reasons. Not the least of which was being with a small group of only five other people, in a little van, with a marvelous guide. We quickly bonded over our short-term exclusivity, and our love of nature.
Ojcow is billed as one of the most picturesque recreational hot spots in Europe. It encompasses parts of the Jura Plateau and two valleys cut by two large rivers, boasting an astonishing diversity of plant and animal life thriving amidst the captivating beauty of steep-walled gorges, v-shaped valleys, and rising springs. The park has hundreds of caves, and fantastic rock formations. Here, they say, live at least the 5,500 animal species that have been documented, including ermine, beaver, bats, bird and insects. (I really didn’t care that they have found 950 species of insects, which have two pairs of membranous wings, including bee, wasps and ants.)
Instead, we concentrated on the limestone formations, the deep valleys, and enjoyed the historic 14th-century monument called Pieskowa Skala, “a pearl of the Polish Renaissance,” set up high on a hill overlooking the forest and the valley.
On the way up to the castle, we stopped to see a charming yellow-painted wooden church, called the Chapel-on-The-Water, which had been built on a bridge over a river, during the time of the Partition, when the Tsarists would not give permission for a church to be built on the land, so they built it over the river.
We had a marvelous tour of the castle, which was built by Kazimierz the Great in the 14th-century as part of his defense system on the Kracow-Czestochowa Uplands. Although it has had extensive renovations in ensuing centuries, it still has the look of a fairy tale castle from the dreams and stories of one’s childhood. It also houses a museum affiliated with the Royal Wawel Castle in Krakow. Here in our small group with few other visitors, we had a chance to get an unhurried look at some of Poland’s most beautiful furniture, tapestries and other decorative objects.
Then, just below the castle, already very high up above the valley, was a lovely formal garden. The castle wall, which served as a backdrop to the garden, was covered with cascading ivy that had turned that stunning fall red color.
The castle Visitors Center had a very small shop and a cafeteria-style restaurant, where we had lunch. It consisted of what had become the standard lunch, simple but tasty: three salads on a plate (red cabbage, regular cabbage, and shredded carrots,) then turkey cutlets and the fabulous Polish roasted potatoes, followed by a delicious (Polish) tiramisu. (I never pass up anyone’s tiramisu.)
On the next day, we left Krakow on our way to Warsaw, stopping at Czestochowa, the pilgrimage site, another out in the country experience, but completely different from the National Park. (As we left Krakow on the bus, our dear tour director, Beata, said: “Krakow is crying because you are leaving.” (A really sweet way to pass off a little rain – probably been used before, but I liked it.)
I had not looked forward to this stop at Czestochowa. It is in Jasna Gora, the monastery where the mysterious icon, the Mother of God of Czestochowa resides. I am not a fan of religious pilgrimage sites. I find it depressing that people give up a lot to go to such places because they hope for cures. I do not however, wish to denigrate anyone’s beliefs; in fact I think I envy them that kind of faith.
There were many surprising things about this pilgrimage site. I was not surprised to see gigantic parking lots, but I was surprised to see a beautiful slim graceful 18th century Cathedral spire, not unlike the graceful tall spire on the 18th century Congregational Church in Litchfield, Connecticut.
We were led directly in to this basilica, and to the chapel of the Black Madonna, where a mass was being celebrated to a standing room only audience of pilgrims. I have to say that it was all conducted in a most quiet and worshipful way, and I was very impressed with the quiet devotion that I saw, as well as the way the whole place is organized. There are masses said in many locations, many, many times per day, and the site if popular all year round.
We were there on a relatively quiet day, but still there were many, many people. Now that I have been there, I would not hesitate to suggest that tourists go to the shrine, so revered by the Poles, 98% of whom are Catholic, as well as by people the world over. Czestochowa is very much a part of the culture of this highly Catholic country.
We lunched (same standard lunch, better in some places than others) in one of the many restaurants down town that cater to busloads of people coming every day.
Then off we drove, through more inviting countryside, over uninviting not-quite-finished highways, to our final destination, the capital city of Warsaw.