As part of my road trip, I took a halt in Częstochowa in the south of Poland. A large town in this part of the country on the main road between Poland's two biggest cities, Katowice and Warsaw, its fame comes for being a pilgrimage site of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa. Millions of people come here every year, some drawn for holy reasons, others for the simple touristic value. Best of all, the complex of Jasna Gora where the shrine is based is completely free and packs a huge historical punch so it was out with my camera! Before I drove back to Western Poland, I took some time out in Częstochowa and spent the morning wandering round this absolutely massive complex.
(The flags state thecountry origin of each visitor. But how come there are no flags from Sri Lanka/Sychelles ;) now)
One thing I was surprised about was just how cheap Jasna Gora is. The complex is free to enter and walk around - of course if you want an audio tour, then you pay, but to enter is free. All the buildings are open to all members of the public. The eateries serve up lousy food, but it is the cheapest meal I ever had in Poland. Ad the ice cream is divine, and priced at a couple of Zloty, it is a bargain!
And for the simple reason that this is actually a pilgrimage site. This is not some tourist trap, but an active place of worship. And the local authorities primarily cater to these rather than the wandering tourist. People come from miles around, across the whole of Poland. Many actually make the pilgrimage of foot, and they are of all ages, young and old. As a result, on arrival, life is made as east as possible for them. It is the Polish Equivalent of Lourdes or Fatima. The pilgrims do not have to spend huge amounts of cash on food and even free toilet/shower facilities are provided.
Whatever you may think about the Catholic Church, I admire the fact that the bulk of sites I have visited linked to it is free to enter. Sure there are 'extras' to pay for (audio tour, heading into the tower to get a view of the vistas) but the crux of the site, no matter whether Jasna Gora or Westminster Cathedral they buck the trend of other 'religious' tourist sites. Do not get me wrong, there are some that charge, but it is the exception rather than the rule.
Częstochowa is intricately linked wth Poland's violent history, this time the Swedish wanted a piece of the country (I know, Sweden? How far is this country from Poland!) The Back Madonna is credited with helping to repulse the Swedish invasion and for stimulating countrywide resistance to a new overlord. As a result the site was built up and became a place for the sick to seek miracles and the number of medical implements left hanging on the walls of the shrine is...a lot!
Getting There and Away:
Jasna Gora lies on a hill on the outskirts of Częstochowa. Plenty of trains and coaches arrive in the town and it is a short walk (along a grand boulevard) to site of the shrine. As I mentioned earlier, food is cheap (but awful) and refreshment facilities are free. It does get crowded, so come early. The central shrine for worship 1opens up at around 11.30am, but the complex opens at 5am! Early visitors welcomed!