Saturday, 31 March 2012

VI Poland: On Her Majesty's Sauerkraut Service

There was a definite little thrill at having made it as far as Poland. On the way out of Zgorgelec i took a snap of a futuristic Church, then made my way a few kilometres along a major road, seeing the first storks of my trip, before settling down to sleep in a field. Next morning, the 4th of March, St Casimir’s day, i had a fair old trek before enjoying coffee at a roadside restaurant, and arrived in Boleslawiec just in time for evening Mass and Benediction at the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary. Visiting a grocery shop i was kindly given free bread, water and aspirin, armed with which i elected to soldier on towards a place called Okmiany. That leg in fact was one of the most arduous of the whole journey, which only made it all the more heavenly to arrive after midnight at a nice warm 24-hour diner. Sitting in view of a crucifix, as one so often does in Poland, i enjoyed two mugs of delicious hot chocolate.

  A pair of rather gruff members of the local constabulary woke me up very early in my bus shelter next morning, but once i’d explained myself they let me lie in for a bit longer. After a coffee back at the diner i charted a course for Chojnow, where i acknowledged the same two policemen as they drove past in their motor. In the evening i reached the medium-sized city of Legnica. The youth hostel to which a helpful English-speaking fellow pointed me was fully booked, so i opted for a mid-priced but very comfortable hotel bed, and caught up with some laundry. After Sunday Mass at St James’ Sanctuary, as it was called, nearby, that day’s stroll was a pleasant one in sunny weather through undemanding terrain to Sroda Slaska. The police who quizzed me there felt i should go to a hotel, but they didn’t insist, so i walked on to the far edge of town and spent the night in another field, by a cola packing depot.   
Tomb of Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko, Warsaw
  On the morning of the 7th of March, dedicated to SS Perpetua and Felicity, i enjoyed a free cup of coffee from a little packet given to me by the lady in a shop down the road. I then made tolerable strides to the huge city of Wroclaw (pronounced, opaquely, ‘Vrotswav’), though it took a very long time to reach the central station, from where i was hoping to go on a little excursion to Warsaw. Conveniently a train left at 10.45pm and i arrived in time to attend Mass at a Church with a statue of Pope John Paul II outside. On leaving i asked someone the way to the Church of St Stanislav Kostka, where one can pay one’s respects at the tomb of one of the most important figures in 20th century Polish history, Blessed Jerzy (George) Popieluszko. Born in 1947, he became a chaplain to the Solidarity trade union in 1981, and won fame (and notoriety in some circles) for his patriotic, overtly anti-communist ‘Masses for the Fatherland’, broadcast on Radio Free Europe. Moscow’s placemen in the communist government failed to silence him with repeated threats of violence and arrest, so in October 1984 the fateful decision was made finally to rid themselves of this ‘turbulent priest’. On the 19th of that month he was kidnapped, then brutally beaten and murdered by the secret police, at the age of 37. A quarter of a million people turned out for his funeral. Among his best-known sayings was “Overcome evil with good” and;

“A Christian’s obligation is to stand by the truth, even if it were to cost a great deal, because one pays a great deal for truth; only chaff costs nothing.”

Old Town, Wroclaw 
  Though each suffered terribly in the war, both Warsaw and Wroclaw are possessed of beautifully restored Old Town quarters, which i was happy to explore, albeit fleetingly, on the afternoon of Shrove Tuesday and morning of Ash Wednesday respectively. After Mass at St Adalbert’s Church in Wroclaw i made for Olecnica, ‘spurred on’, you might say, by the faint prospect of finding a bar with a telly to watch Champions League football. No such luck; but i slept quite well under a sort of balcony next to a park, until the police arrived at about 6.15am and (politely enough) said i’d better move on. Consequently, by 7.30 i was at the resplendent Minor Basilica of St John the Evangelist, in time for Mass, after which i found a place for a coffee, and made a stab at repairing my bright yellow poncho thing, with tape i’d found next to the road. Up to then in fact, especially considering the flimsy nature of my kit, i had reason to be very grateful for mostly wonderfully dry weather, but that day was marked by more or less steady rain. After dark i made it a short distance past Namyslow (where i could see several more impressive Churches) to a village called Kammenal. Short of options i reluctantly settled for a place to sleep under a slide in a playground, but had to admit defeat c. 3am, not least because local dogs were barking, and slunk off down the road. About a kilometre away it was a relief to find an empty drainage duct, underneath the road, where i could sleep until morning without disturbance.

Nuthatch, just visible in centre of picture
  On the 11th of March, the memorial of Blessed Thomas Atkinson, i reached Walcya just before 6pm and attended a Mass celebrated by Franciscans in the Church of St Therese of Lisieux. Being a Friday in Lent, it was so well attended as to be ‘standing room only’; my suspicion is that this can only happen in Poland. That night was spent quite successfully in a bus shelter on the way to the town of Kluczbork, which i reached in bright sunshine next day. In the afternoon i stopped at a nice outdoor ‘grill’ place near Stare Olesno, where a nuthatch, in a radical departure from the behaviour i’d always associated with them, could be seen hopping about on the ground, near enough to my table for me to take a photo. The two guys running the joint were mildly amused by the idea of my pilgrimage, and decided to give their curious client, calling me “Mexico”, a couple of nice rolls as well as a free coffee. Stretching the limits of my Polish i began to list a few illustrious names from Poland’s recent history: ‘Jan Pawel II’; ‘Zbigniew Boniek’ (1980s soccer legend), to which one of them added, humouring me, ‘Walesa’.
  Having passed through the bigger town of Olesno without finding a Church in time for Saturday evening Mass, after a picnic supper i pressed on in the dark to the next village, where a little green neon sign betokened an inn. It was busy inside but a young lady customer kindly volunteered to help with English, and i readily agreed to pay for a mid-range, very comfortable room. In the morning i went to 8 o’clock Mass a short distance away, where the Gospel was the temptation of Our Lord in the wilderness, then came back for breakfast. As i was enjoying that delicious spread, the manageress came by, and asked a few questions in excellent English. She said she too was a Catholic - and tearfully insisted on reimbursing the money i’d paid for my stay! I could hardly refuse such kindness, and assured her, of course, of my prayers and hope to write, but thankfully was also able to leave a little card with an image of St Maximilian Kolbe*, from a stained glass window at the Church of Our Lady of Ostrabrama, Bristol.

*The Polish Franciscan priest who famously accepted martyrdom, by starvation and then lethal injection, in the place of another at the Auschwitz concentration camp.

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