4 Nov14 - Krakow, Poland

This morning I had a great breakfast at the hotel restaurant. I love the fact that breakfast is included since European breakfasts are quite large and can keep you going til dinner if need be. There were four kinds of cereal, three kinds of juices plus pate, smoked salmon, several kinds of cold cuts as well as danish, croissants and sweet rolls. You can also get made-to-order eggs as well. 

After this feast I went off to meet my driver for a tour to Czestochowa to the Jasna Gora Monastery to see the famous "Black Madonna" painting. I was happy that I had a private tour with a private driver all to myself in a large Mercedes Benz with no other tourists which meant I could enjoy this day based on my personal timeline and likes. 

The "Black Madonna" painting has quite a history and is enveloped in legends and miracles. The icon of Our Lady of Częstochowa has been intimately associated with Poland for the past six hundred years. Its history prior to its arrival in Poland is shrouded in numerous legends which trace the icon's origin to St. Luke who painted it on a cedar table top from the house of the Holy Family.  It was while Luke was painting Mary that she told him about the events in the life of Jesus that he eventually used in his gospel. 

This same legend states that that when St. Helen went to Jerusalem to search for the true cross in 326 AD, she happened upon this portrait of Our Lady. She gave it to her son, Constantine, who had a shrine built to house it. In a critical battle with the Saracens, the portrait was displayed from the walls of Constantinople and the Saracens were subsequently routed. The portrait was credited with saving the city. The painting was eventually owned by Charlemagne who subsequently presented the painting to Prince Leo of Ruthenia (northwest Hungary). It remained at the royal palace in Ruthenia until an invasion occurred in the eleventh century. The king prayed to Our Lady to aid his small army and as a result of this prayer a darkness overcame the enemy troops who, in their confusion, began attacking one another. Ruthenia was saved as a result of this intervention by Our Lady. In the fourteenth century, it was transferred to the Mount of Light (Jasna Gora) in Poland in response to a request made in a dream of Prince Ladislaus of Opola.

In 1382 invading Tartars attacked the Prince's fortress at Belz. In this attack one of the Tartar arrows hit the painting and lodged in the throat of the Madonna. The Prince, fearing that he and the famous painting might fall to the Tartars, fled in the night finally stopping in the town of Czestochowa, where the painting was installed in a small church. The Prince subsequently had a Pauline monastery and church built to ensure the painting's safety. In 1430, the Hussites overran the monastery and attempted to take the portrait. One of the looters twice struck the painting with his sword but before he could strike another blow he fell to the floor writhing in agony and died. Both the sword cuts and the arrow wound are still visible in the painting.

Later, in 1655, Poland was almost entirely overrun by the forces of Sweden's King Charles X. Only the area around the monastery remained unconquered. Somehow, the monks of the monastery successfully defended the portrait against a forty day siege and eventually all of Poland was able to drive out the invaders.

After this remarkable turn of events, the Lady of Czestochowa became the symbol of Polish national unity and was crowned Queen of Poland. The King of Poland placed the country under the protection of the Blessed Mother. A more recent legend surrounding the painting involves the Russian invasion of Poland in 1920. Legend holds that the Russian army was massing on the banks of the Vistula river, threatening Warsaw, when an image of the Virgin was seen in the clouds over the city. The troops withdrew on seeing the image.

There have been reports for centuries of miraculous events such as spontaneous healings occurring to those who made a pilgrimage to the portrait. It gets its name "Black Madonna" from the soot residue that discolors the painting. The soot is the result of centuries of votive lights and candles burning in front of the painting. With the fall of communism in Poland, pilgrimages to the Black Madonna have increased dramatically.

Legends about the Madonna's appearance:

The legend concerning the two scars on the Black Madonna's right cheek is that the Hussites stormed the Pauline monastery in 1430, plundering the sanctuary. Among the items stolen was the icon. After putting it in their wagon, the Hussites tried to get away but their horses refused to move. They threw the portrait down to the ground and one of the plunderers drew his sword upon the image and inflicted two deep strikes. When the robber tried to inflict a third strike, he fell to the ground and writhed in agony until his death. Despite past attempts to repair these scars, they had difficulty in covering up those slashes as they always resurface.

Another legend states that, as the robber struck the painting twice, the face of the Virgin Mary started to bleed; in a panic, the scared Hussites retreated and left the painting.

The miracles worked by Our Lady of Czestochowa seem to occur mainly on a public scale.  During her stay in Constantinople, she is reported to have frightened the besieging Saracens away from the city.  Similarly, in 1655 a small group of Polish defenders was able to drive off a much larger army of Swedish invaders from the sanctuary. It is also recorded that Our Lady dispersed an army of Russian invaders by an apparition at the River Vistula on September 15, 1920.  In more recent times, the Czestochowa Madonna has also been acknowledged for her protection of and cooperation with the Polish nation.  

Beyond these public prodigies:

The miracles attributed to Our Lady of Czestochowa are numerous and spectacular. The original accounts of these cures and miracles are preserved in the archives of the Pauline Fathers at Jasna Gora.

The image is not only well-known on account of its history of miracles, it's international reputation has been considerably enhanced because of the personal devotion of Blessed John Paul II:

In modern times, Karol Wojtyla, a native son of Poland, prayed before the Madonna during his historic visit in 1979, several months after his election to the Chair of Peter as John Paul II.  He made another visit to Our Lady of Czestochowa in 1983 and again in 1991.

The large baroque monastery of Jasna Góra dominates a hilltop in Częstochowa and is always bustling with pilgrims and worshippers. As pilgrims approach the monastery, the most striking sight is the 106-meter belltower, reconstructed in 1906 (the bottom part dates from 1714).

The second level contains four clocks, one on each side, that mark the passage of each 15 minutes with Marian melodies. Inside the third level are statues of St. Paul the Hermit, St. Florian, St. Casimir and the Saint-Queen Hedvig; the fifth level has statues of the church fathers St. Leo the Great, St. Gregory, St. Augustine and St. Ambrose.

The focus of pilgrims to Jasna Góra is not the monastery, but the icon of Our Lady of Częstochowa, which is displayed in a altar in the Chapel of the Black Madonna. The icon shows a serious Mary holding the infant Jesus on her left arm and gesturing towards him with her right hand. The Virgin's gaze is intense —pilgrims are moved by the way she seems to look right at them.

The Virgin's robe and mantle are decorated with lilies, the symbol of the Hungarian royal family. The infant Jesus is dressed in a red tunic and holds a Bible in his left hand and makes a gesture of blessing with his right. The Virgin and Child are dressed in bejeweled velvet robes and gold crowns for special occasions.

The image has been placed in a gold frame decorated with hundreds of precious jewels, and stands on an altar of ebony and silver donated by the Grand Chancellor George Ossoliński in 1650.

The altar with the icon is separated from the rest of the Chapel of the Black Madonna with a floor-to-ceiling iron screen. The large Gothic chapel includes five other altars, the most notable of which is the Altar of the Crucifix, to the right of the icon. Its cross dates from 1400. The walls of the chapel are full of ex-votos left by grateful pilgrims.

Attached to the Chapel of the Black Madonna is the baroque basilica, named the Church of the Holy Cross and Nativity of Mary. Rebuilt between 1692 and 1695, it has three aisles and ceilings decorated with accounts of the miracles of Our Lady of Częstochowa. The main altar was designed by the Italian artist Giacomo Antonio Buzzini between 1725 and 1728.

Kings, queens and popes have donated a vast array of precious objects, such as King Michael Korybut Wiśniowiecki and the Archduchess Eleanor of Austria on the occasion of their wedding in Jasna Góra in 1670. 

Also donated to this chapel is the Nobel Peace Prize won by Lech Walesa in 1983.

Driving back to Krakow...................

It was a leisurely drive back to Krakow and we drove back via the "Eagle's Nest Trail". The Trail of the Eagles' Nests is one of the most beautiful tourist trails in Poland. There are breathtaking landscapes and castles along the way. You can also see charming country houses and cows grazing in the fields. One of the most popular and interesting tourist trails in Poland, the route follows a stretch of forested countryside in the Krakow-Czestochowa Upland and is lined by castles and fortresses that were constructed atop the steep hills of the region. 
In the heart of Ocjow National Park, there is Ojcow Castle – the ruins of a Gothic fortress built by Casimir III the Great, the last Polish king of the Piast dynasty. We can see pretty wooden houses lining the slopes around the castle. A short distance north is Pieskowa Skala Castle, -- often said to be the jewel of the Trail of the Eagles’ Nest. Built as a royal castle in the 16th century, Pieskowa Skala was restored to its full former glory after WWII, and the castle as you see it is one of the best preserved in Poland.

It was mid-afternoon when we returned to Krakow and I asked the driver to leave me in the Old Town. It was a warm beautiful day and the square is just magical with the medieval architecture, the church  and the horses carrying antique carriages.

Of course I had to take a carriage ride, I mean it's just impossible to resist taking one of these to tour the Old Town. It was really fabulous, a 45 minute ride which covered small nooks and crannies and cobbled-stoned narrow streets which I was happy not to do on foot.

The entire medieval old town is among the first sites chosen for the UNESCO's original World Heritage List, inscribed as Kracow's Historic Centre. The old town is also one of Poland's official national Historic Monuments tracked by the National Heritage Board of Poland.

The historic centre of Kracow, the former capital of Poland, is situated at the foot of the Royal Wawel Castle. The 13th-century merchants' town has Europe's largest market square and numerous historical houses, palaces and churches with their magnificent interiors. Further evidence of the town's fascinating history is provided by the remnants of the 14th-century fortifications and the medieval site of Kazimierz with its ancient synagogues in the southern part of town, Jagellonian University and the Gothic cathedral where the kings of Poland were buried.

In the 19th century most of the Old Town fortifications were demolished. The moat encircling the walls was filled in and turned into a green belt known as Planty Park.

Once I was done with my ride, I leisurely walked back to my hotel since it was only a 7 minute walk away. It was nice to see the sun starting to go down on the buildings with such beautiful architecture. One of these fabulous buildings is the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre.

I made it an early night since I wanted to be well rested for my last day in Krakow tomorrow.

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