It was my third visit to the Jasna Góra Monastery in Częstochowa. Not that the Polish city – population 240,000 – has that much going for it, as cities in Poland go, that it warranted three visits. Częstochowa is not particularly pretty or even interesting, though if you dig deep enough into the beginnings of any place you could come up with plenty of factoids to snag your interest. But on the surface, Częstochowa is the sort of place a traveler breezes through on his or her way to a town abuzz with far more excitement. Yet, must every city be exciting?
Częstochowa does have somewhat of a nightlife. On my first night in town, friends and I hit a local bar where I downed my share of beers dispensed from a tall clear-glass beer cylinder. The bar, it’s atmosphere calm and relaxed, brews its beers in-house, and two that I tried were actually quite good.
There is a place in this world for cities that are meant simply for relaxing and a good night’s sleep. Częstochowa is such a place. Great for weekend getaways from the hurried madness of larger cities such as Warsaw, which is just 2-plus hours north, give or take traffic congestion and how fast you dare to push your speed. Częstochowa is also blessed with nearby scenic beauty. You can explore the ruins of a 14th Century castle in Olsztyn, about 25 kilometers (16 miles) from the Częstochowa city center.
The medieval ruins rest atop a hill that overlooks the city of fewer than 2,500 people. Several kilometers away, you can spend a lazy afternoon by The American Lake – origins of the name unknown to me and my local hosts – eating trout freshly fished right out of the waters and grilled in minutes. With a crust of almonds and a touch of garlic, delicious! Choose one of several side dishes and if that isn’t enough, dessert. This tranquil setting about 40 minutes from Częstochowa attracts people from near and far. It’s perfect day trip from Częstochowa, which is largely a place for families and traditions that hold together communities. So while there isn’t much to Częstochowa itself, there is much to do if you cast your net wider to include its surroundings.
Where Częstochowa lacks in certain areas, it makes up in it’s nearby natural beauty. And yet, Częstochowa draws more visitors than many places in Poland. How is that? Simple: the Jasna Góra Monastery.
The monastery is home to many treasures, but none so precious as the iconic Black Madonna of Częstochowa. The Madonna is indisputably the city’s top draw. The revered image of the Virgin Mary and the Jasna Góra Monastery itself were chief reasons behind my three visits to the 631-year-old monastery founded by Pauline monks who came from Hungary. The Jasna Góra draws millions of visitors from around the world, and millions more during an annual religious pilgrimage to the shrine. During that period in August, the religious faithful walk for hundreds and even thousands of miles from all points across Poland to demonstrate their devotion to the Black Madonna, whose origins and creation has befuddled scholars. Experts have not been able to agree on the age of the piece because the original image was badly damaged then painted over. In 1430, the icon was severely damaged by Hussite invaders. Early history documents have the icon arriving in Częstochowa from Jerusalem in 1382, but others have argued that it came to the city even earlier. No matter, it is very old, priceless and a fountain of strength and inspiration to many in every corner of the world.
So it is then no surprise that on three tries I couldn’t get near the icon and only manage a blurry photograph captured with my camera’s zoom lens. On my first visit more than a month ago, huge crowds kept me at bay.
On my second visit, even larger crowds attending some special Mass. And on my third and final try the next day, smaller crowds, but still big enough. I pushed – or rather I was pushed forward with the crowd surge – toward the Madonna inside the tiny, cramped chapel. I was carried just shy of a black and gold wrought iron gate that protects the Madonna when closed off to the public. The crowds trying to walk up to this Black Madonna, some on their knees, were too much. I snapped a few photos from afar and turned back, after it became obvious that it would have taken far more time than I could afford to stand in the crush just to inch a few feet closer. I simply did not have enough time. I would be returning to Warsaw in just a few hours. Someday perhaps I will return, determined and with an abundance of time on my side to get my closeup of the Madonna. It will take a lot of perseverance, which generally I have – and likely more being pushed and shoved about.
All and all, my time in Częstochowa was amazing. I spent the entire weekend with the family of a couple of friends and their friends. It was my golden opportunity to spend time in the home of a real, live Polish family, and the Nowaks – four generations in all – did not disappoint. I ate, and ate and ate – and ate some more, until I could no more. 🙂 Of course, there was some delicious Polish food. I may not have seen the Black Madonna up close and personal, but I saw the love of family, and sometimes family is all you need.