The last couple days have been full of surprises around every corner as I explore Poland. My last night in Krakow I strolled the Market Square, an absolutely huge plaza in the middle of the Stare Miasto (Old City). The best people watching in all of Poland, if not Eastern Europe. It’s like a never-ending carnival of street performers, flower stalls, crafts markets, and accordians pumping out polka. You never know what you’ll find here, day or night. Over the course of my stay in Krakow, I joined with a group of Polish soldiers heartily singing traditional Polish folk songs, watched with the crowds as a local film crew shot a period film, and listened to the haunting melody of the hejnal from the tower of St. Mary’s Church.
The hejnal is legendary in Krakow. In the Middle Ages, when the town watchman in the tower spotted Tatars invading the city, he began to play the hejnal to alert his fellow townspeople. In the middle of the hejnal, an arrow pierced his throat, cutting him off mid-song. To this day, the hejnal is played at the top of the hour up to the point the arrow broke the tune by a dedicated group of firemen. The hejnal is even broadcast over the national radio to tell the time.
My biggest discovery occurred my last night in Krakow in the hours before I had to catch my night train. A huge stage was set up in the middle of the square and a crowd was gathering. I headed over to see what was going on and ended up in the middle of a moving concert that has been the highlight so far of my trip. It turned out to be a religious concert important enough for the Archbishop of Krakow to attend! As the concert started, I began to piece together what was being celebrated – the life of St. Francis of Assisi and the foundation of the Franciscan order. As a former volunteer with the Capuchin Franciscan Volunteer Corps, I was honored and moved to be there. A large procession of Franciscan brothers encircled the audience in a parade of lit torches. The music was phenomenal – even in Polish, I felt uplifted. The composer of the entire concert was the evening’s pianist and some rather well-known Polish singers had solos. (I gather they were popular by the amount of applause they received when their names were announced.) The entire concert was being broadcast live on Polish TV and radio. I left for my night train refreshed in spirit.
Krakow is an extremely religious city. During Communist rule, the Poles went to church as a way of protesting the regime. They take their Catholic faith seriously, and everywhere in Krakow I saw young men and women wearing the billowing robes of priests, brothers, and nuns. I even spotted a number of Capuchin Franciscans. Pope John Paul II was the archbishop here before his election to the pontiff, and I actually sat in the very pew where he would pray every morning. It is now marked by a small plaque. The church he chose to pray in out of the many in Krakow says alot about his character. It is a small church, but humbly beautiful.
Now I am in Gdansk, a city on the Baltic Sea in northern Poland. It is a gritty, industrial city, but the central part of the city is gorgeous, a medieval time warp to the days when the Hanseatic League ran the city’s economy. The Hanseatic League was a network of trading partners during the Middle Ages, mostly Germanic cities in northern Europe. Trade made the city prosperous and the historic buildings are beautiful, decorated in bright colors, painted murals, sculpted friezes, and dragon rainspouts.
I took an important detour to an important site in modern history and a spot I have been anxious to see all year – the Gdansk shipyards. I stood at the gate to the shipyards where the Solidarity movement started. In 1980, the shipyard workers went on strike, led by Lech Walsea, and it led to a growing movement that eventually weakened the Communist hold on Poland enough that it collapsed in 1989. At one point, before Solidarity became outlawed by the Communist government, 1 in 4 Poles were members. I stood at the gate and thought of how all the dominos fell from there, all across Eastern Europe, paving the way for the fall of the Berlin Wall, the break-up of the Eastern Bloc, the collapse of Soviet control. A significant moment for me. There have been a lot of significant moments on this trip!
One final significant moment to mention – I saw the Baltic Sea today! Stood on a pier, gazed out at the choppy sea as the bitter wind tangled my hair, and breathed in the salty air. And then I spotted a gaggle of swans and burst out laughing. Swans living wild on the Baltic Sea? What new thing will I discover next?