Our first day back in Poland became a pilgrimage, without our intending it to be.
Immediately after crossing the border we were assaulted by a motley collection of advertising hoardings selling goods, services, pampering and local products.
Giant images of glitzy new bathrooms and kitchens made way to fly posters of pigs, chickens and eggs, whilst underwear-clad dancing girls lined up with the finger-licking Colonel and Audi’s new SUV.
Beyond the roadside clutter and often distracting billboards, the scenic route we had chosen was through green and rolling countryside.
Trying to keep focused on the road, we were constantly overtaken by lorries, including in 30mph zones in villages, and dodging various and random obstacles; cows, unroadworthy vehicles, loose dogs and delivery trucks making 3-point turns.
We simply didn’t know what was going to be around the next bend…
Heading towards Kraków it was a relief to stop at Wadowice, a pretty hillside town along the river Skawa and at the foot of the mountain, Beskid Mały. A rural Polish town, partitioned several times by Austria over the course of history, it had a vibrant community of 2,000 Jewish trading and craftworking families before the outbreak of war in 1939.
Over the course of Nazi Germany’s occupation of Poland, the town’s Jewish community was utterly wiped out, sent to concentration camps for work or ultimately, on 10 August 1943, to nearby Oświęcim (Auschwitz-Birkenau) where they were murdered in the gas chambers.
After the war ended, a mass was held in the town’s main church in 1946 by a young priest who had been born in a tenement apartment overlooking the church’s engraved sundial with the message ‘time flies, but eternity waits’. He had been baptized and confirmed within the church and spent the war years away from the town by studying theology at university.
In 1946 he was 26 years old and known locally and affectionately as Lolek. The priest went on to become Arch Bishop in Krakow, Cardinal of Poland and In 1978 became known to world as Pope John Paul II.
Images of Jan Pawel II are everywhere in Poland. A Saint since his canonisation by Pope Francis in 2014 he is adored by the Polish for being ‘our Polish pope’. A heroic freedom fighter of the 20th century his gentle, smiling and white-robed image is found in bakeries, groceries, hair dressers, bus stops, petrol stations and coffee shops.
Wadowice has two of his papal thrones which are readily available to see in two separate churches and a trail of 18 sights relevant to his early years of school, college, friendships, football and theatre. He was both a budding actor and goalkeeper – talents he no doubt drew upon later in negotiating international diplomacy.
In the town’s main square we spotted a plaque to Wielka Brytania amongst the 104 pilgrimages made by John Paul II, more than all previous popes combined. Impressively, he travelled more than 725,000 miles around the world and attracted some of the largest crowds ever recorded to have assembled.
I remembered a bleary-eyed early morning travelling to Baginton Airport, Coventry in 1982 and in hot, bright sunshine waving excitedly at the Pope Mobile passing close by me, then spending hours peering through my Pope Scope at the tiny but magnetic man leading more people than I could have ever imagined together, in song.
Further along the road we stopped at Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, a UNESCO world heritage site of a monastery and basilica, miraculous painting and more than 40 chapels in a hilltop forested walk.
When Lolek lost his mother as a very young boy, his father took him to the sanctuary and explained that the Mother of God of Kalawaria would be his new mother. For the yet-to-be Pope the site remained important throughout his life.
We marvelled at the interior of the basilica, heavily decorated in gold gilt and silver and painted in beautiful frescoes throughout.
Behind the impressively carved alter a nervous group of touring Americans were being led hesitantly through sung prayers to ‘Mary, Mother of Gaaad’. It was a touching giggle.
We peeked over the shoulders of kneeling nuns at the miraculous painting, a rich icon of Mary and Jesus in silver leaf, said to have bled tears in 1641.
A dozing priest in a nearby confessional eyed us sleepily as we headed out of the basilica’s heavy wooden doors to breezy and beautiful views back across towards Wadowice.