We have over the years learnt to treat the Tatra Mountains with respect. Part of the long Carpathian chain which sweeps through seven European countries, the Tatra summits above Zakopane are the highest lands on Polish territory.
“That’s the closest I’m ever going to get to Heaven,” says our friend Tadeusz as he recalls the day when he and three other seminarians accompanied one of their Kraków professors to the top of Rysy. That mountain top in the Tatras is Poland’s highest pinnacle, though it is a slight dent to national pride that just a few metres away, on the Slovak side of the border, the contours rise even higher. “God probably felt that the Slovakians needed that extra push towards Heaven,” quips Tadeusz.
The Catholic Church parted company with Tadeusz long before the young man ever reached ordination. Yet a half-century after Tadeusz climbed Rysy with the tutor and guide who later became Pope, he has not lost his respect for the mountains. On a clear day, Tadeusz can see the distant line of the hills from his Kraków apartment. He recalls how the future Pope John Paul II, when he was an enthusiastic young professor at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, would speak of mountains with great reverence.
There are a dozen ways to reach the Polish Tatras and we have over the years tried most of them. We have stood on the Slovak summits and looked down into Poland. We have taken the back road through Lysa Polana which skirts the northern slopes of Havran before dropping down to cross the Polish border in a dank little valley full of ferns and dripping firs. And we have taken the train from Kraków up to Zakopane. Oddly, it is that train journey which most convincingly evokes the spirit of a pilgrimage.
A landscape litany
Spiritual journeys and speed don’t naturally mesh, and that’s the beauty of the slow train from Kraków to Zakopane. It lasts an eternity and the names of the forty-one intermediate stops along the way are a wonderful litany of Polish toponyms:
Sieniawa, Skawina, Stronie, Stryszów, Szaflary
There is more than a touch of Yeatsian magic in the place names of the country between Kraków and the High Tatras. “Beats reciting the rosary any day,” says Tadeusz who, as he accompanies us down to the station, reveals that he really can roll off from memory the precise names of all the stations on the line to Zakopane.
Kraków has its temples of prayer and its temples of commerce. Politicians and paupers gather for Holy Mass in the great Gothic Marian church on the main square while tourists hunt for amber trinkets in the nearby ancient cloth hall. Oddly, the original Habsburg railway station has been sidelined by a grotesque modern shopping centre, with trains leaving from concrete platforms that are tucked away below a car park. “God didn’t intend the ride to Zakopane to start this way,” observes Tadeusz as we stroll in air-conditioned comfort past boutiques and burger bars to the railway platforms.