Kalwaria Zebrzydowska

Stunning natural surroundings frame one of the country’s premier religious pilgrimage sites.
Kalwaria Zebrzydowska
Walk This Way: Following the stations of the cross in Poland's Kalwaria Zebrzydowska (courtesy, Polish National Tourist Office)
Kalwaria Zebrzydowska: The Mannerist Architectural and Park Landscape Complex and Pilgrimage Park at a Glance
Location: Vojevodship of Bielsko-Biala, Kalwaria Zebrzydowska District, Poland

Date of Inscription: 1998

Why Go: Though Christ never stepped foot here, you can still follow the Stations of the Cross as envisioned by Mannerists and monks.

Who moved Jerusalem? Theoretically, no one. But the Mannerist park complex in southern Poland replicates the setting and religious landmarks of the Holy City so well, pilgrims might as well have an Israel stamp on their passport. The main difference: In Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, travelers can trace the Stations of the Cross and eat pierogies all in one visit.

The park, about 20 miles southwest of Krakow, is a shining example of a Calvary, a manmade environment that re-creates the layout of old Jerusalem and, most important, the Stations of the Cross. Specifically, the architects used chapels, pathways, and the natural topography to suggest the route Christ followed in Jerusalem prior to his Crucifixion.

Calvaries started springing up around Europe in the mid-1500s and really gained purchase during the Counter-Reformation. The ambitious projects—in the Italian tongue, Sacri Monti—were particularly popular on the Iberian Peninsula and in Italy, the Low Countries, and Central Europe. But Poland's development (the country's second-most important pilgrimage destination) holds the high honor of being one of the "Great Calvaries."

Mikolaj Zebrzydowski, then governor of Krakow, first conceived the idea in 1600; his humble plans included building the Chapel of Crucifixion on the flanks of Zar Mountain, plus a small hermitage where he could meditate in peace. However, the Bernadine monks Tomasz Bucki and Ludwig Boguski had bigger, higher, and holier ideas, envisioning a major spiritual theme park that echoed Jerusalem's city map and Christ's footsteps.

Mathematician, astronomer, and surveyor Feliks Zebrowski was drafted to design the ersatz Jerusalem, with the Lanckoronska Mountain standing in for the Mount of Olives and the Zar for Golgotha. Of utmost importance were the chapels, which marked the Stations of the Cross (an upgrade from the original simple crosses). The style, of course, was euro-versal: Dutch Mannerist, with Italian Renaissance details, a French Baroque garden, and architects from Italy and Belgium.

Besides the stations, the site also includes a route studded with ten chapels representing the life of the Virgin Mary. Both could impress even the sternest Sunday School teacher. A great field trip idea: Have the students walk the paths, each of which ends with a sacred site representing an episode from Christ's life, such as the Last Supper and the Ascension. Then inspect the 44 buildings, as every one is its own Faberge egg of wonderment. In some cases, the floor plans are literal (the Chapel of the Heart of the Virgin Mary is shaped like a valentine); others resemble a tricky geometry lesson (the octagon with a square inset for the Ascension).

The buildings' diverse materials also pull from Home Depot's shelves: stone or brick walls; roofs made of copper, zinc sheets, or ceramic tiles; circular or oval windows; strapwork ornaments, blind arcades, and corn or acorn pendants for stylish touches. By contrast, the interiors are much more Spartan and streamlined. Yet even in their simplicity, the message is clear: Terra Santa. Translation: Jerusalem soil rests inside these blocks.

The most prominent buildings—especially if your eyes quickly sweep the scenery of valleys, rivers and mountains—are the Church of Our Lady of the Angels and the Benedictine Monastery. The church is accompanied by three domed chapels and two towers with Baroque roofs; inside, intricately carved choir stalls make beautiful music with other Baroque trimmings.

Meanwhile, the monastery, which underwent various expansions through the years, could easily be mistaken for a palace, if the Bernadine monks weren't running the show. Oh yes, and those monks, they still maintain the grounds—all the better to keep the Passion alive.

A globetrotter and travel writer, Andrea Sachs contributes frequently to the Washington Post.

Published: 27 Sep 2006 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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