Burning that extra Christmas calory.
In Yuletide, Małopolska more than ever reminds me of Hobbiton. Eating, overeating, and then filling up the corners with the most delicate grub is certainly one of the similarities. And from Christmas Eve Supper to New Year’s dinner, it does snow food and rain drink in Poland. Little wonder that, like the hobbits of the Shire, the big folk of Małopolska take walking very seriously after indulging in festive dishes. We take our walking sticks, or telescopic poles, and head into the mountains. We go even further than that and can actually do some good-natured running.
From Christmas Day to Candle Mass, ending the Christmas season on 2 February, most churches become a favourite destination for family walks as they open their doors to show beautiful displays of traditional nativity scenes. Baby Jesus lies in a manger which, unlike in the Gospel, quite often stands among the highlights of Kraków and Małopolska architecture. If the young ones feel like walking and exploring one church after another, the tour of nativity scenes in Kraków can probably take most of the not-that-long-at-this-time-of-the-year day. A good idea is to start from the three big churches of Kazimierz – Corpus Christi, St Catherine’s, and Skałka “on the Rock”, perhaps nipping into the, usually forgotten, Garrison Church of St Agnes, on the way to the Missionaries’ Church in ul. Stradom, Bernardines (more below) at the foot of Wawel, and the Cathedral on top of Wawel Hill. From there, it’s best to take ul. Grodzka with its five churches – St Ives, St Andrew’s, and St Peter and St Paul’s and then Dominican and Franciscan at two ends of the square. By the time you’ve reached the Main Market Square, you’d quite likely get hungry. Perhaps it’s worth having a bite in one of the nearby restaurants before continuing via St Adalbert’s and St Mary’s to perhaps the most beautiful of them all – the Nativity Scene in the Crypt of the Piarist Church, which sometimes employs live birds. A route like this takes you to around fifteen churches, especially if you’ve made some detours on the way, to look into St Anne’s or St Johns’ Church.
A nativity scene certainly not to be missed, apart from the Piarists’, is that in the Bernadine’s Church at the foot of Wawel. It harmoniously melds elements of Bethlehem with a Polish Highlander village. The assembly starts a month in advance by hanging a 50-foot and 50-year-old panoramic background in the southern aisle. With over 100 figures, some of them mechanical, it is certainly the largest Nativity Scene diorama in Kraków. Some of the figures were made locally by the Bernardine monks, some came from Italy, and the figure of Infant Jesus was brought from Bethlehem. As every scene looks different, a visit to “them all” is a perfect opportunity to discuss how the same event can be presented and interpreted in many ways.
Having eaten to their hearts’ delight, hobbits enjoyed long walks, whether in the fields or in the mountains. So do we. The landscape is beautiful, especially with sun reflexes from the fresh snow dazzling your eyes. Yet, while the fields and hills in the north of Małopolska should be alright in most circumstances, do remember that the weather changes quickly in the mountains, and even among the gentle slopes of the Gorce and other parts of the Beskidy Mountains, you can get lost among mist and fog, and then the spectre of hypothermia may suddenly appear all too real. Therefore, it’s best to make sure your phone’s recharged and you know the emergency numbers, have some food (leftover Christmas cake, for example), and clothes to keep you warm. In the higher parts of the mountains, and especially in the Tatras, make sure that the weather conditions permit walking. Alas!, there are accidents every year, so do everything to avoid them.
For those with a penchant for shorter routes yet covered at a greater speed, Kraków organises the New Year’s Run – you can choose between 5 and 10 km, and, to make all the onlookers cheer you more happily, you don the fanciest or funniest clothes you can imagine. Needless to say, in the Royal Capital of Kraków, such a run abounds with kings and princesses in the company of dragons and assorted mythical creatures, while groups of runners often choose thematic attires, and may for example dress as Smurfs, hobbits, or elves. Sightings of running Tie-fighters and couples in wedding costumes have also been made. Let your imagination surprise everyone, and meet us there!
The scenes you see in the churches are closer to the Italian Christmas tradition and hardly ever belong to the famous Kraków Nativity Scene (szopki krakowskie) type inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity since 2018. Szopki krakowskie are architectural constructions mixing religion and history with fable under a colourful and rich layer of tinsel. Some of those masterpieces are really tiny, under a foot in height, while the largest are taller than people.
“St Johns’ Church” is not a spelling mistake. The little church with a colourful façade in ul. św. Jana is dedicated to both St John the Baptist and St John the Apostle. By the way, it is also dedicated to Our Lady of Ransom, as the Blessed Virgin is the patron of ransoming slaves, meaning mostly Christians enslaved in and around the Holy Land.