Amazing Krakow

Krakow, Poland is absolutely AMAZING. Today was the kind of day the visitors bureau prays for–about 70 degrees, a light breeze, and a blindingly blue sky with big, white fluffy clouds passing by every now and them. I’ve witnessed architectural treasures today the likes of which I’ve never seen before, and I’ve seen a lot of Europe. After previously visiting largely bombed and rebuilt Gdansk and Warsaw, I can only say thank God that somehow, someway WWII passed over this city’s built environment. (The people, of course, were not so lucky, but the buildings survived.) There are over 130 Catholic churches here–all historic and all with a “first and only” to brag about: The largest bell, the oldest altar, the most gold in Europe. My mind blurred with all the accolades. We visited a number of churches today on our tour. The Franciscan sanctuary was pointed out, but we did not go inside. At tour’s end, we had a few hours of free time before dinner, and I headed to “my” church hoping for an afternoon mass. Well, I got it . . .

When I arrived, there was a big crowd standing outside. All at once, without any invitation I saw or heard, all raced inside and had a seat, me with them. It was only then that I noticed everyone was in a suit or dress, and everyone had a gift on their lap. Before I could react, everyone stood and the bride came down the aisle. In this way I attended my first Polish wedding and mass. As Toot would say, they were VERY married when it was over. The ceremony lasted 1:30. When it came the time in the mass to have communion, I decided to go forward as there will be no time for church tomorrow. I was mortified to see a camera was trained on the wedding guests as they received the host! The entire thing was being filmed! Oh well–I was the uninvited guest. What can I say? At the first kiss, the organ and choir broke out in the “Hallelujah Chorus” (thankfully in English) from a high loft in the rear. The bride left to the traditional wedding march, followed by a flawless rendition of “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.” Afterwards, everyone filed out to greet the new couple outside. I hung back to take pictures. Then, before I knew it, a new crowd came pouring in. I narrowly escaped before attending my second Polish wedding mass!

The church was amazing–dating to the late 1400s. (This in itself was interesting to me for St. Francis and Clare only lived in the 1200s. I had no idea the movement had come this far in less than two centuries!) But what really commanded my attention was the stained glass, which was Art Nouveau, clearly installed at a later time. I took lots of pictures, of course. In a cloistered garden, I happened upon a statue of Francis with the strangest bunny sitting next to him. He looks like a fanciful Easter bunny. His body was a roundish stone about twice the size of a basketball, with a face, ears and paws in bronze. I’ve never seen my good saint represented with this animal before. Francis said to love all creation, even this little critter. There must be a story there. One of the side altars was to a friar who was exterminated at Auschwitz. The story goes that three prisoners escaped the Germans, so 10 men were rounded up to be killed in retaliation. One man cried out, “My wife, my children, what will they do without me?” Hearing the cry, friar Raymond Kolbe offered to take his place. He was later sainted for this selfless act. We visit Auschwitz in the morning. I dread this visit, but it must be done. Tomorrow we shall walk upon hallowed ground. I can only imagine what emotions will be unleashed at the sight of the famous, if erroneous entry sign, “Arbeit macht frei”–Work makes you free.

The Russians are Coming

Actually, the Russians already came and went. It was almost 200 years ago. Realizing Alaska was a good place for hunting and fishing but not growing a lot of food stuff, the Russian American Company decided it needed a new outpost; One that could grow food in support of its outposts in Sitka and along the Aleutian Islands chain. But where? Spain had everything from San Francisco Bay to the south and Britain’s Hudson Bay Company had most of the Pacific Northwest under its control. Russia, not wanting to make any of its European brethren unhappy enough to declare war, decided on a quiet, flat peninsula in between the two great world powers on California’s Sonoma Coast and named it Ft. Ross.

The Russians erected a stockade, plowed fields and fell redwood trees to build seagoing vessels. Ft. Ross was actually California’s first shipyard. They unofficially conducted trade with the Spanish and entered into hunting agreements with Yankee shipping for sea otter pelts. They formed peaceful alliances with the nearby native tribes and pretty much kept to themselves. After 40 years, the Russians decided it was time to vacate the fort. Growing food right along the seacoast had never been terribly successful and it was found to be cheaper to buy it directly from the Hudson Bay Company. The Spanish were spreading further north, establishing additional missions and granting large swaths of land to settlers in the region. The writing was on the wall. Most of the contents of the fort were sold to John Sutter and the Russian settlers left California as quietly as they arrived.

But in a fascinating way, Fort Ross has remained very much in the hearts and minds of not only the people of Russia, but the Russian-Americans who now reside in California. The fort represents an historical tie between émigrés and their homeland. Several times a year, Russian-Americans gather at the fort. They celebrate their culture with traditional food, music and dance. They celebrate mass in the fort’s chapel with assistance from Russian Orthodox priests from the Bay Area. The Russian Pathfinders Scouting organization regularly camp at the fort and help out with functions.

As the fort celebrates its 200th Anniversary next year, several special events will be held with several sponsors including the Russian Federation Consulate in San Francisco. Sports Leisure hopes to find one event we can put together with a tour. If you are interested in participating, please contact our office and asked to be put on the Priority Notification List.