The story behind the foundation of Poland's first and Europe's largest pilgrimage park, is as incredulous as it is unpronounceable. The story begins with the wife of Mikołaj Zebrzydowski (1553–1620), Voivode (Governor) of Kraków who had a vision of three burning crosses on the very hill the park is now located upon. In recognition of Mrs. Zebrzydowski's powers a series of over 40 Baroque churches and chapels dedicated to several faiths were built on the site at the beginning of the 17th century by none other than her husband. Zebrzydowski modelled his architectural and landscape park/pilgrimage complex on the 1584 map of Jerusalem by Christian Kruik van Adrichem; as such the sacral park is often called the 'Polish Jerusalem.' The crowning glory is the marvellous Baroque St. Mary's Basilica, the first building to be constructed and the work of Giovanni Maria Bernardoni and Paolo Baudarth. Completed in 1609 the church is part of a larger complex including a Franciscan monastery and modest accommodation for the thousands of pilgrims who flock here every year, particularly for Holy Week leading up to Easter during which an elaborate Passion Play is performed. Surrounding the sanctuary are 5km of pilgrimage routes over 6km of forest, with 42 chapels and churches en route. A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1999, connections with the late John Paul II are manifold. The park was one of his favourite places, and he visited the site on countless occasions to relax during his life; an obligatory monument to His Holiness stands outside the entrance.
About 35km (40-50mins by car) from Kraków, Kalwaria Zebrzydowska is conveniently located directly on the way to Wadowice (JPII's hometown), which is just another 14km/20mins beyond the complex.
Visiting can be done individually at any time, but large groups must notify the sanctuary of their arrival in advance. It is perhaps more worthwhile for foreigners to visit with a guide; several tours are available (ranging from a 45min tour of the sanctuary, to 5hr tours of the pilgrimage routes) in English, French, German and Italian, but all must be arranged at least four days in advance (Polish tours require 1 day advance notice). To organise a guided tour call 33 876 63 04. Tours are free, but donations are welcome.