Is the pilgrim city of Częstochowa really the unhappiest place in Poland? TFN finds out
According to the legendary journalist Sydney J. Harris, “happiness is a direction, not a place.” Well, that’s good news for Częstochowa then, a city that just a matter of weeks ago found itself named as being Poland’s unhappiest city.
Conducted by a real estate firm, the ‘happiness report’ gave few specifics, but its conclusion had been damning. Beating off the likes of Sosnowiec and Gorzów Wielkopolski to top the list of shame, Częstochowa found itself publicly outed as the No. 1 place where misery reigned. But could it really be that bad?
As luck would have it, I found myself visiting the city just a few days after the report had been issued, and while I would not recommend it for honeymoon purposes (unless, maybe, you’re looking for a quick divorce), what I discovered was a town not short on points of interest.
Granted, arriving is not the most auspicious of experiences. Train stations do not, of course, define a city, but they do often make its opening case. I mean, take Wrocław as an example – you’re barely off the train and you’re in love with it already.
And then you have Częstochowa, a place whose station was rebuilt in an architectural style commonly known as ‘WTF Is That’. Officially reopened in the mid-90s by the President, Aleksander Kwaśniewski, it’s a feast of 90s tack – mirrored panels, jarring angles and cheap bits of plastic. What must have looked futuristic at the time now feels anything but.
That said, I’m fine with that. As a lover of that era, it’s a quirky reminder of those wild post-Communist years when the country went collectively insane whilst it paused to figure out what the hell to do next.
Certainly, the square outside does a fine job of channelling the confusion of that era: presenting a rather startling sight, you exit the station to be greeted by a broken monument (reputedly a sundial, but it’s really hard to tell given its state of ruin), and a vast mural covering an area of 1,200 sq/m.
Reputedly unveiled in 2018 to the theme tune of Pirates of the Caribbean, it’s an extraordinary artwork created in a style called ‘magical realism’. Authored by Tomasz Sętowski, its quite stunning form is matched only by the artist’s second mural in town, the so-called Tower of Babel on Pl. Bieganski.
As it transpires, this fantastical artistic style runs in the water, and that point is underscored by a visit to the Miejska Galeria Sztuki, a place dedicated to the works of ‘dystopian Surrealist’, Zdzisław Beksiński. Often dark and disturbing, his art is haunting and overwhelming, swallowing visitors into its nightmarish vision. A staggering place, the experience is rounded out by beautiful lighting and a soundtrack that seems to follow you around.
This is not the only oddity sightseers should consider, for the city is also home to what is allegedly Europe’s only museum devoted to the matchmaking industry (and no, I don’t mean matchmaking as in blind dates and Tinder, but as in those sticks that start fires). Unfortunately closed on my visit (well, I say unfortunately, but the truth is I haven’t lost any sleep over it), instead I made do with tracking down the town’s defining glory: the Black Madonna.
Drawing over 100,000 pilgrims each year, the painting dates back to the 14th century and has been dispensing miracles for pretty much the bulk of its existence. Most famously, it’s credited with Polish triumphs over the Swedes in 1655 and later the Turks outside that gates of Vienna in 1683 (in the case of the latter, not only was Europe thus saved from the Ottomans, but the bagel was reputedly invented as part of the subsequent celebrations).
And weird as all that is, it gets weirder still when you notice the belt next to it – belonging to John Paul II, the pontiff is said to have credited the item for saving his life when Mehmet Ali Ağca attempted to assassinate him in 1981.
Found in the Jasna Gora monastic complex, the monastery itself is also worth exploration if for nothing else than its atmosphere alone. Chiefly noted for its cloud-piercing tower, walking around the hallowed cloisters and courtyards is a must-do activity when visiting Częstochowa – and when you’re done, track down exhibits such as Lech Wałęsa’s gong for Nobel Peace.
Leaving the monastery, the two kilometre Najświętszej Maryi Panny Avenue is commonly seen as one of the city’s favourite walks – opening out onto the Rynek, the main square is a love it or loathe it affair.
A poster child for ‘beton-oza’ (a Polish phenomenon that has seen entire town squares encased under concrete), it’s almost dehumanising in its dimension. Even so, efforts have been made to soften its aesthetics, and these include the addition of fourteen ‘floating’ sculptures designed by Jerzy Kędziora.
But even with the presence of these, as well as the attractive form of the Town Hall, there is something a little spirit crushing about this square – so contrast that with a trip out to Park Lisiniec, a 40-hectare recreational space featuring sand brought from the Baltic, Japanese cherry blossom trees and wooden walkways jutting across the lake’s placid waters.
It is enclaves such as this that do much to save Częstochowa – often rundown and gritty in parts, nuggets both large and small rush to its rescue: I mean, who can’t help but raise a smile at the sight of the goal-shaped bus stop outside the city’s stadium?
Equally, find nothing but good vibes at Strzykawa, a specialty coffee stop that would flourish in the capital. Here, it fulfils an almost ambassadorial role in the way it represent good living – a place of good moods and smiles, Częstochowa’s reputation as the unhappiest in Poland is killed off right here.
And that’s repeated again at Browar Czenstochovia. Following one of my basic rules to living (if a brewery has a hotel, stay in it), it was here that I enjoyed the city the most – flailing under litres of craft beer while puzzling out this curious conundrum of a city.