Why you should visit Poland's Jasna Gora Monastery

Father Simon Stefanowicz wears a white robe, sunglasses and a scowl. He comes from the gruff but big-hearted school of tour guides, and taps a well of bad jokes as he shows us around Jasna Gora Monastery.

"Do you know how we make holy water? We boil the hell out of it," he chuckles as we inspect centuries of knick-knackery in the monastery's treasury. Musical instruments, a Polish queen's dresses and bejewelled votive offerings are jumbled with tear-gas cylinders from the anti-communist Solidarity protests of the 1980s, and Lech Walesa's 1983 Nobel Peace Prize.

Portraits of saints hang on the walls, some tortured, some performing miracles, some gazing at luminous clouds. The latest is John Paul II, who credited the Black Madonna of Czestochowa with his surviving a 1981 assassination attempt. The pope's bullet-punctured stole is one of the monastery's prize possessions.

'He's a good example for you to follow – if it isn't too late,' says Father Simon as we pass beneath a portrait of the beaming Polish pontiff.

I'm on day eight of a Collette country-intensive tour, and Jasna Gora Monastery near Czestochowa in southern Poland is a change of pace. This is Poland's national shrine and has been a pilgrim destination since the Middle Ages. Four million pilgrims annually come to venerate the Black Madonna, some walking hundreds of kilometres, others spilling off coaches. They often stop to sing and pray as they make their way around the complex.

As an individual traveller, I might have spent a bemused hour here. This Collette tour, though, wants guests to appreciate and understand the destinations it visits. Enter Father Simon, one of Jasna Gora's 19 priests ('As long as nobody has died in the night – I haven't checked yet'). You could hardly get a more inside angle.

Jasna Gora's history is a picaresque romp with Father Simon, who reveals a storyteller's knack as we tour the monastery, moving slowly towards the highlight. The crowded chapel that houses the Black Madonna is small but rather dramatic. The air is thick with sweat, candle wax and slight hysteria. The devout slump to their knees. Ex-votos and discarded crutches hang on the walls. The Madonna, more blackened than black, is swathed in velvet and gemstones.

Next door, frescoes depicting the Madonna's miracles emblazon a huge baroque basilica. Cupids dart around pillars. The altar is an eruption of green- and salmon-coloured faux marble and gilt. ('Don't worry, it's all tax-deductible,' quips Father Simon.) Candles flicker from little red pots in side chapels.

"There's my favourite saint," says Father Simon as we pass beneath a painting of St Joseph. 'I often pray to St Joseph for my sciatic nerve, and now I can run a marathon.'

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Father Simon is happy with his lot, and with the strength of the Catholic Church in Poland. The Church has provided continuity in a nation with an appalling history, and was instrumental in bringing down Communism. 'Hitler kaput, Stalin kaput, they're all down, but the Catholic Church is up!'

I clamber back on the tour coach felling happy too. I've absorbed Jasna Gora's festive atmosphere of flag-lined avenues and spontaneous singing, and its fervour of sobbing black-clad women. I've watched little girls in flounced dresses leaving church and young seminarians scoffing sausages in a corner. This vignette of zealous Polish life is what I want from a tour, informed by someone from the inside with wit and insight.

'You can be a good Christian, but to be a good person is more important,' concludes Father Simon as he waves us goodbye. Amen to that.

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FLY

Emirates flies from Sydney and Melbourne via Dubai to Warsaw. See emirates.com

TOUR

Collette's 11-day country intensive 'Discovering Poland' tour has multiple departures from May to October and includes a Jasna Gora Monastery. There are stays in Warsaw, Gdansk, Torun, Wroclaw and Krakow, and other visits to Malbork Castle, Poznan and Auschwitz. From $2699 a person twin share, including transport, accommodation, guided tours and some meals. Phone 1300 792 196, see gocollette.com

Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of Collette.

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