I love visiting old churches and enter into every church I wander past.
One quiet afternoon, I walked through a beautiful old church in Krakow, Poland when I saw something I had never seen. There was a trap door on the floor in the church sanctuary that was opened.
I looked down the stairs; I could see a brick hallway.
Was this the crypt? The catacomb? I’m not up on my church vocabulary.
I’ve heard about snaking tunnels under churches that house tombs.
The door was open. There was no sign stating that you shouldn’t enter.
I figured this was part of a paid program. Maybe you paid on the other side of the basement and exited here?
I’ve always wanted to go down into the lowest level of an old church.
Was this my chance?
I looked around; there was nobody to stop me.
I walked down the stairs slowly, trying to appear nonchalant, as if I were heading into the basement to do laundry.
At the bottom there was a well-lit hallway/tunnel through a brick passage.
This was incredible. I wanted to take a few more steps. Where did this hallway go?
My heartbeat may have gone up a few points: what would I find down here? I turned right and walked slowly.
I took the first left and found myself in a small vestibule with the tomb of a priest from long ago, as depicted by the sign in Polish and English.
I love a good sign. See? People do come down here, even people who can only read in English.
There were little pieces of paper left around the tomb, probably prayers.
I wanted to leave a prayer too, but I didn’t know the rules.
Did he accept prayers in English?
I ripped a small page out of my notebook and thought about what kind of magic I wanted from the priest. World peace? Free the Ukraine people? Clean water for all? Children that had enough food to eat? The strength to deal with the trials of the world?
Here was my big moment where I could ask for anything I wanted. I couldn’t think.
I was distracted.
I had a strong feeling that they were going to lock me down here.
Nah. They must have some kind of protocol for checking the tomb area before they locked it and turned out the lights every evening.
I would hate to be locked down here in the dark. I preferred this area with the lights on.
Maybe it was best to move down the passages to see what else there was to see. I could chat with the priest when I returned.
I passed a young father and his 8-year-old-ish son. The father was teaching his son about the priest and I didn’t think it would be fair to stick my translation program up to his mouth as he talked so I could eavesdrop.
Eavesdropping is impossible in a foreign land.
They continued down the hallway in the opposite direction from where I was going.
It was a relief to know that I wasn’t down here alone.
The hallway curved to the left, then to the right. Old stairs were built into the wall that went nowhere.
Why was there a wall closing off whatever was at the top of those stairs? What am I missing?
Was that priest’s tomb a ploy to get people to write long prayers and forego the rest of the underground experience?
I walked on.
That strange feeling returned: I was going to get locked in the catacombs. I brushed the feeling away, as if it were a gnat trying to fly into my eyes.
There was still so much to see.
I wandered further down the path, away from the door and deeper into the under-church.
More tombs. More paths.
I wondered how they chose which people were buried here. I wonder how often they cleaned down here; it was remarkably free of cobwebs. I can barely keep cobwebs out of my living room. Whoever was in charge of making this a cobweb-free-zone was doing a stellar job.
The hallway split. I wanted to go both ways, but thought it was best to only go right, so when it was time to return I could always go left.
A perfect plan.
The hairs on my arms raised up and I had a screeching feeling inside of me that I was going to get locked down there.
Dark. Quiet. And there were probably mice down here, too.
I turned back and walked quickly towards the door. I hate mice.
I really hate mice.
That’s why they call it a trapdoor, isn’t it? Because it can trap you where you don’t want to be.
I passed the small vestibules and the larger vestibules and the priest where I hadn’t left any prayers.
I got to the door right when the security guard was putting the piece back into the floor to lock it.
My face paled when I saw the door closing.
I called out, “Wait for me…”
His face paled when he saw me. His mouth flew open as he opened the door back so I could exit.
He said something in Polish as I stood on the sanctuary floor and I held up two fingers, so sure was I that he was asking if there was anyone else down there.
He repeated the phrase and held up two fingers.
Yes. That father and son were still down there, probably still down there.
I stumbled out of the church, both thanking my intuition for the warning and apologizing to my intuition for waiting so long to listen.
I wanted to return another day to keep exploring, but would try to find out information, like
“What time do you close the trap door each day?”
I brought California, another volunteer from the program I am with this summer, the door was open, but there was a singular rope across the opening as if to say, “Please don’t.”
Oh, I wanted to, but I didn’t think it was a good idea for California to get arrested her first day in Poland.
My friend Washington, another volunteer with the program, had one last Krakow night before she headed home to the states. We went to the church, but they were holding a concert and we couldn’t get inside.
We found another old church closer to the square. People inside the church were deep in prayer. We walked quietly over to the area where I could light a candle. Washington followed.
I dropped a 2 zloty coin into the collection box, and the sound echoed throughout the sanctuary.
I lit a candle for her safe return home.
She wanted to light a candle too, but there were no more.
I asked her what she wanted to do for her last night in town.
Explore the castle area one more time.
We walked to the castle and explored all of the free areas, again. The gardens. The inner courtyard. The architecture.
She said she had a gift for me.
We walked back to her hotel and she showed me her purple umbrella—oh good, I’m tired of my raincoat with one ripped snap, a change purse that she made and one bit of laundry detergent she didn’t use yet.
She was ready to lighten her load; I was traveling for almost another month.
So I accepted the gifts.
Thanks for reading.
New here? Click below to get an email notification every time Holly writes. Enjoy these refugee stories? Leave a comment below. Or share with friends.
Want to read more of Holly's writing?
Cheese for Breakfast: My Turkish Summer
"A wild ride."
"Essential travel reading"
Available in regular print, LARGE print and ebooks:
Thank you for supporting small publishers.
Thanks for reading. Could you do me a favor? If you liked this post, please share it on your social media accounts and friends? And in your post, you can tag:
@mshollywinter on Instagram
@mshollywinter on Facebook
@mshollywinter on Twitter
@mshollywinter on TikTok
Till you read again...
Thanks so much, Holly Winter Huppert
(C) 2022 by hollywinter.com and Holly Winter Huppert