Svatá Hora to Svatá Dobrotivá

by Justin Wuycheck - 2020-06-12
People say, "it's not the destination, it's the journey". But if we're honest, a worthy destination gets us moving. Pilgrimage sites "move" millions of people each year. A pilgrimage site, secular or sacred, is more than just a passing curiosity for its devotees; it represents something which the pilgrim already values; one might say it represents something without which the pilgrim would feel different, and not themselves.

A pilgrimage site gives a special context to the journey that leads to it; the voyage is a sacrifice because the pilgrim sacrifices time, energy, and money to visit the place, for reasons other than a "pleasant time had by all." The pilgrim travels not out of mere desire for diversion, but to show respect for what is contained or represented at the pilgrimage site. Arriving, pilgrims naturally connect the effort, events, and emotions of the pilgrimage with the site, adding another dimension to their association with the site.

Because the goal isn't entertainment, a pilgrimage often ends up as better entertainment, fun, challenging, and poignant. That's what I discovered on a one-day pilgrimage (pout' in Czech). The goal was to visit two Bohemian pilgrimage sites devoted to the Virgin Mary, Svatá Hora in Příbram and the cloister of Svatá Dobrotivá in the village of Zaječov. Between these two sites, the Brdy Protected Landscape. A former military reservation, recently returned to public use. It is a wonderland of rolling green hills and high plateaus. It had long-loomed as a mysterious forest to me, filled with rusted tanks and old, Soviet radio manuals.

I am a fan of the Virgin Mary, so I started the day at Svatá Hora (Holy Mount), the most important pilgrimage site in Bohemia. Existing as a Christian shrine since the 13th or 14th century, the shrine swelled in popularity during the 17th century, thanks to the miracle of a Prague beggar regaining his sight when had come to pray. Some years later, Jesuits were given custody of the site; they employed Italian architects, and in the 18th century the Dientzenhofer family (some of the most renowned Baroque architects in Europe) to form the shrine that still largely exists today.

From here I descend through the lovely town of Příbram, stopping for a mid-morning beer at nearby Podlesí brewery (While on pilgrimage, one needs energy; for a mid-morning beer, one needs a grand excuse). Then began my upwards meander through the Brdy landscape. Cool pine forests mingled with hardwood groves. I passed hikers in period costumes rolling a wooden cart of plum distillates (The answer is "No." One does not need to wear out an excuse).

The hardwoods receded to pine as the elevation increased. At the highest point of my journey, the top of Tok (865m), plants still wore their bright spring greens, and ferns were still unfurling. Descending a bit, I came to the bunker at Houpak Peak (794m). A series of three other bunkers descended, almost in a line, below. These were set up as lookout stations in the 1920s and 30s. From here, the Czechoslovak military could see all the way to the German border more than 100kms (60+ miles) away. My day was clear; I was glad I could enjoy the peaceful view, no tanks or radio manuals of any origin in sight.

Descending, and descending and descending to Zaječov, to the cloister of Svatá Dobrotivá (Our Lady of Grace), I was delighted to find my friend, Father Thomas, saying Mass. I thanked the Virgin Mary for a beautiful day. Afterwards, Father Thomas, some visitors and I shared pasta as we sat around a campfire, chatting.

The history, the nature, the moments of beauty and camaraderie, all these I found because I went on pilgrimage, and now the sites mean even more to me. Not all circles are vicious, some can be kind.