“THERE IS NOTHING HERE,” the young German engineer said through his cigarette, staring off the balcony of the largest house on St. Anne’s Hill, in the small pilgrimage town of Góra Świętej Anny, or St. Annaberg, in Polish Silesia – he was looking out to the A4 autostrada and the white goateed visage of KFC’s Colonel Sanders, globalism’s ghostly grinning avatar looming over what once must have been the total dark of the Polish countryside in summer. But the darkness was incomplete; there were halogen lamps yellowing the square below us, and white Sanders smiling with his eyes.
It was early August; Tobias Spruch, of Dortmund, Germany, was back in his parents’ hometown for a family wedding. On most days of the year, the arrival of Tobias and his family – brother Matthias, sister Sarah Maria, and father and mother Berthold and Brigitte – would swell the tiny hillside town’s population from about 600 to a robust 605. But that week their appearance in Annaberg was but a drop of holy water in the proverbial aspersorium: it was the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, and thousands of Roman Catholic pilgrims were making their way to the top of the hill, to its Calvary and to the 33 Baroque chapels and reliquaries that form a path to the basilica on top, as they and their forebears had been doing since the Franciscans arrived and built their monastery on the 1st of November 1655.
Hundreds of thousands venerate at the hill each year – one historian recorded 400,000 visiting the monastery and its famed wooden statue of St. Anne in 1865 – but aside from a handful of Catholic feast days, the town’s population remains comfortably under 1000, and non-religious tourism is virtually unknown. Nearby Krakow and Warsaw are popular vacation destinations; and tourists stop close to Annaberg at the Pałac w Mosznej, or Moszna Castle, an enormous edifice of 365 rooms and 99 turrets combining Baroque, Neo-Gothic, and Neo-Renaissance elements, each palimpsestic addition of wings and towers funded with Silesian coal-money. But Annaberg’s treasures don’t attract the same type of attention. The town boasts a Lourdes grotto, wall-sized 17th century paintings housed in the chapels, pristine Baroque architecture, near-empty pre-war mansions quietly and elegantly decaying, and – perhaps most impressively – a massive Nazi amphitheater carved out of an abandoned quarry, all in the middle of an untrammeled national nature preserve.