With the exception of a gut which really didn’t like me (mine) and a few hours transit through Slovakia - the only visit to the country on this trip - the night journey from Budapest to Warszawa was uneventful. Despite my excursion to Warszawa and the fact that Andrzej should be receiving my cards – reliably informed that they would arrive before midday – he was unable to host me for another week or so, so on arrival went and checked in to my second Nathan’s Villa (after Sighisoara) on the trip. In between dashes to the toilet spent a few hours wandering aimlessly around the city waiting for news which never came. With no way of tracking the package except phoning the UK who agreed that t should have been delivered (and not managing to get an online tracking number even then, *sigh*) there was nothing that could be done. Poor Andrzej sat at home all day until 5.30 (yes, that is after midday), before calling it quits and arranging to meet me in town.
We had a wander through the new Old Town, a trip around the University library (the most bizarre place, including landscaped gardens on the roof), the old squares, tomb of the unknown soldier – which barely a couple of months before had been filled with 500,000 or so mourners after the death of the Pope – parliament and the Park complex whose name never remember, but which includes a lake, some theatres and watched a slightly surreal fight on the lake stage between 2 peacocks, who’s every move was greated by rapturous nose from the assembled other peacocks watching.
The following day whilst Andrzej kept vigil at home, took advantage of the rapidly improving weather to undertake my usual wander at random whilst also keeping n close contact with the wishes of my gut. Finally, that afternoon with money beginning to run low and hope even lower, good news emerged, and around 4pm, I met Andrzej at the station where he passed me not one, but two packages (slightly unexpected) of cards. He had discovered that the problem was that his street number had been left off the address, and hence the company had had to try and search phone books etc looking for a number. I don’t want to apportion blame, but Rowan seems to have fucked up. So, reunited with cards and a source of funds (which astonishingly actually worked as well), i was free. I groveled in thanks to Andrzej for wasting 2 days sitting at home, retuned and grabbed my stuff and headed straight to Krakow.
Krakow main square
Krakow city gate on Northern edge
Krakow has long been raved about, but its one of those places i‘d somehow never managed to see properly – i‘ve probably passed through it or changed trains there a dozen times, but never managed more than a few hours there to quickly look around – and was keen to make amends. After an amazing inability to move the following morning, I took a wander around town with a Canadian guy, Bob, who soon discovered had also spent a few days with the Swindon guys John and Farid from Bran/Brasov, I think in Budapest and the same hostel at around the same time as Melanie and Kate were meeting. Dodging the thunder clouds again, we took in the Jewish quarter, Vistula river, Wawel castle, some pierogi and the main square with the fabulously ornate (and very colourful, with its blue ceilings etc) Maracki church, whilst also wondering about the vast number of pope-mobile style golf carts used to transport tourists around the centre [‘follow that pope-mobile!’, anybody? – Admittedly that made more sense when I was actually there]
Follow that Pope mobile!
The following day, and after 40days and nights, it was time to do something serious, so I took a trip out to Oswiecim-Brzezinka, a strange little town of a combination of lovely honeysuckle houses and harsh concrete tower blocks, but of much more relevance for its role under it’s German name, Auschwitz. I have been to concentration camp sites before, but Auschwitz was home to arguably the most horrific camp in human history, and some of the most cruel and largest ‘genocide experiments’ ever, and was a trip I had to make.
So much has been written about the camp that the history is already know in excruciating details, so i won't cover that here.
Although we visited separately, and I know its possibly disrespectful to do such a thing about such a serous place, but Bob’s account of the camp is extremely good and virtually identical to what I would write, so i have shamelessly plaigerised it using Copy and Paste. Bob - i hope you don’t mind too badly…
Auchwitz has to be seen to be believed. I took a lot of pictures while I was there and I've since had them developed, but I don't think they can quite capture the feeling of the place. The odd thing is is that when I was there, walking through the barracks where the jews were held as prisoners and up and down the streets and pathways where many were murdered and beaten, I didn't feel as I felt I should. I was not sad, I was not overly moved. I was a nice
sunny day with a cool breeze and I was quite comfortable walking around. What I did feel was respect for the people who had suffered there and I was upset when I saw some high school kids running around and laughing in a place that I thought deserved a little more respect. I remember seeing the furnaces in Auchwitz where the cremations took place and there was a group of jewish high school kids who were passing through many of which broke down in tears at the sight of them. I just stood in the background and watched them. I tried to feel some of what they felt, but I couldn't.
In about half of the barracks there were exhibits on various aspects of the camps and nazism. One of the exhibits was for the material evidence of the crimes and was based on the plundered items that the nazis had left behind when abandoning the camp. What I saw was only a small percentage of what had been stolen from the jews and other prisoners. There was an entire room filled with suitcases that had been marked with the names of the owners. Another room was filled completely with shoes. Probably the most disturbing was a room
completely filled with human hair. The nazis had kept it with the intention of making textiles out of it.
I left Auchwitz and headed to the neighboring camp of Birkenau. Birkenau had been called Auchwitz II when it was built and was much, much bigger than Auchwitz. It lacks the exhibits that Auchwitz has but makes up for it in sheer size. When you enter the grounds of Birkenau you walk along a set of train tracks and through a large gatehouse. When I passed through the gatehouse I was immediately shocked by the size of the camp. The train tracks continue all the
way to the back of the camp and it took me ten minutes to walk to the end of them. All along the way were roads leading off from the main track and into rows and rows of barracks. To walk the circumference of the camp would probably take well over an hour. At the back of the camp are the furnaces where the nazis cremated the bodies of the dead prisoners. I think there were five crematoriums which each could cremate about 1000 bodies a day. They are in
ruins now as the nazis destroyed them before abandoning camp. I read a placard in one of the Auchwitz exhibits that said of all the jews presented for inspection only about 25% were taken to work. The rest; women, children, elderly and infirm were taken immediately to be gassed. In order to keep them calm and orderly they were assured that there would be jobs for them and that they first had to be disinfected to be sure that they would be clean. After the
gassing, the bodies were shipped straight to the crematoriums to be disposed of. It was an assembly line of death. Again, to emphasize the size of the camp, I had about fifteen minutes to get back to the front gate and catch my bus into town. Walking fast, I still managed to miss the bus.
With Many thanks to Bob!
Oswiecim (Auschwitz) main entrance and old barracks which housed Prisoners in the original camp
Oswiecim-Brzezinka (Auschwitz-Birkenau), main entrance with the railway unloading tracks, Inside a typical barrack cell, the ruins of some of the camp showing it's vast scale and the remains of one of the gas chambers where untold hundreds of thousands were murdered
After the somber experiences of the previous day, I did the other required day trip from Krakow and took a minibus trip out to the world famous Weliczka Salt mines. Huge in scale, over 300metres deep and 700 years old, and on the UNESCO world heritage list, expected something really special. And whilst it wasn’t exactly a let down or wasted trip, it didn’t quite live up to its billing. After decending 380odd steps, we wandered – or rather, were rushed - deeper into the mine, past at least 3 churches/chapels (one hugely impressive), some very tacky but bizarre tourist shows (mechanised characters and lights etc, but never really actually having any reason whatsoever) and endless corridors and staircases of salt – laughably, 98% of the salt sold in the gift shops etc isn’t from the mine, or even the same area, but rather is imported in from elsewhere. No idea where, but guessing it was made in Taiwan – and then the museum. The most notable place was a huge cavern which now was used as a 200m underground restaurant and bar, and even held wedding receptions, but what found most facinating was that it was originally built as a basketball court!
Wieliczka Salt mine entrance Staircase (386 steps is a long way down and only goes to level 2 out of 7), the Salt Cathedral and Underground restaurant, originally a basketball court.
Krakow itself is undoubtedly beautiful and worth a trip, and at the moment as t has yet to be really discovered by the budget airline stag/hen do network is still untouristed enough to be enjoyable. It is relatively cheap to western Europeans, and has a great array of literally hundreds of underground bars and caverns to relax in later on, which are really cool, and amazingly untouched by the war, so without any concrete spoilers in the centre. But to be honest, for the amount of fuss made about it, I thought it overrated, especially considering the lack of tourist profile of any other Polish cites, some of which are some other equally beautiful and two of which I am about to visit.