Krakow

Poland

The trip to Krakow (Poland) by shuttle was a long one, only broken up by the stop at a McDonalds on the side of the motorway. This Maccas was absent of the usual “fast” food efficiency – our group’s orders meant a 20 minute wait for us at the back of the queue.

Some of the smaller Polish towns along the way exemplified the “other” kind of European architecture – plain communist square buildings in grey – with the odd splash of colour (via graffiti mostly) or some other kind of subsequent attempt to make the place feel slightly less depressing. The Communists might have been more successful if they had someone like Hundertwasser designing their buildings, to make everything seem a little rosier.

Unlike some of the bland 2 and 3 star hotels we’ve had, the accommodation in Krakow was excellent. One minute’s walk from the largest Medieval square in Europe, the hotel was a converted 18th century building with enormous apartment rooms.

Krakow has a great vibe and the people are very friendly. The Old Town is home to some 400 odd restaurants and bars – the whole square is lined with them – making eating and drinking very easy and very pleasant. Tour leader Vivian picked out some good restaurants for the evenings we were there.

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Googled this aerial shot of the Old Town Square

In the Old Town Square, the bell of the St Mary’s Basilica chimes every hour. The bell is then followed by a guy playing the trumpet from the top of the tower. He plays a tune that was a warning for Mongolian invasion in the 13th century. The tune breaks off mid-stream in remembrance of the original trumpeter who was shot by an arrow in the neck whilst blowing his trumpet. It is played every hour, 24 hours a day. Snapping photos of the trumpet guy is very tricky – he moves around to different windows, so you have to run around trying to figure out where he is.

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The Square has a number of market stalls – some of which actually sold stuff we wanted to buy. Being a true romantic, I bought Em a rose from one of the stalls on her birthday. It lasted two days of travelling.

The old part of Krakow has some interesting buildings, as it was largely untouched during WWII. There is a castle at one end with some great views. At its base is a memorial to the Katyn massacre, which in turn has become a place of remembrance for the plane crash which killed the Polish president, top officials and families of those massacred on their way to commemorations in 2010. (You can google for more information!)

The daytime temperature in Krakow was well into the mid thirties. Firemen hook up their hoses to the hydrants in the public squares so that the kids (and some adults) can cool off. Fortunately a big ice cream was only 3 Zloty, about 80 cents, and there were stalls in abundance.

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On night one we ate Bigos, a Polish dish, with pork and sauerkraut in a bread bowl. Em ordered a side of vegetables (rare on menus) and became very animated about having broccoli, given broccoli (and most other vegetables) had been largely absent from our diets since we left home.

Day two was Em’s birthday. Em was stoked to hear from her nieces, Ella and Lily, in the morning via Skype – their happy birthday rendition is coming along very nicely. It was a bit sad not to have any family around for this birthday, so to cheer up Em we made a trip to the Wieliczka Salt Mines (about 25 minutes out of Krakow) with a few others from our group.

The Salt Mines no longer serve any other commercial purpose other than tours, but they were once a major operation and produced table salt until 2007. They are 327m deep and over 300km long.

Our female tour guide had some great punch lines emphasised by the drawl of her Polish accent. Our favourite line was at the statue of Copernicus (who studied his astronomy in Krakow in the 1400s): “Please do not lick Copernicus. With one million visitors each year, if everyone licked Copernicus, there would be no more Copernicus.” As everything in the Mine is made of rock salt, licking stuff is popular.

There were lots of cool statues in the mine, but the the highlight was the massive cathedral (made of salt), complete with chandeliers (made of salt) and a big statue of Pope John-Paul II (made of salt). Incredible to think that the cathedral is 135 meters below the surface.

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Disco party in the gnome cave

We had lunch in the Old Square – Gwen the Aussie bought Em a little pavlova as a birthday. Then we found a Pirogi shop selling the Polish specialty to the locals. We instantly became big fans of this dish and ordered a second plate.

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That night, Viv had picked out a great restaurant which looked after us very well for birthday dinner. She managed to get everyone wearing party hats and there was champagne and cake. One of the ladies had even bought a necklace in Prague as a present. After dinner we had a drink in the Old Square, but were too knackered to do much else.

We had planned to get to the Oscar Schindler Museum (i.e. “Schindler’s List” – his factory was in Krakow), but ran out of time the next day, so we just enjoyed wandering around.

Would certainly recommend Krakow for a three night stay if you are ever in Poland. It would be one of our favourites of the tour. Some birthday pics:

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Taking a moment

Poland

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There’s not really an adequate way to describe Auschwitz. Words don’t come close to explaining the shock and sobriety of seeing the calculated construction of rows of buildings for imprisonment, judgment, medical experimentation and murder…The small square of light coming into a gas chamber where Zyklon B was dropped in from above. The doors to the incinerators next door, where bodies were loaded en masse to burn – in groups because cremation ‘took too long otherwise’. The sickening sight of mountainous piles of human hair encased in a massive glass room, recovered after the liberation in stacked bales ready for the Nazis to sell. Thousands of shoes from infant to adult piled high, only a drop in the ocean from the one pair per person already burnt or sold by the soldiers. The shoe polish carried in their small amount of permitted luggage, because moving in the hope of ‘a better life’ meant clean shoes would be needed for a new job. The outdoor spaces with gallows, hooks or walls where spectacle was made of hangings or shootings. Seeing the blanked out windows of the buildings where female prisoners were mutilated or killed for the sake of autopsy. And to think that all of that is only touching on the extent of the horrors.

Seeing the sheer scale of the Birkenau camp from its watch tower was literally jaw-dropping, with the rail tracks leading inside its confines to unload the passengers expecting a ‘better life’, who were then stripped of their belongings and lead straight to the gas chambers. The buildings beyond the fence were vast and windowless – the prisoners kept enclosed and unseen any time a train arrived to maintain the guise of a new home as the new arrivals were rushed as quickly as possible to ‘get clean’ before they suspected otherwise. The number of foundations and chimneys mark the beginnings of the forced destruction at the camps by the Nazi soldiers as the impending liberation of these camps threatened the operation. Buildings were razed, along with mountainous piles of prisoner belongings, documents and hair – yet still such a huge amount was recovered.

The extent of the operations and documentation was shocking – the building of crematoriums required resources quoted for by companies and noted in letters; quotes were received for the purchasing of human hair and gold from teeth, to be made into items like carpet underlay and fabric. Was it without question of source? The few illegal photos taken by working prisoners which were recovered show the original method of open air burning of people, before ‘mass’ means were found. The names of soldiers who undertook executions of people on certain days are listed and signed off on recovered documents. To think that those people have generations of family to look back at their history, as we have grandfathers who fought against it.

I took all photos in black and white in a small attempt to convey that this is a place for remembrance, not colourful tourist snaps. It seems that the number of Jews, gypsies and others killed at Auschwitz have become simply that – a number – until you see the evidence of these horrors and the inhuman operation pieced together in front of you. It’s such an important trip for people to make, and one can see why the survivors wanted the sites retained in such a way. It really wasn’t all that long ago, and how easily it occurred on such scale should never be forgotten.

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