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A Sobering Time in Krakow

POLAND | Friday, 27 May 2011 | Views [587]

The mine is often referred to as

The mine is often referred to as "the Underground Salt Cathedral of Poland."

I decided to take the day train from Prague to Krakow as I’d read a few dodgy things about the night train, and find that after night commutes I end up wasting the following day in any case. Which was lucky as we ended up stopping at some random station and having to change trains to get to the central train station. Fortunately I managed to tag along with a group of Australians and we quickly jumped on the train a local pointed out to us, all hoping it was the right one! I could tell they were Australians even before they spoke as one of them had a home-made beer bong strapped to the outside of his Katmandu pack! I didn’t have a map to High Life Hostel this time, but the directions were pretty straightforward and I arrived at the hostel around 4pm.

I woke up to a gloomy, rainy day where all you want to do is stay in bed and watch movies, but when you only have a few days in each city you have to make each one count! So I wrapped up in waterproof gear, made sure the camera was safely covered, and headed out into the dreary drizzle. I headed into the Old Town via the Barbican and St. Florian’s Gate – a reminder of the defensive fortifications from the fifteenth century and one of three of the largest Barbicans (round towers) in Europe. I walked through the cobbled streets to the quiet Main Market Square and the old Cloth Hall, which has been converted from a cloth market into stalls selling souvenirs consisting of mostly amber jewelry. Heading back out into the rain I visited the Church of St Mary to enjoy some of the warmth and peace during mass, before walking over to Wawel Castle, where all the tourists seemed to have congregated. The crowd was too big to contemplate visiting the staterooms or sights so I checked out the view (of the rain) before walking across the river to the old Jewish Ghetto and visited the “Heroes of the Ghetto Square” (Zgody Square) where all the Jewish property was left before entering the ghetto and where chair sculptures have now been erected to commemorate the events that took place there. I walked through the Ghetto streets checking out a remnant of the ghetto walls which were apparently designed to look like tombstones and headed out to the Schindler Museum in the original Enamelfabriek. I spent almost three hours there viewing the history of the war, the ghettos, the factory and the people Schindler saved. Very thought provoking.

“When a man saves just one life, he saves the world.”

I would have liked to spend more time in Krakow as it is a lovely city, but with a bit of a schedule to keep I decided to join a tour to visit Auschwitz-Birkenhau in the morning and the Salt Mines in the afternoon. I usually prefer not to do tours like this as they are often busy and rushed (not to mention expensive) but it was the only way I could fit two big trips in one day (and sleep on the way there!). I was picked up at 8am and we headed out to Auschwitz, where we walked through the camp and museums, looking at the leftover clothes, luggage and (disturbingly) shaved hair piled up in exhibition cases. We also walked through one of the gas chambers and saw one of the crematoriums, though I chose not to take photos as it just felt wrong. Unfortunately it was SO crowded that we didn’t have much time to contemplate what had happened there and it felt like we were just one group fighting our way through other groups and I just wanted it to end. We headed to Birkenhau , where we walked through a couple of the huts which was really sad, but didn’t have time to visit the memorial. Some of our group didn’t seem to know how to tell the time and decided to wander off, lcausing our guide to panic as we had to leave by 1:30pm to make the salt mines trips on time. So unfortunately it wasn’t as contemplative or respectful visit as I would have liked.

We had a 30min lunch break in town before driving out to the Wieliczka salt mine, which was a better tour as it was less rushed and we were able to spend two hours wandering through the tunnels of the mines. We descended 600 steps down to the third level below ground and walked through the 3.5km tour section of the 300km long tunnel learning about the salt mining and people and animals who worked so far underground. Some horses apparently spent their entire lives underground! There was an enormous church chamber lit by several massive chandeliers made out of salt as well as a lake with a little boat. Even the statues and floors were made of salt. Fortunately we didn’t have to climb the stairs back up to the surface but took a tiny elevator that shot up so quickly that one woman nearly freaked out. We finally got home by 8pm and after such a long and draining day I was just about ready for bed!

Tags: auschwitz, birkenhau, castle, concentration camp, krakow, salt mines


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