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Krakow, Auschwitz and Wieliczka

POLAND | Monday, 9 July 2012 | Views [849]

The Barbican

The Barbican

It was a very short two and a half days in Warsaw when I decided to move on to Krakow. In the evening I got a train ticket from Warsaw Central and had a look at the area around station. Everything around here has dual signs in Polish and English, thanks to Euro 2012 plus a bit of good old fashioned Anglo-Saxon superiority (kidding!). Even the ticket vending machines are displayed in multiple languages. Around which hangs the usual assortment of ticket buyers and beggers. It's not the first time a begger has approached me in the last 7 months of travel, but certainly the first man. For some reason, this incident reminded me of a stories involving a laconic phrase which goes something like; a Spartan king was asked which form of exercise he recommended, replied "All forms except extending the hand". The begger did look in a terrible state, so it sounds a little harsh.

The next day it's off to Krakow on 0820 train. A 3 hour ride later and it felt like I left Warsaw and arrived in erm ... the same city. Same Barbican, same old town, same churches. Although I did like the cute little St. Adalbert's Church in the middle of the market square. The church from the outside and inside:

All was not "lost". 

Krakow was badly affected by the German occupation and Holocaust. In Krakow itself, there were places of interested related to the war, but not exactly within walking distance, so I hired a bike from some very nice chaps called "Cool Tour Company", just off the old market square. From there, I rode south past the Royal Wawel Castle. Then further into an area known as Kazimierz and the old Jewish district. Mostly there are buildings of interest, here and there plaque commemorating sites of importance. The whole area is in a fairly dilapidated state, but I guess it's not really a Jewish district after the war. Two synagogues that have been restore are the Old Synagogue and High Synagogue. The latter's name derived from the fact that the prayer rom was located on the first floor.

The heading south-east to the area known as Podgorze where Oskar Schindler's Enamel Dish Factory is located. The latter being quite popular judging from the number of tourists quite late in the day at 1630. A very worthwhile visit whether you've seen Schindler's List or not. Altogether a 6km round trip back to the old town market

Day 2

Todays the big day and a day I'd been dreading. The main reason for coming to Krakow is a visit to Auschwitz. The rule for visiting the site is that any arrival after 10am must take a guided tour. After some enquiries at Krakow bus station, there are buses every hour from 7.20am. The ride is 1.5 hours which meant it would be possible to get in before the 10am cut-off. I got up early and arrived at the bus station at 7am only to find out first bus is 8.20. So I doubly peeved, but at least the station had free WiFi. The 8.20 bus takes off on schedule, but doesn't arrive before 10. Already the place is absolutely packed with people. So now I have to take the guided tour. A tour that I've been told is very rushed. How bad could it be I thought. There are tour groups 5 metres ahead of us, there are tour groups behind, waiting on us. Every monologue from the guide last not much more than a minute and another 2 minuted we need to move one. I can't really blame the guides of course as there are so many visitors that gates, doorways, paths would be blocked unless people were moved along. And the guides are so informative giving us detailed accounts of how the camp operated. They explains Auschwitz is mainly divided into 3 parts, Auschwitz the concentration camp; Auschwitz-Birkenau the extermination camps where people were simply killed or worked to death; Monowitz the labour camp where people were used as slave labour for German companies.

Some of the worst things we're told about is daily roll call were inmates were fored to stand for hours until it was complete, no matter what the weather. Then there's the punishment rooms, a prison within a prison for inmate violating camp rules. It takes a real sicko to think up a dark room where a prisoner would die of oxygen starvation, a starvation room where inmate are kept till they die from hunger or thirst, a standing room where four inmates would be forced to stand in a small cell for days, after having done forced labour during the day. 

The Holocaust is something I learnt about in school, read about from books and aware of for it's sheer magnitute. Something that must also be true for many of the visitors. None of these really prepares anyone for seeing the site in real life. For some, the experience was simply too overwhelming who found themselves unable to contain their emotions and openingly crying. There were times when I felt like not trying to maintain my composure too.

After about 2 hours, we're taken to the Auschwitz-Birkenau area. The main extermination of Auschwitz. The railway transporting the inmates are still intact. Which makes Birkenau even more poignant as I imagine the people being transport in and unload. People who committed no crimes and selected for death just because they were Jewish or Pole or Gypsy or whatever reason the Germans thought up to justify their murderous acts.

Auschwitz is truly a monument to man's inhumanity to man and I'm glad I got to see it. The trip was worthwhile despite the rushed guide. I think I'll come again and somehow arrive earlier to visit the museums and exhibits in the camp that the guided group were forced to miss.

Day 3

I'd decided I might as well visit the Salt mines of Wielicska while in Krakow anyway. As I don't have a hotel booking, I figured I'd use this opportunity to stay in shared dorm in a hostel. Did plenty of research and picked a good hostel called "Hostel Rynek 7" smack bang in the middle of the old market square. The dorm did have some fantstics views of the market square:

It takes about 20 minutes by train to get to Wieliczka and another 5 minute to the Salt mines. The mines to over 1,000,000 every years and the entrance fee for the mandatory guided tour is ~70 Zloty, which is expensive by Polish standards. So my expectations are high. The tour begins with a walk down 600 steps:

At some point I got a little bored with the walk down and started whistling the "Heigh Ho" tune and a few others joined in too. At least the laughter relived the boredom for some.

The guilded tour takes us through the tunnels and caverns where salt used to be mined. The guide tells us about the history of the mines and pointing out many of the carvings, sculpture and mini shrines. The miners were a pretty superstitiou lot. Understandable consider they were in what must have been a very dangerous environment. The highlight of the tour is the chapel sometimes called the underground salt cathedral of Krakow. Amazing how they carved out something something so grand 150 metres down.

And around the chapel are scenes from the bible:

Exiting the mine is a quite time-consuming. The queues to leave are long as the only way out appears to be through a small capacity lift that fits about 8. Actually the lift is double deckered, so about 16 people can ascend:

The previous two days, I'd missed the daily event at the Church of St Mary. It's about 1700 and people were milling about everywhere around the church, pointing up at the spires, clearly something was about to happen. I looked up, not sure what I was looking for. A Polish girl sitting next to me kindly points me to a window high up in the taller of the spires. The distinctive sound of a bugle begins and continues for a minute. A tradition that dates back to a time when a lookout guard would play the bugle if attackers were approaching. Nice.

I'm back at the hostel and dorm thing still comes as a complete shock to me. The complete lack of personal space. People coming in and out of the dorm. Even 2 travellers arriving at midnight, who at least did their best to be quiet as possible. To the hostel's credit, the bedding was "OK", the bathroom and toilet were very clean, basic and functional. I guess I've just not the hostel type. 

Tags: auschwitz, holocaust, krakow, old town, poland, sightseeing, wieliczka, ww2

 

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