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Emma & Maneesh on the Big OE

Poland

POLAND | Saturday, 5 September 2009 | Views [1211] | Comments [2]

Em inside the tunnel between bunker 28 and bunker 30.

Em inside the tunnel between bunker 28 and bunker 30.

 

August 30th

Today was going to be spent in a small Lithuanian town, but we both felt that it was time to move on from the Baltic countries, so we decided we would drive into Poland, and set ourselves up for a week of exploring. After cleaning Sven at the campground, thanks to a discreetly placed area to top up your fresh water tank, we got on the road. After managing to eventually get around some road works were in the path of our GPS we got out of Vilnius. We stopped off after about 1 ½ hours to top up the diesel and use the last of our Lithuanian Litas (money). Em asked the lady at the station is it okay to use cash and an eftpos card and she said yes so we proceeded to fill up. I went to pay and she said, “Oh no, either cash or card, I cannot do both” so we had to pay with the credit card, still leaving us with our remaining Litas. About 20 minutes down the road we saw a sign for a supermarket and thanks to Em's great spotting we tracked our way there and got rid of our Litas there with a big grocery shop which was good. It was lunchtime by now so we ate lunch in the van while in the supermarket carpark, then got back on the road. We were driving for about another 1 ½ hours before we got to the Lithuania / Poland border. This was particularly impressive, and the area went on for probably more than 1km. They still occasionally randomly search vehicles, but they did not stop us. This border crossing was significant for us, because it is the first time we have physically driven from one time zone to another, so by driving 1km, we went back 1 hour. After a few km's into Poland we noticed a change in landscape. It became beautiful rolling green hills, nice forest, and very 'country' looking (the Baltic countries were quite dry and industrial, even in the country – probably from Soviet exploitation). The first town we passed through had a very communist look to it, with large apartment blocks dominating the area. However, the town looked as nice as it possibly could – the apartments were painted pastel colours, and had lots of flowering window-boxes to brighten them up. We continued along some rather average roads through some great countryside. One tiny town we stopped at had a local fair going on, so we stopped there and had a nice walk around, and listened to a few folk songs sung by ladies in national costume. We drove for another hour from here before stopping for the day. During our driving in Poland so far we have noticed two things: There are so many stork's nests it is crazy. They are massive, and are almost always perched on top of a platform at the top of power poles. Even though they are so large, they still have a perfect birds nest shape. The other thing we have noticed are massive crosses near the side of the road, which are decorated with ribbons and flowers – not sure if they're memorials or shrines.

We finally ended up at a very nice campground on a lakeside town called Gizycka. Em talked to the lady who runs the campground, who said the lake we were next to freezes during winter and you can drive to the town on the other side right over the top of the lake. It gets down to -30°c in the winter! They must love summer. We were both still pretty tired so had an early night after walking out to the jetty and watching the little fish for a while.

The Baltic countries were definitely a new experience for us both. The rush and madness of the traffic reminded me of Turkey a little. All three have done amazingly well, well from what we saw, to have made such great progress with rebuilding their countries since they all became independent in 1991. The people all seem slightly stand-offish, and do not offer too much expression, and Em and I noticed this most in Lithuania. The food was different again, but great, and the Kvass was a fantastic discovery. Might have to try and get a recipe for that. It was nice to have experienced some of their culture and history. We sure did learn a lot!

August 31st

Once we were ready we left the campground at Gizycka, and drove north east to Kertzyn ('kenchin'). This was the closest major town, and we needed to go to a bank and I needed to have a haircut. After having good success with the bank, we walked around the town looking at the shops and also searching for a hairdresser (the campground lady had written down the word for hairdresser to help us - 'fryzjer'). We found 6 but they could not cut my hair. Then on our way back to the car we spotted another one, nearly hidden down an alley, and she had some spare time. She did not speak English though, so after me pointing to clippers (number 2, round the sides) and scissors (on top) she went to work. There was no need to worry because she did a very good job, and it was very cheap, only $10NZD. It has been many years since I have had a haircut for that price!

The main reason for coming to Kertzyn was that the 'Wilczy scaniec', (or Wolf's Lair in English) is only 6km from the town centre. This is where Adolf Hitler's headquarters was during WWII. It consisted of eighty buildings, including 50 bunkers, a casino, cinemas, a tea room, and a sauna. It is built amongst very thick forest. This was also the place of one of the many German attempts to assassinate Hitler, this one was on the 14th of July 1944, when Col. Claus von Stauffenberg took a bomb into the complex in a briefcase, left it under a table near Hitler at a meeting, and it blew up. Unfortunately Hitler was not quite in the right place, and the plan did not go completely to plan. 4 people were killed, but Hitler was only injured. Col. Claus von Stauffenberg and some 5000 other people were implicated in this plot and executed. All of the buildings in this complex were destroyed to some degree by the Germans when they knew that they were going to be defeated in this particular area, but some of the bunkers are almost completely untouched. An interesting thing we could see as a result of them being blown up, was the thickness of the walls, some walls (e.g. the ones in Hitlers bunker) were nearly 5m thick, with a large amount of steel reinforcing, all tangled like spaghetti. We spent nearly two hours wandering around most of the area, exploring a couple of them on the inside a little bit. We forgot to bring our head torches with us, so did not venture in too far. One surprising thing was the warning sign at the start, to stay on the paths in the complex. We read that more than 50,000 land mines were found around the perimeter of the complex and more than 200,000 rounds of ammunition. The idea of this is mind blowing.

After eating some lunch in the car park there, we drive 20km down the road to another bunker complex at Mamerki. The drive took longer than expected because the roads were shocking. This trip even included 5km driving over cobble-stoned roads, which are very loud and uncomfortable in Sven. This second area was the base of Heinrich Himmler and the SS. It was similar to the Wolf's Lair, but the bunkers were not destroyed as the Nazis did not get time to do this. After some serious encouraging to get Em to join me, we took our head torches and went through a small, dark, wet tunnel between a couple of the bunkers which was fun but a little creepy (Em might not give the same description). We had to walk through the forest, and into the dark bunkers, then down dark stairs to find it, and there was no-one else around. I am sure there must be many more tunnels in the area. The only thing we saw down in the tunnel we a couple of frogs. It was damp and cold, and not a very nice place to go into really.

Once we were finished there we had a wurst from the shop there, which was fantastic (grilled over wood coals), then got on the road and drove south-west. We were unsure of where we would end up, but wanted to at least get to a small town called Swieta Lipka, which has an amazing church. We made it there, and went to the church, but a Mass was being conducted, so did not go inside, and the outside was covered in scaffolding so did not really see that either. We left there, drove up the hill about 200m, and saw a couple of campervans parked up in the carpark, so parked up there too. There were a couple of nice retired German couples in them, and they were staying the night there so that is where we ended up for the night as well. One very noticeable thing there was the time that the sun is setting now we are back in a different time zone, and very far east in it, as well as getting further south. It was dark at 8:30pm! This sure is a shock to the system after the past few months.

September 1st

The first official day of autumn, but the weather did not know that. It was a beautiful sunny, hot day, we got to 26°c. After waking up from a good nights sleep we went back down the hill to the church. We looked around the inside which was truly amazing, the art work inside was unlike anything we have seen in any other church. We were hoping to also hear the organ being played, but that was not until 9:30am and we had a long day of travelling ahead, so we hit the road. The first hour and a half was on back country roads. It was nice to explore the countryside further, but it makes for hard driving. We came to a large town, and stopped at the supermarket to pick up a couple of things. Here we saw hundreds of school kids on their way back to school, 1st of September is the start of school here, and in many countries around Europe. No uniforms in Poland, but they were dressed in suits, and black skirts and white blouses. It was nice to see that aspect of life – lots of excitement!

Anyway, we got back on the road, and drove until nearly 4pm to get to Warsaw to the campground there. We did of course have a stop for lunch along the way, at a highway rest area.
Once we managed to get to the campground we did washing and a few other things. We were both exhausted from the day, so had an early night, so we can make the most of our day tomorrow in Warsaw.

September 2nd

We were up early and caught the tram into central Warszaw. We were really unsure of what Warszaw would be like, a city of nearly 2 million people. We had heard mainly negative things about it, and that it is not really worth going to. Well we both disagree after having a great day exploring Warszaw, including a few random things.

Once we got off the tram, there was one main street that we targeted with a number of different buildings and attractions.

Our first stop was the Church of the Holy Cross, which we found was being renovated when we went in. This is a little strange, but inside one of the pillars is the heart of the composer Chopin. Not sure why it is there, but it is. You can not physically see it, but we thought we better check is out, and sure enough there was a plaque on the pillar documenting this. There is also the heart of a famous Polish writer, but we did not see that, it may have been 'out of bounds' because of the renovation. The church also had a beautiful gold altarpiece.

Once we were done here we crossed the street to check out some strange looking large perspex balls. We found out they were part of a competition for inventions to improve the quality of life of people. A couple of very cool ones, and this is my bias, was an artificial leg which can be made for less than US$8, and a special top which will fit on top of a normal coke or baked beans can, and can be used for safe needle disposal. Also ingenious were plastic water bottles to use for solar sterilisation and storage in third world countries. This was not the only reason we looked here, there was also a statue of Copernicus.

We moved on from here and went to the 'Tomb of the unknown soldier' which lies beneath the only remainder of the Saxon palace. This is commemorate all of the soldiers who lost their lives fighting for Poland during WWII. It is honour-guarded 24 hours a day, and was covered in fresh wreaths.

Afterwards we headed towards Warszaw's old town and explored this area. After browsing shops we found a nice little Polish equivalent of a tea room and had some amazing morning tea here for NZ$4. I had pancakes filled with quark, potato and onion, and Em had dumplings. Em becoming addicted to dumplings – sweet, savoury, she loves them. The whole cafeteria was not much to look at, but the food was fantastic. It was run by little ladies wearing colourful aprons. We needed something significant because we were headed to the Warszaw Historical Museum, which was very good. We started off by watching a 20 minute film about Warszaw and the destruction it suffered during WWII. It is a devastating story, focused mainly around the Nazi occupation. There was a Jewish Ghetto which was home to nearly half a million Jews at a particular time, from which very few Jews survived. 100,000 starved to death in the first year of the Ghetto, and later the whole Ghetto was simply burned down with everyone still fenced in. The general Polish Warszaw population put up a fierce fight, but lost more than 200,000 people in their 'Warszaw Rising', and in 1944 the German Army, receiving orders from Hitler, razed more than 85% of the entire city to the ground in retaliation. The film had some great footage, including film and photos from the 1920s right through until after the war. The city was really prospering leading up to 1939. We were stunned by the devastation of the city – it looked like a desert with piles of bricks – and we were also stunned by the incredible rebuilding of the city, faithfully recreated as it was before.

After watching the film we went around the museum, which documented events of the city for more than 600 years. It was very interesting. I imagine a lot of their historical artifacts were destroyed during WWII.

Once we finished up in the museum we searched for lunch but could not find anything that compared to our morning tea place so went back there and had a cooked lunch for $8NZD. It was great. Afterwards we had an ice cream, picked up a couple of postcards, then wandered around and admired the buildings. As we'd learned, following the war the city was rebuilt to it's original structure, and it looks amazing. I find this all the more impressive given Poland was part of the USSR. We walked around the city until about 5pm then caught the tram back towards our campground.

After the tram we made one last stop, some local markets near our campground, which we had a look around and bought some fruit and vege from. You can buy whole sunflower heads – we have seen people sitting eating the seeds out of them. We headed back to the campground and spent the rest of the evening there.

September 3rd

We were up and on the road by just before 7am to try and get out of Warszaw to avoid the traffic and that plan worked well. After about 40 minutes we found an Ikea carpark where we stopped to eat our breakfast, then we got back on the road. We had a 300km trip from Warszaw to Krakow, but it went well. We made a couple stops for groceries, diesel, and lunch, and got to our campground just before 2pm. It is a very nice campground in the north of Krakow. It was a beautiful hot (27°c) day, and the campground had free washing machines! A first in our trip, so we got stuck in and washed everything that we felt needed it, and some things that didn't, in three loads. We spent the afternoon in the van enjoying some relaxing time and researching for our day of Krakow exploring tomorrow. Unfortunately late in the evening the wind really picked up and the rain started to fall.

September 4th

Today was exploring Krakow day. Unfortunately the rain continued to fall on and off all day. We bussed into town and headed for Wawel ('vavel') Hill. On top of this hill is a castle and a 14th century cathedral, that has an 11 tonne bell! It reminded us of Edinburgh castle because of its location, but inside the grounds was nice, but not overwhelmingly stunning. We kept moving and walked along the river to Kazimierz, the very old Jewish district of Krakow. Here we followed a Jewish Heritage walking tour path around the area to significant sites, including Jewish cemeteries and synagogues. The synagogues are now home to museums and other such attractions – the Jewish population is now very small. We then crossed the river on the hunt for a Jewish culture museum which Em had read about, but we were not successful in locating it. We did manage to track down Oscar Schindler's factory – it was good to see a site that had positive outcomes during the war. The factory is currently home to the Krakow historical museum so we did not go inside. We went back towards the shopping area of this district, which was where the Krakow ghetto was created by the Nazis during WWII. This was the ghetto which was featured in Schindler's list, and the Plaszow concentration camp was 2km from this, still in the township. We did not walk out to the camp but did walked around the ghetto area and found one small section of the ghetto wall, which was restored and kept as a memorial.

From there we walked to the Krakow Old Town. Unlike Warszaw this is the original old town, as it was not heavily damaged during the war. The old town was probably quieter than normal, but full of tourists nevertheless. English was the most heard language. We started at the central market square which is the largest in Europe, 200m x 200m. We walked around this area, and went into the 14th century St Mary's Church, which was very extravagantly decorated on the inside – lots of gold! We both thought that the Russian Orthodox churches we had been into were amazingly decorated but this topped all of them. Time was ticking away so we pounded the pavement in search of a lunch place. Despite being in Poland I felt like a curry, but we ended up having Polish, which was delicious and full of flavour, in fact too much flavour. I had potato pancakes with pork goulash which was sensational, and Em had a potato dish that was cooked with smoked paprika, bacon and ham, a fried egg, and onions. It was very tasty and left us feeling more than satisfied.
We only had a couple more stops to make, so we strolled around the shops for a while, then went to the Florian Gate and the Barbican, buildings on the edge of the old town. While we were taking photos of the Barbican we saw a sign for a local market, so we scoured the streets for this. Unfortunately by this stage it was 5pm and most things were closed or closing, so we caught the bus back to the campground where we did more washing, ate dinner and played cards.

September 5th

Up early, left campground by 7:30am and drove 70km west of Krakow to Oswiecim, the polish town which was called Auschwitz during WWII. Our first stop was the Auschwitz concentration camp. The first thing we noticed was how close the camp was to the town centre, probably only 3km away, and it is surrounded by housing really. I had imagined it would be a long way from any sort of major settlement, and surrounded by forest.

We were there in time for the 9:30am tour, and we spent 2 hours on a guided tour around the camp. Prior the WWII the barracks of Auschwitz served as Austrian military barracks, and were built of brick. This was portrayed as purely a concentration camp, that had medical services for prisoners, when in fact it was here that the Nazi's experimented with using Zyklon B in gas chambers to kill people en mass. In 12 months from September 1941 60,000 people were killed in this chamber, before the chamber was converted into a bomb shelter, as these operations were moved to Birkenau (Auschwitz II). They also performed 'medical' experiments on children and adults.

The museum exhibitions at Auschwitz had different sections, covering the daily life of prisoners, displaying items that were found at the camp when it was liberated (including 7 tonnes of female hair cut from them after they had been murdered in the gas chambers, piles of spectacles, shaving and hair brushes, more than one million clothing items, a pile of suitcase which filled a room of 10m x 4m x 3m, and shoes which also filled a room of a similar size. It was just like you see on TV, but to see it in person is another thing. Mind-blowing, scary, and indescribable really.
We were then taken to different rooms, which included interrogation rooms, a starvation room (in which prisoners were put into and had no food or water until they died), a suffocation room (in which prisoners were left in until they suffocated after a few days), and standing chambers 1m x 1m, where prisoners were put, 4 in each chamber for the night for them to 'sleep' standing up, before doing a full days' labour. The prisoners were often subjected to the standing rooms for more than 2 weeks as punishment.

From here we moved on to the small gas chamber and crematorium which was reconstructed following to war from the original parts found on site after the war for the museum.

This first part of the tour lasted for 2 hours, which was not long at all. We then caught a shuttle to Birkenau, about 3km away.

Birkenau (Auschwitz II) was set up because of the growing number of prisoners in Auschwitz. The camp covers more than 300 acres, and could house more than 90,000 people. There were 5 gas chambers and attached crematoriums (4-5 ovens each), with plans for a sixth to be built. It is here where more than one million people were killed, 90% of them were Jews. This is where the train went straight into the camp, then the prisoners were 'sorted', and a very small number were sent to the barracks because they were deemed to be in good health to be a worker. The rest were taken to the back of the camp, and told they were going to have showers. Sometimes they were even given soap, sometimes not. The area outside the area was planted in flower beds and nice grass to ensure no panic entered the groups, then they entered the chambers and were gassed. At it's peak, Birkenau could not cremate all of the bodies, so would light open fires in the forest, in which they would burn up to 2000 bodies in.

We started by being taken through a few of the barracks, which were horse stables made of wood, built straight on top of the dirt ground. In these barracks were bunks 2 – 3 tiers, the width of double beds on which 5 – 7 people would sleep. Because it was just the timber framing, no insulation, and very poor heating, in winter inside the barracks could get to -10°c, and in the summer well into the 30's.
From here our guide took us to the rear of the camp to where the Auschwitz memorial now stands. Either side of this are the remains of two of the gas chamber / crematorium buildings (most of the buildings here were destroyed by the retreating Nazis). This is where we finished our tour. After spending some time down around the memorial we caught the shuttle bus back to Auschwitz where we watched a 20 minute documentary on the liberation of the camps by the Soviets in 1945.

It was now nearly 2pm, and we were rather drained, and saddened by the morning. Seeing it in real life left us wondering how this could happen, and did not really answer any questions. To see the scale of the operations was something else.

After we stopped off for lunch we drove 80km east to the Wieliczka Salt Mine. This is a salt mine which has been mined for 700 years, and ceased being mined in 1996. It was a fantastic addition to our time in Poland, and a nice change to the awfulness we saw this morning. Again we were on a tour, which lasted for about 2 hours. To start off with you go down about 400 steps, to 60m below the surface of the ground, and end up 135m below the surface. The mine itself goes well below this to more than 300m below the ground. On the tour we were taken to different parts and saw sculptures that miners had made, 3 different chapels, including one amazing chapel which was made entirely out of rock salt. It was absolutely amazing, and took 70 years to build / sculpt. The tiles on the floor were not actually tiles, the rock salt had been carved to look like large hexagonal tiles, and they were polished, so that they looked like dark marble or granite. The relief sculptures on the walls we fantastic, depicting several biblical scenes. To add to the experience we had a fantastic guide. Once we were down thankfully we were taken back to the surface in a lift, and were not made to go up the steps. A couple of interesting things from the mine was that there is a lake down there which is saltier than the dead sea, and you need at least 50kg of lead weights to go underneath the water, and from the water seepage that is collected throughout the mines, they are still able to extract more than 13,000 tonnes of salt a year!

This was a nice way to end our day, but left us very tired. We arrived back at camp at 7pm to have dinner, do some washing, make Father's Day calls, then get to bed. Happy Father's Day to Bien and Maurice!

Today was our last day in Poland really as tomorrow we head across the mountains to Slovakia. We have both thoroughly enjoyed Poland, far more so than we were expecting. The scenery has been fantastic, and the people have been very helpful and lovely. With so much history, particularly from WWII this was definitely not a country to skip through, and we could have probably spent more time here.

After going through the Baltic countries we were expecting the Polish to be similar in nature, quite subdued, however we found them to be much more animated and it was a nice change.

Polish food has been great, again another surprise really. So far Poland makes our top three countries of the trip so far.

Comments

1

Another great effort Maneesh,thank you so much.All well here. lovely to hear from you as you in our thoughts,
Love G&G

  Brian Sep 16, 2009 8:25 AM

2

Hi Maneesh & Em

I have finally caught up on my reading!!!! And at work LOL. Sounds wonderful, love reading about your travels.
Can't wait to see you both in January when I'm back in NZ.

Love you
Robbie xx

  Robbie Sep 23, 2009 7:36 PM

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