Poland Will Never Forget Nor Forgive
Trip Start Mar 01, 2011
27Trip End Ongoing
Map your own trip!
Show trip route
Where I stayed
Tom and Greg's Hostel
What I did
Please note that we have included photographs take from Auschwitz which may be upsetting.
Bidding farewell to Bratislava, we turned north for our journey to Poland. The drive was, at least in the beginning, uneventful. The roads weren't too bad, but the average speed limit in Poland was only about 80km/h. Then the GPS led us to a lovely new motorway with a speed limit of 140km/h. Only problem was, the motorway was not yet finished. It looked like it was, but there were traffic cones out, blocking entrance via the onramp. So after some violent and sustained cursing, we continued along the slow road until eventually we came to a motorway that was open and complete
We were staying in a hostel in Krakow, campgrounds were few and far between and the hostel was cheap and right next to the old city. The accommodation was a very welcome change from what we experienced in Bratislava. First and foremost, the hostel was actually clean and the employees were helpful with any queries you had. Use of the washing machines was also free and each floor had its own little kitchen. Hence, we were immediately impressed with the hostel.
We strolled over to a brand new shopping centre that was just over the road and had some dinner in the food court. Polish food is somewhat meat centric, but they are also big on their vegies and salad, so we opted for a Polish type restaurant and chowed down on what we were assured was Polish food. Whether it was or not, who knows? All I know is that it was most agreeable and we briefly debated heading back for seconds but decided that would be greedy beyond belief. Instead, we went over to the Carrefour and purchased some snacks and beers for the evening. We considered going for a wander through the old town, but once again the days driving had taken far longer than expected, so we went back to the hostel and passed out
The next day we were taking a trip to Auschwitz, which lies only about 60km west of Krakow. Since we are such an upwardly mobile couple, we refused the offer of bus trips and tours and just drove ourselves there instead. It took over an hour to get there; because just cruising down the motorway does not get you to Auschwitz. We arrived early in the day, because during peak season, you have to join a guided tour if you visit between 10am and 3pm. So we were there just after 8am in the morning.
Auschwitz is actually two separate camps, located some distance apart from each other. The main site is Auschwitz I, what was previously a Polish Army barracks that the Germans took over after the Polish surrender in 1939. Entry to all the sites is free; it only costs for a tour or audio guide. We spent a few hours wandering around Auschwitz I, and it is very different from other camps we have previously visited. At first glance, the accommodation for the inmates is far less rustic than other camps, but this is only because it once was a barracks. It is only when you start exploring and entering the buildings that the horrors that went on here became all too apparent.
One small gas chamber and crematorium was built on this site, and it remains, as it was when the camp was liberated in January 1945
Entering the buildings is the most horrific part of Auschwitz I. Rooms are piled high, floor to ceiling with items stolen from the condemned masses. Eyeglasses, shoes, clothes and all manner of other items are on display. Far and away the most shocking is the room that holds, behind glass, over one ton of human hair, nearly all of it female. It was shaved from the heads of people after they had been gassed, before they were cremated. Postwar testing has shown that traces of Zkylon B (the gas used) can still be found in the hair. All in all, very emotional stuff.
There are numerous separate buildings, all covering different aspects of the Holocaust. Some buildings cover a particular nation’s suffering during this time, and most European nations have their own building. There are also buildings devoted to the Gypsys and other minority groups that were persecuted by the Nazi regime
We moved on from Auschwitz I and made the short drive to Auschwitz II or Auschwitz-Birkenau. This is the site that has the infamous large gates with the train line running directly into the camp. This site is far less busy than Auschwitz I, but to only visit one site is doing an injustice. The inmates of Auschwitz I built this camp, and it is this site that was the ‘extermination camp’. It was here that, at its peak, 10,000 people were murdered daily. The trains would roll in, roughly 75% of new arrivals would immediately be sent to the gas chambers. The other 25% were worked to death. This usually didn’t take too long, as accommodation was literally what were once stables that now held about 1,000 prisoners. Heating was non-existent, and it gets mighty cold in Poland in the winter.
You can wander through most of the buildings in this camp. Walking further up through the camp follows a path parallel to the railway line, leading past the spot where the camp staff decided who got worked to death and who got to die immediately. The railway then continues further up to where the gas chambers and crematoria are situated
The cold, remorseless and efficient way in which this place functioned is truly terrifying, even after nearly 70 years have passed since the camp ceased operation. Another building further along was where the prisoners selected for work were processed. They were brought in and made to strip naked. Their clothes were then cleaned and sanitized for later use by German citizens. The prisoners’ heads were then shaved and all their other personal possessions confiscated. Then they washed and given a pair of the infamous ‘striped pajamas’. Essentially, in less than half an hour they had gone from being an individual to being merely a number.
This same building also included a room full of photographs that the camp officers confiscated from prisoners. There were a few stories about the different families. Some families surprisingly managed to survive the Holocaust largely intact. Others lost nearly all there family, and some ceased to exist altogether by the wars end
After exiting that room, it was time to head back to Krakow. We had spent about 6 or 7 hours wandering through the two camps. In typical fashion, it had started to bucket down rain and we had decided to leave our raincoats in the car. The 30-minute walk from the far end of the camp back to the car left us more than a little bit wet, and made for a miserable and cold drive back to Krakow.
Despite the miserable weather, once we got back to the hostel we changed clothes and went out to explore some of Krakow. We only had one full day in the city, so this was about the only chance we had to check out the old city. It is a beautiful place, and our first port of call was a traditional Polish dumpling house. We picked out a trio of different varieties and scoffed the lot. More than satisfied, we continued on, strolling around the old town. Like most European cities with an old town, this one was very pretty, with a huge town square in the middle that was devoid of cars. Yes, the weather still remained somewhere between awful and terrible, but that could not take away from the square
We walked through the Draper’s Hall which today is home to a large market, selling every possible variety of Polish tourist souvenirs. We declined from purchasing, but later found a little shop some distance away and bought ourselves a hand carved wooden owl. Owls are sort of our thing, and we justified it as a belated wedding anniversary present to ourselves. With the temperature continuing to drop and the rain falling unabated, we sought refuge in a nearby coffee house, which delivered possibly the best coffee we had enjoyed on our trip so far.
We then walked back to the hostel and collapsed. Of everywhere we have yet travelled, Krakow was the first place where we truly would have liked another day or two to do some more exploring. But that wasn’t possible; we would be back on the road the next day.
We were driving (or more aptly, I was driving whilst Beezel was sitting) to Prague via Kutna Hora, a town about 50 miles outside of Prague
Anyway, we crossed over the border, and joy of joys, the Czechs have motorways. The joy was short-lived, however, when the roads proved to be like trying to drive over corrugated iron. The continual bouncing and rattling at 130km/h threatened to shake lose the fillings in my scull. And this went on and on, all the way to Prague. I’m still at a loss as to why the roads were like that, it’s almost like hundreds of tanks have crawled along these roads back in the day, which actually might be close to the truth.
After what seemed like forever, we finally reached Kutna Hora. We came to a stop at some traffic lights, then turned right to get to where we wanted to go, the famous bone church. You can only go 50km/h in built up areas in Czech, so that was what I was doing. But the policeman a little bit further down the road pulled me over anyway. Apparently for a short stretch near the traffic lights, it was only 40km/h. I didn’t see the sign, the GPS didn’t tell me any different, but the policeman still took €20 off me for my troubles
It was only about another mile away, so we were there in no time. The church, known as the Sedlec Ossuary is one of the most visited sites in the Czech Republic, and for good reason. The history of this place goes way back to 1278, when the abbot of a monastery returned from the Holy Land with some, well Holy dirt. He then sprinkled it on the monastery grounds. When word spread of this act, well, everyone wanted to be buried there, because it was like been buried in Jerusalem (or so the popular belief went). Over the next few centuries, between 40,000 and 70,000 people were buried there (and the site is not big, believe me). Around 1400, the current chapel was built to be an ossuary for the mass graves. After the unpleasantness of the Black Death and Hussite Wars had passed, from 1511 a half blind monk was tasked with exhuming skeletons and stacking them in the chapel.
This is how Ossuary stayed, stacked high with bones up until 1870, when a wealthy noble family, the Schwarzenbergs employed a chap called Frantisek Rint to ‘tidy up’ the Ossuary. So he took all the bones, and created weird, macabre sculptures. Inside the Ossuary, there are now four massive pyramids of sculls, literally made up of thousands of sculls. There is a bone chandelier in the entry, and another, smaller one between the pyramids. Not one to forget his employer, Rint also installed the Scwarzenberg Coat of Arms, albeit completely made out of bones. He signed his work in bones as well, which is probably the creepiest part of the whole place. One final note, on display are the numerous sculls of people who were killed in the Hussite Wars. The damage to the sculls is plainly visible
Jumping back in the car, it was only a short drive into Prague. The roads had improved somewhat, and we were there fairly quickly. One point of note, as we were driving through the outskirts of Prague, there was someone driving up the wrong side of the road, and they had Czech plates. This gave me a giggle. The natives can’t even work out the right side of the road to drive on. I’d managed (as far as I’m aware) to stay on the right side of road the whole trip, even if it is actually the wrong side.
We arrived at our campsite that was most acceptable, except for the fact that there was no power connection available for people in tents, only those in campervans. That’s just discrimination, plain and simple, but there wasn’t much we could do about it. So we picked a spot, pitched out tent and dealt with it. Happily though, this campsite did have some awesome fauna on site, in the form of two baby goats. This thrilled us no end, even if said goats were, ah, fragrant. Or to be brutally honest, they stank
The next morning, I woke up feeling a bit average. My back and legs were aching and I had a headache. I put it down to the long drive the day before and tried to ignore it. So we jumped on a tram and went into Prague city proper. Prague is huge, and walking to see all the sites will incur a decent workout, but, and hallelujah, very few stairs. So we started out by having a coffee, and then wandered up to the old Jewish quarter of the city, home to half a dozen synagogues. You could pay to wander through the buildings, but this didn’t really grab us, and none of the synagogues from the outside were buildings of particular note. So we kept walking on.
We walked up to the Vltava River and then followed it along to the Charles Bridge, an awesome example of Gothic engineering and ingenuity
Crossing to the other side of the Vltava, our first port of call was the John Lennon Wall. Back in the 1980s, and much to the communist governments annoyance, youthful types started painting graffiti all over this particular wall in Prague with images of John Lennon and lyrics from his songs. The tradition continues and today the wall is covered with his images and all sorts of other awesomeness. In a strange twist, the wall is actually owned by the Knights of Malta (you don’t know who they are? I haven’t got time to explain, so look it up) The modern day successors to the Knights of Malta have no problem with John Lennon, so the wall is, and remains a brightly coloured celebration of all things John Lennon.
Moving on from the John Lennon Wall, we retraced our steps, crossed the road and found ourselves at the Prague Ghosts and Legends Museum
We wandered back across the Charles Bridge and strolled through the Old Town, which was, unsurprisingly, beautiful. It was now mid afternoon, and we were both more than a little hungry. We came a cross a Chinese/Japanese/Thai restaurant and decided to give it a go
The next morning, I was dismayed to wake up feeling more shit than I had the night before. The ache in my back and legs had disappeared, only to be replaced by a most unwelcome pain in my belly. The pain was of the digestive kind, and the consensus reached by Beezel and I was that the beloved Chinese food from the day before was to blame. I’d made it through Morocco unscathed, and in 18 months of travelling, had suffered from no belly upsets, but now had to admit defeat in Prague. Despite how bad I felt (and it was pretty average, believe me) we were in Prague, and there were things to see. So we jumped on a tram again and made our way to into the city. We went to a coffee shop, but I only had a cup of tea, lamenting my sad belly in the process
This day we strolled back over the Charles Bridge, and up to Prague Castle, an awesome structure that dates back to 855. We were lucky enough to arrive just before noon, when the changing of the guards happens. There were about a billion people on hand to view the spectacle, so Beezel, with her vertical disadvantage didn’t see anything. But I caught most of it on film. Basically, a bunch of chaps in snappy uniforms with old school rifles are replaced by another bunch of chaps in snappy uniforms with old school rifles. This all goes on whilst some other guys play suitably manly, patriotic military anthems on trumpets, trombones and drums. Altogether, it is a most majestic performance.
We then strolled down to the castle gardens, which are very different from any other gardens we have visited. The views from atop of the castle also make it worth the visit. This is about the only high point close to Prague, so it is the best opportunity for photos. Of course, any incline means stairs, and there were plenty of them. Climbing back down the incline, we came across a number of classic 50s era Cadillacs (no joke) sitting on the street, flanked by a VW Beetle that’s roof had been chopped so severely that it only stood about 1 metre high. Odd for what was previously a communist country
Getting back to the campground, I collapsed in the tent and assumed the ‘I’m not well, please leave me to die in peace’ pose. I have no idea what Beezel was doing, I was too busy embracing melancholy. The next day promised a 200-mile drive to Salzburg, Austria. The relentless rain that night turned the campground into a quagmire, which was just what I needed in my weakened, whining state. Still, the show must, inexplicably go on. And it did.
Next, and lucky last blog (for now): Salzburg, Oktoberfest and the trek back to England.
As always, stay tuned.