Poland Will Never Forget Nor Forgive

Trip Start Mar 01, 2011
1
26
27
Trip End Ongoing


Loading Map
Map your own trip!
Map Options
Show trip route
Hide lines
shadow
Where I stayed
Tom and Greg's Hostel

Flag of Poland  , Southern Poland,
Tuesday, September 18, 2012

"Poland Will Never Forget Nor Forgive" Sign from Auschwitz

Please note that we have included photographs take from Auschwitz which may be upsetting. 


 Krakow

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. Of course, by that stage we were only about 50km from Krakow. We also had to pay about €4 for using that little stretch of motorway. Oh well.

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. Not so many people were gassed here; most executions took place in what was known as "The Death Block". Here thousands of inmates were shot, hung, tortured and generally abused. There was also a small, single gallows next to the gas chamber, where public 'display’ executions took place to terrorise the prisoner population. The same gallows were reused, just once in 1947 to hang Rudolf Hoss, the first camp Kommandant of Auschwitz, which was fitting really.

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. Other buildings detail what day-to-day life was like inside of the camp, as well as the resistance movements that sprung up inside the camp.

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. There were four large, operating crematoria in the camp. Resistance fighters in the camp destroyed one of these in 1944; the other three were blown up when the Germans evacuated the camp as the Russians advanced further into Poland. Despite this, it is still easy to make out the layout of what once stood there.

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. One particular example has stuck with me. One collection of photos showed a very large, extended family. By the end of the war, of the 178 people in that family, a single individual survived the horrors of the Holocaust.

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. It seemed enormous, probably because it is actually the largest medieval town square in Europe. Particularly impressive is the Sukiennice (Draper’s Hall), Town Hall Tower and Church of St. Wojciech.

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.


 Prague


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. All up it was to be a journey of about 350 miles, so not particularly short, and as the Czech roads showed, not very enjoyable. We had to tell the GPS to avoid motorways in Poland, otherwise it would again lead us to the unfinished motorway. When we finally crossed the border, we purchased a Czech vignette (road tax sticker). Besty’s top tip: make sure you know which countries require you to have one of these. They don’t make you buy one at the border, and there is nothing to tell you that you need one. Regardless, that won’t stop the police relieving you of €100+ if they pull you over and you don’t have one. Only then will they offer to sell you one.

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. Hmm. At least I got to ask him exactly where the bone church was.

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. Ever wondered what would happen if someone whacked you in the head with a ruddy great sword? Well let me tell you, your head would be sliced as easily as a carrot. A smack in the face with a mace? Well, you’ll have no face left to speak of. Scary stuff.

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. But you had to like them, and they were most receptive to a scratch on the top of the head, even if afterwards your hand spelt like you’d shoved it up goatie’s arse. Oh well. We considered going into Prague proper that afternoon, but we were both a bit tired from the long drive. So we cooked up some dinner in the camp kitchen, which was a fairly subpar setup, but sufficient for our needs. The campground did, however, have an awesome bar setup with live music every night. So we had a beer and rocked out for a bit before crashing out.

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. This bridge is arguably one of the most visited sights in Prague. Construction of the river crossing began way back in 1357, and the bridge has survived everything from floods, the Second World War and the Prague Spring. Only pedestrians have been allowed to use the bridge since 1978, and today the bridge is covered with musicians, artists and vendors, all desperately trying to capture a share of the tourist dollar/pound/et al. We were typically stingy and handed over nothing, but it was a most agreeable atmosphere.

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. This place screamed cheesy, and possibly whispered tourist trap, but we just couldn’t resist. It only cost us a few Euros each to get in. The place was tiny, but it was information overload. Prague is, apparently, but not surprisingly, full up with ghosts and other odd things. There is a nasty sprite that will drag you to the murky depths of the Vltava if you happen to get too close, a floating baby will scream and chase you nightly if you walk across the Charles Bridge, and apparently Lucifer is still chasing down some souls further upstream. Perhaps most famously of all, the original Jewish Golem sprung up from this part of the world. You know the golem, right? Not that odd, computer generated creature from the Lord of the Rings, but the big, Jewish, clay beast of a bastard. A rabbi made him back in the day, and he had to do any task that the rabbi ordered him to do. Then he gained his freedom, and has never been heard from since. But we saw him, or at least some poorly executed, paper mache form of him. The Ghost and Legends Museum. It was tacky, cheesy and completely unbelievable. And we loved every minute of it.

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. Beezel had noodles with seafood, and I had fried rice with seafood. The food was surprisingly good, and incredibly cheap. Satisfied, we rolled on, did some more exploration and then boarded the tram back to the campground. Dinner was not required that night, so we just entertained ourselves with the live music that night. We also found a sneaky way to charge up phones, iPads, laptop and every other kind of electronic device you can imagine. We ran our 20-metre extension cord from a stray power point at the bar, hooked up our power board and were in business. I actually wrote a previous blog whilst sitting there, just for your information.

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. Strolling back to the tram stop, we passed a bakery shop that sold ‘Trdelnik’. We had seen these all through the city, and they look like some odd donut/bread hybrid that is grilled over an open fire. Such a thing enthralled Beezel, so we purchased one, and they were indeed an odd, albeit delicious delicacy. It was not enough to suffice though, so we were hunt for some lunch. I was actually in no mood to eat, given my stricken belly, but knew I had to keep up the energy levels. With this in mind, and it pains me to write this, we went to a McDonalds. I thought everything is so fake and deep-fried, there was no way I could be food poisoned (again).

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.
Slideshow Report as Spam

Use this image in your site

Copy and paste this html: