06.08.2011 - 12.08.2011 26 °C
After leaving Romania we decided to stop over for a night in Kosice, Slovakia to break up the drive. A short walk from our hotel found us in a bustling pedestrian area with a great selection of cafes, bars and restaurants. The best bit of all was the musical fountain. The music sprays up out of the jets in time to all different songs such as Bon Jovi, it was pretty cool. Lots of pretty lights always help too. One night was all we had but it was a great little town that we would have been more than happy to spend three or four nights in. However we had work to do and that involved Poland, first stop Auschwitz.
Being honest, going to Auschwitz was one of those things you want to do but don’t want to do. It’s about an hour outside of Krakow which was our ultimate destination. We had decided though, that it made sense to visit on the way to Krakow rather than drive out again the next day. As we approached a feeling of heebie jeebies sort of overcame me, not so much Adam. I was expecting an almost ghostly feel to the place but as Adam said “none of the ghosts would want to hang around there” which I think makes sense.
It is a tourist mecca and you have to do it as a group with a guide, you can’t wander it on your own. Fortunately for us though the Poles are more organised than the Romanians (thinking Peles Castle) and we were given headsets which also meant there was no jostling to be close to the guide to hear. The first part of the tour took us through Auschwitz 1. These buildings were already standing when the Nazis began their ‘liquidation’ and so they just adapted them to suit their requirements. For me, I knew the basics of the concentration camps but the nuts and bolts of it add a whole new dimension. I apologise if you know all of this already. The Nazis took the Jews out of the ghettos telling them they were going to a better place, as they got off the trains a doctor (Mengele)sized them up and gave a thumbs up or thumbs down depending on how able to work they looked ie useful. For the thumbs down people this meant death. One of the photos in the exhibition shows the shadow of the doctor’s thumb as he is giving the woman in front of him the thumbs down. The thumbs down people were then taken off to the gas chambers, being told they were going to have a shower. At Auschwitz 1 they gassed 700 at a time and then moved their bodies into the furnaces. We were able to walk through the actual gas chamber and let me tell you it was one of the most eerie, moving, saddest experiences of my life. You can see the vents the Nazis dropped the gas (Xyclon 9) into. Because there were more bodies than the furnaces could handle, some of the bodies were taken outside and burned in piles after being shaved and stripped of anything useful including teeth fillings. They then used their ashes to fertilise their crops and fields.
They also ‘recycled’ everything of the Jews. Because they were told they were going to a better life the Jews were allowed to pack a bag up to 25kg for themselves, however upon arrival their belongings were immediately taken from them. After the bodies were gassed the Nazis used their hair, which had turned grey from the gas, and sold it to textile factories. At Auschwitz in the exhibition is a display of real hair from the Jews, as well as thousands and thousands of pairs of shoes, glasses and personal items that were salvaged during and after liberation in January 1944. Walking through these rooms and seeing all these personal possessions of the victims was heart wrenching and makes you wonder how any human could be so cruel. Seeing the ‘Wall of Death’ was another moment, witnessing the spot where Jews were shot for any reason the Germans felt like such as ‘working too slowly’. Our tour guide was really informative and being a Pole herself often referred to the victims as ‘my people’ or ‘my country’ which made it more personal.
The tour, which was about three hours, took us to Birkenau also which is 3km down the road. This is the bigger site and was constructed by the prisoners for the Nazis solely for the purpose of Jewish ‘liquidation’. Row after row of wooden buildings as far as the eye can see, surrounded by barbed wire, untouched from the war, some still set up exactly as they were during the war so you can really get a sense of how they had to survive. The train track is still there, not connected though, and you can stand in the spot that the Jews stood in when it was decided whether they were going to live or die. When the Russians liberated the camps, the Nazis tried destroying it all and the burnt remains are still there, as a pile of rubble. The gas chambers at Birkenau were bigger but are only ruins however you can still see the spaces where the victims died. Auschwitz is one of those places that is difficult to really explain how it makes you feel while you are standing amongst it.
The drive to Krakow was almost a welcome relief from Auschwitz and it wasn’t long before we were in our new digs just outside the old town gates. Location, Location! Krakow has an enormous town square that contains two separate churches. It was chocked full of tourists all claiming their piece of territory in the myriad of cafes, bars and restaurants. The pastel buildings gave a nice ambience along with the buskers and street musicians. The number of Cinderella style horse and carriages was huge. Deciding it was cheesy we saved our pennies, especially after finding our it was $30 for 30 minutes. We spent time doing the compulsory castle visit but found ourselves eagerly waiting for evening when all the music would come out. Being that it doesn’t get dark up here at the moment until 9 o’clock at night it could feel like a long wait. The first night we were lucky enough to stumble upon a wine and food festival. It is necessary on these sort of trips to really immerse yourself in the culture, so we did.
Sadly one of the highlights of our Krakow trip was doing our laundry. Laugh if you must but when washing undies in the shower is your daily job then finding a Laundromat that doesn’t charge $5 for a shirt is a monumental event. Even better than that was the Laundromat we found which doubled as a café. Lugging our washing bag down the street we settled in for a wash and rinse cycle, two coffees and a mineral water. Feeling fresh, clean and reinvigorated we were able to get back into the heart of the action. Krakow was declared one of our favourite cities for the pure fact that we never wanted to go home. Often, during our trip, we have been happy to toddle home after a few beverages with dinner, content with our place in the world. Krakow however is, for us, the city that never sleeps. We divided our time between plush, boudoir style jazz lounges, underground cave like rock bars and cocktail happy acoustic acts. It was also beautifully clean which made the old town and its buildings even prettier.
Warsaw was our next stop and we had only allowed two nights in a B & B just outside of town because it was near impossible to find accommodation in town with parking. A short metro ride, which we love, and we were in the thick of it. Actually the old town of Warsaw was pretty quiet. During the war 90% of it was completely destroyed and has been painstakingly restored to its original glory. Black and white photos show the devastation and it really is hard to imagine where you are standing was once nothing more than smoking rubble. We found a square with the narrowest house, frontage being 1.5m because in the day you had to pay rates based on your frontage. What a smart cookie!
Warsaw is also home to the tallest clock tower in the world at 231m in a building which looks like something out of Gotham City. Frederick Chopin spent the first half of his life in Warsaw. The Poles are very proud of this and have about 20 different monuments or museums to the composer. Having a late afternoon break on the trendy cafe restaurant strip of Nowy Swiat we met an Aussie girl from Adelaide who was with her Polish aunt who is a famous Polish actress. How exciting! I never ever ever see celebrities in Sydney, except for the time Emily and I saw Andrew Denton at Chatswood – Woo Hoo! We entertained ourselves by watching two hapless hotdog sellers try to lure customers while lingering over their breadrolls with their cigarettes. Strangely enough they probably didn’t achieve their sales quota that day (or ever). Warsaw was fun and one more night there would have been great considering we were lucky enough to score THE MOST comfortable bed of the trip.
Our last stop for this visit of Poland was a quiet lake resort town Gizycko. The weather was overcast (or sunny cloudy as I like to call it)so there would be no sailing but a long lingering afternoon and Adam indulging in his ice-cream tradition making for an easy night. The ice-cream tradition is first and last night in a country/town. Considering we are only in some towns for a night and some countries for only four or five that makes for pretty regular ice-cream purchases. Did you know when you are on holidays things like that are actually healthy and good for you? It’s true!
After Gizycko it was onto the border to head for the Baltics. Poland has painfully slow highways, no dual carriage and slow speed limits so reaching the border was a long time coming. It is not as picturesque to drive through as Romania and Bosnia but still lush and green. These next three countries will be a treat and we are keen to see how much Russian influence still exists, probably not much.