Krakow and Auschwitz
Trip Start Mar 14, 2012
26Trip End Jun 15, 2012
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Notes on Italy: McDonalds in Italy - they have a Mozzarillo burger, which has mozzarella on it (obviously :P). It is interesting to see how each country customises a global chain restaurant :)
On the morning of Wednesday 25 April, we got up early, packed our bags, and left the apartment to walk to the train station to get our three-hour train trip to Milan and then onto the airport in Bergamo, north of Milan. We had a pretty tight timeframe to get to the airport on time for our flight to Krakow in the afternoon, so we left ourselves about 70 minutes to walk to the train station to get our train. I should mention that the streets in Venice are all very narrow and can be short, and there are not many direct roads to anywhere, so it is not much use to use a map all the time because you would need to look at it at every turn. When we set off for the train station, we started off in the right direction (west) and we recognised certain shops, but then we came across a square and church we didn't recognise, so we checked the map and saw that we had gone too far north. We began to walk in what we thought was south-west and came across a place we recognised (the leaning bell tower). We kept walking, but ended up going too far south and got to the lagoon and Piazza San Marco! We walked through the piazza and turned down some streets thinking we were going west, but we ended up at a dead end! We asked a local how to get to the particular main drag that we were after, and he told us to go all the way right and then take a left, so we had gone too far west for that area! We headed north and eventually found our main drag that we had walked on a few times in the previous days. We followed that all the way to the bridge over the canal near the Ghetto and continued for another five minutes and got to the train station with 10 minutes to spare! It was full-on! We were very stressed, because there are no cars in Venice, so if you get lost or are running out of time to get somewhere, you can't just jump into a cab or on a bus! So it was nice to finally get on the train! Thank goodness we left ourselves 70 minutes to get to the train station, even though google maps said it should take 33 minutes :P Perhaps it is 33 minutes if you don't get lost and aren't carrying 45kg of gear between you! :P
The train ride to Milan was nice, and there was some nice scenery that I hadn't noticed on the ride from Milan to Venice. We had about 40 minutes to get some food at Milan, and I got Burger King again, which I enjoyed :) :P We got on our train that was supposed to leave at 12.10pm to go to Bergamo to get to the airport, but the train still hadn't left at 12.16. Two guys got off, and then a girl got off because they must have thought something was going on with the train, but then the doors closed, and the girl was trying to open them to get back on, but the train just left without her! She didn't have any luggage with her, so I don't think she was going to the airport. We got the train to Bergamo and tried to work out the ticket machine to get a bus ticket to the airport. The bus came and we went to Bergamo airport, just less than 2.5 hours before our flight. We tried to check in our luggage, but Dan wasn't allowed to take his tripod as carry-on, so he had to try to fit it in his backpack. He managed to fit it, but we think his backpack ended up weighing more than the maximum :P But it wasn't re-weighed because we had to take our backpacks to a different loading area (which has been quite common at airports thus far). We waited at the airport for our flight, and Dan got a maracino from McCafe and I got a Smarties McFlurry to make up for the time in Rome where I missed out on having the Smarties gelati :P We lined up at our gate in the priority line at the very front, but we all got a bus across the tarmac to the plane, and other people ended up getting off the bus and onto the plane before us, so it didn't matter that we had been at the very front of the line :P During the flight, we flew over Austria and I could see lots of snow-capped peaks below us, and I had the song 'The Lonely Goatherd' from 'The Sound of Music' stuck in my head :P As we were flying near Krakow airport and coming in to land, we could see lots of pretty cottage/farm-type houses :) We landed and got our luggage, and some airport officials came up to us and asked us to show Italian stamps in our passports, which we hadn't gotten because we had come from another European country (Greece) into Italy, but it was all fine.
We got our transfer to the address we had been given in our confirmation email. We were supposed to meet our host Jacek at 7pm, but we were there early. We waited until 7.10pm (standing out on the street), and Dan called Jacek because he hadn't arrived. He said that he was actually in the apartment. Someone exited the building and we went inside and up some stairs but couldn't find the apartment. Dan called Jacek again, and he told us to go down the steps and out the back, which we did. But that didn't look right either, so we went back out onto the street, and walked further down to another building with the numbers inverted (eg. unit 2/9 as opposed to 9/2), but that was also wrong. It should be noted that we had all our gear with us, so we were shlepping it around all over the place in search of our apartment! Dan called Jacek again and asked him to confirm the address, and the address we had been given is actually the address of one of their offices (he works for a real estate agency), and not our apartment! We had booked an apartment in the old Jewish quarter of Krakow, but the address that he had was actually much further north, in the old town area of Krakow! He said that there was an apartment free in the Jewish quarter, but it was only available for three nights and we would have to move to another apartment close by for the final night. He gave us the address of the other apartment and said he would meet us there in 30 minutes and that it was near a square and we could go there to have coffee and wait. The only map we had was a small black-and-white map that was in the confirmation email, and it didn't have all of the surrounding streets named. I had seen a square nearby just before we were dropped off, so we headed in that direction. We went to the main road and asked a local girl where the street was, and she told us it was the second street ahead. We went there and waited by the corner (we could see no square nearby). Dan could see some hotels on the adjacent street across the road, so he ran across to see if they had any vacancies, because we were angry about being messed around. He came back and said that they were both full! Just then, a young man on a bike rode towards us and said that he was Jacek, and he was apologising profusely and saying that his wife was coming and they had to clean the apartment (it had obviously just been used and hadn't been cleaned yet). He was very nice. As we were crossing the lane, his wife arrived and she was also very apologetic, and they took us up to our apartment. It was a studio apartment, but it was spacious and the kitchen was massive! We dropped off our luggage and left them to clean the apartment. They suggested we go to a square nearby (up the street that the hotels were on), so we headed out for dinner. We began walking up that street and saw a restaurant that smelt really good and had a decent menu, so we decided to go there rather than to the square. We were glad we did! It was delicious! For entree we got prunes wrapped in bacon, which was very nice. For mains, Dan got a 500g boneless pork knuckle with sauerkraut, horseradish and mashed potato, and I got boneless ribs with sauerkraut and mashed potato. It was very good.
Ultimate cultural experience of the day: eating delicious Polish food :)
On the morning of Thursday 26 April, Dan woke up with a sore throat. We walked to Old Krakow and got Dan some Strepsils. We walked to the main square (Rynek) and had breakfast at a cafe. Old Krakow is really beautiful, with lovely old buildings in all sorts of colours :) We walked to the outside walls of Old Krakow, which has a really pretty park area. We saw the Florian Gate and the Barbican, and went to a square across the street with a 'Grunwald' statue, and we wondered what it was because the plaques were in Polish. We walked through the Florian Gate and saw a Madonna and child, but the baby Jesus was black, which we thought was interesting. We walked through Old Krakow zigging and zagging, and went inside a modest church, which was actually very pretty inside. We kept walking and went into St Anns, but it wasn't as modest and we liked the first church better. We went back to the Rynek and tried to get into St Mary's, but it seemed to be closed for something (perhaps a Mass). I got some funny photos with a man dressed up as a Hun :P We went to a Franciscan church and saw a Mass in progress, and then went to a Dominican church and looked inside there too. There are so many churches in Old Krakow, and lots of nuns and priests and monks wandering around, it doesn't surprise me that they call it the Rome of the North! Dan still had a sore throat and was sneezing a lot, so he wasn't taking as many photos as he usually does. We went to St Peter and Paul Church and looked inside, and went to St Andrew's Church next door, which is very small and has an adjoining monastery for the Order of St Clare (called 'the poor Clares'). I read on a notice board inside the small church that they are committed to radical Gospel living, and are "conscious of (their) unique call in the heart of the Church as enclosed contemplatives".
We walked back to the Jewish quarter and walked to an old synagogue in the quarter called the High Synagogue. We got tickets to the exhibition inside and went upstairs to the prayer room (synagogue) part of the building. It was a photo exhibition of families before the war just doing normal things like skiing, visiting the Wawel Castle cathedral in Krakow - just normal and happy family photos. We were told that sole survivors of those families had somehow saved those photos of their families and gave them (or copies) to the exhibition in the memory of their families, so it was sad seeing how they were just going about their normal lives before the war, and only one person from each family survived :( We left the synagogue and found a place for lunch, which was tasty. We walked across the Vistula River to get to Schindler's Factory, which is now a museum. The museum was about Poland (and Krakow in particular) before, during and after World War II, and it is quite interactive with photo albums and videos. It had reconstructions of rooms from the Krakow Ghetto to show what it was like and how cramped it was. There were letters written by Jewish children during the Holocaust (some survived, some did not - one of the child survivors was the movie director Roman Polanski!). There were several letters written by an eight-year-old girl named Stella, and she ended up being one of the people saved by Oskar Schindler. We went into a room that had a monument listing some of Schindler's List, and there was a Jacob Lewin on the list. I read at the end of the tour that Schindler felt guilty after the war because he felt that he could have done so much more, but one of the survivors said that Jews believe that when you save one person you are saving a world, and she said that he saved her and she went on to have children and grandchildren, so think of all of the worlds that he actually saved! I thought that was really moving.
After we left the museum, we walked back across the river and went to the Jewish quarter to go to another synagogue. It had already closed when we got there, but we saw the exterior. We were given a flyer for a restaurant that was going to have a live band playing klezmer music that night. There were quite a few restaurants in this particular square that were offering the same thing, and it really seemed like the Jewish hub of the Jewish quarter. We went across to the flyer restaurant, but they were charging for the privilege and it was starting at 8pm, which is too late for dinner time for us! :P We went back to the apartment and Dan found a place on Tripadvisor that sounded nice. We went there and had a really nice meal. I had goulash with potato pancakes and sour cream and wilted spinach, and Dan had borscht and dumplings, and fish for main.
Ultimate cultural experience of the day: visiting Schindler's Factory.
On the morning of Friday 27 April, we went for a short stroll along the river. We got picked up by our transfer (the same company as from the airport) to be driven to Auschwitz. We picked up a family of three and another girl, and drove to Auschwitz. It was very busy, and we were told by our tour guide that it was because it was the anniversary of the death of a Polish teacher who had been killed at Auschwitz, and that 20% of Poland's teachers were killed during the war because they were considered to be part of the Polish intelligentsia.
(Below are a few paragraphs about our tour of Auschwitz and Birkenau and some of the things we saw and were told by our tour guide, and you may find it upsetting. If you don't wish to read it, go down to the section below the second set of asterisks.)
We were told by our tour guide that when the Nazis first started the concentration camps, they took photos of all of the inmates and identified them that way, but they all began to starve and became skinny and they all started to look the same, so that is why they started to tattoo numbers onto their arms. We were told about Dr Mengele, who did medical experiments on the inmates. He was especially interested in experimenting on twins, and when our tour guide mentioned twin children and babies, I almost cried thinking about Lucas and Jacob, and me and Michelle! :( We were told that mothers were usually gassed with their children to avoid panic, because if the children were taken off their mothers there would have been mayhem. We were told that a lot of Jews were deceived about what was going on when they were being deported, and they were told they were being moved to another country. They packed the possessions they thought they would need, like clothes and cooking utensils like pots and pans. In one of the buildings, there were room-sized spaces filled with pots and pans from these people's luggage, and piles of eye glasses and shoes and suitcases. And Dan and I found it interesting that there were lots of containers of shoe polish, which was apparently considered to be important enough to pack! There was also a room-sized space filled with hair that had been cut from the heads of 40,000 women and girls - two tonnes of hair! (see http://www.scrapbookpages.com/auschwitzscrapbook/tour/Auschwitz1/Auschwitz11.html for pictures of these rooms, and additional links at the bottom of that page).That was very sad :( Hair was cut off to be used for lining jackets, because it was cheaper than using horse hair! We were also told that after people were gassed, their gold fillings and teeth were removed before they were cremated, and it was melted down and used for jewellery. They got 40kg of gold in one month! They also took prosthetic limbs from victims and sold them, and took toys from the children and gave them to their own children! It's just disgusting.
We went to a building that was used as the camp prison, where people were essentially starved to death, and we heard the story of a man who was chosen to be one of the people taken to that building, and he began to cry and said that he had a family, and a priest inmate offered himself instead. After 11 days, he was still alive, so they injected a chemical into his heart to kill him :( This priest has been beatified, and I believe he is being considered to become a saint, or perhaps even already is one. We were shown the electrical fences that some people threw themselves against to suicide, and a wall that people stood in front of to be shot, and also some gallows where people were hanged. We were taken to the gas chamber and walked inside and were shown where they released the Zyklon B from along the ceiling, and then walked into the adjoining room, which was the crematorium. It was upsetting to go into that building, having heard so much about the gas chambers as "showers".
We were given some sandwiches and juice by our driver and driven to Birkenau extermination camp (see http://www.scrapbookpages.com/AuschwitzScrapbook/Tour/Birkenau/index.html,
http://www.scrapbookpages.com/auschwitzscrapbook/history/articles/Birkenau01B.html and http://www.scrapbookpages.com/AuschwitzScrapbook/Tour/Birkenau/Camp.html). It still has the railway line running through it, which is eerie and very sad. Hungarian Jews were brought there right at the end of the war, and most of them were killed there. We walked along the dirt road beside the railway line and up to where there is a commemorative railway carriage. It was put there by the family of a young man who was killed there. He was very pious and had brought his prayer shawl with him on the train. When they got to Birkenau, he was pushed off the overcrowded train without his prayer shawl. He tried to go back to the train to get it, but the Nazi officers pulled him away. He tried to get it again, and he was beaten to death :( We walked down a dirt path to the left and saw a few pictures of Hungarian Jews being selected to either work or to be gassed (see http://www1.yadvashem.org/yv/en/exhibitions/album_auschwitz/content1.asp). Our tour guide said that there was a slave labour group of Jews at Birkenau named Sonderkommando that were forced to work there clearing bodies from the gas chambers and helping to organise the lines of people getting off the trains, but they weren't allowed to tell any of the inmates what was going on or what was going to happen to them, but they tried to help out the new arrivals any way they could, like telling a young mother to give her baby to an older relative, because if the mother kept holding her baby then she would be chosen for the gas chambers as opposed to being chosen to work, but an elderly woman would be chosen for the gas chambers regardless, so it was best for her to hold the baby than for the mother to and end up being gassed. From the photos, it is clear that they had no idea what was going on, because they look calm. Our tour guide pointed out an old man in the photo right at the front of the line, and she said that he would have just been chosen to be gassed because he was old and wouldn't be a good worker. She also pointed out another photo with some women carrying babies, and they were walking up the dirt road that leads to the gas chambers and crematoria, so they had obviously just been chosen to be gassed, and they wouldn't have known what was going on because they also looked calm. We also saw photos that had been secretly taken by the Sonderkommando, showing women undressing outside of the gas chambers, thinking they were about to have a shower. It was an extremely risky thing to take those photos. They are very sad :(
We walked up the dirt road to one of the gas chambers and crematoriums that the Nazis had tried to destroy just before the camp was liberated. We were shown a long memorial that had a tribute to the victims on it in every language that the victims spoke. It was between two crematoria that the Nazis had attempted to destroy. We walked over to the other one, and it had some pits filled with water (like ponds) which is where some of the ashes from the crematoria were put. That was upsetting to see. We went to one of the barracks and saw the bunks that the inmates slept on, and how cramped and crowded it must have been. We went to one of the timber buildings, which was where the washroom and latrines were. It was really hot in the building. We were told that working in the washrooms and with the latrines was considered a good job, because you were under shelter, had access to latrines all day, and could secretly organise uprisings and a black market. The tour guide said that some babies were born in Auschwitz and Birkenau and survived, and that some of them are still alive, and the ones that have come back to see the camps get very upset, even though they have no memory of being there because they were too young, and she said it is very moving to see them come with their families.
After our tour of Birkenau, we were driven back to Krakow and went for a walk along the river. It had been a hot, sunny day, and there were lots of people out and about and sitting on the grass by the river, and some people were sun-baking! We had dinner in the Jewish quarter, and I got a burger but still wanted the potato pancakes with cranberry jam that I had been eyeing off as a starter. So I got that for dessert :P
Ultimate cultural experience of the day: visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau :(
On the morning of Saturday 28 April, we hung our washing on a clothes hanging rack after we had done a wash, but the clothes were still soaking because the washing machine hadn't gone through a rinse cycle for some reason, and we didn't know how to put just the rinse cycle on. We walked to the train station and got tickets to Warsaw for the next day. We stopped off in the Rynek for a coffee and a milkshake. We went back to the apartment and finished packing our luggage (including our still-wet clothes in separate bags!), and waited for Jacek to come with the car so we could take our things to another apartment for the last night. We were driven to the new apartment, which was bigger than the first one and very nice, and we put our still-wet clothes in the washing machine there so that they could have a rinse cycle.
We walked to Wawel Castle, which is a castle that was used by Polish monarchs over the centuries. We walked the grounds a little and went to the cathedral, and the tombs underneath. We got our tickets for the rest of the castle, but they only let a certain number of people per day into the private apartments, and the tickets had sold out. We were given particular times to visit certain parts of the castle. We went to lunch at a nearby restaurant, and Dan got duck stuffed with duck (yes, I wrote that correctly :P), and I got beef between two slices of bread in gravy, and pommes. We went back to the castle for our tour and went to the state rooms first. There were some nice chairs and chests and tapestries. We saw the treasury, which had old chalices and platters and clocks, and even a ring and earring from the 11th Century that were found during excavations of Wawel Hill. We went to the armoury, which had lots of interesting armour, including one with angel wings growing from the back! There was also some nice-looking guns (if they can ever be nice-looking), staffs, crossbows, swords (including squiggly ones), spears, and saddles and other paraphernalia for horses. We went to an exhibition called 'The Lost Wawel', which exhibits ruins and artifacts that were found during excavations, including remnants of a medieval tower, a medieval grave, pottery, tiles and coins. We climbed Sigismund's Tower, which was used for defence, but also used as a jail for nobility during times of peace (like the Tower of London). It had a nice view over Krakow. We went down to the Dragons Den, which had a long stone spiral staircase down into a cave, and at the exit there is an iron statue of a dragon and it breathes fire! For dinner that night, we went back to Starka, and I got Krakow-style potatoes (potato wedges, essentially), and chicken stuffed with herbs and nuts with mashed potato on the side.
Ultimate cultural experience of the day: visiting Wawel Castle.
- First things first, the food was sensational, particularly around the trendy Kazmierez (Jewish quarter). $30-$40 for three courses, two people.
- Krakow is a beautiful city and on the 'hot' list for new tourist destinations.
- It sucks being sick at any time, but particularly when travelling. Note the lack of photos, I could hardly carry myself let alone an additional 10kg of camera equipment.