A sobering day.

Trip Start Aug 17, 2009
Trip End Jul 20, 2010

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Where I stayed
Totu Hostel

Flag of Poland  , Southern Poland,
Thursday, October 22, 2009

Thursday morning we got up early (well, for us at least), got ready and were downstairs at 8:45 for our driver Paul to pick us up. We had decided that the only way we were going to see everything we wanted to see was to hire a private tour, so we found a pretty cheap company that drove us to Auschwitz, Birkenau, and the Salt Mines.  First up, Auschwitz and Birkenau.

What can I say about our trip to Auschwitz and Birkenau that could possibly express what it's like to actually be there?  Everyone knows about these 2 notorious concentration camps, the horrors that occurred there, the emotions that just the names can spark.  But nothing, NOTHING makes it set in like actually going there.  Most people, I think, know Auschwitz better then Birkenau and actually confuse the two.  Auschwitz was the work camp, with block upon block of 2 story buildings to house the "prisoners" and its sign “work will set you free” at the entrance.  Birkenau was the death camp.  The infamous 'end of the rail line’ with 2 massive gas chambers that the Nazi’s blew up before abandoning the camp.  But Auschwitz still invokes the stronger emotions.  The visit there is a very personal experience, and the 4 of us went through it in 90 minutes in complete silence.  For each person I think it hits you at a different point, for me, it was inside one of the housing blocs where they had exhibits of the items confiscated for prisoners and a room full of suitcases bearing people’s names on them.  It was a struggle to remember to take pictures here, but important to do so.  However, the interesting thing for me was how “pretty” the camp is.  If you can manage to disconnect your brain from the emotions of what happened, it is really rather pretty.  Large brick buildings that are not stark but have some character, massive oak trees lining the walkways, and it was actually very ‘serene,’ if that makes sense.  And then you remember what occurred there and the serene atmosphere becomes more haunting.  Birkenau is about a 10 minute drive away, and our driver took us to the backside of the camp and met us at the front.  Birkenau is much larger then Auschwitz, and significantly bleaker, it has also been left nearly untouched.  The gas chambers that the Nazis blew up are still massive piles of rubble, there isn’t a walkway around it and the only additions to the sites are memorial pillars.  The rail line ends abruptly next to the two chambers.  We wandered over Birkenau and did go into one of the bunk houses, but I didn’t last long in there, actually began to feel physically ill.  So we just wandered down the rail line to the gates.  This was a very sobering trip and we were definitely in need of some hot food and cheering up afterwards.

Paul drove us to the salt mines and to a traditional restaurant right across the street where we had a fast lunch.  Hot soup and pirogues and then off to the salt mines.  These are definitely pretty “touristy” but it was still pretty cool.  Everything is carved in salt: walls, floors, sculptures, everything.  And the main chamber is gorgeous, all in salt.  They sometimes hold concerts down there and even weddings.  The salt mine trip was definitely needed after our morning visits, and was really quite fun.  The 400meter ride to the top in a miners basket was probably the best part, but could have been improved it we hadn’t been crammed in with the woman who started to freak out about the close quarters and the fact that we were in the dark (“oh my god, on my god, I don’t like this, I wouldn’t have done this if I knew this was how I got out.  Oh this isn’t fun, why didn’t they tell us this…….blah blah”    Get over it lady, it was 20 seconds!  Sorry, she just sort of ruined it)

We rounded out our 2 days in Krakow with another really good meal and then an early night.  Up at 5:30 Friday morning to get to the train station for our 6:50 train and then a 7 train to Vienna.  I dropped my things off in my apartment on the 3rd floor (no elevator) and meet up with Amy and it was off to Budapest.
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