Pole to Pole

Trip Start Aug 15, 2006
Trip End Sep 19, 2006

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Flag of Poland  , Southern Poland,
Monday, September 11, 2006

No sooner have our heads hit the pillow then we are up again, at 7am. Natasha, the maid of honour, kindly drives us down to the station for our 8am train.

Actually, today is a day of trains. We end up catching five separate trains in our 13-hour journey to Krakow, Poland. Because of our late night/early start, we try to catch up on some shut-eye en route. One on occasion we are curled up very contentedly with a cabin all to ourselves when we are woken up by a loud metal-on-metal clank. We look out the window and see that we are stopped at a station. After about 10 minutes without moving, I go and have a peek in the other cabins but they are all empty. "Don't worry about it", says Jane calmly, "it's just a quiet Monday afternoon". So we sit in our cabin for a few more minutes. Then I go and look in the next carriage - completely empty. "I think something's wrong", I say. Just then, some railway engineer is walking along the platform, sees us sticking our heads out the window and yells at us to get off the train. It turns out that the clanking noise we heard was our carriage being removed from the rest of the train. A couple more minutes and we would have been dragged off to some remote corner of the railyard and left there to rust.

Luckily we have a few minutes stop in that station, because I have to use the restroom. WCs are all user-pays over here, with some middle-aged or older attendant sitting on a little chair collecting money as you go in. I gesture to this particular lady with my 4 korunas and started to head in. "Mala alebo velku?" she calls after me. I indicate back with a shrug of the shoulders that I didn't understand, so she repeated "mala alebo velku?" I pause, and then remember that 'velku' means 'large'. The penny drops after a moment so I hesitantly respond "velku", as this is my requirement at the time, and she hands me four pieces of sandpaper disguised as toilet paper and a key to one of the 85 year-old cubicles.

At around 9pm, our fifth train chugs into Krakow's extensive but oddly-configured station. Our accommodation, the Goodbye Lenin hostel, is located at the end of a dark alley way off a shady side street but is perfectly welcoming and bright inside. The theme, as you would imagine, is communism with attitude. A bronze bust of Lenin with wraparound sunglasses stands proudly in the lobby. The walls are covered in retro communist-style posters and propaganda slogans. It's actually pretty cool and an excellent hotel too, with great facilities.

The nearby Kazamierz district used to be the Jewish part of Krakow before World War II. It has been revived in recent years and parts of it have been tastefully converted into a pub/restaurant zone with some really funky places, from traditional to trendy. With more time and a larger budget, one could easily make a great night out of this area. From what I've seen of Krakow so far, it is already one of my favourite European cities and I would say it is certainly underrated.

Tuesday, September 12

Although we are still very tired, we decide to get up early to make the most of our only day in Krakow. We have an Auschwitz tour booked for the afternoon, so we spend the morning in the old town. There is a big castle on the hill but we've seen plenty of castles recently so this one doesn't hold much attraction. Next to the castle, however, is this thing called The Dragon's Lair that sounds pretty cool, so we take a look. We descend down and down a narrow and slightly claustrophobic spiral staircase for about 10 minutes, from the top of the hill to beneath the level of the nearby river. At the bottom it leads into a dark cave. We are the only visitors at this time and there is no security around, so it is a slightly spooky experience. That's pretty much it, though, we don't see any dragons, knights or even any bones scattered on the floor.

From the exit of the Dragon's Lair it is a short walk to the Old Town along pretty cobble-stoned streets that date back to the Middle Ages. The centrepiece of Krakow is its enormous town square, easily the largest I have seen. Using the most universal of measurements, I would estimate it to be about eight football fields by five football fields, with a variety of churches, markets and other important buildings filling some of the space. We sit in the square for a few minutes while I suck back a mid-morning kebab, that most Polish of delicacies.

Video of Krakow

Our Auschwitz tour begins at 1pm as we are picked up from the hostel by a little mini-bus. It's a good 90 minutes drive to Auschwitz (known as Oswiecem in Poland), during which time our middle-aged driver listens to hardcore rap and, at one point, freaks me out by fumbling around on the passenger seat floor for his phone with one finger on the wheel and no eyes on the road.

The tour itself is a mixed bag. We are part of a group of about 20 and we get taken around a number of the old barracks in the camp, which are now used to house exhibits. We see the starvation and suffocation cells, the wall of death against which prisoners were shot, some of the possessions taken from the prisoners, and of course the gas chamber and crematorium.

"Work Will Make You Free" is the writing over the gate

The Gas Chamber & Crematorium

Click here for the video

We also go to the much larger Birkenau camp nearby and see the terrible conditions in which the prisoners had to exist. I have to say, though, that I left a little unsatisfied. Our guide was knowledgeable but spoke really softly so you really had to follow him closely and he appeared to be in a rush. Because of this apparent urgency, we didn't get to spend as much time exploring around the museum as I would have liked. Also, having read up on Auschwitz recently, I knew a fair bit about the camp so I didn't learn much new stuff. In hindsight, I would have preferred to just spend that 3 hours in Auschwitz walking around by myself, without the guide.

Living quarters

Washroom facilities for 1000 people

Anyway, we race back to Krakow so that the driver's dinner won't get cold, and Jane and I walk back to the Jewish district for some dinner of our own. We find a fairly authentic-looking garden bar and chow down on a whole pile of Polish food - sausage soup, kielbasa sausage, goulash and pierogies.
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