Day 6. We checked out of our room and left our luggage at reception. I remember now why I never do bus tours. We had the worse tour guide ever. Our little bus of 20 people from all over the world agreed, she was terrible. The day was spent driving out to the countryside which was nice to see and the first stop was a church that had been decorated by human bones dug up from the local cemeteries. A picture is worth a thousand words in this case.
We stopped at a small town and toured around, some pretty shots were taken. After we got back to Prague we had dinner and then went to the train station for our 10:30PM departure. The cabin was very small but had bunk beds, a little sink and a place to hang clothes. It actually could have been made up with three bunks but it would be very tight in there. The door locked so we had no worries about our luggage. It was an eight hour journey on which we slept on and off. At six AM we were woken by our car's conductor and served croissants and coffee to get ready for our departure. There are no border crossing or passport controls in the EU.
A taxi took us to our pre booked B and B, The Tango House. The owner is a tango dancer from Argentina and there are many posters of people dancing the tango and we hear tango music playing. It is a restored 16th century bath house. There are only 5 rooms, ours is at the top of a narrow circular wooden staircase, 4th floor. The room is bright and charming but the best part is that it is literally around the corner from the main square.
As I write this I can hear the bugle player from the top of the tower, which sounds every hour. He does not finish his anthem however as in the 12th century the bugle player was sounding an alarm as the Tartars were coming to attack in the night. He was shot through the throat mid play and the tradition of playing the tune only part way carries on. Now, after 4 nights of hearing the bells and the trumpet four times every hour it is not quite as charming. It is a real person playing, firemen who volunteer and take 24 hour shifts.
It was only 7AM when we arrived so our room was not ready of course. We dropped off our bags and went in search of breakfast. Krakow is just waking up.
Or going to sleep for some as we see a number of young people staggering around still drunk from Saturday night and heading home or places unknown.
We managed to find an open shop and had the best cup of coffee to date. The woman at the hotel said we could probably check in early, at noon, so only four more hours to kill.
The square is massive, 10 acres, and surrounded by huge buildings and churches from the 14th and 16th century. It is the largest square of any medieval town in Europe.
After walking a while we came to a park and sat to rest. I can barely keep my eyes open. So Tired....I think I will just lay down on this park bench for a bit. Doug was uncomfortable with my decision but I couldn't help it, or care at this point and slept for around 40 minutes. Apparently two people came up at different times to see if I was okay. I guess it is not the norm to see an older woman sleeping on a park bench.
After my cat nap I was good to go for a few more hours. There was a big fundraiser relay today in the main square. Thousands of people were lined up to do the 5 km run around the square and it looked like the Vancouver Sun run or similar.
Finally we could check into our room, she had already taken our suitcases up the four flights for us (bless her heart) and we had a shower and slept for a couple of hours.
Refreshed and renewed and back to the square for a late lunch and wandering. There is a huge building in the middle of the square that dates from the 16th century, the Cloth House is where vendors would come to sell their wares. The tradition still goes on and today the stalls sell souvenirs, leather goods and lots of amber. Amber comes from this region and some of the pieces are enormous. I saw pendants that were around 6 inches x 4 inches. They would be very heavy to wear I imagine. Some have bugs such as mosquitoes and pieces of plants in them which were neat.
Like Prague the city is very well kept, clean and the buildings are spectacular. A great deal of young people once again. There are lots of street musicians, magicians, dancers
and entertainers of great talent in the square. It is not quite as vibrant as Prague however and certainly not as crowded, except for the special relay run today.
I convinced Doug to take a carriage ride with me. It was a 1/2 hour ride around the centre but I loved it. There was a piano recital at a palace on the square so we bought tickets for the 7PM show. The building had been converted to apartments during the occupation of the communists but a number of years ago a Polish philanthropist bought the building and had it restored. We were in a room overlooking the square that was decorated in the baroque style. The drapes were about 15 feet high and like duvets, they were lined with down comforters to keep the cold out from the windows most likely. It was a very small crowd and an extremely accomplished young man of 24 had us all mesmerized by his playing of Chopin on a baby grand piano. I don't think we have ever heard anyone play so well.
I have just finished reading a few novels on Poland, one of them being Michener's 'Poland' and took myself back to the early 1900s in Poland when I would have been dressed in a gorgeous gown, arrive by carriage to this beautiful palace and sit in the chamber with other nobility and aristocrats listening to such a performance.
There is a large police presence here, some riding around on segways. In Prague people drank openly in the square, walking down the streets and where ever they wanted with mugs of beer , wine or what have you. A different story in Krakow. Police are constantly going up to people drinking, some from paper bags who are trying to convince the police that the bottle of beer is in fact not beer. There is a hefty fine associated with being caught.
The fashion here is fantastic. The stores all show modern colourful well made clothing of great style. The shoes, both men and woman's, are all fun and interesting as well. Leather purses of different shapes styles and colours hang from store front windows.
The Polish people are very stylish dressers, and for the most part, are very small in frame, even when they get older.
Poland has been invaded and conquered by so many of it's neighbours over the last number of centuries. It is amazing to me that there is a Polish language and culture at all, they had to work hard to preserve it. At one time Krakow was part of Austria and you can see a Viennese influence here. After the Second World War they were 'liberated' by Russia but then under Communist rule until 20 years ago.
DAY 7 started with a walking tour of old Krakow. Our international group included 15 people from countries such as Argentina, England, New Zealand, Australia as well as a young woman from Peru whom we spent time with. The three hour tour gave us a good overview of the buildings and history of the area.
The Polish Pope was from Krakow and so loved by the people. There are 17 statues of him around the city as well as large pictures. One of our stops was outside his former residence which had a huge picture of him on the window/balcony that he would talk from. The young people would congregate in the park across the street and call for him. He came to the window and said "How can I get any sleep with all this racket going on, do you think that it is easy being a pope?" He was joking and had a great rapport with the people of Poland, talking to the young quite often, being very approachable.
Wawel Castle was at the end of our tour and these well preserved buildings on top of the hill were spectacular. Poland has spent a great deal of time and money renewing this special place. Again for me it was fantastic to see the places that I have been reading about and statues and crypts with names that I recognize.
Later in the afternoon we did a tour to the Jewish area as well as the ghetto from the 2nd world war. Too late to take the walking tour we opted for a golf cart tour instead. Mistake. A canned commentary was played, in English, but the fellow driving would be past what the woman was talking about and we would constantly have to say "what is she talking about?"
He tried to give us information as well, but he spoke so softly that we could barely hear him, and I think he just made some of it up. The guides on the walking tours have very strict rules to be licensed and get a hefty fine if they make anything up and get caught. Not so with the cart drivers. Live and learn. We still got something out of it of course. A stop at Shindler's factory was included but we did not go inside. A small part of the wall still remains around the ghetto and we were shown buildings where resistance fighters would meet and plan escapes. It made it all so real, remembering the movies and books seen on this time in history.
A typical polish meal was on the menu tonight. Polish dumplings, or perogies, Meat for Doug and cheese and potato for me.
Day 8 was a cold wet and windy day. Blow your umbrella inside out kind of a day. After breakfast we walked back to the castle to tour the inside. The cathedral complex was huge and Doug thought one of the most spectacular that he has seen. Quite a number of the statues were from Italy.
There were only 71 steps up to the bell tower, but they were very narrow, high and the stairwell was dark. At each landing there would be a huge bell. Thankfully they only rung it a few times a year and today wasn't one of them. To get to the next landing you would have to squeeze between large timbers. The view from the top was great and touching the bell was supposed to bring good luck.
The Cathedral and Castle complex are constructed with a combination of Gothic, Romanesque and Renaissance architecture. It was built in stages over many centuries and during different rule.
Coffee and a light snack followed at an outdoor cafe on site. Pigeons are quite prevalent in Krakow, and not appreciated by a lot of Poles. There is a fine for harming one which deters putting them on the menu. A couple at the table next to us were having sandwiches and the pigeons flew right to them trying to take the sandwiches out of their hands. It was like the movie 'The Birds'. The woman was kicking and hitting the pigeons but they were very aggressive and tenacious for quite some time before finally leaving.
A tour of old Wawel was next which took us to a very well done exhibit of what the pre 13th century castle was like. The way it was done was exceptional with glass walkways over the original rooms and stonework from hundreds of years ago. Artifacts from the time were also on display in well lit cases.
State Rooms were next on our agenda going through the many rooms where the Rulers, Treasurers and heads of state would rule the land. The paintings and wall hangings were in perfect shape and not covered by glass but left to the elements which surprised us. Carved ceilings and painted frescoes on the walls made the rooms very dramatic in appearance. Many of the paintings and furnishings were from Italy as well as the Orient, Turkey, Holland and other countries.
Dinner tonight was again in a typical Polish restaurant where Doug ordered perogies with Deer Goulash. I had, once again, an eggplant dish. We met a couple from Australia at the next table whom we spent the evening talking to. Our paths may cross again as we are on a similar journey
A large bag of groceries were purchased on the way home. It was full of fruit, vegetables, yogurt and other items and cost only $8. Poland is certainly an economical country to visit.
Day 9 was a beautiful and warm sunny day. It was also a very emotional but enlightening day. Auschwitz and Birkenau.
Picked up at 9AM in a modern comfortable van we joined 18 others for our one hour drive out of town. On the way we were shown a movie, one I had never seen before, of footage and commentary from a Russian reporter who at the young age of 20 something arrived with the Russian troops to liberate the prisoners of the death camps. Not sure of what he was supposed to do, and quite unprepared for what he found upon arrival at the camps he shared his photos and films with us, the audience. I had to look out the window a number of times to keep from fainting, it was information that I had not heard or seen before. The scenery outside was lovely however, rolling hills, beautiful little towns with modern as well as older homes along the way.
When we arrived at Auschwitz we were told to stick together, given name badges to identify our little group as the place was packed. Over a million visitors from all over the world come to bear witness to this atrocity that happened only 70 years ago.
I could not help to imagine what it must have been like to be one of the many thousands of people arriving by train and being herding into areas and put into groups. For us it was one station to get head phones, another to get the recorder. In the 40s you would have been separated, male from female, and your belongings immediately taken from you. Each person was told they could bring 25 kilos of their most prized possessions. What would you bring? Pictures, jewelry, family treasures? A promise of a work camp is what they were expecting. The suitcases were then taken from them as soon as they got off the train.
The entrance gates read ' Work shall set you free'
A doctor would be sitting down as you lined up in front of him. After not much more than a glance he would decide your fate. If he pointed to the left you would go immediately to the gas chamber. More than 70 percent of people who arrived on the trains did not survive more than a couple of hours. All children under 16, the old, sick or handicapped were sent to the left. Mothers with young children, even though healthy, would all go left so as not to create any hysteria separating moms and children.
If you went right you were sent to work-camps. Factories, local farms and work in the camp itself. Others were used in experiments. The first few years of operation every prisoner would have their picture taken with name, age, date of arrival and date of death. Most only lasted a few months and died of hunger and exhaustion. The prisoners who went left never had their photos taken. There were immaculate records kept of the ones who stayed and the entire operation was so efficient and throughly planned out.
Photos of every prisoner proved to be too expensive and the last couple of years is when they decided to just tattoo numbers on forearms and the paper records would reflect the information about each prisoner.
Having read many books, articles and seeing countless movies about the death camps did not prepare us for the magnitude of this.
During the war there were prisoners working in the storage warehouses where they would sort the items taken from the people arriving. They called these warehouses Canada because they imagined that Canada was the land of plenty, like these warehouses were.
Auschwitz used to be Polish barracks so the buildings were well made of brick and had indoor plumbing. It was much better to be sent here than Birkenau.
Our tour guide, Michael, a Pole was easy to understand and gave us a lot of information but did not have any emotion in his voice. I can not imagine giving this tour multiple times a day, day after day. It was a very sombre day for everyone.
Why didn't more people try to escape? The camps were surrounded by electric fences and guards with machine guns and dogs, however if you did succeed they would then capture your entire family (if they were not already there) and either incarcerate them at Auschwitz or just kill them all. They would also punish and sometimes kill the others in your barrack. A deterrent for most.
Birkenau was built because they wanted more efficiency. The goal was to exterminate
11million people in the end and Auschwitz was just not doing the job fast enough. Birkenau was five times the size and could exterminate and cremate three times more per day. The buildings however were built to be temporary so they were mostly made of wood with latrine houses behind them. In some buildings the snow would come inside and the temperature would drop to minus 30 so you can imagine the conditions.
We just discussed our visit with two young men from England who were there as well. They agreed that it left you with quite a different impression from what they had already thought it would be like. We also agreed that we were amazed at how organized and efficient the entire operation was.
That is all I will say about it, but I feel that hard as it is, everyone should go. I had been to Dachau concentration camp in Germany many years ago, but a death camp is quite a bit different.
Our last night in Poland was spent at an underground museum. It was very well done but unfortunately we did not understand much of what we saw. It would have been a great place for either headsets or a guide, neither of which was offered however.
Day 10. 8AM train to Budapest involved a 2 1/2 hour layover where we changed trains and then arrive tonight at 830PM. I am spending the time working on this blog and enjoying the beautiful pastoral scenery. Our compartment has six seats and they are all full. Four young people from Budapest returning home from somewhere on business have joined us. The Polish trains are very modern, quiet and comfortable. The second train was not as nice as the first, but still much better than I was led to believe.
I don't think I want to spend an entire day on a train again however. I think time is better spent doing night trains and saving the day for sightseeing. So little time and so much to see. We are contemplating where to go after this????
But for now, on to Hungary...........