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Found 5 results

  1. Tim

    Day 4: Kraków

    Today was our final day. I hadn't given much thought to what we'd do, thinking that we could arrange something together whilst we were in Zakopane and knew the lay of the land. My suggestion was Nowy Sącz, on the basis that it was the nearest large town. Matt came up with a much more reasoned suggestion: 'We barely got to see Kraków and we've got to go to the airport near Kraków, so why don't we go to Kraków and see a bit more of it?' That made so much sense that it's exactly what we did. The 65-mile drive was very easy for nearly the whole distance, since it was on a motorway, which offered occasional pretty views: A little after 12, we'd arrived, choosing to park by Wewel Cathedral, which was immediately visible to us upon exiting the car park: It was immediately apparent that the Vistula was a wide river: we hadn't seen it before because night had fallen when we crossed it previously: We walked around the wall and soon encountered a dragon: A little past him was a ramp upwards, which we followed: Soon we saw the cathedral: It was very pretty up close: Around the corner was a statue of the region's Karel Wojtyła, better known as Pope John Paul II, the first non-Italian pope in over 450 years: We were running low on time at this point (the contract with the rental company stipulates a fine of 500€ if we don't return the car on time!), so headed down rather than linger. After roaming for a couple of minutes, we walked up a street with a pretty church on it: Directly opposite was a lunchtime cafe, and that's where we decided to stop for a quick bite to eat. We exited to the view of the church, retrieved the van, and returned it to the company with five minutes to spare, before walking the few minutes to the airport for our first of two flights home.
  2. Today is Armistice Day. It also happens to be Poland's Independence Day. This isn't a coincidence: the dissolution of the German, Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires in 1918 simultaneously heralded the rebirth of the historical Poland which had been divided up among those larger powers. A little over 20 years afterwards, the Second Polish Republic ceased to be when it was invaded by a remilitarised Germany, the Soviet Union, and the Slovak Republic. That action was incipient of the largest, most damaging conflict in the history of the planet, which would leave perhaps 85 million corpses in its wake. Poland's soil was the site of the most infamous depravity, Hell on Earth: its name was Auschwitz. Although I had booked free tickets in advance, it became clear that for only £12 we could join a group led by an English-speaking tour guide. That proved to be a bargain, as we spent over 3 hours being educated about the horrors inflicted on people who's only crime was to live. This blog isn't the place to find detailed information about Auschwitz. There are plentiful better sources. I'll just stick to what we saw. From our starting point, we could see barbed wire and the infamous gates: The title was, of course, cruelly ironic. Nobody was going to get out of here alive. People were going to be worked to death, assuming they were judged capable of working. Those who weren't were disposed of immediately. There was no mistaking that this was a prison: In each of these blocks between 700 and 1000 people were housed: It was clear that Auschwitz was the end destination for Jews, political prisoners, priests and other undesirables from all over Europe. 1.3 million people were deported by the Nazis to Auschwitz during the five years that it was operational. 1.1 million of them were killed there, 90% of whom were Jews. The original crematorium could incinerate 5000 bodies a day. It became clear that this wasn't enough. In the first block we entered, there was a monument to the murdered people. The urn contains ashes taken from the crematoria at the death camp, Birkenau: The mass murders were carried out when the prisoners were herded into showers. Through a vent in the ceiling, pellets of a cyanide-based pesticide called Zyklon B were dropped in. 5 to 7 of them were enough to kill everybody in the room within 20 seconds: The sheer scale of murder at Auschwitz meant that even though so small a supply was needed for each group killed, the Nazis got through hundreds of canisters of the stuff: We walked past similar piles of pony tails, shorn from female prisoners, whose hair was used for stuffing in mattresses, bombs, and ropes and cords for ships. Likewise, we saw mountains of suitcases with names painted on them, glasses, and personal effects. I don't think anything could out-shock the site of toddlers' shoes and clothing: These weren't an isolated few cases: I don't think most people in our group had heard of Josef Mengele, known as the Angel of Death. He was infamous for experimenting on prisoners, without using anaesthetic. He had a particular fascination with twins. He would regularly inject one twin with a deadly disease, and keep the second alive. Once the infected one was dead, the healthy twin would be murdered so that he could compare their organs. A photo on a wall shows two of Mengele's twins, Eva and Miriam Mozes. Eva was the one infected but survived the resultant infection, and both twins made it out of Auschwitz alive. Eva visited Auschwitz annually to share her experiences and died in July of this year, aged 85. We soon exited into a courtyard where prisoners were put up against a wall and shot: There were also posts featuring hooks from which prisoners would be suspended by their hands, bound together behind them. This was effectively a death sentence, since most prisoners arms would be ruined by the torture, meaning that they ceased to be of use to their captors: A short distance away was a special set of gallows erected for hanging prisoners in front of other ones: We soon reached the end of the camp. It's surprisingly small considering the enormity of its infamy: Around the corner and on the other side of the barbed wire was the villa of Auschwitz's commandant, Rudolf Franz Ferdinand Höss. I can't imagine that anybody shed a tear when he was hanged for his crimes on gallows erected especially for him: People aren't aware that Auschwitz refers to several sites. The one that most people think of, the one with the infamous gates, is Auschwitz I, the concentration camp. The site of industrialised murder, however, is a short distance away at the death camp, Auschwitz II-Birkenau. We borded a bus to take us the short distance to it. It looks bleak from the get-go: Prisoners would arrive sealed in trains which could hold up to 70 people. At times they were filled with 130: Exiting the wagons, the prisoners would be directed on which side of a doctor to pass. Those deemed fit for work would be on one side. The elderly, infirm, and young would be placed on another. They wouldn't survive the day. The Nazis tried to destroy the crematoria as the Russians approached. The ruins still remain: A monument stands at the end, featuring plaques in those languages most common among the people murdered, including Judeo-Spanish: Here's the translation: The one remaining site was the women's accommodation. It was abject: The buildings were supposed to hold 700 women. With some quick mental arithmetic, we worked out that this meant that 6 people would share each compartment. That includes the bottom one, the floor to which was soil. Rats would scurry about eating the deceased. If they didn't know whether a body was dead, there was an easy way for them to check. The extreme cramping may actually have been useful to the prisoners. Temperates in this part of Poland can reach minus fifteen in winter. You can imagine that the Nazis weren't interested in providing heating. They were barely interested in providing toilet facilities. The women were herded into a toilet block twice a day, and were given 30-40 seconds before being forced to leave. Clothes were changed every few weeks. Showers were rare but when they did happen, the prisoners would return naked and wet, including in the dead of winter. All together, our tour lasted an hour and forty minutes at Auschwitz I and a further hour at Auschwitz II-Birkenau, immense value at only £12 each. We chatted with our guide a bit on the return journey to the first camp, and then began the journey to Zakopane, where we'll be spending our final two nights.
  3. Tim

    Day 3: Zakopane

    Our base for the final two nights was Zakopane, a ski resort in the south of Poland. I spent a week here in 2005 during an Esperanto event, although shamefully have no recollection of the mountains. By the time we arrived night had fallen. Our landlady told us where to find a good, local restaurant, confirming that it was open, since we'd noticed so many others closed for Independence Day during our travels. We ate well and returned to the chalet. Yes, I said chalet. We have an amazing location with a bedroom each. It looks beautiful from the outside: The inside is equally stunning: This morning started off with a streetwide powercut, which the landlady had informed us about the previous evening. Fortunately, Dad and I had got our showers in beforehand, and there was a gas cooker in the kitchen, which Matt used to make sure that everybody had coffee. We had a particularly relaxed start to the day with people free to get up and come down when they wanted. Our plans were limited to using a cable car to get to the top of a nearby mountain. Without any travel ahead of us, we could afford to take our time. As it happens, we never got around to having breakfast because it was past eleven when we left the house and drove to a place called Kuźnice, from where we were going to use a cable car to reach Kasprowy Wierch, not far from the summit of the highest mountain. Unfortunately for us, the cable car was closed down for technical review prior to the ski season, so we were stuck where we are, albeit in pretty surroundings: Rob, James and Matt went off for a little stroll: And came back down perhaps twenty minutes later: With little else to do and having had no breakfast, we decided to head into the main town and look for lunch. We ended up parking alongside pretty surroundings: Including Poland's largest ski jump! It didn't take long to find somewhere to eat and so we settled down for an hour or so. Afterwards, we had to think about what to do, given that our plans had gone awry. I had the intention of taking a five-mile trail to see a glacial lake called Morskie Oko but I was conscious that this wouldn't be everybody's cup of tea. In the end, we decided that Matt would explore the town and then make his way home, Dad would spend some time in the chalet, and Rob, James and I would go up the trail by the cable car. The first 20 minutes were very difficult, walking up a steep cobbled incline. Things suddenly became easier and we were soon rewarded by a view: A few minutes further, and things really started to look pretty: We decided that it would be worth walking on to see whether we could get any closer views, so off we set: The track led through a pine forest: There was soon a steep section: It had become drizzly but we were soon encouraged by the promise of a view: And soon we were there: It had taken a shade over an hour and we weren't far from twilight, so we decided we'd earned a rest, and headed back down to the car, taking a slightly different route on the other side from where we had taken some photos earlier: And then we headed home. That's also what we'll be doing tomorrow. Since we're flying from Kraków and didn't get to see much of it when we were there, we've decided that we'll stay there for a few hours before driving off to the airport.
  4. Since I spotted that Kraków had a Zamenhof Street yesterday, I really didn't have much choice this morning than to get up earlier to track it down before breakfast. It took a while to cover the ground but the street appeared into view. A word in orange on the facade of the shop across the word looked familiar: Sure enough, it read how it was supposed to: There were proper street signs, of course: Plus a plaque: Returning back across the road, I saw some very attractive buildings: They were particularly nice close up: Everything appeared to be quite pretty: By the point I'd finished taking these photos, I was going to be late for breakfast, so I had to dash back. We had a big day ahead of us; one which deserves its own blog entry, because it was a visit to the most infamous site in the world, testament to the darkest depths of depravity to which the species has ever plunged: Auschwitz.
  5. Tim

    Day 1: Kraków

    My brother asked me quite some time ago about the feasibility of doing a WW2 roadtrip, taking in Berlin, Munich and Auschwitz within the space of a few days. The answer to that was that it was totally unfeasible, which has led to a refinement; we're now in Poland with a view to visiting Auschwitz on Armistice Day. Our group has swollen from us two to include our other brother, our father, and our brother-in-law. Getting here relied upon that universal constant, the very early start, and two aeroplanes. In something of a novelty for me, we flew from my local airport, Birmingham, with KLM to Amsterdam, and then caught a connection to Kraków. Having landed and exited without needing a passport check, presumably because we flew Schengen to Schengen, the next trick was to track down our rental car, a 9-seat monster. It's a good job I bought external insurance because the prices here are through the roof; a scratch on the bumper will set us back 367€, according to a document I was asked to sign. We registered Rob as an extra driver since he too has experience driving in Europe. He was soon thrown into the deep end in a downpour, since it occurred to me that he's driven around Europe in vans bigger than this one, whereas I've only used small cars and never driven a van in my life. My logic missed out on an obvious flaw once we pulled off though (having waited around fifteen minutes for someone to come and manually open the gate to let us out): Rob's only ever driven right-hand drive. Whoops. He did a really good job and we were soon in Krakow, having spotted our hotel and attempting to find a place to park. In the end, it seemed easiest to complete a loop and return to the hotel to drop the others off, whilst Rob and I looked for parking. Approaching the hotel, we noticed a spare place on the corner of the street, and Rob drove into it. As it happens, the very friendly staff at our hotel helpfully informed us that this was illegal, since although that particular spot, like the others on the street, is free to park in, it's only available for residents, who are identifiable by a sticker on their windscreen, conspicuous by its absence on mine. Not all the visitors seem as amicable as the staff, however, judging by an entry I spotted in the guest book: After we'd all checked in, Rob and I headed off to find a private car park, with me driving this time to make up for debuting him to left-hand-drive earlier in the day. Inner-city driving is horrible on your first day, as I learned in Tenerife a couple of years ago. Once back, we all convened and decided to go for a stroll. We're staying in the old Jewish Quarter, and that soon became clear when we saw the shop names: We'd peeked into a few restaurants on our journey and noticed that the prices were very reasonable, although they all seemed to be narrow affairs limited to two-seater tables. We were now into a bigger square where we noticed the inverse: the restaurants could comfortably seat us but the prices were notably more expensive: At the very end there was one with decent prices and which allowed us to get out of the rain, which was bucketing down. Whilst we were waiting to place our order, I pulled out a map to help plan what to do next. Regular readers who know of The Curse will have no problems guessing what the first street to jump out at me was: Yes, Esperanto again in the form of another Zamenhof Street! I was highly tempted at the thought of goulash but its accompaniment sounded very unappetising: cabbage pancakes. I gave in, prioritising goulash, and buying a portion of chips as back-up. It turned out that I didn't need them because the cabbage was rather like Rösti or hash browns: I'd wanted to visit Wawel Cathedral but we were approaching 16:30, when the sun was supposed to set, and it would've been a bit of ground to cover. We decided instead to remain close by and head in the opposite direction to see Oskar Schindler's factory. The journey, again under a barrage of rain, involved crossing the Vistula: Rob navigated us using his phone but all we could see was an art gallery where the factory should've been: It was then that Matt's eagle eyes spotted something: the factory was preserved within the exterior of the gallery! It was extremely dark at this point, and so it was time to leave, in the hope of finding somewhere drier. As we were leaving, the others read a plaque by an otherwise unassuming piece of brick wall. It turned out that it was part of the Gdansk shipyards which were the source of the Solidarity protests from the early 80s: On the way back from home, Matt led us to an Irish pub he'd seen. We popped in but it was cramped and my glasses steamed over with the heat, so Dad and I left other three to enjoy their time there whilst we headed back to the hotel. My clothes are now drying on the towel rail whilst I write this blog. I think it might now be time to try tracking down the other three, since there's a pub next door and I have a few złoty in my wallet. But if I can't find them ... well, that leaves more for me, doesn't it?
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