We left Tallinn by bus, after a quick detour to the airport when the taxi driver took us to the wrong place. The trip to Riga was smooth and comfortable – flat for kilometre after kilometre. Forests, farms and puddles where the spring melt had not yet dissipated.
Riga was a great surprise, with a beautiful historic centre, lots of people and lots of drinking going on. Our digs were quite close in to town. Our bedroom was also quite close – to the trams that rumbled by all day and half the night. Fortunately the local supermarket sold Russian beer in 1litre cans.
As well as the usual walk around town we took an hour or so to visit the Occupation Museum (along, it seemed, with a thousand kids). The poor Baltic States. First it was the Soviets, then the Germans, then the Soviets again. Fifty years to regain their independence is a long time to wait, and a hell of a lot of lives lost or ruined in the process. The clever ways that they found to make their point in the face of overwhelming force – 2 million people linking arms from Tallinn to Vilnius, for
example – are testament to the smarter thinking of the underdog.
Foolishly asking a local for somewhere to eat (and being directed to a “casual” place), we had our most stodgy meal ever. Chicken (or possibly pork), fries, a limp salad. We couldn’t communicate at all with the waitpersons (our fault not theirs, since we’re the visitors) but all the locals were chowing down on the same crap as well. It’s not as if they were poor people – well-dressed families were coming in for their Sunday night dinner before facing a week of work. A week of constipation, more likely.
We then flew Air Baltic to Warsaw. Typical infuriating airport lines, but all was forgiven when we saw that our plane had – propellers. It was a safe, smooth flight nonetheless, but it can't be all that often this century that you fly a two hour international sector in a propeller-driven airplane.
Then to Warsaw, which was an afterthought on our itinerary, and caused us to stop and think.
Firstly the tomb of the unknown soldier, housed in the very last remnants of the Saxon Palace after it was blown up by the Nazis.
Then the old town, painstakingly recreated after it was flattened in world war two. You couldn’t help but remember you were in a restored area (although there were certainly no visual clues) and that there were other towns that suffered to do this (Wroclaw and Szczecin sent millions of bricks to Warsaw to help with the rebuilding, and lost many of their own historic buildings in the process).
But to think: twenty million cubic metres of rubble. To think about 800,000 dead. To think about the subsequent Soviet oppression – it’s a wonder these people are still human at all.
From there we had three nights in Krakow – and three days of complete contrasts.
The train down was, well maybe not as old as the historic buildings, but it did have the old fashioned compartments, it did have dedicatedly rude and mono-lingual staff and it did stop for long periods of time out in the middle of nowhere.
The countryside was quite nice – flat to undulating pasture and farmland; the farming seems to be relatively small scale, in fact the whole country gives the impression of being a bit behind the rest of Europe.
Krakow’s old town is pretty commercial- the Cloth Hall, dating back to the 16th century and right in the middle of the main square, is nothing but souvenirs and other junk. But it is a striking place nonetheless, and there’s a good mix of locals and tourists at the bars and restaurants.
The pick of it for us though was St Mary’s Church. It’s about 700 years old. The high altar took Wit Stwosz 12 years to complete; it has 200 precisely carved figures ranging from 3cm to 3 metres high. There are no statistics or even words though to describe the dedication of the builders or the beauty of the place.
The following day we visited Auschwitz. What a contrast. The muffled sound of feet on gravel. The hushed voices. Groups of people herded this way and that, not knowing what to expect. The occasional start as a door slams. And that was only the tourists.
Seriously though, this is a most moving place. The exhibits tell the story – the rooms themselves, the recovered human hair, the belongings. A selection of the 40,000 surviving photographs of prisoners. Being a methodical race the Germans
The sign reads "Work will make you free".
photographed each prisoner and recorded the day they arrived and the day they died – sometimes 3 days later, sometimes 6 months. That of course was for the prisoners who were to be sent to work – many were just taken out and executed immediately.
Then we went to Birkenau to have a look at the larger of the two remaining sites and the memorial itself. It is a huge area, with its own kilometre-long railway siding. Most of the hundreds of wooden sheds are gone now, but we had a look at a couple of restorations. The prisoners worked together, froze together, shat together and slept together (along with rats and other nasties). Despite all this they absolutely had to appear healthy, as the sickest of them (and they were all sick) would be pulled out of the line and sent to the gas chamber.
It absolutely beggars belief how any part of humankind could so systematically go down a path to wipe out several entire ethnic groups. Perhaps you need to see the remains of Auschwitz- Birkenau to understand a bit of the Jewish persecution complex – the million of them who died there might have
Wieliczka Salt Mine
Church, underground, world's biggest.
something to do with it.
And so the next day we went to the salt mine. Not the salt mine as in Siberia, as in slave labour and Hogan’s Heroes, but the salt mine as in Wieliczka (we can’t pronounce it either).
Twenty minutes from Krakow, it’s a real salt mine that had been in use for four hundred years. Over this time the miners have turned the empty spaces into all sorts of things, including the world’s biggest underground church and a banquet hall.
You walk down 800 steps into the mine, ending up 135 metres below the ground. After viewing a whole lot of stuff, including a lot of quite amazing statues all sculpted by the miners themselves (and including a lot of new statues of ex-Pope John Paul whatever, who since his recent beatification is a big thing around this area) we passed though the inevitable underground souvenir shop and travelled back to the surface in a mine lift. A most amazing place.
And so our trip to Poland and the Baltic Countries finishes. Beautiful countryside, artistic and masterful works of art, horrific tales never to be forgotten of occupation and genocide. What
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