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Published: August 8th 2007
Like moths to a flame, Prague's countless tourists swarm around the Old City streets, flitting in and out of the endless & identically-kitsch tourist shops, alighting nowhere for long. For most cities, however enchanting, this would be enough to wear the charm thin - very quickly... =/ But Prague is an untouchably magical place - a deep-dreaming city of cobbled lanes, Gothic spires and refreshingly-diverse architecture. And one of the most magical places of all is Staromestske nam
, (Old Town square), at dusk. The twin Gothic spires of Tyn Church hang - a pair of sharp-winged bats - over one side of the square, while the other is dominated by the Town Hall, (with its much-vaunted but ultimately anticlimactic - Is that it?!
- astronomical clock). Wandering into the maze of winding, cobbled lanes that surround the square, you soon lose all sense of direction, and may well emerge onto Karluv Most
(Charles Bridge), to amble along between an honour guard of stony saints and watch the portrait artists at work. Or you might find yourself stepping out onto the sloping Vaclavske nam
, (Wenceslas Square), the site of numerous demonstrations, (including that of two students who burned themselves alive to protest
the Soviet invasion in 1969).
As you wander around these streets, desperate-looking individuals - heavily wrapped up against the biting cold - ambush you on blind corners, and thrust all sorts of flyers into your startled faces. After initially refusing all of these, we started to read them a little closer, and ended up actually visiting two of the places advertised. Firstly, a classical concert in the small but accoustically-rich church of Saint-Martin-in-the-Wall, (so-named because it was built into the original city walls). For an hour or so, a very talented string quartet performed popular pieces by Mozart, Verdi, and others. I enjoyed it very much but have to admit, I was glad it didn't go on much longer. =P As for the second visit, it was also of a musical nature, although a little more contemporary. Karlov Lazne is the biggest club (of its type) in Central Europe - five floors covering as many genres. It seemed like it could be a lot of fun on the weekend, but on the week-night we went it was just us and a few other curious tourists. Full points to Mum for joining me to take a look though! =)
Dragon's fire in Krakow
Hot air balloon baskets liven things up at a charity concert on Rynek Glowny.
Mum was doing very well on the trip in general, taking to the backpacking lifestyle with great gusto and endless good humour. And if I'd had any doubts at all about how she'd handle the hostelling side of it, these were quickly dispelled on our first night in Krakow, (Poland). It was about midnight and we were both fast asleep. Suddenly, the door to our 12-bed mixed dorm banged open and a fresh arrival stumbled into the darkness, slightly the worse for wear after a few too many beers. He came to an abrupt halt in the middle of the room, rustling plastic bags as he fished through his pack, and muttering irritably under his breath while he tried to decide where to stash his stuff. I resigned myself to at least a quarter of an hour of this disturbance, but before sticking my head under the pillow, I leaned out of my bunk to see how Mum - a very light sleeper - was taking all this...
Only to see her climb out of bed and pad calmly across the room toward him... "You've just arrived, have you?", her voice quiet and kind, but quite firm as well.
A startled glance was all she received in reply, at this sudden apparition of a middle-aged (you must be going on 35 now, right Mum? =P) woman, wearing zebra-striped silk pyjamas no less, in a hostel dorm. Finally he managed a mute nod, looking fairly unsure of himself now. "Well, this is the only free bed, you can take this one." The bed Mum was pointing to - which was indeed the only one left - had a jacket draped over it. The new arrival, by this this point totally incapable of making any decisions for himself, pointed to it wordlessly, his imploring eyes seeming to ask Mum's permission. "Yes, that's alright, that's her jacket - This is your jacket, right? - Yes, that's hers, you can just move it over here to her bed. Ok?" Totally submissive now, the newcomer mumbled a respectful thank you, and started to move in. Much more quietly than before. Watching from my bunk, I grinned at Mum as she returned to her bed. I'd expected that she'd handle the hostel scene well, but still hadn't quite expected to wake up on the first night to find her directing drunken traffic. =P
on a lazy curve of the Vistula River, (legend tells that Prince Krak outwitted the resident dragon to claim this prime piece of real estate), Krakow is an enjoyable & laidback city and we liked it very much. There aren't a huge number of 'sights', with the main exceptions being the castle on Wawel Hill, the main square Rynek Glowny (the largest medieval town square in Europe), and Kazimierz (the Jewish Quarter). We enjoyed our time here a lot though, mainly because of the interesting & very friendly people that we met, both locals and fellow travellers.
Incidentally, it was one of these people who told us how much money could be saved by booking hostel beds through www.hostelworld.com. At the hostel we were staying at in Krakow, we paid the walk-in rate (40 zlotych) for the first couple of nights, before finding out that the exact same beds cost only 22 zlotych when booked through hostelworld! We hadn't bothered booking ahead before, preferring the freedom of being able to change our plans at any moment. But from then on, we often booked our hostels one day in advance, and saved quite a lot in numerous other places as
After a few light-hearted days in Krakow, we then spent our last day very differently - a harrowing & very sobering tour of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps. It is possible to make your own way out there, (and a shuttle bus operates between the two camps), but we found a fairly affordable tour package and opted to do it the easier way. As we rolled quietly through the early morning Krakow streets and into the surrounding suburbs, most people on the bus just sat & stared into space, lost in their own thoughts, perhaps trying to prepare themselves. What little chatter there was died away altogether as we neared the first camp - Auschwitz. I was a little surprised to find a bustling residential district surrounding the camp, and even more surprised to hear it had been there during the war too. I'd always imagined Auschwitz to be located in a remote & unvisited wasteland, out of sight, out of mind. Another thing that surprised me was how harmless and peaceful the place felt. I'm not sure exactly what I'd expected; some kind of lingering memory - in the air itself - of all the pain & misery
that had been caused here... Instead, Auschwitz is a fairly innocuous-looking grid of brown-brick dorm buildings, with tall trees shading the pebbled paths, (once you get through the barbed wire fences, that is). We passed through these fences in the same way that the inmates once had - under an arched black gateway, which groans under the grotesque weight of its sick slogan - Arbeit Macht Frei. 'Work will make you free'...
As we walked around the first few buildings & displays, I could barely take in all of the Polish guide's stories & figures, which she related in a detached voice that somehow made the reality of it all the more horrific & emotional. At first, there was a kind of sick fascination to hear all of the horrible facts that she was so calmly describing. It's sort of similar to the way we slow down when passing a grisly car accident, not just for safety's sake, but also because we want to see what's happened. This doesn't last long though. Very soon, there comes a comes a point when your mind gives a violent shudder of revulsion and tries to block out any more. You simply don't
Where's the respect?!
Seagulls on the saints of Charles Bridge.
want to hear how many people were killed in this gas chamber that you're now standing in. Or what sort of experiments - more ghastly than in any horror movie - were carried out in this gynecological hospital. Or how many mothers - stripped naked, clutching emaciated babies to their breasts - were shot dead against this wall, (although an 'inefficient' method of execution/murder, one camp commandant insisted on it occasionally because he said he liked "to see the fear in their eyes"). I felt my own eyes starting to glaze over a bit and my heart hardening itself, under the incessant battering of all these facts & figures of atrocity & pure evil. And for a while, this seems to work. The figures being reeled off to you, hard to fully comprehend right from the beginning, start to become just numbers, abstract, almost meaningless.
Once the grand scale of the Nazi evil has become too vast to comprehend at all anymore, it's the individual, specific details that still get through to you. A corridor lined with prisoner mug-shots, in which you see the full range of possible reactions & expressions - some faces are angry, others sad or
resigned, some are obviously terrified, most are confused, and a few smile nervously - still not understanding the staggering horror of their situation. Or a room filled with mountains of shoes - you feel sick when you think that the vast majority of the people who once wore these shoes died horrible deaths. And then even worse when you realise what a tiny fraction of the whole this room represents. A grainy black-and-white photo of a family being torn apart, confused toddlers stretching out their tiny arms as far as they can, their anguished faces caught in a silent & eternal scream. In the next room, an unassuming glass cabinet displaying a few rolls of rough cloth woven from human hair. And then there are pile upon pile of confiscated items - glasses, suitcases, clothing, kitchen utensils... As I walked around the camps, the question that kept hammering away at me was not so much 'why?' (Can something like this - something difficult to call by any other name than 'evil' - actually be fully explained?) The question that seemed more important to me at the time was 'how'?!... How could this have happened? How could it possibly have been
allowed to take place and to go as far as it did?! Could it have happened anywhere in the world? (To which I think the answer is a definite 'yes'.) How could we humans - simultaneously capable of such compassion, selflessness, beauty & love - how could we possibly sink so unbelievably, despicably low?! And could it happen again?...
I left Auschwitz that day a little less sure of humanity than when I went in.
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