Our arrival into Poland wasn't quite as smooth as we wanted. After hearing so many stories about people getting robbed on night trains, we decided to throw caution to the wind and take a day train from Berlin to Krakow. 11 insanely mind-numbing hours later, we arrived in the city. We pretty much forgot about the train ride after we got into the Old Town. It was gorgeous! We were walking through the main square, and we tracked down our hostel which happened to be on the main square. We got to our room, and opened the window and we had sweeping views of the entire main square. It was stunning because we were paying less than $25 a night, and we had better views than any 5 star hotel in Krakow because we didn't see any other accomodation on the square!
We had been abstaining from visiting any concentration camps for the entire trip such as Dachau, Terezin and Saschenhausen and people couldn't understand why. The reason was simple: we were waiting for Auschwitz-Birkenau. We decided to take a tour of this site because transportation was could be a little difficult, plus we thought we would gain the most knowledge that way. It was a good thing we did because the tour was fantastic. The tone of the camp was set when we walked through the main gate. Above it was a sign that said "Work will set you free". The buildings in Auschwitz are almost all still intact and it was chiling to walk through the bunks, kitchens and lavatories of the former prisoners. The torture cells and the execution wall were particularly chilling, as was one of the gas chambers/ovens where people were murdered and then cremated. The piles of luggage, shoes, glasses and hair attest to the amount of people who suffered here. Not only Jewish people were killed in the camps. Many gypsies, political prisoners, pows and locals were also murdered. Auschwitz was generally the labour camp though. Birkenau was where most of the killings happened. At 180 hectares, the camp was a death factory. People lived in what can only be described as cramped squalor. Most people did not endure the conditions for long as many were murdered soon after they arrived. To do this, the Nazis built five larges scale gas chambers and crematoriums that could kill up to 2000 people at a time. The Nazis tried to destroy most of the camp before they left, but the buildings are still partially intact, and the sheer size of the facility shakes all but the coldest of people. The visit was a very sombering event and one not soon to be forgotted.
The next day was decidedly happier. Kif and Peter headed off to the Wielizka Salt mines based on the many reccommendations from people. We were not dissapointed. The mines had been in use since the 15th century and there are over fifty different chambers underground where rock salt was mined. Many of the workers carved statures out of the salt in their free time. As a result, almost every chamber has a statue explaing an event in history or mythology. The miners didn't stop at statues though. Three of them decided that more could be done. Over a 60 year span, at a depth of 130 metres below the surface of the earth, the three men carved the world's deepest chapel. It had huge salt chandeliers lighting it, carvings of religious scenes in the walls and a large alter. It even has services every sunday! Our tourguide was a witty Polish guy with a remarkably nice moustache!
In case you haven't been able to guess already, Krakow was the first place that was remotely leisurely for us!
We went to Wawel Hill on our last day in town. There are only 1000 visitors a day to the complex, and even less to each of the interior parts. Kif and Peter decided to visit the armoury, treasury, state rooms and royal'apartments because Lonely Planet had reccommended each of them. The book did't lie this time! They were each interesting. The Royal apartments had huge tapestries and jewels everywhere, and the armoury had a vast selection of weopenry and military paraphinalia including banners from when the Poles defeated the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Grunwald in 1410. The Cathedral was very interesting as well. The exterior is a bit of a mixture of different architectural styles, but the inside is largely Baroque. There are many tombs inside including that of Casimir the Great, the founder of Jagiellonian University and one of the most important kings in Polish hosrtoy. After the castle complex, we wandered around the Old Town and saw some of the cool buildings, such as the university, that we had missed before. That night, we got a perfect view of the 5 military bands that were set to perform in the square because they marched passed our window playing their instruments before they arrived at the concert venue.
The next day we caught a train to Warsaw. The train was the most crowded that we had been on yet and, despite the fact that it was only three hours long, it felt as bad as the 11 hour Berlin-Krakow train! We arrived in town, and immedately decided that Warsaw was nowhere near as nice as Krakow. It was flattened during World War II and the Soviets rebuilt it. Need I say more?
We walked passed the Stalinist Gothic tower that was the Palace of Culture and Science the next morning. For those of you who do not know what Stalinist Gothic is, picture a tall wedding cake with many different tiers. Now imagine that the wedding cake is ugly. That mental picture you have formed is Stalinist Gothic. A decent walk later was the Warsaw Uprising Museum. The inhbitants of the Warsaw ghetto rose up and fought the Nazis for several months in 1944, only for the Soviets to with hold help. The Poles were defeated eventually, and many were killed. The Nazis then destroyed the remnants of Warsaw. The museum had many different things that were connected to the Uprising including weapons, photos, letters and even a re-constructed bomber plane. The museum was quite interesting. After that, we wandered over to the Old Town, or at least the reconstructed part of the Old Town because the whole thing was destroyed during World War II. It was quite pretty to wander around. In front of it were large bears that were painted by almost all the countries of the world. The bears were there to promote unity and peace (don't ask me how). We said almost all the countries in the world because apparently Canada missed the memo. Kazakhstan had a bear there. Haiti had a bear there. Even with their massive inflation, Zimbabwe had a bear there! (I do however think it is necessary to mention the irony of Zimbabwe sending a white bear...)
After that, we headed back to the hostel, got our luggage, and went to catch a dreaded night bus (because trains go through Belarus and we don't have a visa or enough money to bribe the guards) to Vilnius. There were 30 children on our bus. The woman behind us got too cold when the window was open slightly. THe driver couldn't drive a straight line if he had blinders on. Need I say more about the bus trip to Vilnius?
Things we learned in Poland:
-The language is next to impossible to speak. Lodz spelling = Woodge pronounciation!
-If you want to be remembered for doing anything in Poland, you must have a large moustache. Peter is currently growing his and Kif, well, he's trying.
-We are not able to spin on our heads, no matter how easy the guys break dancing in the square make it look.
-Everyone loves a parade.
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