Malbork, Wroclaw & Auschwitz

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September 19th 2014
Published: September 21st 2014
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Monday 15 Sep – Malbork, Poland

We left Vilnius and made our last stop at Trakai Castle. This castle was built in the 14th century by the the Dukes of Lithuania and sits on a beautiful little island in the middle of a lake. It was in use until it was damaged in a war with the Russians in the 17th century, then abandoned. It was in a very bad state by the time they started to restore it in the 1920’s. They only finished the restoration in 1994 and now it’s fully intact and a great little castle to walk around. The photos looking over the lake to the castle are stunning. On the way out we bought a large punnet of raspberries from a little local babushka lady for $2.

We got into the car and started our drive into Poland. Along the way we passed many small and modest farm houses with everyone out in their gardens planting before winter. Every house has a garden. One couple were on a horse and cart and another guy was ploughing his field by hand behind his draft horse. Just before we left Lithuania we stopped at a cute little rest stop for a quick lunch. This nation is very in tune and at one with their land. It’s been a pleasure to be in their great outdoors.

We soon passed into Poland and the drive was both beautiful and frustrating. The roads meandered through the countryside and changed from interspersed forest to open fields to country lanes with rows of trees perfectly spaced on either side. However, it took us 7.5hrs to drive 500km, and it’s not because the roads are bad (they’re mostly pretty good, if all single lane with no passing lanes ever) but it’s the fact that you have to slow to 50kph every few km for little towns and villages. We averaged about 70kph for the trip.

If we were surprised that the Baltics were more westernised than we expected, then Poland is a revelation. Modern roads, bigger cities, more rubbish, much more densely populated and developed with lots of farms using modern farming machinery. There is definitely less forest than the Baltics. Every house has 2 stories. Still quite a few luxury cars and 130kph motorways (not that anyone obeys the speed limits – they drive more like on an autobahn). Certainly no horse and carts here. Even the country areas look more prosperous than the Baltics if the housing is anything to go by. In fact, you would swear you were in Germany if it weren’t for all the Polish signs.

I don’t know why travellers use public transport over here. Going by car is SO easy and the roads everywhere have been great. It’s amazing that when I read blogs before coming over, there were none detailing a driving holiday. But now that we’re here I can’t believe independent travellers are not driving.

Anyway, we finally came into Malbork and found our farm stay accommodation. The family we’re with have 5 ensuite rooms in a separate building on their acre property and we are the only guests here. For only $31 a night we certainly can’t complain.

Tuesday 16 Sep – Malbork

Malbork Castle, now in north-western Poland, is the biggest Gothic castle in the world. Not only is it famous for its size, but also because it was the home of the Teutonic Order, then used as a palace by the Prussians, Polish and a few other states. The Teutonic Order was originally created to establish hospitals for the Crusaders. It eventually turned into a military order of knights that conquered much of what is now Poland and the Baltics to convert the pagan tribes in the area to Christianity.

We chose to do an audio guided tour and that took us 4 hours as we viewed 52 rooms and areas of the castle. I think the kitchen was the most impressive as they had recreated a table with the different types of food and the massive ovens that cooked it all. The main chapel was shelled by the Soviets in WWII and mostly destroyed. Whilst they have rebuilt the walls to protect from the elements, the inside is still a mess and they pose the question on plaque “Should we rebuild the chapel to its former glory or should be leave it to remind people of the effects of war?” It’s a tough one as both have merit.

It’s a huge complex and we were just blown away by the sheer scale of it all.

Wednesday 17 Sep – Wroclaw

After a bit of discussion last night we decided against 2 smaller driving days and went with one big day today – from Malbork to Wroclaw. From North to South in one day, which gives us 2 nights in Wroclaw rather than 2 nights on the road in middle Poland.

It was a pretty non-descript day. 500km took us a frustrating 7.5hrs with stops and with even more frequent small villages and a significant increase in truck traffic. It also wasn’t that pretty. We left the small forests of the north and entered the middle of Poland, which is mostly farming and industrial. It’s flat like Latvia but with far fewer trees and farm after farm, mainly of corn, as far as the eye can see. After a few hours it got a little boring. It wasn’t until we entered the Wroclaw district in the south that the occasional forests reappeared and broke up the journey for the last part.

I am quite happy with the 2 bed apartment that we booked last night on It’s only $100 per night between the 4 of us and it’s in the old town with free parking. We were expecting the worst but it’s actually renovated and quite acceptable for a last minute special.

Thursday 18 Sep - Wroclaw

Wroclaw, prounounced “Vohts vorf” was founded in 1000 and over the years has been part of Bohemia, Germany, Poland, Prussia, Hungary and the Austrian Empires. History gets a little complicated in this part of the world, but that’s what makes it interesting I guess. Over 70%!o(MISSING)f it was destroyed in WWII and so they have been restoring it ever since. The centre is a UNESCO world heritage site and an interesting mix of Gothic & Baroque styles, with soviet buildings interspersed in the areas where it was flattened.

We wandered around the market square, Rynek, which is quite large. It reminded me of both Vienna and Amsterdam in different ways. A chunk of the restored buildings have the skinny shape and the different roof lines that Amsterdam has, but other building architecture and facades remind me of Vienna in their design. And then there is the tree-lined promenade and canal that encircles the old town, which reminds me distinctly of Paris, and no wonder – after Napoleon conquered the city in 1807 he tore down the fortification walls, replacing them with a beautiful promenade of trees alongside a canal where the old moat used to be.

Climbing up the 301 spiral steps to the top of the St Elizabeth Cathedral tower gave us a great view over the whole city and a postcard view of the market square. It also worked up a bit of an appetite so we headed to the Central Café (which funnily enough isn’t actually central) for a lunch of warm, freshly baked bagels filled with yummy toppings washed down by fresh orange-grapefruit juice and a huge slice of key-lime pie. Definitely one of the nicest lunches I’ve had for a while, though they were a little on the small side and we both agreed we could have eaten two each. However, they were very good – dare I say the best bagels this side of NYC - and the whole lunch was only 34 PLN (AUD $11.65).

We continued our stroll around the promenade and finished the afternoon with a gelato shake. Tonight we cooked steamed veg with pan fried peirogi ruskie (flour dumplings filled with cottage cheese). It was a most delightful meal, as I haven’t had peirogi since Canada and I’ve been hanging out to eat them. To finish off the day, we put on the layers and went out for a night stroll to a couple of little islands in the middle of the river and took some night shots. Another 15km walking day. Even though we have come more than 1300km south since Tallinn, the nights have taken on a very autumn feel with warm days but chilly nights. It’s noticeably cooler here than it was in the Baltics, although we are 1-2 weeks later in the season.

Friday 19 Sep – Auschwitz Memorial

Epic story. Epic stats. Not such an epic experience.

It’s been on my bucket list for years. I was keenly aware that those in the death camps didn’t have the luxury of bucket lists, so I went feeling humbled and anticipating a mood of reverence to contemplate the tragedy. With over 2 million visitors a year, it’s fair to say the crowds had us gob- smacked, even for this late in the season.

We entered at Auschwitz I which is the main camp, where thousands of tourists were herded into mandatory guide groups of about 30 each. With our headsets on and the guide speaking into his master set so he didn’t have to shout, we bundled through the checklist of exhibitions and buildings. There were groups on all four sides as we waited for our turn in this particular building or that particular exhibition. One group heads up the stairs single file, with another group filing down. I felt no emotional connection to the tour. Of course, the stats stagger belief and the exhibit of 2 tonnes of women’s hair and a floor of luggage cases and shoes really made an impact. Mum and Dad were particularly moved by the display of baby clothes and thousands of children’s shoes, where 230,000 children came in and only 700 survived. It’s also amazing that most of the buildings are still original. However, overall I found it disappointing because it was hard to be contemplative. Where Dachau was eerie and reverent, Auschwitz was highly organised without much time for sentiment.

After 2hrs the first part of the tour finished and we boarded a bus for the Birkenau (Auschwitz II) camp, which is 4km away. Our group had shrunk to 1/3rd of the size and the camp was much quieter and less populated than the main camp. At 300 acres, it’s HUGE! They built this camp solely for the purpose of extermination so it’s 30 times bigger than Auschwitz I. Between the 3 camps (there was also an Auschwitz III) the crematoriums were capable of burning 4500 bodies per day. In fact, the Nazis had plans to triple the size of the Birkenau site but the war ended before they could complete it. This was what we’d really come to see. That infamous brick guard house with the railway track leading through the middle of the gate house. The platform you see in all the photos with the arriving train carriages and people unloading all their possessions and then marching to the “showers”. Wooden barracks for men on one side separated by fences with women and children barracks on the other. Behind the remaining barracks hundreds of brick chimneys scar the landscape like solitary survivors, where the wooden barracks were mostly dismantled after the war in order to recycle the materials to build factories. It was there that I finally felt connected to history. The gas chambers and crematoria were blown up by the Nazis before they left. There is now only piles of bricks, shattered concrete and mangled steel reinforcing bars beside the steps leading down into where the prisoners were herded into the changing rooms and gas chambers. One of the barracks was the toilet block and the guide told us the story of how one particular group of prisoners was responsible for reaching into the troughs when they were full and empty it out with a bowl. The disgusting thing was that the bowls they used to clean out the troughs were also the bowls they used for food. It was sobering.

For anyone planning a trip to Auschwitz, I would recommend going to Birkenau first and do it on your own, and then go to the main camp afterwards. Actually, I would recommend people go to Dachau (30 mins outside Munich) and leave it at that.

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