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Published: June 23rd 2012
Wieliczka Salt MinesMotorhome News from Poland III
The underground 'Chapel of St Kinga'.
June 2012 Poland - Krakow - Wieliczka Salt Mines - Auschwitz Germany – Meissen - Colditz
‘Lest We Forget’
A visit to Krakow would not be complete without one final bugle call; a visit to the Wieliczka Salt Mine a short distance out of town. Perhaps you've heard of it. If you have, you might tell us how it's pronounced!
There were only the five of us that evening for the last ‘English’ tour of the day at 5 pm - we were joined by a young couple from Hungary and our English speaking guide, Margaretha. “Call me Margaret,’ she said as she led us to the top of the stairs.
The exhausting two-hour tour took us down the 360 steps to the first level at 64 m below ground and guided us along pit-prop supported mine tunnels into deep chambers with intricate figures carved by miners from rock-salt (or is it salt-rock?). The highlight of the tour is the vast Chapel of the Blessed Kings more than 100 m below ground; a huge open space created by man, its ceiling 12
Wieliczka Salt Mines
The Last Supper, carved in salt rock.
m high and 54 metres from end-to-end, with many magnificent religious murals and figures carved by the miners along the walls - and huge salt-rock chandeliers!
Once in the Chapel we were left to wander around the gallery admiring the beautifully carved ‘Last Supper’ and other biblical scenes, until politely asked to stand in silence. We were alone. The whole enormous chamber was empty, the previous group finally on their way to the souvenir shop and exit. And then, the music started, quietly at first. ‘Land of Hope and Glory’! Music filled the vast open space; echoing off the salty walls as our hearts beat louder and a smile of pride touched our lips. We missed the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations currently under way back home. I guess that moment sort of made up for it!
I'm sure it was just for us - yet another one of those very special GHN moments. I remember that once upon a time (in the olden days before political correctness reared its ugly head) we used to sing this at school - along with 'Hearts of Oak' and similar, and stand in respect as The National Anthem was played in the
'Work Makes Free'
cinema. Perhaps it was just the war and its recent passing, when pride was considered important to Great Britain. We don’t seem to be so proud to be British any more. I despair.
Despair is a word they knew well in Oswiecim following the German occupation in 1939. Oswiecim, or Auschwitz as we now know it, is a moving place and I would defy anyone to leave with dry eyes. Visitors, young and old shook their heads in disbelief as they wandered slowly between the barbed-wire fenced enclosures where more than a million people were murdered, starved, worked to death or gassed and incinerated. Can you possibly imagine one million innocent people, men, women and children, murdered simply because they were Polish, Jewish, prisoners of war, Gypsies, or homosexuals? Shut your eyes and picture that.
We had not expected to see brick-built accommodation blocks. Our unenlightened image of Auschwitz was one of rows of wooden huts and barbed wire. But the long line of three-storey brick buildings has been preserved within the double rows of threatening barbed wire and many now house moving museum pieces from that period of German Nazi occupation,
1940-1945; photographs of thousands of striped-prison-uniformed men and women who were destined never to leave; thousands- upon-thousands of battered suitcases that once contained their last most valued possessions; great piles of worn-down shoes - a picture that will forever tear at our heart strings; a whole room filled to the ceiling with wire-rimmed spectacles. It brings tears to my eyes just to write of such senseless horror.
1.3 million people were deported to Auschwitz from across occupied Europe during WWII, mostly Jews. 1.1 million of them are thought to have died there. I for one, shall never forget the terror and murder inflicted on Europe's innocent by Germany's Nazi troops. It must never be allowed to happen again.
But the sheer scale of the horror does not truly become evident at this camp of death in Auschwitz itself. Three kilometers along the road a further prison camp was built at Birkenau, a name not previously known to me, to house the ever-growing number of inmates. Auschwitz II, as it was known, became the camp of death - endless barbed wire electrified fences, sentry platforms, and row-upon-row of single-storey wooden huts stretch to the horizon. Remnants of the gas-chambers
and crematoria have been left in their ruined state since they were blow up as the Germans retreated in the face of the advancing Red Army. Birkenau was the end of the line. The tracks are still there; a poignant reminder, leading to the the unloading platform where the railway – and life as we know it, ended.
Many will have no wish to visit Auschwitz I know. For us it was important.
The disturbing Auschwitz experience was lightened a little as we were about to leave by the appearance of the Italian and Dutch football teams, taking time out from practice before the 2012 European Cup matches started the coming Friday. “Come on England!”
There are churches, museums and galleries galore in Krakow and we gave it our best shot to benefit from our time there. Just one final exhibit completed our memorable visit to Krakow. Across the river we found the Schindler Enamel Factory, set amongst the old and dusty end of town with the first signs of new paths and road-works just evident to enhance the tourist experience. It was our first rainy day in six weeks, a grey day indeed for
The Italian football squad turned up to meet us!
a grey Museum, the enlightening ‘Museum of Nazi Occupation’, in the most fitting of environments. They were not playing that wonderful heart-rending John Williams piece from the StevenSpielberg film, Schindler’s List.
I’ll not depress you further with the past, though tomorrow will be all the brighter should we not forget.
Promise me you’ll not forget.
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Our onward trek westwards, finally in the direction of home, took us eventually to the little spa-town of Polanica-Zdroj near Klodzko on the border with the Czech Republic. We took a leisurely evening walk from the campsite into town where lovers strolled hand-in-hand through leafy parks, people sat on benches in flower-bedecked gardens, deep in thought, hands in their laps, people-watching people, with time to stare and dream in the late evening sunshine. This is a truly delightful little town with beautiful tree-lined parks, riverside walks, street bars and cafes; another wonderful image of a Poland we could well have missed.
Gory Stolowe National Park’s Table Mountain gave us our first good hike for
many-a-day, up the popular well-trodden paths to the top of the strangely shaped sandstone ridge for magnificent views across the agricultural plains. Once at the top there's a chance to sample Poland’s finest lip-smacking blueberry waffles before heading for the downhill trail! We had not expected to find a barrier across the track and a guy in a kiosk selling tickets.
"What's the ticket for?" asked Janice.
"Six," he said.
"No. What is the ticket for?"
"Six," he said, trying again.
At that stage we gave up and paid the six Pln (zloty) for two pensioners. We still don't know what we paid for but the hike under and over the rocks, through wafer-thin gulleys and up and down a few hundred very steep steps was well worth it! Now the pulse is starting to quicken.
The quick route to our next overnight stop took us briefly into – and out of, The Czech Republic; to Cieplice in the foothills of the Karkonosze Mountains. Cieplice is yet another attractive town of fine Baroque buildings, lively and inviting. This southern mountainous ridge of Poland is worthy of much more holiday time, but after
eight weeks away, home finally calls.
All too quickly we were back in the real world, in Germany, with campsites charging €18 - €20, double those in the Poland and the Baltic States - along with the price of bread and dining out. There was little noticeable improvement in the roads, but neat fields and spruced-up towns heralded the speedy recovery that is taking place here in the East and our entry into this super-efficient country.
To celebrate Janice’s Birthday we settled in Meissen on the Elbe overnight and walked into town to find a restaurant. It was ‘lituraturfest’ time; five whole days of author's readings in the numerous squares set among the winding cobbled streets. Two readings could be heard from our street-side cafe table; both in German and sadly we understood no more than a few words. In striking contrast to our Poland experience, there were few young people about in this lovely town. Thank you, Meissen, for a few pleasant hours in delightful surroundings and most memorable evening. But there’s just one more ‘boysy’ place to visit before we close the book on this holiday.
Finally we made
our way to Colditz, Oflag IVC, the Third Reich’s most secure prisoner-of-war camp, a befitting WWII memorial to all those Allied officers whose many inspirational escape attempts reflect the spirit and determination of the bulldog in us. This magnificent castle, now a museum, stands high above the edge of town, its enormity as forbidding as any escape attempt might seem. Getting in at 10.30 am did not seem an immediate problem.
“I’m sorry,” Annemarie said. “The English tour was at 10 am. We had no English speaking visitors.”
“But I’m not doing anything right now. Wait there a moment.”
So it was that we had yet another guided tour for just the two of us; up and down the five flights of stairs, out on the parapet, into the officer’s ‘cells’ of Two-Star Hotel proportions, down to the chapel to see the tunnel below the floor, up to the tower, down to the sewers and back to the courtyard – all quite exciting! If only they had invented hang-gliders back then things might have been quite different!
And so, whilst the guards are looking the other way, we'll make our escape from
The castle from Colditz Square
Colditz and wend our way back to England via Calais - lest we forget where our home is.
David and Janice
The Grey-haired nomads
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