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Posts Tagged ‘Kraków’

Having explored much of many of the sights of the historic city centre, I needed to take a day trip or two to see some important locations near Kraków. There were two main ones: the Wieliczka Salt Mine, which I ended up not going to, and Auschwitz Concentration Camp. I booked a tour with my hostel and waited to be picked up the following morning.

I saw a minibus drive by outside as I was walking down the stairs and worried that I’d missed it; twenty minutes or so later, I got picked up by a people carrier. I was the last one on. A young American guy in the passenger seat was talking to a couple of middle-aged Danish chaps on the middle seats next to me; there were two or three people in the back row.

The drive out took about an hour. Once we got there, we had some time to use the bathrooms and get some refreshments. As is often the case, no backpacks were allowed, so I left my water in the car. Eventually, everyone was gathered together into a large group consisting of people ferried in in various vehicles belonging to the same tour company. (So I may, indeed, have missed an earlier ride.)

Auschwitz and Birkenau are the German names for a pair of Polish towns, Oświęcim and Brzezinka. Our tour was given by a Polish woman; she had a microphone and everyone was given earphones so we could still hear the tour even if we weren’t close to her. She did a good job; she wasn’t overly charismatic, but she was pleasant to listen to. Her English was near-perfect, but she pronounced ‘prisoners’ like ‘prisoneers’.

Auschwitz was originally a Polish army base, so the barracks were built of brick and they have survived intact and in number where the wooden cabins of Sachsenhausen, for instance, have largely gone. The weather was bright and hot and there were lots of trees clothed in green foliage around the buildings. It had the incongruous seeming of an aspiring middle class housing estate.

We toured through various of the barracks buildings, seeing examples of paperwork, photographs, restored prisoner accommodation and so on. Gruesomely fascinating were the collections of items taken from incoming prisoners – suitcases, shoes, brushes, enamel bowls etc. The pile of children’s shoes and the huge mounds of hair shorn from inmates were especially moving. We went into the crematorium, looked up at the holes in the roof where tins of Cyclone B were poured in to gas the prisoners, and at the cremation equipment itself.

After a short break to look in the giftshops and whatnot, we were taken to Birkenau, a short distance away. Having been built of wood, there wasn’t as much left to see here. There was, of course, the iconic tower building, railway tracks, a train carriage and a row of barracks; the whole area was still surrounded by a forbidding barbed-wire fence punctuated with guard towers. A large group of Israeli students was there when we visited, walking up the rail tracks carrying flags.

The whole place had been built on marshy ground, so disease had been rife. Apparently, working in the barracks cleaning the toilet trough, up to your knees in shit and piss, was one of the better jobs because you weren’t supervised as closely by the guards.

The tour was a little briefer than the leaflets had led me to believe, but it was certainly worth doing. I don’t know how easy or expensive it would have been to have gone on public transport, but I’m pretty sure you could only enter as part of a tour group.

Habiba and I had watched Triumph of the Spirit not long before. While the plot was somewhat lacking in energy – it was based on a true story – the details of life in Auschwitz seemed grimly realistic. Visiting the camp, I saw the same cramped bunks that were crammed full of prisoners, the same yards where people were executed as were depicted in the film.

On the way back, I chatted with the young American – he was quite interested in my experiences in India. I didn’t do much in my remaining time in Kraków – walked around more, took more pictures – especially of the Barbican in the ring of park that surrounded the ring of buildings that surrounded the main square. On my last night, I realised I hadn’t taken a picture of the little toy turtle my sister had given me, so I spent quite some trying to find a spot with enough light and enough shelter from the rain to make a decent photo; I eventually managed this sitting at a table in front of one of the many restaurants waiting for my order. It turned out to be agood opportunity to take some night shots of the illuminated sights (before it started raining, anyway).

I had to move back to a four-bed room for my last night and spoke to a Canadian fellow sharing the room. It turned out he was getting the same EasyJet flight to Gatwick the next day. We got the bus to the airport together and talked of this and that.

My trip home was quite well planned, I think. I would arrive at about one o’clock, get a coach up to Manchester a couple of hours later and arrive there just in time to get the last train to my sister’s village. I had a relaxing lunch at Costa at the airport and the coach left on time.

I hadn’t realised that the Olympic torch would be being run through London at the time, and, with a change at Victoria Coach Station, this would have a serious impact on my journey. The coach to Manchester arrived at Victoria half an hour or so later than it was due to leave. Then there was bad traffic in the capital. The driver called out to other drivers, ‘What’s the best way to the A4?’ on a couple of occasions. Once we were on the road, he took a detour to avoid an accident on the motorway.

So I was an hour or more late arriving in Manchester – too late for the train. I stayed in the coach station all night – leaving only to go to McDonalds for some food (or should that be ‘food’?). Coaches arrived and left several times during the night. The attendant on duty went round waking up people who put their head down to get some shut-eye. I plugged my laptop in to try to get on the internet or do some writing, but the power outlet was key-operated and my computer was low on juice. (This reminded me of a thought I’d had lately that, in the future, coffee shops would probably introduce coin-operated electrical sockets to make more money.)

I bought a ticket for the 6:50 train to Whaley Bridge – £8 or so – early the next morning. No inspector came through the train, though, so I needn’t have bothered. My sister welcomed me at the station with a hug and we walked back to hers. It was the first day of the Olympics and the last day of five months of travel that had started in Korea with Habiba and ended back home in Britain alone.

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The bus from Poprad took me generally north through or around the High Tatras, passing by lots of nice countryside, and to the southern Polish town of Zakopane. Entering the town, we passed a small parade of people in traditional dress and either on horses or in horse-drawn carriages. Once there, I changed some euros for złoty and bought a train ticket for Kraków. Most of the rest of the time, I sat in a café with a drink and my laptop.

I returned to the train station in plenty of time for my train and ate the food I’d brought with me. Earlier, there had been a couple in front of me in the queue at the station and they were asking the woman on the ticket counter if there wasn’t an earlier train. As I sat with my lunch, I saw that there was a train standing at the far platform. Once I’d done eating, I crossed the lines (something you can do in this part of the world) and found that the train was going to Kraków, even though the time was different from the one on my ticket. I got on and then got off again to ask a member of staff on the platform, and was told my ticket wasn’t valid as this was an express train. Express sounded good, so I went and changed my ticket – and got some change back.

In hindsight, the later train I’d originally got a ticket for must have been a super-express, no doubt arriving earlier, even though it left later (the train I took made some longish stops to change direction). Strange, however, that the woman on the ticket desk didn’t give anyone any option to get earlier, slower (and cheaper) trains.

I arrived in the city in the early evening and, after searching around a while for the stop, took a tram to the vicinity of my hostel, Premium Hostel. The hostel’s directions said to get off at the fourth stop, but this was incorrect; I walked a little further to just beyond the fifth stop. The hostel was nice enough – the furnishings were all in pretty good condition and the kitchen was clean and spacious (although the functional bits were a bit limited – there was only one fridge and that was packed with guests’ food). There was a Swedish guy and his son in my four-bed dormitory, who I chatted to for a bit.

I went for a walk to the main square and Wawel Castle (the ‘w’s are pronounced like ‘v’s). All very impressive and beautiful. I came back, picked up some food at a small, 24-hour supermarket on the way, prepared and ate it in the kitchen and went to bed. It was pretty warm in the room – which can be a big barrier to me getting a good night’s sleep – and then another guy came in and started snoring (once he’d got into bed and fallen asleep) loudly and continuously.

I tried to put up with it, but eventually decided I couldn’t, so I got dressed and asked at reception if I could move into a private (well, twin) room. The girl contacted some superior at another branch and then gave me the go-ahead. I spent that and the next two nights in my own room, although I ended up packing all my stuff up before check-out time each morning because I was told I might need to move again – but I didn’t – until my penultimate day, when I transferred back to my original room. The private room was only about £20 a night.

On my first full day in Kraków, I did a lot of walking around. I headed straight for the main square, Rynek Główny (‘Main Square’). This is a pretty huge and beautiful square dominated by three features – the long Cloth Hall or Sukiennice and the Town Hall Tower in the centre, and St Mary’s Basilica on the east side. All around there are shaded tables and chairs belonging to the numerous cafés and restaurants lining the square; I ate at several of these places.

I went up the Town Hall Tower, which contains a kind of mini-museum-cum-gallery. The way up is through original winding stone passageways and staircases lit only by occasional lights and windows. At the foot of the tower is a sculpture of a massive head … or a massive sculpture of a head – not sure which. A nearby sign-pillar was topped with a musical goat.

After that, I had a look in St Mary’s Basilica and then walked towards the castle. On the way, I stopped at the Church of Sts Peter and Paul – which stood out for having a very good – and free – audio guide that directed you to various parts of the church before describing them. I don’t like donating to churches, but I left a złoty or two.

Wawel Castle stands on a promontory, Wawel Hill, overlooking the river, the Vistula and is surrounded by a big wall, grassy slopes and a few trees. I walked around the area, passing by a few souvenir stalls by the riverside and found a statue of the Wawel Dragon – a statue that actually breathed fire every few minutes.

 

I went into the grounds on another occasion. I didn’t get a ticket for whatever was in there that required a ticket for entry, but I went into the catchily entitled Cathedral Basilica of Sts Stanislaus and Wenceslaus and had a wander round the spacious, grassy courtyard. I didn’t explore it as much as I would have liked – something I’ll have to do if I ever go back to Kraków.

After walking by the dragon statue, I went on to have a look around the Kazimierz area, site of various churches and synagogues and a Jewish Cemetery. Then, back along the river, into the Augustinian Monastery and the adjoining Church of St Catherine and St Margaret.

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