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Michael’s Travel Diary

Sunday, 10 Feb 2008

Location: Krakow & Oscwiecim, Poland

MapHey guys,

So, the Krakow run-down! Here we go… Potter and I flew out from Bournemouth last Saturday morning at the crack of dawn, and landed in Katowice around 11 am. By 1130 we were on a long old bus trip to Krakow, and rocked up at our hostel just after 2 pm after a lengthy walk from the bus station.

Upon checking in we were informed that there was a pub crawl later that evening at 10 pm. Clearly we weren’t planning on doing nothing until that time, so we headed off to scope out the town. Really, it isn’t that big… not that big at all.

As we were on the plane, I read the in-flight magazine, and everything else I have read of late has said that Krakow is the place to be at the moment, both for day time and night time activities. Let’s just say, theirs is plenty more to see and do at night than there is during the day. I guess that is the reason that the town is quickly rivaling places like Prague and Dublin as the #1 stag-do capital in Europe.

We headed straight to the Main Market Square and grabbed a ‘light-bite’ to eat on the way. The restaurant we ate at was fronted with a kebab joint (that we would use on the way home Monday morning) but had a pizza joint out the back. Figuring neither of us had eaten since 6 am, and that pizzas cost about 5 quid each, we each ordered our own. That was a foolish idea, the pizzas were HUGE. After lunch we had no choice but to head out and walk it all off…

We headed right into the Main Market Square, the biggest in Poland, and supposedly the biggest in Europe, at a staggering 200m x 200m. In the middle of it all there was a huge Souvenir Market, Polish Painting Gallery and Cloth Hall. We ducked inside the massive St. Mary’s Church at the communion door to have a quick look around. Being the area for prayer, we could hardly take some happy snaps, so after taking a seat and a look around, we headed outside just in time for the hourly bugle call.

The bugle call dates back to the 13th century when watchmen would play the instrument as a warning call for on-coming attacks. Legend has it that the bugle player had his throat pierced by the arrow of a Tatar soldier and the warning stopped mid tune. Since then the same tune is played on the hour, and finishes abruptly just as previously when the watchmen had its throat pierced.

After seeing that overrated spectacle, and wandering around the Main Market Square, we decided it was beer o’clock. We found a small bar with a pool table in the basement and played there for a while before we headed to a couple of other bars on the way back to the hostel. First a jazz bar, that was without any live music at that point, and then a couple of Vodka’s at a bar watching the Polish soccer team on TV. Finally we headed back to the hostel and jumped on board the ‘pub-crawl’.

Well, that doesn’t exactly describe the event we par-took in. Firstly, there was no crawl; we only went to one establishment. Secondly, it wasn’t a pub. It was actually a massive night-club, probably one of the reasons that Krakow has earned the reputation it has.

We probably never would have found the place had someone not shown us where to go, and we never would have found the ‘place inside the place’ had we not been taken. The entrance looked like the entrance of any other residential apartment block and it wasn’t until the third flight that we got to the first two clubs, one to the right, and the other to the left. Up another flight of stairs we reached two more clubs, where we spent most of the night. One of them being a very commercial music club, the other being a dance club with some serious trance kicking off later in the night – around 4 am! We drank and danced with the locals and had a great night. Around 4 am, Potter decided to head off and grabbed the ticket to our coats at the cloak room. When he didn’t get back after 10 minutes, I headed to the front door and when he passed me the ticket and went on his way. After another hour or so, near 5 when I believed the place was shutting, I headed off. I grabbed my jacket and checked my phone to find a message from Potter saying “Come to the front door, Boris the door bitch won’t let me back in”. Anyway, headed home and got to sleep around 530 am.

Perhaps mistakenly, I had set my alarm for 830 am. The original game plan was to head off to Auschwitz for the day, a 90 minute bus ride away. The other problem was that the only English tour of the day started at 11 am, meaning we had to be on the 930 am bus. When the alarm went off, I looked at Potter on the bunk below, and hoped like hell he hadn’t heard it, or would happily roll back over to sleep – alas once Potter is up, he doesn’t go back to sleep, so we set off for the day. A half hour walk to the bus terminal and we were on our way to Auschwitz, and I tried to get as many zzz’s on the way as I could!

The 90 minute bus ride was pretty much consisted of me passing in and out of various states of sleep and by the time we got closer to the camp you could see that we were more or less moving further away from anything resembling a city. As our (public) bus pulled up along side the car park full of tour coaches, and people streamed off the buses, it made it possible to imagine the hundreds and thousands of people coming here by train to spend their last days in appalling conditions, humiliated and beaten daily.

We rushed inside the main ‘museum’ building and found our way to the ticket booth for the guided tours. The cost of the tour was 30 zloty, or about 6 pounds/15 aussie dollars, and lasted 3 and a half hours. It started at 11 with a 15 minute film showing some of the footage taken by the Soviet soldiers when they arrived and liberated the prisoners.

After that the group split into 3 lots of 12 people and we wandered around the sight being told stories by the tour guides. Along with our three groups though, so many other groups were there on day trips from Krakow, Katowice and other destinations in Poland and the surrounding countries. It really was a crowded mess of people. I had initially intended to not take any photos, but I must admit I didn’t feel particularly moved by the site in the early stages of the tour, so decided to pull the camera out. Plus I was enjoying the B&W photos I had been taking and thought that some B&W photos of the camps would work well.

Anyway, we walked through the front gate with the sign above ‘ARBEIT MACHS FREI’ meaning work makes you free, giving false hope to those that entered the camp at Auschwitz and then when the left every day to go to work. Some of the stories were rather horrific, but the sight itself isn’t all that moving. In that sense I am very glad we took a guided tour. There isn’t a lot around the sight in terms of signage to read what happened, and a tour guide provides much more. Stories like the fact that the prisoners were required to stand in the central courtyard for roll call, which usually took up to 3 hours, after they had worked an 11 hour day. On one occasion they were forced to stand in the court yard for 20 hours as punishment for fellow prisoners escaping.

Seeing the evidence of the production line efficiency that the Nazi’s had in place for exterminating the Jewish people was phenomenal. Piles and piles of belongings that were being ‘recycled’ with ruthless abandon – eye glasses, clothing, hair brushes, tooth brushes, suitcases, shoes. More disturbingly, fake limbs and human hair. Ladies had their hair cut off and shaved after they were gassed and the hair was stuffed in sacks and sent to Berlin to be made into ‘hair cloth’, a fabric resembling a Hessian bag in appearance.

Whilst there was a gas chamber at Auschwitz, the most horrific of the crimes and bulk of the exterminations took place at Auschwitz II – Birkenau. It was deemed necessary to build a second, larger, camp site, a few kilometers up the road. Our tour jumped on a shuttle bus and saw the second site. The Nazi’s did a pretty good job razing the site as they fled, all to well of the atrocities that had taken place there, and how the outside world would view their actions.

At its peak, the sight was 175 hectares, and comprised of 300 barracks, able to hold 200,000 inmates. The camp was split in two parts, men held to the right, women held to the left, and more barbed wire in between that you could imagine. As the camp expanded, the train tracks were extended from the local rail station to run straight through the front gate of the site, down to the back by the two main gas chambers – another act of Nazi efficiency in the killing process.

From the guards’ tower, you can actually get an idea just how big the sight was. Despite the Nazis’ destruction of the sight, you can still see the concrete bases and chimneys of all the barracks. The male barracks were simply horse stables, breezy and cold, sleeping over 400, instead of holding 52 horses. The sanitary barracks were filthy, with lines of ‘toilets’ providing no privacy, and troughs with cold dirty water all that was available to clean oneself. With one sanitary barrack for every 3 prisoner barracks, and the inmates given a matter of minutes to use them, the weaker inmates often pushed to the back and missed out entirely.

Right up the back of the site, the gas chambers 2 & 3 sat either side of the train tracks. The people were told to strip naked and head inside, being told they were about to take a bath and be disinfected. Instead, with up to 2000 people in the cramped room, the Cycle B Crystals were placed on the roof of the building. As the temperature in the room heated up due to the number of people inside, the crystals would convert from solid to gas and seep in through vents in the ceiling killing those inside by suffocation within 15 minutes. Again, Nazis making use of body heat to activate the Cyclone B rather than use any external power is another example of how efficient this killing production line was.

Once the gas had taken its effect, the bodies were moved to four huge furnaces in the same building. Before the bodies were incinerated though, Jewish inmates had to strip the bodies of any valuable, including human hair as mentioned earlier, as well as jewelry and gold fillings in their teeth. Any attempt to refuse such work would result in the obvious consequence of immediate death.

At one stage the four gas chambers at Birkenau were responsible for the execution of 400,000 people in the course of 56 days. That is 8000 a day for almost 2 months. Plus the camp still had a population of 200,000 people. It gives an idea of just how big this place was.

At the end of the tour, we headed back to Krakow intent to take it easy for a couple hours before heading out Sunday night. We arrived back at the hostel around 530 pm, showered and considered taking a kip. Instead, by 7 pm after a brief rest, we headed out on the town and decided to grab a feed. We headed to Kazimierz, the Jewish quarter that was turned into a ghetto when Poland was first taken by German rule during WWII. We found a Chinese restaurant and ate like kings getting a main, rice, starter and beer for 4 quid. Great stuff, though the MSG had my guts bubbling. We wandered around Kazimierz a little more, had a couple drinks in different bars before heading into the Old Town and back to the Jazz Club we were at the previous evening.

This time there was a live band on and Potter and I stuck around for a set and a bit having a couple beers before it was 1030 pm and we pushed off to find the Krakow Sports Bar. Eventually we came across it, and never would have found it I hadn’t have drawn a map to it. We wandered down stairs, most bars in Krakow seem to be in a cellar, to find half a dozen TV’s hung up on the walls in various rooms of this cellar, all showing the College Senior Bowl before the Superbowl started.

We had a great night watching what was to be a classic football game. The entire Krakow Tigers gridiron team were there, taking up a whole of room, and we got to chatting to a couple of them. Their idea of buying rounds was to walk up to the bar and buy 3 bottles of Vodka, take shots until it was all gone, and then get more bottles. Luckily, we managed to stay out of those rounds… well the buying part of it… they were happy to give us a few shots on them. For the main part though, we stuck to the beer. The game started at 1230 am and didn’t finish till sometime just shy of 5 am. It was almost 6 am by the time we were back at the hostel and we slept pretty comfortably once back there!

The next morning we were up a little bit later and headed off from the hostel around noon. We decided to wander to the Krakow Castle; unfortunately on Monday’s most of the stuff is shut! The state rooms, armory, treasury, museum and archaeological exhibit all close at noon on Monday’s. Instead we wandered into the Wawel Cathedral which was the coronation and burial place of the Polish royalty for four centuries, and still houses the burial chamber in the crypt. A trip up the bell tower wasn’t worth banging heads against cross beams for the view at the top. The designer clearly didn’t take into account the future tourist attraction possibility and decided that more windows providing a panoramic view wouldn’t be necessary.

After the visit to the cathedral, we headed back into the old town square and went back to our favorite pizza restaurant for round two of the oversized pizzas! At this point we were deciding how to play the rest of the afternoon, evening and fitting in the travel back to England. We decided to book an extra night at the hostel and stay there till we were due to head to the airport.

Once booked back in, we decided to head to Kosciuszko Mound, on the outskirts of the city. An advert said that it shut at sunset, but when we arrived at 420pm, there was a sign on the door saying that it shut at 4pm. We wandered around the mound, and got a vantage point over the city from a café roof. Realising we had 40 minutes before the next bus, and everything at the top of the mound shut, we decided to walk the 4.5km back into town. By the time we arrived back at the hostel, it was dark and we were tired. We showered and packed our bags before heading to bed at 7 pm! Can you believe it?

Anyway, after a somewhat restless sleep with people coming and going, as they do in dorm rooms, our alarm woke us up at 130 am and we dressed and headed for the bus station. By 230 am we were on a bus on the way to the airport past Katowice, and we arrived at the airport at 420 am. Check in, and then we had 90 minutes to kill waiting for the 6 am flight. Unfortunately the flight was held back for 45 minutes on the tarmac. After the 1 hour time zone difference, we landed and got through customs just after 830 am local time at Bournemouth. Missing the shuttle bus to the train station by about a minute, we jumped in a cab and managed to make the link to the next train to Southampton. By 10 am we were in Southampton, and I caught the 1045 ferry back to the island. Home by 1130, shower, lunch and laundry on, next thing I am headed to work at 1 pm… ouch, that was a tough day!

Anyway, made it through the day and the week (somehow) and now all my focus is on the next trip, a big 10 day journey through Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Looking forward to that. Also, the football season is ramping up and once again starting to feel swamped by that... more so because work is taking up so much more time as well.

I hope this finds you all well, and it is less than four months now till I am back in Oz… ohhh yeah!