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Trip to Central Europe - Krakow and Auschwitz
Pros: interesting places like Auschwitz-Birkenau, a lot of outdoor cafe, overwhelming and very emotional
Cons: several very sad industrial towns, lots of cold communist era concrete residential buildings

Krakow, Poland

Sunday, Oct 05, 2003 15:34

We left Berlin around noon and headed across eastern Germany toward Krakow. Eastern Germany was very dull. Flat brown and grey landscape with little to see. There was a lot of construction so instead of autobahn speeds it was slow going.

Driving in Poland was slower than eastern Germany. Since Poland has joined the EU it is undergoing a face lift -- so lots of construction there too. When we entered Poland, the highway turned into a road comparable to a U.S. 2 lane state route, with big frost heaves from the harsh winters. While driving, we noticed some different road signs. Unfortunately we didn't get pictures and haven't been able to find them on the Internet, but here are some descriptions:
* One sign looks like a car has flipped into some giant potholes
* Another sign looks like a car is being blown off a windy wet road
* And the one we really can't interpret: Remember when you were a kid and would come up behind somebody and sharply strike your knee against the back of the other locked person's knee and the other person would sort of collapse? There's a road sign in Poland that looks like a car doing this to a person. What's up with that?

Along the roadside there were people sitting every 50 yards or so selling forest mushrooms and berries. We later learned that the forests in Poland are public land and that people are free to pick the forest produce and sell it. It was lunch time so we pulled off at a rest area, but didn't even get out the car. When we pulled in it looked like something from "Deliverance." There were very dirty, ill-kept people waving cartons of cigarettes at us, hanging on porches in front of broken down huts, and several nasty looking food stalls. We dodged the cigarette wavers, got back on the "highway", and lived on fruit and pretzels for lunch.

We drove through several very sad industrial towns on our way to Krakow as well. It was very depressing. Very dirty, lots of cold communist era concrete residential buildings, everything falling apart -- it just looked like an awful place to live. We also drove past huge fields with wheat and/or corn as far as the eye could see. We guessed that these were communist era collective farms.

When we finally reached Krakow, it took an hour to find the center and our hotel, but once we found it - what a treat! Krakow is a very old town that escaped destruction in WWII. The town's main square is the largest medieval town square in all of Europe (800m wide by 1200m long). It actually feels like two squares because there's a 16th century cloth hall in the center that divides the two sides. One corner is dominated by the 14th century St. Mary's church, from which a trumpeter plays an unfinished bugle call every hour. The call is unfinished in commemoration of a 13th century trumpeter who was tooting an invasion warning to the town when his throat was pierced by a Tartan arrow -- at least according to legend. In another corner of the square stands the Romanesque St. Andrew's church from the 11th century. It is the only building in Krakow to withstand the Tartan attack of 1241.

Surrounding the perimeter of the square are a lot of outdoor cafes. It's a wonderful place to sit and watch the street performers. On Saturday morning, after breakfast that included cottage cheese, tomatoes, and cucumbers, we took a self-guided walking tour of the town and had lunch on the square. After lunch we visited Wawel Hill where there stands a Wawel Castle with a large beautiful garden outside and a big open plaza in the middle of the castle itself. Wawel Cathedral is also quite large but is so crammed with stuff, including the tombs of over 100 Polish kings and queens, that it actually feels small.

At the bottom of Wawel Hill is the tourist sculpture for the city of Krakow -- the infamous dragon that was eating its way through the city until it was slain by Prince Krak.

Anybody who goes to Krakow, absolutely MUST visit Auschwitz-Birkenau - which we did on Sunday. It is absolutely overwhelming and very emotional. We got lost getting there (it's not well marked and our directions were not very good), but it was worth the effort. The Auschwitz camp is actually in the town of Auschwitz and is not as large as people might imagine. There are about 30 brick prison blockhouses, about 12 of which now house parts of the museum. The museum was extremely crowded while we were there in the middle of the day, but still worthwhile. There is a film showing the liberation of the camp by the Soviet army. Then a tour, in English, described a lot of what happened in the camp and makes no bones about the fact that over 1.5 million human beings were murdered a the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex. With each of these people came their belongings -- belongings that the Nazi's then kept for themselves. There are rooms showing the suitcases, with people names and towns written on the sides. There's an area full of eyeglasses. Another full of shoes -- hundreds or thousands of shoes in a heap. And a large pile of human hair. The hair was used to manufacture all sorts of textiles -- blankets, rope, and other necessities. What is shown in the museum is only a fraction of what was found when the Soviet's liberated Auschwitz and that was a tiny fraction of what had been pilfered and already "reused" or destroyed.

Although the name Birkenau is not well known, it is this part of the complex that is more visibly familiar (think Schindler's list) and is more infamous for the sheer magnitude of the number of people who were murdered here (estimates range from 1.2 - 2.5 million.) Birkenau is larger than is imaginable without going there. Most people have seen pictures of it on TV, in books or in movies, but until you are there and walking around the complex it is impossible to grasp the enormity of this place. What is even harder to grasp is that most people who came to Birkenau didn't stay long -- many were killed within days or hours of arrival. There were four huge gas chambers each of which held 2000 people and the camp could hold 200,000 inmates at one time. Although much of the camp was destroyed by the retreating Nazi's, the chimney's of the prisoner's quarters still stand - almost as far as the eye can see. Walking along the railroad track from the entrance to the crematoriums in the back (over a mile) adds to the sense of enormity of these horrors.

Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau is mandatory for Polish 14-year olds and most return in their last year of school as well. It is a very sobering, moving experience that should not be avoided.

The next day, we continued left Krakow and drove straight south through Slovakia to Budapest, Hungary.