All aboard the night train . . .

No apologies for using the title of one of my all time favourite cheesy mid 90s dance tunes in the name of this post!

Waving goodbye to Poland we got set to board the night train to Prague. Leaving Krakow at 10.01pm it rolls into the Czech Republic at 7.30am.

For some reason you can’t easily book Polish rail tickets online without using a third party so we opted for the services of Polrail to buy the tickets on our behalf.

We got them to post the tickets to us at home before we arrived in Poland. Slightly apprehensive at first about doing it this way but they provided a quality service and the tickets were dispatched in good time.

You can contact them here: www.polrail.com

We scoped out the train station the night before just to make sure we knew which platform the train left from as the train timetables are rather large, unwieldy and not conducive to a quick scan in a hurry!

Here’s Neil about to board the night train. Check you’re in the right compartment as the train splits at some point in the night, some carriages go to Prague, others head off to Budapest!!
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Here’s the interior of our cosy home for the night, a two berth couchette. Complete with hidden sink (demonstrated below) two bunk beds and very warm bottled water! The room was SUPER hot as it was a roasting day.

We were warned to put the window up when we went to sleep (I can only assume it is to stop the person on the top bunk flying feet first out of it while they slumber!)

After enjoying the novelty of sitting at the window watching the night time scenery fly past for a few hours Neil slept like a baby.

I lay awake all night . . . it was not the quietest of nights due to the shunting and bumping as the train decoupled carriages and adds others, not to mention the station announcements throughout the night.

We were woken (those who slept) by the guard giving us a morning wakeup call and a tea and croissant. All in all a novel experience that made me feel like a proper (albeit knackered) traveller!!! (I can now see the attraction of cris- crossing a country by rail)

Arriving at Prague it was already 27 degrees at half seven in the morning . .. no signs of the previous flooding. It was going to be a scorcher!!!

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Wawel and its surrounds

As promised  / threatened in an earlier post, here are some photos of Wawel and its surroundings.

Wawel is a fortified complex situated on a limestone outcrop on the bank of the Vistula river in Krakow.

The complex has lots of beautiful buildings and fortifications within it. These include the Royal Castle and Wawel Cathedral.

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The impressive fortifications of Wawel as seen from the street below.
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The parkland beneath Wawel with the Vistula river in the background. Here you will find the locals hanging out, picnicking and enjoying the sunshine.

You can also find the fire belching Wawel dragon and if you are lucky, the walking beer man!!!!!!!!!

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Above are some of the decorative and impressive architecture within the Wawel complex. The small golden dome is the Sigismund Chapel.
Neil and the statue of revered Polish Pope John Paul II. He was the second longest serving serving Pope in history and the first non-Italian since Pope Adrian VI who died in 1523. (little history lesson there – thanks Wikipedia!!)

Colourful shopping to be had

Here’s a few colourful pictures of some of the traditional handicrafts up for grabs in the Cloth Hall and other shops across Krakow.

The oldest and most traditional Polish fast food is obwarzanek. These bread rings have been baked in Krakow since the thirteenth century.
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Painted eggs known as pisanki are a pretty souvenir to take home (and you can fits loads in your hand luggage!!!) They are usually decorated for Easter and are found, painted in jewel bright colours, in every shop window.

Colourful nesting dolls can be found in every shop window and make a great photo (if the shop owner doesn’t catch you first!!)

Although mainly associated in most people’s minds with Russia, nesting dolls are thought to have originated in China and can be found all over Eastern Europe in every shape, size and design.

Random facts about Krakow and some street scenes

Following on from our difficult day at the concentration camps we wanted to see another side to Poland so set off on a wander around Krakow old town.

Here’s some interesting (and not so interesting) facts about Krakow and some random photos from our aimless sauntering.

1) Legend has it that Krakow was founded by and named after the mythical ruler Krak, who built the town above a cave occupied by a ravenous dragon (hence the fire breathing dragon sculpture underneath Wawel)

2) Krakow was the capital of Poland from 1038 to 1596.

3) In 1978, UNESCO put Krakow’s historic centre on the list of World Heritage Sites.

4) The city has a population of approximately 760,000

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A young girl busks for change in the street as the sun hits the detailed sculptures of apostles outside the Church of Saints Peter and Paul.

A tethered balloon rises high above the city and optical illusions and religious scenes enliven the walls of a building.

I love the details and decorations on buildings, it’s not something we particularly have in England, except for grafitti.

Ornate ironwork on door hinges and sun set over the old town

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Igor Mitoraj ‘s sculpture‘Eros Bendato’ in the old main square (spot the cheeky photo bombing child!!)

Rememberance in stones

As you walk around the camp you will see at the side of the tracks a railway carriage. It is the same as the carriages that transported the camp inmates to Birkenau.

The carriage is there thanks to Frank Lowy, a Holocaust survivor and son of Hugo Lowy — a Hungarian Jew who was beaten to death by the Birkenau guards when he refused to give up his tallit and tefillin.

He helped to bring the restored wartime railway carriage to Birkenau in 2009 and it now serves as a memorial to the half million Hungarian Jews who died there.

Wooden, with no windows and very little ventilation, the carriage tells its own sad story. Hundreds of people were crammed into each carriage, sometimes in sweltering heat, other times in the bitterest cold.

People were bought into the camp from hundreds of miles away, from all corners and the farthest reaches of the Nazi empire. Little wonder that hundreds of them died during the journey.

The carriage is covered in hundreds of rocks and stones. This made little sense to me at the time but I later learnt that in Jewish cemetries and on graves they do not leave flowers as they are transitory and for the living.

Instead they leave stones. A far more lasting memorial to loved ones.

Degredation and dispair

Birkenau started to be constructed in 1941. Its scale dwarfs Aushwitz 1, it is said to be around ten times bigger.

Many of the original buildings were destroyed in an uprising in 1944 and as the Nazis fled in the face of the Soviet army, but you can still see where the chimney stacks were, stood in uniform lines, on and on and on, stretching as far as the eye can see.

As it became too time consuming and difficult to build from scratch, and more and more people poured into the camp, the Nazis used wooden horse stables to house them. They were designed to hold upto 52 horses. Here they held hundreds of human beings.

The heat inside these wooden shacks is unbearable in the middle of summer yet tortuously cold in the depths of winter. There is a small oven in each of the cavernous sheds but nothing that would offer any respite or comfort from the harsh, freezing mid winter.

Hygiene was non existent and the swampy ground of the camp meant that many people contracted malaria. Water was filthy and people also had lice, scabies and serious stomach problems.

Here you can see the communal toilet, opened twice a day, where prisoners had to file in, sit, do their business and get up again in a matter of minutes.

Completely against human nature, many did not even sit over a hole, they were in such a hurry they sat between them. The stench must have been unbearable.

The wooden slats in the sheds that pass as sleeping accommodation would not be fit for a dog let alone a human being. The people who could least fend for themselves, the old, the ill, would have one of the lower sleeping sections.

People above them, unwilling to leave the warmth, or ill themselves, would relieve themselves of any and all bodily functions where they lay. This is turn would make its way onto the people below, who were often too weak to move.

It is beyond comprehension how one group of people could dehumanise and demonise another section of humanity to the extent that they could subject them to this treatment.

For me the true, unabating horror was that it was not just the warped ideas of a single, homocidal maniac.

Hitler could never have perpetuated his crimes had it not been for a whole command structure beneath him who were eager to carry out his diabolical orders, and even came up with their own sickening ideas.

You do not ever want to believe mankind is capable of such evil, yet it happened. And it continues to happen. Human beings seem, above all, very good at hating.

Birkenau – the final solution

From Auschwitz 1 we took a short shuttle ride to Auschwitz 2 – Birkenau. One of the largest camps in the complex, it had one main, overarching  purpose – the extermination of the Jewish nation.

It was Hitler’s “final solution to the Jewish question in Europe.” In total it is estimated that around 1.3 million people were murdered here.

The infamous camp is instantly recognisable from the moment you see the brick archway with railway tracks running directly underneath it.

You have seen it in countless black and white photographs documenting the horror of the Nazi regime, it has featured in countless documentaries that attempt to lay bare the suffering and degradation of the inmates.

By this point in the day the heat is nearly unbearable and the camp stretches out in all directions as far as the eye can see.

Trying to imagine being in one of the mass transports that regularly delivered people to the site, in this heat, makes you feel sick.

People fit enough were put to work while the others – the elderly, the infirm, the sick and the children, were sent straight from the transport waggons to be put to death in one of the huge crematoria complexes located at the far end of the camp.

The photograph shows the scene as thousands of people are unloaded from a transport on this spot. Many of these people would only make one journey in Birkenau. Straight to the back of the camp and to the gas chamber.

Haunting faces and abandoned cases

Once inside the imposing brick buildings that seem so innocent from the outside there are several devastatingly simple displays.

One room is completely empty except for a glazed section that runs from one end to the other.  Behind the glass, from floor to ceiling, is an immense mountain of human hair.

Another room houses piles upon piles of suitcases, taken from the prisoners. Many are marked with the star of David, others poignantly say “mit kinder”.

Mounds of spectacles gaze blankly out at you from another while endless shoes are a silent testimony to the thousands of people who, once incarcerated, never walked out of the death camps.

Another of the buildings contains a corridor lined with endless black and white photographs of prisoners. All in the regulation striped uniform, all with roughly shaven heads.

The women seem particularly to have been callously treated, their hair, once a crowning glory now stripped to degrade and humiliate them.

It is a gallery of despair, where every pair of eyes is a mute plea for mercy that never came.

The horror of Auschwitz is not immediately tangible when you walk through the gates, it was not the instant cloying weight, the punch to the stomach that I thought it would be.

It gradually builds, with each room, each exhibit, each photograph.

By the time you end up in the gas chamber, the ultimate symbol of evil, it feels difficult to breathe, your eyes have taken in too much but not really comprehended. It is only later that you cry.

Inhumanity and revisionists.

As you pass under the infamous metal archway that serves as the hideously iconic entrance to Auschwitz 1 you begin to notice the barbed wire that winds its way around the perimeter and the watch towers that are positioned about the camp.

The lines of brick buildings are neatly spaced and perfectly preserved. Taken out of context they would give no hint of the inhumanity that they represent.

The site for the camp had originally served as Austrian army and later Polish army artillery barracks so the brick buildings are solid looking and done with some care.

The first prisoners arrived in May 1940 but by March 1941 nearly 11,000 people were imprisoned there, most of them Poles.

On September 3, 1941, an experiment was carried out on Russian POWs and Polish inmates when they were gathered in the basement of Block 11 – known to the prisoners as the death block – and gassed with Zyklon B.

Following this first extermination a gas chamber and crematorium were constructed and operated from 1941 to 1942, during which time some 60,000 people were killed before it was deemed not efficient enough. The Nazi’s then constructed Auschwitz 2 – Birkenau with its four huge gas chambers.

The majority—probably about 90%—of the victims of Auschwitz Concentration Camp died in Birkenau. This means around a million people. The majority, more than nine out of every ten, were Jews.

The gas chamber in Auschwitz 1 was destroyed but later reconstructed after the war and it was here that the feeling of dread was palpable.

The low ceiling room is blackened and claustrophic with holes in the roof where the Zyklon B was dropped into the room. The crematorium, with its reinstated ovens is a place where it still feels hard to breathe.

There is an going debate about the authenticity of Auschwitz 1’s chamber and crematorium by so called “historic revisionists” ie Holocaust deniers. These same people deny the existence of any gas chambers at all in any of the camps.

Wieliczka Salt Mine

So on a roasting hot day in Poland where better to head than underground!?

Or more precisely Wieliczka salt mine. A huge monument to the industrious nature of the Polish salt miner.

Its got everything you could possibly want from the underground! Magnificent chambers chiselled out of rock salt, underground saline lakes, huge timber constructions and unique statues sculpted out of salt.

Heading out of the blazing heat you travel down hundreds of steps to a depth of 135 meters underground to visit a series of caverns full of salty artworks.

The most impressive cavern is the Chapel of St Kinga, around 101 metres underground and full of the most amazing carvings made entirely out of salt.

Even the chandeliers are made of salt and the walls are covered in murals of biblical scenes all etched in meticulous detail, again from the salt .

At the end of the tour you all cram into a tiny metal miners lift that rockets you back to the surface. You think it holds about three, they cram in about twelve!

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It’s sardines with strangers . ..

Wieliczka is easy to get to on public transport from Krakow. Hop on bus 304 which stops on a little side street just opposite the large Galleria Krakow shopping centre. It takes about 20 minutes to arrive at the mine shaft.

You can buy tickets in advance online at www.wieliczka-saltmine.com or simply turn up on the day and join one of the guided tours.

You have to go on a tour, you can’t do the mine on your own as you may well end up wandering the subterranean tunnels forever . . .