Crazy Guide to Krakow

Amy, Florent (someone else from the hostel) and I took a Crazy Guide tour of Krakow, the guide was a little late so we had a customised tour to skip the traffic.  He turned up in a little Trabant and we all squeezed in.  this was a good trip for cheap thrills in that the guide Kooba, drove a little crazy, it started raining, we discovered his wipers didnt work, it rained harder so we rolled up the windows.  we started steaming up so Kooba had to wind down the window to turn.  It started hailing, the car started leaking and Kooba insisted on still driving.  he did admit defeat after a while though and we took shelter in an old ‘milk bar’ and ate perogie whilst Kooba told us about the communist relic of Nowa Huta where the steelworks factory is several times bigger than the district itself.  We were also treated to a trip to an Austro-Hungarian fortress which gave us panoramic views of Krakow, and a trip to a limestone quarry which had filled up with ground water.  It was beautiful.  I also got a go at driving the trabant!  Great fun!

‘Arbeit Macht Frei’

I went to Auschwitz not entirely sure what to expect.  I left Auschwitz reeling from what I had learnt.  It was such an evil place.

Amy and I (someone I had met the previous night and had decided to go together) took the bus, which was a small minibus so packed with people that we had to stand for the hour and a half that it took to reach the town of Oscwiecim.  Although considering where we were going, it didnt feel like the time to complain.

We were given a guided tour packed with information.  We walked under the Arbeit Macht Frei sign into the barracks of Auschwitz.  This sign promised those that walked under it that if you worked hard, you would be rewarded with freedom.  Of course we all know that wasnt the case.

It was a beautiful day, in stark contrast to the place we were and I had to keep reminding myself that I was treading those same paths and that this was not some replica museum.

We were shown how prisoners of war were first kept in Auschwitz and then how Jews were enticed in with promises of  work.  I couldnt believe how far the propaganda to hide it all stretched.  Most people were shipped in in trains, went through a selection process, those that were strong were kept and went to work, others went straight to the shower rooms.  However, a few families were occasionally kept together, long enough for Nazis to force them to write happy letters home telling of the work and good conditions that were provided at Auschwitz.  Then they were sent back through the selection process like everyone else.

Once selected for work, belongings, clothes, families and identites were taken leaving the individual with just a number.  The items that were taken were looted through and sent back to Germany.  Every one was shaved.  Human hair made a good price in the textile industry.  We were taken through rooms that showed these items –  the ones that were not sent off or destroyed before the liberation.  That was hard to see.  there were so many stolen things.  There was a whole room full of mounds of shoes.  Each pair having once belonged to a person.  It was a sharp reminder of the souls that were here, you can listen to facts, look at photos but these…  Well, it was really something else.

We also went to Birkenau which was truely massive.  there were concrete chimney stacks left where the barracks had been burnt away around them in an effort to destroy evidence.  The barracks which people were forced to live in actually were designed as horse stables.  The brick barracks were made from the houses that had been dismantled from the town that was previously on the site.

Of the 90,000 that could be kept in Auschwitz at any one time, at the liberation, only 7,000 were rescued. The Nazis optimistic to the end- many had been marched to Germany to continue back there.

all in all, a heavy day.  It was a busy day there and it was good to see so many people still care.

reflection on looted shoes at Auschwitz

Loving Krakow

I love it here in Krakow.  It may be that the weather is gorgeous, the the buildings are beautiful, there are more galleries and museums than you can shake a stick at but I have a good feeling about this city.  Oh and the keyboard here is not a topsy turvy let’s do the ol’ switcheroo one either.  Bonus.

After a marathon train journey changing twice and trying to decipher train station words and departure sheets, Poland greets me with lush forests, geometric concrete houses and the slimmest local railway platforms imaginable.  I was wondering how I would know when I crossed the border; unfortunately the landscape doesn’t have a massive red line denoting one from the other.  The first clue was passing a local station (with tiny platform) and the word I recognised in czech as ‘platform’ was now nowhere to be seen and became ‘Peron’.

The hostel is brand spanking new, and feels a bit like I’m staying at a friend’s.  Or the inside of an Ikea catalogue.  The staff here are so lovely and genuinely want you to enjoy Krakow.  Last night there were a bunch of us sitting in the communal area and the woman who runs the place came in with a bottle of wine saying, ‘look what I found, anyone want some?’  We spoke about culture from our different countries – how stereotypically, where English like to tease the French, Poles will tease people from Slovakia.  I found it quite interesting how apparently the Polish language has a round-about way of saying things.  For example, they don’t use the word ‘bra’ it’s more ‘comfy thing for your boobs’.

Yesterday I went for a good old wander, trying to find places I want to revisit during opening hours.  I quite enjoyed looking into the window of an ‘art lampshade’ shop.  And there was a 360 degree outdoor cinema I wandered into which was all Polish but fun to watch.

Today I went to an art exhibition called ‘Us and Them’, about how throughout history, people regarded as ‘out of the norm’ were viewed as freaks, fools, madmen and monsters.  There were ‘scientific’ drawings of people considered freaks and the exhibition explained how and why these people were viewed in such a way.  The main theme (at least, to me it seemed) was that people fear what they do not understand.  Which, I’d say is true in modern day.

I also went to Muzeum Ethnograficzne which gave a detailed history on Polish folk traditions.  There were lots of costume examples, replica rooms of mills and houses, farming equipment and a curator tailing me most of the way.  I tried not to take it personally – she’s just doing her job as I was the only one in there.

I had a lovely mosey along the river, saw the fabled dragon – which is really tourist dragon – apparently you can text a word to a number and it makes the statue breathe fire (my hostel lady says that it’s for children and British lads).  The legend is that there is a dragon that lives around the caves there.  The legend was started to keep people away from finding the secret tunnel up to the Wawel Castle.

I bought some earrings as a souvineer, a local artist was selling them in her little gallery – they have cats on whose character really appealed to me.  They make me think of man-about-town cat as he’s reading a newspaper whilst drinking tea in one, smoking on the other side, and general wistful and thinking poses on the other.

More random act of kindness – I helped someone reverse out of a tight space. He looked like he was having trouble so I waved him along a bit, after a bit more to and fro, he got out of the space, gave me a thumbs up and a dziekuje.  Cue grin.

Ah, one more thing – god these posts are so long, there is so much to say! – hearing him now reminds me.  Every hour on the hour there is a trumpet guy that bugles a song from St. Mary Church.  The song stops abruptly marking the event that in olden dayes a trumpeter guy would bugle a warning.  In this instance the unlucky bugler was hit in the throat by an arrow, thus stopping his song short.

Tomorrow I’m hoping to get off to Auschwitz, which will have a somewhat more sombre post.