Sunday, August 23, 2009

More Poland

Today I went to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp complex outside Krakow, which was one of my goals for this trip. I've wanted to go since I was in primary school (yeah, I was a weird kid - a trip to Wonderland just didn't cut it for me) and it didn't disappoint. Well, it did, in that I felt very disappointed with humanity at the end of it (and not just because of the Nazis - tourists on buses are jerks, but that's quite trivial when discussing attempted genocide), but it was fascinating. The Birkenau complex was especially disturbing, all the more so because it was in an incredibly beautiful setting. The Polish countryside is by turns harsh and lush, but Birkenau is one of the loveliest places I've encountered so far in Europe. I guess it manages to be both harsh and lush at the same time.

We all know stories about the concentration camps now, but it is just incredible and heart-breaking to be there, to see the tiny cells and the torture chambers, to see the trenches they dug and the fences they electrocuted themselves on. Speaking of the fences, the place is enormous! It took me an hour to walk around half of the permieter. The back of the camp contained, aside from the crematoria, some sewerage treatment plants they were constructing for the planned expansion of the camp.

The mind boggles at what the world would be like if the Nazis remained in power long enough to implement all those plans.

I'm enjoying Krakow very much. It's a beautiful town - the market square is enormous and, despite the touristy nature of it all, very lovely. But speaking of being touristy, I was looking for a meal the other day, and considered a restaurant on the market square. The dish I wanted - pierogi ruskie, dumplings filled with potato and cottage cheese - was 27 zlotych, or about AUD11. Not too expensive, but I went around the corner, and found an adorable underground restaurant where I got a bowl of borsch (delicious beetroot soup), pierogi ruskie and half a litre of beer for PZL22, or AUD9. It was so good that I went back that night and treated myself to a PZL53 (AUD22). I'm not saying I'm an incredibly adventurous tourist, but I'm amazed by how many people - even those on the backpacker trail - are happy to go wherever the brochures point them. I was a bit braver with dinner tonight - I went to a milk bar, a cheap cafeteria-style restaurant that is a hangover from the communist days. Nobody spoke English, but I gather that I got zurek, a traditional Polish soup with eggs and sausages, and mince and rice wrapped in cabbage leaves with a tomatoey sauce. And it only cost me PZL15 (AUD6), so I picked up a PZL4 (AUD1.6) half a litre can of beer on the way home. Amazing.

Poland is so cheap. I wouldn't consider cooking here, especially because a) everything is delicious and b) I went to the supermarket for some snacky things, and a more depressing selection of produce I have not seen.

Tomorrow, I'm planning to go to an underground salt mine a few kilometres out of Krakow and then explore the old Jewish quarter in town. I've already seen the famous Wawel Hill castle complex. It's my favourite kind of castle - sprawling and eclectic, added to in different styles over the centuries - but inside it was kind of disappointing. The rooms were impressive, but they just kind of shoved a whole lot of random old furniture in there and gave no information about the rooms' historical uses. Ah well, I love a good castle, so it was nice to wander around anyway.


I feel I didn't do much justice to my visit to Auschwirz-Birkenau, but what can I say that hasn't been said already?

Well, here's a fun fact for you: the Polish name for the town is Oświęcim, which is pronounced (roughly) osh-fee-en-chee-oom. Polish is a crazy language.

Anyway, I'm really enjoying Krakow. I wish I had a bit more time here. My last day in Warszawa was a little disappointing - I went to a supposedly trendy area called Praga, but it was just like a scarier Redfern. Then I went to go to the National Museum, but it was closed for renovations. Stupid Poland. But - because I know you were all worrying - I've sorted out my transport to Prague. The train trip is only seven hours, so I can manage that. All the hostels in Stockholm seem to be full, however, so that's a little worrying.

Also, I think I'm going to end my trip in about two weeks. I found a flight from Aarhus in the north of Denmark to London for 110 Danish kroner, or AUD25. Can I get a "Hell yeah!"?


  1. i really "enjoyed" auschwitz etc... very eye opening. though in my group were these loud american tourists that not only photographed everything, but touched and moved stuff and spoke loudly. like, in the middle of one of the known gas chambers for example.

    krakow is awesome.. enjoy the salt mines, i never got around to going!

  2. The salt mines were okay - interesting, but not amazing, and a bit touristy i.e. there were two breaks for souvenir-buying in the tour.

    I couldn't believe the behaviour of some people at Auschwitz! One guy kept taking photos inside after being asked not to, a group of people chatting loudly in the gas chamber after the tour guide requested silence. And it's so weird when people pose and smile in front of gas chamber ruins and such! Understandable, but still a bit bizarre.

  3. Apparently when the Mona Lisa was stolen, people flocked to the museum and stared at the space where it had been. There are some great pictures of people just standing there with their mouths open in front of a bare wall. I don't think it carries the same gravity of being a dork in a concentration camp, but it shows how when it comes to tourism there's a mass of people who don't exactly think through why they came in the first place.