On the way back to England in September I made a brief excursion to Poland. Just a 6 day trip taking in 4 cities - Warsaw, Krakow, Wroclaw and Gdansk. I landed in Warsaw in the early morning by way of Chicago and Frankfurt. It was an easy entry process into the country and a simple transfer from the airport by train into the center of the city. With the aid of Google Maps and my iPhone I navigated the walk from the Central Station to my hotel in the old town. Google Maps have become an essential tool in this kind of travel these days. It makes everything so easy.
|The Royal Castle and the Vasa Column|
|Monument to the Warsaw Uprising|
I Ubered to the Warsaw Rising museum, surprisingly easy, quick and cheap. The museum was very good, but quite also large with an overwhelming amount of information. Not the best suited for a quick run through in around an hour. I found the path through the museum a bit confusing and the sheer number of exhibits left me wondering which ones to look at and which ones to leave out. Much of the content did not have English text or commentary so that was a further complication. Nevertheless, the message came across loud and clear - it was a pretty desperate situation in 1944 and the Polish insurgents had a pretty bad time of things. They were not at all helped by the Soviets who by that time were not so far away but the Soviets had other things on their mind (like taking over Poland after the war) and so were not too helpful and the Rising was mercilessly crushed by the Nazis and Warsaw was devastated.
|Museum of the History of Polish Jews|
Both the museums were very good but the I did find the onslaught of material to be overwhelming - so many personal stories, so many interactive terminals, so many photographs - sometimes I just didn’t know what to look at next.
I walked back to the hotel and by now I was getting a good feel for the layout of the city’s sights. In the evening I walked again into the old town and found a great little restaurant (Gosciniec) that served local food and I had a nice plate of pierogis (Polish dumplings) and a nice Polish beer.
|The Old Town Square, Warsaw|
I was impressed by the number of trams travelling to and fro across the bridge - all very quick, very full, and very cheap.
On the other side of the river I visit a church and then walk through a park nearby the Zoological Gardens. No sign of a zoo, other than a metal giraffe sculpture but a lot of nice red squirrels and hooded crows.
|The Royal Castle from the Vistula River|
|The Canaletto Room - Warsaw Royal Castle|
After checking out of my room at mid-day, I walked over to the south past Adam Mickiewicz’s statue, the University and Copernicus’ statue and visited the Chopin Museum. Chopin was a local boy, a musical prodigy, and this museum is Warsaw’s tribute to him. Another modern museum with lots of interactive exhibits. What I found most interesting were his original scores - incredibly detailed documents, barely legible by my eyes. Interesting to see how he worked in such minute detail in ink presumably with all sorts of corrections and modifications.
|A Chopin Score|
I then walked over to the Palace of Culture and Science - a massive soviet era edifice that is the tallest building in Warsaw. It has fallen into a bit of decay but it is truly an impressive example of soviet era architecture. I took a trip up to the viewing balcony at the top for a nice view of the city below.
|The Palace of Science and Culture|
On the street outside the Palace I came across a brass marker line in the pavement - it was the marker for the border of the Jewish Ghetto which existed between 1940 and 1943. A little further to the north there is a small Synagogue, the Nozyk Synagogue. This is the only synagogue to survive the war. It is still in use today. Not far away from this is the only remaining block of buildings that date from the Warsaw Ghetto. Everything else was destroyed. These Ghetto buildings are not occupied and are very dilapidated and covered in graffiti hopefully something will be done to preserve them.
I walk further out of town to the north in the general direction of the Museum of Polish Jews. Lots of blocks of flats but all quite attractive. When I reach the Polish Jews Museum, now closed for the day, I walk in the grounds where there is a monument to the Heroes of the Ghetto, and a monument to celebrate Willy Brandt, the Chancellor of Germany, who visited the site in 1970 and knelt down in contrition of his country’s actions. Further afield is the Monument to Mordechai Anieliwicz. He was the leader of the Ghetto Uprising and he died in his bunker on this spot.
|The Jewish Cemetery|
On my way back to the hotel, I walk by Umschlagplatz which was the railway station from which the Jews in the Ghetto were transported to their demise in Treblinka. There is no station there today, just a large marble walled monument with names from A to Z carved on it’s walls. There are so many monuments to the terrible things that happened in this city. It is impossible to escape them. Even on the walk to the hotel from Umshlagplatz there is a sculpture in the middle of the road of a cart or carriage full of crucifixes. Bad stuff happened everywhere.
Back at the hotel I pick up my bags and Uber to the train station where I catch my train to Krakow. A nice modern station easy to navigate and I have no problem finding the right train. My US bought ticket has a train, coach and seat number so I know exactly where to go.
It was a little surprising to see posters demanding reparations from the Germans for the atrocities in WWII. I hadn't heard about this movement, and while it is certainly a fringe movement, it is disturbing nonetheless.
In Krakow it was raining and I have difficulty finding my Uber driver. He looked like he was nearby, but actually I was on the ground level, he was 3 levels higher. We eventually located eachother and he took me to my hotel, the Hotel Pugetow. A small hotel with a very small but quite adequate room.
|The crowds at Auschwitz|
The next morning, Wednesday, my first in Krakow, I had arranged to be taken on a tour of the Concentration Camp in Auschwitz and the Wieliczka Salt Mines. Right on time at 9:00 am the mini-bus picked me up and took me and 6 others out to Oswiecim as it is known by the Poles or Auschwitz as the Germans called it. It is a pleasant drive for about 1 ½ hours to the entrance to the camp, where to my surprise we are confronted with 20 or more buses and large numbers of people. We are assembled into a group of around 25 and then introduced to our guide. She is English speaking and she broadcasts to us through wireless receivers and earphones.
Then off we go into the Auschwitz 1 Concentration Camp through the Arbeit Mach Frei gate (Work makes you free). The brick barracks were originally a Polish military base that was expanded by the Germans to hold prisoners and forcibly displaced Jews, Romas, Poles. The area was quite congested with people and we walked through in our group and we often had to wait until other tour groups cleared the buildings. We walk through several barracks which have photos and informational displays of the atrocities that went on there. The most moving were the displays of human hair - the Nazis harvested the hair of all detainees and shipped it off to be woven into fabric. There were also displays of vast numbers of shoes, luggage, hairbrushes, spectacles, pots and pans - all gathered from the Jews and others on their way to the gas chambers. The most chilling of all the empty cans of Cyklon B. One of the barracks was a prison where inmates who were suspected of offenses against the Reich were summarily tried and dispensed with in the yard outside. The horrors just went on and on.
|Crematorium at Auschwitz|
|The platform at Birkenau|
The gas chambers and crematoria here were all blown up by the Germans as they left before the camp was liberated by the Soviets. There is just a large area of concrete slabs and rubble where the 5 gas chambers and crematoria existed along with ponds where the ashes were disposed of. There is some sort of memorial there too, but due to the lack of time we didn’t walk around that part of the camp.
|Interior of the Wonen's Camp|
After Auschwitz I was ready for something a little less disturbing, and the day’s tour continued with a trip through the Wielizcka Salt Mine. Wielizcka is on the way back to Krakow and it is often bundled with the Auschwitz tour. The tour group all bundled into the buses and we drove to Wielizka where we were informed that it was time for lunch (at 3:30 pm) and we were dropped off at a restaurant (presumably with a nice kick back to the tour company from the owners). I had the goulash and it was good. I sat with the 4 ladies from Iowa and got to know them a little better. A mother, two daughters and one friend on a whirlwind tour of Europe by rental car. They were quite adventurous with their city driving and they were a fun group.
|Chapel Underground in the Salt Mine - its all carved salt|
It was then a short drive back to Krakow and my hotel. In the evening I walked for the first time around the old square of Krakow. It was impressive - a magnificent cathedral, a town hall tower and many beautiful old (restored?) buildings.
|Krakow Main Square|
|The Wawel Castle and Cathedral, Krakow|
The queue for tickets to get in the Castle and Cathedral put me off so I gave it a pass - the exteriors are wonderful enough. I walked down the hill to the Kazimierz neighborhood. This was the old Jewish town which has now been absorbed into Krakow. There are signs of synagogues and signs of restaurants catering to the Jewish tourist trade (genealogical tourism perhaps?). I crossed over the river (the Vistula) and entered the Podgorze neighbourhood. It was in Podgorze that the Germans created a walled Ghetto - there is just one small section of the old wall remaining. Podgorze is also the location of the now famous Oskar Schindler’s Enamelware Factory, immortalized in the Spielberg film.
|The Vistula River in Krakow|
|Schindler's Factory, Podgorze, Krakow|
Walking back over the Vistula through Kazimierz, there is another museum - the Galician Jewish Museum. This I found to one of the better ones - a series of modern day photographs organized into 5 sections - Pre-WWII Jewish sites, Jewish culture that once was, Holocaust sites, how the past is being remembered, and the revival of Jewish life. Highly recommended. Galicia by the way is this section of southern Poland.
I poke my head in a synagogue and a Jewish cemetery on the way back to the hotel. Nothing too remarkable, synagogues never are, the Catholic church have a lock on that area.
I Uber to the train station for my train to Wroclaw. Just over a couple of hours train ride and we are in Wroclaw and it is a short walk to my hotel - the Hotel Monopol, a fine old hotel apparently frequented by the likes of Hitler, Picasso and Marlene Dietrich among others. They don’t make a big thing about the Hitler connection.
|Wroclaw Town Hall|
|An example of Wroclaw Gnomes|
I walk back towards the station and find a sculpture that I walked past the previous night without even noticing. It is called the Crossing and it features sculptures of several pedestrian disappearing into the pavement on one side of the street and then reappearing on the other side of the street. It is pretty cool.
I then join one of the free walking tours that you can find all over Europe these days. We started back in the square where the guide pointed out the only modern looking building on the square. It may look modern, but it is the only original building on the square - a pre-WWII bank building not damaged in the war, all the other buildings were destroyed and rebuilt in their 19th Century form. We moved on to the University and talked about Fritz Haber - he was a local boy, a Jew, who went on to develop the Haber process for synthesizing Ammonia and thereby providing a cheap fertilizer (for which he got the Nobel Prize), but he also developed mechanisms for producing Chlorine gas which was used to some effect in the trenches in WWI. He also worked on pesticide gases and that work led later to the creation of Xyklon B the gas used to exterminate the Jews in Auschwitz. He was dead by then but some of his family were gassed in the concentration camps.
|The Oder River in Wroclaw|
We move on to the river (the Oder) and cross the bridge to one of the islands. Apparently Wroclaw is number 4 in Europe for the number of bridges after Hamburg, Amsterdam and Venice. Who knew. On the island we visit a couple of churches, one of which still has a WWII shell embedded in the wall. After the walking tour which was very good I wander back into town and have a late lunch (pork - they eat a lot of pork in Poland).
I then buy a ticket to a concert for the evening. I have choices a 3 hr Opera or a shorter Bach concert. The Opera would make catching the train a bit tight so I opt for the Bach concert - a piece called The Art of the Fugue - with harpsichord, organ, 2 violins, a viola and a cello. A wonderful concert but it was in an old church and the pews were not the most comfortable.
After the concert I pick up my bags at the hotel and then Uber over to the station for my overnight train to Gdansk. I get my own quite comfortable compartment for the 7 or 8 hours to Gdansk. I think we passed through Warsaw in the night but I didn’t notice it.
Around 7:00 am we pulled into Gdansk. I stored my bags in a locker at the station and walk into town. Yet again, Gdansk turns out to have a wonderful old town, perhaps the most beautiful one to date, though Krakow is certainly a contender. At that early hour of a Saturday morning, there was not much happening - the streets were nearly empty and there were few shops or cafes open. I walk around admiring the wonderful buildings - the market street with its ornate old buildings (Dlugi Targ), the beautifully elaborate Arsenal building, the Golden Gate archway into the town, the green Gate arch at the other end of the town, the waterfront with its Gdansk Crane (Zuraw) an old wooden tower with a gantry to unload ship’s cargoes. I wandered around the old town until some cafes start to open and then find a restaurant for breakfast.
|The Market Street, Gdansk|
|The Armory, Gdansk|
|Aerial view of Gdansk from St Mary's Church Tower|
|The Beach at Sopot and the Grand Hotel|
We moored alongside the pier in Sopot which at 500m in length claims to be the longest wooden pier in Europe. I went for a quick walk around the town. Sopot is now a tourist retreat for wealthy Poles and is full of cafes and restaurants and lots of tourists. There was nothing much that I found appealing other than the majestic looking Grand Hotel and an interesting sculpture of a fisherman somehow balanced on a tightrope strung across the street. I didn’t stay long in Sopot but got back on the same boat for the trip back to Gdansk.
|The Fisherman - Sopot|
|The Lenin Shipyards, Gdansk|
From the shipyard it was a short walk (past a piece of the Berlin Wall) to the railway station where I retrieved my bags and caught the train out to the airport. The train system in Poland is quite inexpensive and very well used. The line out to the Lech Walesa airport was new and very modern and it cost less than $1. Why can’t we do such things in the USA?
From the airport I caught my RyanAir flight to Leeds/Bradford in the UK. A cheap flight but you wouldn’t want to be on RyanAir for anything more than a couple of hours. The streets of Leeds were nowhere near as charming as the streets of Poland.
There are many more photographs here.