Playing catch-up

My last full day in Poland and I spend most of it online. The PC in the hostel was free, it was chucking it down outside and I had a bunch of emails and blog posts to get through.

I arranged to meet a couple of the girls in town again to do a last bit of wandering… and again they didn’t show up! They reappeared later in the day as I was internetting away, so at least I saw them before they got on their bus.

Myself, I was on the 22:55 train to Prague so I waved the Dodo farewell at 2200 and went via KFC to the main station. On the train I shared a carriage with two hungover Scotsmen, Phil and Dom. We had a great natter, and had just enough space for the three of us to stretch out (kind of) and kip. A shame we were woken around six times on the journey by passport control and ticket inspectors!

Auschwitz, Birkenau, and curry – and a TIP or two

A strange combination, but that’s how the day went.

Again, we slept later than was originally planned before our group gathered (the same as yesterday but the ranks swollen with the two Danish girls, the Swedish lass who’d arrived overnight and a German girl and Aussie girl who were travel together). We walked to the bus station and forked over our 7zl each for the 90-minute ride to Auschwitz.

TIP – don’t buy your bus ticket from the Tourist Information. They charge 20zl return, whereas the bus is only 7zl each way.

TIP – don’t get a tour guide at Auschwitz. They’re good, but you will see more if you get a guide book for a couple of Zloty and walk yourself around. Much cheaper and better value for money.

What can I say about Auschwitz? Well, it was the largest extermination camp in the Nazi “regime” during the war. Jews (and other dissidents) were ferried there under the pretence that they were being relocated to a new area. Around 80% of those who arrived were killed within hours; gassed then cremated, their ashes scattered in rivers.

The others – those reckoned as being fit enough to work – were put to forced labour and made to live in the most horrific conditions. Up to 15 people on a bunk designed for one, with three layers. Those below would be covered in the mess from people above as dysentery was rife.

Punishments were frequent and cruel, experiments and torture carried out on prisoners on a regular basis. And the sheer scale of the operation simple mind-numbing. The view from the guard house at Birkenau (Auschwitz B-camp) shows buildings as far as the eye can see, or at least their remains.

Some of the exhibits are really harrowing. The 2 tonnes of human hair. The countless thousands of shoes and suitcases. I couldn’t even bring myself to look at the huge collection of childrens’ clothing.

So in all an educational but depressing day. But like so many other similar places I’ve been, it does drive home how damn lucky we are to live how we do today. And that we shouldn’t forget the past – we should learn from it. So if you find any Holocaust deniers, give them a clip round the ear and force them to see sense so we can prevent this kind of horror in the future.

Away from all that, we returned to Krakow and arranged to have dinner at a recommended Indian restaurant with some Geordie girls I got talking to. Unfortunately, with everyone on different schedules, people wanting to shower, some wanting to eat sooner and so forth, our large group ended up whittling down to myself, Tommi and Michael.

Well, it was everyone else’s loss. The food was superb and very reasonably priced. So if you’re in Krakow and you want an amazing curry: Bombaj Tandoori is the place to go. Michael and I had a madras and a vindaloo respectively (“as hot as you can make it”) while Tommi settled on a more mild tikka masala. All were top notch. And the waitress was a cutie, to boot.

We were supposed to meet the girls in town later, but they didn’t show – I assume Laura was navigating… Instead we went back to the hostel and – for a change – drank beer before going to bed.

More Polish meanderings

Today is another day where I will forget people’s names for which I apologies profusely in advance. You have the email address – pester me if I’ve forgotten or mis-spelled yours and I will correct it!

I slept later than I’d hoped (a theme in Poland – must be the water) and fell in with a small group who were walking into town for some sightseeing: Tommi and Michael from Sweden, Laura from Mexico and a lovely girl from Singapore who’s name escapes me as I write this. The Singaporean girl was so short, the hostel had to give her a ladder to get into her bunk as the beds didn’t have one attached!

Mondays are free entry to one of the areas of the castle, but only until midday and we were too late for that. Instead, we walked the streets and enjoyed the free areas of the castle grounds. There’s a good view over the river from the battlements and the weather was very favourable.

A word of warning – never let Laura try to guide you anywhere. How she gets around Mexico City astounds me because at times she ended up walking exactly the opposite direction from that which we needed to go. Tommi and I gave up and just let her wander until she realised we weren’t following any more.

From the we walked to the Jewish area and into the new cemetery. Laura tried to find the entrance for us and located a car wrecking yard instead. Back in the opposite direction we did find the way in and walked around the graveyard for maybe 20 minutes. It’s quite a creepy place – in a good way – with many atmospheric cobweb-encrusted flaky tombstones. I’m not sure if anyone would appreciate that being said about their relatives’ resting place, but I liked it. Some of the walls have been made of bits of broken old tombstones.

We decided to eat and catch a film, so walked from there to a nearby mall (by way of the rest of the Jewish area) and picked our various foodstuffs from the food court, then had an ice cream. There was still a good while to kill before the film started, so the Swedes produced a small football from their rucksack and we played kickabout for maybe thirty minutes. On the top floor of a shopping mall. I can see why Mexico are no longer a world force in footie, as Laura almost had the ball over the railings twice and did succeed in punting it down the up escalator once.

We went to see Fantastic Four 2 which was… passable. About as good (if that’s the right word) as the first one. Mr Lee – stick to Spidey, please. And another Blade would be good.

On the way back to the hostel we stopped off at a small bottle shop / market and I picked up a frozen pizza for dinner. And some more beers. We sat in the garden under an awning in lashing rain while we ate and drank and chatted. Ania suggested we go into the “chill-out room” as it would be warmer, but there were no lights. It’s supposed to be all candlelit, but someone had neglected to actually buy any. This problem lasted 10 minutes until she returned with a huge bag of tea-lights and we all hunkered down on the comfy mattresses and chatted.

I confess I was wrecked after the two previous nights with little sleep, so despite free wine from our kind hostess I headed up to bed quite early. A few people snuck in while I snoozed, including a girl from Sweden, until Tommi and two Danish girls came up to pinch some bedding so they could snuggle up downstairs. Tommi… can’t hold his beer too well, but he’s a funny drunk. Which was why I didn’t mind being woken up as he shouted “hello new girl!” at the snoozing Swedish lass. At four in the morning. As the Danes apologised, explained he was drunk and ushered him back out.

Cracking Krakow

I was up pretty early this morning as Gosia wanted to show me around the town one last time before I hopped on the bus to Krakow and she was driven to Prague for her flight home. We wandered around the allotments and to where her grandfather taught her to sledge!

The bus trip was a good few hours and I arrived in Krakow a little late, though not too bad. I think it was around 9pm. The hostel was very easy to find and I got checked in and assaulted the lovely Ania with a gazillion questions before popping out for a wander and to locate food.

Krakow is a lovely city and to see it for the first time after darkness has fallen makes it all the more magical. Imagine Prague, but less grandeur and more fairy tale. There are also a lot less tourists (so far – I can see that changing) so even the main square is just pleasantly busy rather than jammed. I walked for well over an hour before settling on a stupidly cheap and stupidly large burger which I somehow managed to eat without dropping it all over the pavement.

The bottle shops are open 24 hours, so I picked up a variety of Polish beers (at around 50p for 0.5l) to try out back at the hostel. Ania had gone home for the evening and another girl was working – we ended up chatting away until around four in the morning! Unfortunately the room to my dorm creaked something rotten, but I don’t think I woke anyone up.

More mountaineering

We picked up my train ticket for Prague after a half-hour battle of wills with the lady at the counter who couldn’t find the same ticket we’d been informed about the day before. Finally, ticket in wallet, we ran for the bus to Karpacz Gorny (Upper Karpacz).

Our first port of call was Wang, a Norwegian church brought over to Poland many years ago. It was originally built without a single nail or screw, though as age has taken its toll, some cleverly-disguised ones have been put in place to hold things together. The craftsmanship of the decorations is astounding, and it’s hard to believe that some parts of it are 700 years old.

From there, we caught two single-seater chair lifts up Czarna Kopa (Black Peak) and walked to Sniezka (Snow White), a peak of 1602m. The walk up isn’t easy, being mainly crushed rock so footing is a little dodgy. With the added benefit of strong winds, it was all a little hairy! The mountain marks the border between Poland and the Czech Republic. On the way up, square markers are placed with “C” on one side and “P” on the other – so I have technically been to the Czech republic already!

At the top we had some lovely Polish soup and Polish sausage while two hueg fluffy dogs watched on and tried to beg food. I also used the priciest toilets in Poland so far – 2 Zl for a wee. You get used to paying for the loo in this country, but the prices do vary.

Also at the peak are a weather station, a small chapel and a Czech post office. I didn’t want to send my postcards yet, but I did stamp my passport!

We descended from the peak in a slightly quicker time and walked to Bialy Jar then Strzecha Akademicka. We also saw a post-glacial lake called Maly Staw (“small pond”) overlooking which some distance back was Samotnia (“lonely shelter”). Finally, we made our way through woods and past waterfalls back to Karpacz.

I could go on at length about the beautiful forests, the stunning waterfalls, the views, the birds, the berries we picked, the wonderful sense of solitude… but I won’t. There is only so much you can say about places like this, and Poland has more than its fair share – certainly more than I ever expected to see.

Tucked up in a snug pub, we sat in a converted sled and drank more Polish beer before catching the last bus back to Gosia’s and being fed more traditional grub by her granny.

I checked the pedometer that Sheilah had sent me and I reckon we did around nine miles walking. Bear in mind that a fair portion of this was up and down some steep inclines and I think we did OK!

[Sorry for the brevity of the post, but as I type this I see that the time for me to catch a train is getting ever closer! Gosia seems worried that I didn’t enjoy myself and this couldn’t be further from the truth]