Saturday, May 23, 2009

May 13 - 16: Cracow, Poland

After spending several days in beautiful Prague, Jennie and I boarded Czech Airlines en route to Cracow, Poland to spend the rest of our week. Cracow was once the capital of Poland (1038-1596) but this distinction now belongs to Warsaw. Presently Cracow is the capital of the Province of Malopolska (Lesser Poland).

We really enjoyed Cracow. It is relatively untouched from the World Wars allowing glimpses of the past as far back as 200,000 BC. Western tourism dollars have yet to really infilitrate the city making it a little less renovated than what we saw in Prague. That being said, most of the city was under construction and renovation while we were here. Given the shear beauty of the city as well as all the periods represented (prehistoric, Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Boroque, and Medieval), I am sure that it will not be long before Cracow is "discovered".

We spent the majority of our time exploring Central Cracow, which includes the historic Old Quarter, Wawel Hill, as well as some of the surrounding quarters - in particular the Kazimierz Quarter.

OLD QUARTER: Market Square

Cracow's Market Square has been voted by the Project for Public Spaces (an American non-profit organization) as the best municipal square from their global list. We really enjoyed coming here to people watch and to hang out. Unfortunately places like this always attract those people trying to sell garbage - particularly annoying was one guy who sold little whistles for kids - when a group of children walked by you were gauranteed to hear endless racquet for the next 30 minutes. Thankfully the Market square is the largest market square in all of Europe (200m x 200m) so there was always plenty of space to relocate ourselves. I really enjoyed watching one guy who made large bubbles for the kids to play in.

Since every road in Central Cracow leads to the main market square we must have walked through it 5-10 times/day. Depending on the time of day the atmosphere of the square was completely different.

Typical streets in the Old Quarter leading away from the Market Square.

Statue of the poet Adam Mickiewicz. (Left-morning. Right - afternoon). We thought it was interesting how people just crawled all over this statue...don't mind the chain fence people!)

The Market square is dominated by the Church of St. Mary, which is (argueably) Cracow's most recognized feature. Every hour, after the bells ring, a bugle call is made from the high tower. In the picture above you will notice everybody's attention is to the tower during one of the bugle calls.

The church certainly provides a nice backdrop to a few drinks and relaxing.

In the center of the square is the cloth hall (left), which orginally was a covered market.

On the other side of the Cloth Hall is the Town Hall Tower. The Tower is the only remaining fragment of the Old Town Hall.


This area is a "must-see" while in Cracow. The most ancient signs of life in Cracow, the Royal Residence, and the Cracow Cathedral are all found within the Wawel fortifications and towers. A "wawel" is a hill surrounded my marshes.

Now, I really had high expactations and wanted to enjoy their "first-class collections" on display, representing many different ages of the inhabitants, but found that I preferred to enjoy Wawel Hill from the outside and was rather bored or annoyed with the paid displays. Part of my annoyance may have been due to the fact that there were so many tour groups. I was never really allowed those quiet and intimate moments sometimes needed to appreciate some of the displays. The other part of my annoyance was I did not feel that you got what you paid for.

Cracow Cathedral (left) inside the fortifications and towers of Wawel Hill.

Me infront of the Sandomierz Tower - One of 3 Wawel Defense towers.

Wawel Hill and the Cracow Cathedral behind me.
More importantly, there was a guy cooking Polish Sausage on a grill infront of me.

Cracow Cathedral.

Jennie infront of the Cracow Cathedral.

In 1285 Duke Leszek the Black gave Cracow the right to have the city surrounded by walls. Eventually there were inner and outer moated walls, 8 fortified gates, and 47 towers protecting the city. The walls were later dismantled in the early 19th century as they became less practical. You can still see the remnants of where the wall once stood in the Planty Gardens, which surround the old quarter.
Here I am in Planty Garden with the wall outline behind me.
St. Florian's Gate along with a small section of adjoining wall have been preserved.
Jennie and I infront of St. Florian's Gate.
Across from St. Florian's Gate is the Barbican. It was constructed in 1498-99 after being defeated by the Turks in Bukowina. Further Turkish invasions were feared. This is the best preserved barbican in Europe. It used to be surrounded by a moat and attached to St. Florian's Gate (right).


Kazimierz used to be an independent city, founded in 1335 by Kazimierz the Great, that competed against Cracow in position and wealth. In the late 15th century King Jan Olbracht moved the Jewish population here and the town soon became a leading center for Jewish culture. It became a part of Cracow in 1791 and still boasts a distinctively different character.

Corpus Christi Church

Jennie keeping us "guided" on Szeroka Street.

Vistula River

When we first saw this guy we thought it was hilarious. In this picture it looks like he definitely uses his own advertising. After we saw him every day, we just felt sorry for him.
Jennie enjoying a beverage infront of Kosciusko Mound. The mound was built from 1820-1823 to commemorate the leader of the insurrection of 1794.
Jennie and I on top of Kosciuszko Mound. Cracow is in the background. It is from this vantage point that we both realized that Cracow is beautiful city when walking amongst the streets and the buildings, but from afar it is not at all spectacular.
We took a walk through the Cracow ghetto's to see Oskar Schindler's factory located on 4 Lipowa.
We stayed at The Pollera where we could view the Slowacki Theatre, which opened in 1893, from our window. More importantly, the Pollera had great Polish pickles included in their free breakfast buffet. I do not know why I have not had pickles for breakfast before, but they gave me a little something extra to look forward to when I woke up every morning.

We took a 1/2 day trip to the Wieliczka Salt Mine. We started the day really excited and finished the day pretty disappointed. The tour of the mine was generic, uninformative, and (remember that this is someone whose career is based on geology speaking) uninteresting. If I were to do it again I would do the self-guided tour.
The salt mine is an impressive underground network of 3000 chambers for a combined length of 300 kms. Underground chapels and alters were carved within the salt deposits from the miners who prayed for God's providence and protection against accidents.
Jennie in the Chapel of St. Kinga
Me in the Chapel of St. Kinga.
Ok, this is not a chapel - it is a bunch of dwarfs working. "Hi ho, Hi ho, it's off to work we go..."

As usual, I could not wait to wet my pallete with the local cuisine. With Poland's offerings of sausage, pierogies and soups I was like a kid in a candy store. Or in this case, I was like a dude in a sausage store...wait a second, that does not quite sound right...
Me enjoying a frosty beverage. It took a few tries to get this picture just right. This is what I do while waiting for Jennie to find and use the closest bathroom.
Polish pretzels are sold every day by street vendors all throughout the city.

While eating the delicious barszcz soup (beetroot soup) I was already eyeing what was coming next. If you notice the bread plate, the tin of "butter" closest to me is actually lard...and it was delicious. I think they literally scrapped the grease of their grills and put it in these serving cans because there would be little chunks of "flavor" mixed in. Yummy!

Pierogies, cabbage rolls and wonder I am smiling!

Most women do not like to get pictures of them "stuffing themselves" so here is Jennie outside a Polish restaurant.

Here I am inside the same restaurant for what was an awesome dining experience. It was just the two of us in the main dining area, with live music and singing, with a window view, for a 2+ hour dining experience, that cost ~15 euro. No wonder I am smiling!

More pierogies!

Poland is Atken's approved.

Jennie enjoying the cuisine.

What a great week! Now I am back in Paris and my vacation is over. Hmmm, re-reading that last sentence just does not seem right does it?!!
Do widzenia

Sunday, May 17, 2009

May 14: Auschwitz & Birkenau

I really do not know of a good way to introduce this post. When we were planning our trip to Prague and Cracow, I have to admit that coming to visit Auschwitz was one of the things that I was looking most forward to while in Cracow. But it seems grossly inappropriate to say that. To mention that visiting Aushwitz was the highlight of visiting Cracow also seems to be a very poor choice of words. So perhaps I should just say that Auschwitz will be the one thing from our trip that has left the deepest and most impressionable mark on me. I was certainly not happy to visit such a place, but its impact made it well worth the visit. It is not a place I want to return to, but it is a place that I think everybody needs to visit in their lifetime. It is too important not to.

There is no exact figure has to how many people were killed in Auschwitz and the neighboring Birkenau camp but it is estimated that 1.5 million were killed in these two camps. Auschwitz was the original camp originally designed to house and incarcerate Polish political prisoners. Mass arrests of Poles at this time had their existing prisons overflowing.

So many Poles were arrested because the Nazi's needed to eliminate the people they regarded as dangerous, undesirable, and unneeded (the intelligentsia). The Polish political, cultural, and social elite, along with people suspected of organising a resistance were arrested in mass.

We start our day in Auschwitz.

The entrace gate has the phrase "Arbeit Macht Frei" written above it which translates to "Work makes you free." Despite the slogan, labor was used to break the people down in the camp and was never intended as a means for them to attain their freedom. Murderous labor was a key contributor to the high death rate among prisoners.

Jennie getting ready to start the tour. The organized tours were excellent because they used the headphone system. There were so many people there, speaking so many different languages, that this certainly made things manageable.

Our tour group in Auschwitz. Auschwitz opened in 1940 on the site of former Polish Army Barracks.

The SS adapted the Polish Army Barracks as their concentration camp, surrounding it with an electrical fence. The building in the background is where the poison used in the gas chambers, Zyklon B, was stored.

The "Wall of Death" located adjacent to Block 11 (building on right). Block 11 is where the prisoners of the camp were held. Here they were 'tried' for their crimes, which meant that the SS only had to verify that they had the right person as, usually, the death sentence was already written on the documents before the trial even started. Death was by a firing squad against this wall. The hooks on the right poles is where a bin was kept to put the dead bodies in.
If not sentenced to death by firing squad, the prisoner would die eventually by being placed in a starvation cell, a suffocation cell, or in a standing cell in the Block 11 building. The standing cell was no bigger than 2-3 phone booths where up to 4 people were placed at a time for 12 days or so. The entrance to the cell was like a dog door that had to be crawled through.

Block 10 (building on left above) was a hospital. This was not a hospital as we know it. Instead it was a place where they performed human medical experiments, including infertility testing on women.

Prisoners were also publically hanged during roll-call infront of the camp kitchen.

Roll Call Square is where roll call occured up to 3 times a day, which could last for hours at a time. Increasing numbers of prisoners forced them to eventually take roll call infront of the individual barracks.

This is the first gas chamber and crematoria, which began operation in 1941. Small holes in the roof allowed the SS to drop pellets of the crystallized poison (Zyklon B) into the chambers. It would take 20 minutes until everyone was dead. It was not until later gas chambers were constructed at Birkenau that they added shower heads to the gas chamber.

The first gas chamber (above) was eventually discontinued and converted to a bomb bunker for the SS. It was discontinued because it was too close to camp (notice the camp buildings on the right). The SS did not want the screaming and noises that could be heard during the 20 minutes of death to be heard in camp.

Auschwitz II - Birkenau
Birkenau is many times larger than Auschwitz containing over 300 single-story barracks. It opened in 1942 just 3 km's away from the original Auschwitz camp in the village of Brzezinka. The residents of this village were evicted to make way for the camp. Birkenau was used primarily for execution. Here the Jews were immediately executed upon arrival. Sometimes so many people were arriving so close to each other that they had to wait until the gas chambers were empty before offloading the next shipment. Note the 3 off-loading tracks below.
The gas chambers and crematoria were situated at the end of these tracks on the horizon. These were destroyed by the SS in an effort to remove evidence of their crimes.

Hell's Gate/Gate of Death. By 1944 so many people were arriving to the camp that the rail line was extended into the camp through this gate.

The prisoners were allowed to use the latrine twice a day, located in separate buildings. There was often lines and fighting outside the latrines for place - the ones worst off were those suffering from diarrhea. Befouling the ground outside the latrine meant horrible punishment.

Jennie listening to our tour guide.

The barracks were meant to be horse stables for 52 horses. Instead they housed up to 500-600 people. The beds were stacked 3 high, with 2 people assigned to each bed.

The interior of a reconstructed wooden barrack. Although there is the appearance of ovens and a heating these were not used.

There is so much more to say about this day but I think it is best saved for internal reflection and thought.