Archive for October 2008
I spent some time thinking about how to post about our trip to Auschwitz. It is not an easy thing to write about, but I think it’s important to try to express our feelings about things that affect us, as seeing Auschwitz did.
Of all the names of all the camps where so many died, this is the one that most people would name first, the largest Nazi concentration camp of World War II. The camp is located 50 kilometers west of Kraków and took its name from the nearby town of Oświęcim, or Auschwitz in German. It’s more an island inside Poland than part of Poland.
There were actually three different camps located here:
- Auschwitz I – the original concentration camp which served as the administrative center for the whole complex.
- Auschwitz II (Birkenau) – an extermination camp, where at least 960,000 Jews, 75,000 Poles, and some 19,000 Roma (Gypsies) were killed. Birkenau was the largest of all the Nazi extermination camps.
- Auschwitz III (Monowitz) – which served as a labor camp.
It’s not possible to know the exact number of people who died here, but the official estimation is 1.1 million. That number is not really fathomable to me.
Around 10 a.m. our group arrived at Auschwitz I, where all tours begin. Here, several of the prisoner barracks (orginally Polish Army barracks before the war) now serve as a museum for visitors. It hits you hard, the photographs of prisoners taken from three angles. Photos were taken in the early years, before the numbers were too big for record keeping. There were also rooms of shoes, suitcases, piles of glasses. It’s surreal how these things look, how wrong it all was and still is because something like this happened.
We walked in the rain and wind to the end of the the train tracks; from here you can see Auschwitz camp II & III. It was the only day of our trip that was cold, windy, wet and miserable. My corduroy jacket was soaked. Our minor discomfort was nothing compared to what we heard, saw and imagined. At the end of these tracks are the caved in remains of two large gas chambers. The Nazis destroyed these chambers when they heard the Soviets were on their way. Now there is a memorial there and this plaque:
For ever let this place be
a cry of despair
and a warning to humanity,
where the Nazis murdered
about one and a half
men, women, and children,
from various countries
Auschwitz – Birkenau
I feel emotional about this but also feel inept to capture it properly in words. It’s good that there are tours of this dreadful place because it is so important that we not forget.
A very famous tourist attraction in the Krakow area is the Wieliczka salt mines. This mine, until 2007, has been producing table salt since the 13th century. And for almost that long, the mine has been a tourist attraction. Nicolaus Copernicus (15th century), Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Frédéric Chopin, and Bill Clinton are some of it’s famous visitors.
As my family and friends know, I love salt. I restrain myself, but I still occasionally salt my bread instead of buttering it. Yummy. So when we got the option to visit, of course we said yes!
Our tour group was divided in half, and down into the mines we went.
There were many stairs at the beginning:
The walls are coated with salt. It was not very hygienic, but it’s true, the ceilings and walls were quite tasty.
Old methods for moving for the salt from rock in the mines:
Salt stalactites/stalagmites and salt sculptures:
I’m not sure the official name, but one giant hallway served as a art gallery devoted to salt sculpture. Even the chandelier’s “crystals” are made of salt. We had to be careful on the stairs here because they were made of salt too, and were slippery:
The Last Supper, craved into salt rock:
And again, down more mine shafts. I’m not really sure you can call it a mine shaft with so many tours walking around:
Want to have your next business conference in a salt mine? Don’t worry, someone has already thought ahead:
The tour guide told us the salt mines are very good for your respiratory system, and to “breathe deeply.” Health benefit or no, it was a nice place to breathe: cool, low humidity, and clean-smelling.
Getting to the end of the May tour here, this was the last country on the tour. We would visit two cities here: Warsaw and Krakow.
Poland is a fairly large country with many neighbors. It’s bordered by Germany to the west; the Czech Republic and Slovakia to the south; Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania to the east; and the Baltic Sea and Kaliningrad Oblast to the northeast.
Poland is definitely catergorized as Eastern Europe. So are Czech Republic and Hungary which we visited along the way. The connotations with the east: Post-Communist, Poorer, More dangerous.
For example, when our friend from Montreal was visiting here for a project this month, he wanted to take his company rental car for the to Prague for the weekend to visit his brother who is living there. The rental agency would not allow him to drive his Mercedes model there (he happened to get an upgrade since no mid-size car was available when he arrived in Germany). They didn’t allow it because auto theft is a problem in Hungary and Poland.
Many countries in this region, including Poland, have suffered greatly in the last 60 years. First WWII, then Communism. Poland was the country that, after over a decade of rebelling, broke free of Communism in 1989. Our guide, Stu, told us about Lech Walesa, a man who was influential in leading Poland out of Communism. Started out as a shipyard worker, led a rebellion, won the Nobel Peace prize, became President of Poland (1990-95). Amazing story.
Since the early 90s this region has been improving fast though, and while they don’t have the Euro in Poland, Czech Republic or Hungary, every country we visited said they plan to become part of the EU within the next 10 years.
On thing I was surprised about the beauty of the Polish countryside. Green and lush. I kinda have the feeling it rains often in Poland just like Germany. All that rain makes it beautiful on days when the sun comes out:
Our first stop in Poland was Krakow, which, by it’s own claim, is the cultural center of Poland. It did seem full of culture.
Old town square at dusk:
We had a city tour, with a very informative guide. The first place we visited was Kazimierz, the historical Jewish district of Krakow.
We saw many synagogues here where the Jewish community worshiped before WWII. Now there is a very small Jewish community here.
The yellow building in this picture is of the Pankiewicz Pharmacy. This was the only pharmacy that remained open in this area when it became the Jewish Ghetto during WWII.
Not far from here is Schindler’s factory, famous from the movie Schindler’s List. The building was closed for renovations. Our guide said until recent years no funding had been gone to maintain the building.
Next we visited Krakow’s castle on Wawel Hill.
Courtyard influenced by Italian design:
When souvenir shopping in Krakow you will find many stores with dragons. The dragon mascot comes legends that a dragon lived under Wawel Hill before the founding of the city, when the area was inhabited by farmers.
The Wawel Dragon:
Once upon a time during the reign of King Krak, there was a dragon living under Wawel Hill. Each day the evil dragon would beat a path of destruction across the countryside, killing the civilians, pillaging their homes and devouring their livestock. The King certainly wanted to put a stop to the dragon, but his bravest knights fell to its fiery breath.
One day, a poor shoe maker’s apprentice named Skuba Dratewka accepted the challenge. He stuffed a lamb with sulphur and set it outside the dragon’s cave. The dragon ate it and soon became incredibly thirsty.
He turned to the Vistula River for relief and he drank and drank. But no amount of water could quell his aching stomach, and after swelling up from drinking half of the Vistula river, he exploded.
Dratewka married the King’s daughter and they lived happily ever after.
After seeing the castle, we walked the old town of Krakow. This part of the city was so colorful and rich that day.
The late pope, Jean Paul II spent much of his life in Krakow. It’s easy to see how much Krakow loved him. When he was visiting, he would often say hello to the people from this building.
Where I left off in the last post, we’d spent the day walking around Budapest. The next morning we met up at the bus after breakfast for a travel day, departing Hungary and arriving Poland. You know, the days where you don’t do much, eat and sleep (if possible) while getting from point A to B.
A few notes on the European breakfast:
Of course it depends on the hotel, but generally hotels charge for breakfast. Rarely here have I found the complimentary breakfasts that are popular (though often unimpressive) in the USA. Our breakfasts on this tour were part of the package so I don’t know how much they cost, but when we travel for work in France and Germany, it’s between 15 and 20 Euro.
Again, big variability, but generally there are the following items at a breakfast buffet:
- Fresh bread, think sliced French baguette, croissants and/or danishes
- Eggs, scrambled or hard-boiled
- Sausages, sometimes bacon
- Cold cuts – ham, turkey, hard salami
- Sliced cheeses to go with the cold cuts
- Fruit juices, rarely fresh tasting (miss the US for this)
- Coffee machine coffee – Europe is big on the machine brewed cappuccinos and lattes, some are excellent; some the opposite
- Fresh fruit
Right, so after breakfast we loaded up on the bus and set off towards Slovakia, where we had lunch (and a break for the bus driver), then traveled north again into Poland. On almost every leg of our trip we saw fields like this out the window:
The yellow flower fields (which look like big yellow geometric shapes from the air) are rapeseed or canola plants, grown for the animal feed, canola oil (obviously) and biodiesel. <– courtesy of wikipedia.
A few photos from the center square in Banska Bystrica, Slovakia:
Wow, only Wednesday. Zo… German for ‘so’…
Went to the gym after work yesterday, I saw on one of the tvs at the gym that Pink video -> this one. Pink has some guns!
Tonight I worked til 7:30, took the bus home. It was cold outside. Summer is definitely over around here. On the weeks I take the bus, I read more. Reading Club Dead by Charlaine Harris right now. I don’t always remember the details of the previous books when I start a new one in this series, but they are light and funny. This is only the third book but it feels like I’ve known Sookie, the main character, forever. They are set in Louisiana and the author goes heavy on the southern traditions. As a coincidence, it mentions Shreveport several times, then I read on google news today that Miss Teen Louisiana gets busted for a dine-n-dash and loses her crown near Shreveport. Such a trashy gossip day, this Wednesday, sheesh.
by the Coward Robert Ford. Long movie name. Long movie too, 2.5 hrs long.
Excellent acting, excellent cinematography, excellent sound track.
Too many names, and surprisingly, for a movie this slow-paced, I had no idea what was going on during the first half of the movie – and I’m usually good at this kind of thing. My dearest boyfriend said something funny/fitting as we were watching it, “understanding is overrated.” So we just continued watching it.
There were bad guys. And bad guys killing bad guys. It was a very bleak film. One friend commented, when I described it, that it sounded like There will be Blood. I haven’t seen that one, but maybe it’s in the same vein. Parts of it were extremely awkward, as intended, and I thought the guy playing Robert Ford did a super job. I just found out this is Ben Affleck’s brother. I guess I’m out of the loop on that one. Anyway, he was excellent in the part. Brad Pitt plays Jesse, and he did a good job there too, of course. And by the time it was (finally) over, I did learn a fair amount about the infamous Jesse James. Boyfriend looked him up after the movie and confirmed the film stayed close to the facts.
I can’t decide if it was a yay or nah for me. Lots of everyone loved it so if you think you might like it, go ahead and check it out.
Budapest. Just the name seems exotic doesn’t it?
This city was at the middle of the trip, see map, and because of this, I think, my impression of it suffered from a little of the mid-trip tiredness. Not that we were complaining, but it did get hard to keep everything in perspective when you see so much in such a small space of time.
Budapest used to be separated into three cities – Buda and Òbuda on the hill, Pest below on opposite side of the Danube river. The most beautiful views of the city we saw were from the Buda side, like this one of the Danube:
If I remember correctly, we left Vienna around lunch time and drove into Budapest in the afternoon. We stopped at our hotel quickly, I think we had 1 hour to be back at the bus and dressed for dinner. We met up with our city guide, a wonderful lady who had a very hard-to-understand Hungarian accent. From there we did a tour of the city by bus.
First we stopped at Hero’s Square. This square is decorated with statues of kings, governors and famous characters of the Hungarian history.
Next we drove through the center of town, our guide pointing out many important buildings and areas of the city. It was hard to keep up with her at times, both because the bus was moving and because of the accent. We ended up driving across the river and north to the Fisherman’s Bastion on Castle HIll:
Matthais Church was here (though under some rennovations):
The bastion offered a nice view of the city, here is the parliament building:
After we finished the driving tour, we were offloaded from the bus and onloaded onto a boat for a dinner cruise! The dinner was okay, the usual for these type of things. It was a buffet with some Hungarian dishes I had never had. Yes, there was goulash but we also tried some cabbage rolls, and Csirkepaprikás, which can be roughly translated to chicken with paprika.
A picture of the Buda Castle and the chain bridge lit up:
The second day we spent in Budapest was a free day for the bus driver, something about European labor laws, so for us it meant exploring the city on our own. Here’s a map to give you an idea, it was definitely too far to travel by foot:
So we took the Budapest metro into downtown. Was probably the oldest subway I have ever ridden; it was noisy and clanky but it had personality:
Our first stop of the day was to the Parliment building:
They have tours a couple times a day in multiple languages. They were a bit strict on security though. People wanting to visit had to wait in a line in the parking lot and only one person per group could buy tickets. Anyway, the tour was nice, the highlights were the Hugarian crown jewels:
And the conference hall:
After the tour, we walked to St. Stephen’s Cathedral:
It felt like all of the important buildings in Budapest are heavily detailed in gold:
We had pizza at some point for lunch, then we visited an indoor/outdoor market:
While we were here we saw a bakery selling burrito-looking pastries in about 10 flavors for 1 Euro each. Our friends picked an apple cinnamon and D and I decided to go for the apple poppy seed flavor. Let me tell you, this was the most disgusting dessert I have ever tasted. The filling was about 95% poppy seeds. It was black. If you can imagine pouring poppy seeds into your mouth, only make them warm and sticky, you would have an idea on how bad it was. I’m guessing they have gotten some complaints there because they had a very visible sign stating there are no returns. Perhaps it’s an acquired taste.
After the market we walked a long way, wandering mostly, and ended up eventually at City Park, which is publicly owned:
It also had a zoo, baths from Turkish times, and Vajdahunyad Castle which is a mock castle modeled after one in Romania:
Dinner the second night was provided by the hotel and part of the tour. It was another buffet and we saw a few more Hungarian dishes, but honestly, at a so-so buffet, isn’t dessert always the best part?