Poland

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Initially I’d thought I was taking a bus from Prague to Krakow, but on closer inspection of my ticket (late the night before I was leaving) I realised I was actually taking a train across the Czech Republic to Ostrava on the border, before transferring to, not so much a bus, but a mini van – the joys of booking travel in a different language! While not at all problematic in itself, inter city trains in non English speaking countries always make me nervous, that either I’m on the wrong train (so far I’ve never had my ticket checked) or that I’ll miss my stop as I won’t understand it when it comes over the loud speaker! But hooray with no trouble I made it to Ostrava and successfully transferred (along with 5  other travelers) to the mini van, and finally it was off to Krakow!

Arriving in the city I couldn’t believe the change in pace from my most recent destinations, it was much much smaller than Prague and Budapest, with everything easily in walking distance. And while buzzing with tourists of course, it just didn’t seem to be heaving quite as much with them. My first stop was an afternoon beer in the sun in Old Town’s Market Square  where I simply sat and watched the world go by before me, I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.
Lost completely in the picturesque surroundings, it was absolute bliss.

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Sitting there it was hard to imagine that such a place could ever have been anything but this perfect Polish tranquil environment. But if I’d thought Hungary and the Czech Republic had had it rough, Poland was next level stuff, literally disappearing from the map at one stage. There is a pretty big reminder of this past right in the middle of Market Square with a statute commemorating a great Polish poet, Adam Mickiewicz, whose poetry during that time was a source of national remembrance and national identity, helping the Poles to survive and not forget about independence.  Hitler had it torn down when the Nazi’s invaded of course, but today it again stands proudly and steadfastly in the centre of the world going on around it. For me it was a pretty appropriate introduction to the city which I was pretty quickly falling in love with.

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The next day I took up what’s fast becoming one of my favourite activities, joining the free Jewish walking tour. I’ve done quite a few of these now, and while the guides can sometimes be a bit hit and miss, this one was excellent and I was captivated by every single word.

Before the war there were 3.5 million Jews in Poland, it was the biggest Jewish community outside of the United States. Pretty much since Poland’s discovery in around 966, they’ve played a big part in the country’s history.
So we began our tour in Kazimierz, the Jewish Quarter, a part of the city the Nazi’s surprisingly preserved, synagogues included. Why they did it still still leaves historians pretty stumped, some theories include the Nazi’s wanting to keep the community as a sort of museum of what they saw as an inferior race that would soon be extinct.

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Despite it’s preservation however, post war the Communist regime invested no money in anything connected with Jewish culture, so the area was left to rack and ruin. As a result it attracted criminals and drunks and became a very dire, and unsafe part of the city that most people stayed away from. It wasn’t until Steven Spielberg arrived to make Schindler’s List that things started changing. Whilst initially planning to shoot the movie in the original Jewish ghetto, which had subsequently been developed, he decided the Jewish quarter was a much more appropriate location given how run down and derelict it had become. Once the movie won its Oscars, people started becoming interested in the area, slowly bringing it back to life. In the early 1990s things really started changing, with artists and students moving into what was a very cheap living area. Becoming the bohemian centre of Krakow, bars and pubs were opened for musicians to play at, and people started flocking to what soon became (and still remains) the centre of Krakow’s nightlife. While the buildings are still pretty run down looking, the Jewish quarter’s now of course become an incredibly expensive and much sought after part of town to live, and like many similar parts of other cities like New York and Berlin, is now far too expensive for struggling artists!

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With Krakow becoming the Nazi capital of occupied Poland, and Nazi officers and their staff requiring housing in the finer part of town, the Jews were soon moved across the river to what became the ghetto. Wandering the streets these days there’s not much left to suggest the horrors that occurred in this part of town, except for Heroes square and the Eagle Pharmacy.

When the Nazi’s turned the area into the ghetto, the pharmacy’s Polish owner Tadeusz Pankiewicz  and workers found themselves right in the middle of it all. With Pankiewicz deciding to stay, he and his staff were the only Poles allowed to live and work there, with the Nazi’s hoping their presence would lessen the spread of disease. During the two year’s of the ghetto’s existence, the pharmacy became a life line, both in terms of the social aspect as the hub of the community, as well as the medical assistance it provided. Staff also assisted in delivering messages in and out of the ghetto, and helped with falsifying documents and avoiding deportations. The staff didn’t just risk their lives,but were forced to watch the horrors unfold as the ghetto, and its 15,000 inhabitants, was eventually ‘liquidated’.

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Just outside the pharmacy’s door is Heroes Square, it was from here that the 25 kilograms of luggage that the Jews were allowed to take with them when they were forced from their homes was confiscated and emptied for ransacking. It was also where the Jewish people were transported from to death camps, and where Nazi soldiers opened fire on those they knew would never survive the horrific journey. It wasn’t until 2004 that a memorial was established here, prior to that it had simply been a bus stop. Now the chairs symbolise the objects and the things that were all left waiting for their owners to return, each chair facing a particular direction to symbolise the different fates awaiting each of the victims.

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One of those directions of course is towards Oscar Schindler’s enamel factory, where our tour finished. It now houses a museum, not just about Schindler and the 1200 workers he’s credited with saving, but also depicts life in Krakow under Nazi Occupation. An absolutely excellent, and relatively new, museum, it provides a keen reminder that while of course the Jews by far suffered the most horrific fate, the wider Polish population themselves also suffered greatly during that time.

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There were 65 thousand Jews in Krakow before the war, now officially there are 110 members of the religious community. But experts say these days the official number probably doesn’t give and accurate story.

While ‘officially’ there are ten thousand Jews in the whole of Poland, the Chief Rabbi believes the actual number is probably closer to 30 thousand. That’s of course due to the fact that in such dangerous times, if people could bury their Jewish identity they did, assuming fake identities if possible, or giving their children to non Jewish families to raise in a bid to save them. Even post war under Communist rule much of what was left of the Jewish identity and culture in Poland was forced underground, 20 thousand Jews were expelled from the country after the 6 day war in the 1960’s. Now there are Jewish community centres that have been set up helping people trace their origins, as many may suspect, but don’t even know if they have Jewish heritage.

After a bit of a rest, Greta (a lovely Australian girl I met) and I joined another group of Aussies to sample the now famous night life of the Jewish Quarter. We ended up at the Singer Bar, a fabulous place which has old fashioned Singer sewing machines as tables, just one example of the amazing atmosphere, feeling and great vibrancy of this city. It’s always so nice to have some Aussies to share a few beers with, with the shared humour, commong ground and general opportunity to take the piss and have a laugh, it’s a bit of a taste of home!!

The next day the tone changed somewhat, as I set off on a journey which, from the outset of my travel, has always been at the top of the priority list, and that was a visit to Auschwitz Birkenau. I decided to take an organised tour to the Nazi death camps, as visiting alone is a little complicated (at this time of year any way), so I figured it would make what was already going to be a highly emotional day, a little easier. But even having my transport, guide and entry sorted, I should have realised nothing about visiting such a place was ever going to be easy.

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Despite being part of a guided group, it was an extremely hard visit to do alone, and for the first time since I started flying solo, I wished like anything I had a travel buddy. It may seem an odd thing, but in a place like that what I needed more than anything was some kind of human physical contact, a hand to hold, a shoulder to drape an arm over, a warm body to give a hug. With all the holocaust memorials and museums I had visited so far, I thought I was emotionally prepared for the harrowing rawness, but much like my feeling when I arrived at Dachau, nothing can ever prepare you for visiting such a place. While Auschwitz camp now houses a museum of evidence of the harrowing history of the death camps, the impact of Birkenau’s sheer size and scale, and gas chamber remains, packs a punch to the soul of a different kind. Retracing the final footsteps of so many Jewish people …. Standing in the same place as the Nazi doctors who with a simple hand gesture made their selections … The physical evidence of lives that were stolen … Of names that were replaced by numbers …. Of identities that were so cruelly and inhumanely stripped away by pure evil … was more overwhelming than I could ever have imagined. When I entered the room full of tiny baby clothes and children’s shoes I had to hold my breath in the hope of choking down my sobs. As hard a day as it was visiting such a place, I’m so glad I went, and better yet I’m so glad that places to remember (as harrowing as they may be) still exist to remind us of some of the darkest days of our history, and what humans can be capable of. Standing there and thinking of the current daily news bulletins filled with images out of Gaza, it was a reminder that seemed particularly poignant, and left me wondering just how far we as humans have actually come?  A nagging question I still can’t find an answer to, or seem to be able to quite shake off.

In need of some comfort food, I followed my day at Auschwitz with some of the local cuisine, opting for the pierogi, or polish dumplings, I had been reading about before I arrived. Stuffed with cabbage and meat and  covered in some kind of delicious polish sauce, it was the filling warm meal that I needed in order to recharge the batteries for my last day in Krakow.

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With the sun beating down on my final day in the city, I took myself off to Wawel castle to stroll the beautifully kept grounds. I’ve found that Castles (unlike churches) take a lot to wow me, so being treated to such gorgeous weather, I made the executive decision to skip the lines for any of the interior exhibitions and simply enjoy the beautiful surroundings.

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It was during these explorations that I stumbled across the den of the Wawel Dragon, and the wonderful legend that goes along with it. I’ve never considered myself much of a ‘dragon’ enthusiast, but my inner child was so captivated with the story, and I found myself just as enchanted as the tiny humans around me who were also wandering the den tucked away in the cliffs of the castle.

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Famous in Polish folklore, the dragon’s tale takes place in Krakow during the reign of King Krakus, the city’s leglegendary founder. Each day the evil dragon would beat a path of destruction across the countryside, killing the civilians, pillaging their homes and devouring their livestock. In many versions of the story, the dragon especially enjoyed eating young maidens, and could only be satisfied if the townsfolk left a young girl in front of its cave once a month. The King certainly wanted to put a stop to the dragon, but his bravest knights fell to its fiery breath. In the versions involving the sacrifice of young girls, every girl in the city was eventually sacrificed except one, the King’s daughter Wanda. In desperation, the King promised his beautiful daughter’s hand in marriage to anyone who could defeat the dragon. Great warriors from near and far fought for the prize and failed. One day a poor cobbler’s apprentice named Skuba 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 drank and drank. But no amount of water could quench his aching stomach, and after swelling up from drinking half the Vistula river, he exploded. Skuba married the King’s daughter as promised, and they lived happily ever after.

I love it! Now while in the tale the dragon doesn’t play a particularly kind role, the little figurine I’m taking home of him does has him looking like the cutest little thing ever!!

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Spending the afternoon sitting in the sunshine under the castle and eating the most amazing home made ice cream I’ve ever tasted, I completed my last day in Krakow sharing a beer with a fantastic Norwegian mother and daughter, and then dinner with another Australian fellow traveler. I’ve been spoiled rotten so far with the people I’ve met in my travels, and had some of the most fascinating conversations with the most interesting people, which has simply been incredibly eye opening and by far the best thing about my travels.

Naturally, I found it incredibly difficult to part ways with Krakow, I had fallen for the city hook line and sinker. But, the crack of dawn saw me heading to the train station to take a train South towards the Polish and Slovakian border to the countryside and the famous Tatra mountains.

Sad to leave all my new friends and be alone again for the four hour journey, the travel gods seemed to be smiling on me once again. I found myself sharing a cabin with the kindest, most hilariously entertaining Polish American family. Completely bilingual, the family of three sons (who reminded me so much of my Alsford cousins back home) and a couple of their friends adopted me for the trip and we had a marvelous time. It never ceases to amaze me how complete strangers can make you feel so at home in such an instant, it really was lovely.

As much as I would’ve loved to join them for their six day hike into the mountains, we parted ways at Zakopane train station, and I made my way into the popular vacation spot under the mountains. Definitely in need of some wide open spaces, Zakopane reminded me a little of Turangi on steroids. While the scenery was divine, I was feeling more than daunted, as the further away from the big cities you are, the less English there is, and that can be hard work. But it wasn’t long before a beer, a traditional polish band and a meal with some of the regional smoked sheep cheese had me relaxing into my new surroundings.

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The next day an early start had me making my way on a minibus towards the Tatra mountains in search of the great emerald lake, or Morskie Oko. I was initially a little nervous about heading of into the mountains alone, but I soon realised I was anything but alone. The hike is one of the most popular routes for visitors to Zakopane so there were loads of people about. The hike itself was incredible and the lake absolutely stunning, photos can’t really capture it’s colour, or quite how crystal clear the water is.

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I’m sure it must look even more incredible on a clear sunny day, but I was pretty happy with the cloud cover as it was hot enough! Climbing a little more I found a second smaller lake which was just as beautiful and a nice change of scenery from city life. From there many of the hikers were making their way further into the mountains but I figured it was a little bit beyond my skill level! So I started the long trek back towards the car park and patted myself on the back for making myself get out of bed early, as every man and his dog seemed to have arrived at the mountain! I couldn’t believe the swarms of people making their way up as I climbed down. They were all heading straight into the throngs of the loudest thunder storm I have ever heard, with the clouds finally tearing open with heavy rain just as I made it safely back onto my bus home.

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Exhausted I tucked into a little more hot and hearty polish food, before sorting myself out for the night train that was taking me north to Warsaw. Travelling alone the night train had me a little anxious, it wasn’t a sleeper train, just seats in the compartments, and the little helpful guides everywhere suggesting ways to prevent the robberies made me a little nervous. Coupled with having having no idea what the driver was saying over the speaker every time we stopped somewhere in the dead if the night, I would have to say it wasn’t the most enjoyable of journeys. Luckily though a nice Polish guy sharing my compartment could obviously sense my anxiety and translated, the mostly unimportant information, reassuring me enough to at least get a few hours sleep.

By 8am I had made it to Warsaw, and after a bit of breakfast headed straight to the meeting point for the city’s free walking tour. I didn’t really know what to expect from the city, a lot of people had told me that given it was completely flattened during the war it’s a pretty uninspiring ugly place. But personally I found it to be one of the most inspiring places I have ever visited, and a lesson in resilience like no other.

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With Hitler making no secret about wanting to destroy the city of Warsaw, and eventually seeing that plan through, local historians hid blue prints and city plans, so that eventually they could one day see a Phoenix rise from the ashes. And so it has, the Old City has been completely rebuilt, using whatever could be salvaged from the past. It’s fascinating to look closely at buildings and see the secret signs of history, darkened bits of materials that still carry the marks of fire and destruction, being pieced together with new materials used to move the city forward again.

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Visiting just a few days after the anniversary of the Warsaw uprising, evidence of the commemorations marking Warsaw’s attempt to save their independence were still dotted all around the city.

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It’s a part of World War Two history I knew very little about, and I was fascinated to learn all that I could about one of the most important events in the history of the country. Desperate to capture the city before the red army arrived, 25,000 soldiers of the Home Army and other troops took up arms against the Germans. Despite the strength of the German soldiers, and the complete indifference of the soviets, the poorly armed insurgents managed to fight for two months, and eventually regained control over large areas of the city. But in hearing the news of the rising, Hitler gave the order to have all the occupants of Warsaw killed, and the city flattened. Those carrying out the orders didn’t distinguish between resistance fighters and regular civilians, who were trapped in the middle of the battle ground, and eventually it resulted in the biggest massacre of polish people by the Nazi army.

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With the bitter fighting eventually ending in military defeat, it was another 45 years before Poland finally won its independence. With this new historical backdrop to the city I saw Warsaw in a whole new light, and while I’ll admit it isn’t the most beautiful of places to visit, it is without a doubt one of the most fascinating places I have ever been.

I definitely hadn’t expected to be quite as captivated with Poland as I was, but for many reasons it’ll be a place that I won’t be forgetting about any time soon. It truly was such an incrediby eye opening learning journey for me, and I hope one day to be able to get back and explore more of what this country with such a fascinating history has to offer.

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