Poland 10/13

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Wearing its many scars exceedingly well, but on its sleeve...

Warsaw Marriott room with a view - new and old architecture contrast

If there's such a place as a second world country, Poland is that. Located right in the crossroads of Europe and therefore devastated in two world wars, it was then occupied by the Soviets for the next 40+ years. Today as a part of the EU but not on the Euro, Poland has risen from its own ashes, yet the many signs of remembrance are everywhere. Armed with few preconceptions, I enjoyed everything about Poland. It was generally inexpensive. It feels safe, even in areas that look run down and nearly every Pole that I encountered spoke English. There was an order to their society that made things work well. For example, pedestrian laws were followed and there were far fewer homeless or mentally ill people on the streets than in the US.

 

Wednesday, September 25th - Krakow's Market Square

 

I arrived in Krakow around 2pm after connecting through Frankfurt. I was met by my excellent driver, Taxi George (+48 602 632 093, transkor@op.pl), and headed to the Qubus Hotel (first picture below) just across the Vistula river from the Kazimierz district, a few blocks from Schindler's Factory and less than a mile from the main market square. After a quick turnaround, I walked north through Kazimierz to Krakow's huge Market Square (second and third pictures below) which bustled with people and crowded outdoor cafes. After dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe overlooking the square, I walked all through the old town area before taking the tram back to my hotel and retiring for the night. The tram stop was at the Ghetto Heroes Square (fourth picture below).

 

Krakow's Wawel Castle inner courtyard

Qubus Hotel on the Vistula

Krakow's Market Square, south side

Krakow's Market Square, north side

Ghetto Heroes Square's empty chairs

 

Thursday, September 26th - Wieliczka salt mine & Schindler's Factory

After figuring out Krakow's tram and bus system, I decided to follow the advice of my clients in Krakow and spend half of my first free day 10 miles out of town at the Wieliczka salt mine. I wondered why a salt mine was such a big deal until I visited this one. Almost a thousand years old with over 180 miles of tunnels and 2000 chambers, the sheer magnitude of the place was impressive. Salt was the best way to preserve food through most of the last millennium and as such, it made the city of Wieliczka and its miners very rich. Everything - floors, walls and ceilings is made of salt. Most interesting though is the artwork made of salt, which ranged from simple statues (first picture below) to elaborate chambers (second picture below) to entire rooms (third and fourth pictures below).

 

Wieliczka salt mine statues

Wieliczka salt mine chamber

Wieliczka salt mine alter

Wieliczka St. Kinga Chapel

 

The Tourist Route tour in English, which covers less than 1% of the mine, has over 800 steps down, 400 to the first level (example first picture below) and lasts three hours. An elevator whisks you back up. Taking pictures in the mine exercised much of what I learned in my photography classes. Salt crystals, even if they appear dark, reflect light in a way no camera working in automatic or program mode properly exposes to - and forget about using a flash without it blasting most of its light back at you. The four pictures above were all taken in manual mode using my 16-35mm f4 lens.

 

Returning to my hotel in the late afternoon, I walked the few blocks to Schindler's Factory, which is now a museum focusing on the Jewish ghetto of Krakow during Nazi occupation. The film at the beginning was okay, but too long in the interviews, and much of the exhibition retraced well worn history, but I found the Schindler factory elements of it most interesting (second picture below). I finished the day in Kazimierz on "restaurant row" (third picture below) with an excellent Polish dinner at Szara. Friday was a work day at my client's site, but after work I took the tram to Market Square and grabbed some night shots in the old town (fourth picture below) before packing for my weekend excursion to Warsaw and retiring for the night.

 

Wieliczka salt mine steps

Oskar Schindler's office

Kazimierz restaurant row at night

Krakow's Slowacki Theatre at night

 

Saturday & Sunday, September 28th & 29th - Warsaw, the Royal Walk

After a quick tram ride from my hotel to Krakow's main rail station, I boarded express train 3110 to Warsaw at 10am. I was quickly reminded of how well the train system in Europe works, even in its less developed countries. By 1pm I was in Warsaw and checked into a corner suite with a great view (large picture top of page left) at the Warsaw Marriott. Unlike Krakow, which was spared most of the physical destruction of World War 2, Warsaw was essentially leveled by 1945, leaving today's contrasts in Warsaw's architecture to run the gamut of Soviet era ugliness, old town "recreated" and new age modern.

Armed with Rick Steves' Krakow, Warsaw & Gdansk snapshot guide, I walked east on Al. Jerozolimskie, then connected to the Royal Way north on Nowy Swat. Near Warsaw University the street name changes to Krakowski Przedmiescie and a large statue of Polish native Copernicus sits in front of the Copernicus Science Center (first picture below). Directly across the street is the Church of the Holy Cross, where Warsaw native Frederick Chopin's heart is entombed in one of the pillars (second picture below). The rest of his body is at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, where he spent most of his productive years. After a late lunch at the BrowArmia brewpub, I continued north past Radziwill Palace (third picture below), where the Warsaw Pact was signed in 1955 uniting the Soviet block. After a side walk through Saxon Garden, I continued into the huge old town square which was filled with people, cafes and wedding parties. I then explored the side streets, in the shadow of the Royal Palace (fourth picture below) before heading back to my hotel. It turned out to be at least 10 miles of walking that day, so half-way back I rewarded myself at A. Blikle Pastries with their famous paczki, which is a donut filled with rose flavored jelly. I finished the day at the Marriott's concierge lounge. After five days of jet lag and full schedules, I decided to sleep in Sunday morning before a short walk through the Soviet era Culture Palace grounds and a great Polish lunch at Restaurant Zgoda. I caught my train at 3:45pm, arriving back in Krakow around 7pm. Monday was a work day on-site with my clients followed by a work dinner.

 

Warsaw Copernicus Statue

Warsaw Chopin's heart

Warsaw Pact site - Radziwill's Palace

Warsaw old town

 

Tuesday, October 1st - Auschwitz & Wawel Castle

On my last free day in Poland I decided to visit Auschwitz, which is located in Oswiecim, about 90 minutes outside of Krakow. I think it's a legitimate question to ask, why visit a horrible place like this on a vacation? For myself, with no Polish or Jewish heritage, it's the history and the impact that only "being there" can have. I could have read everything about Auschwitz and never gotten anywhere near the sense of the place that I got first-person. I have had four prior experiences visiting concentration camps - Sachsenhausen near Berlin twice, once with Ben and once with Craig, Mauthausen in Austria and Dachau near Munich. But Auschwitz was different. Besides being massive in size - 60 square miles in total, its purpose was not to house prisoners. Instead its main purpose was to exterminate them. Most people sent to the camp lived less than four hours after they arrived. It's hard to comprehend without seeing the huge gas chambers and crematoriums that over a million people were killed at Auschwitz in just over three years.

Auschwitz is actually three camps, the smaller base camp built from existing buildings, the much larger extermination camp called Birkenau and a labor camp, Monowitz. Much of the required guided tour takes place at the base camp, starting with the "Arbeit Macht Frei" (work sets you free) gate (first picture below) that is at every concentration camp. A bus takes the group over to Birkenau, about ten minutes away. The second picture below shows the view from the top of the iconic Birkenau guard tower with the rail line passing underneath it. Prisoners arrived in packed rail cars (third picture below) where they were "sorted" for immediate extermination in the gas chambers or for work. At the end of the rail line inside the camp a simple memorial is set up (fourth picture below). The guided tour was powerful and excellent, moving along at a fast clip throughout its three-plus hours. For me, Auschwitz is a solemn reminder, to paraphrase Lord Acton's famous quote from 1887, that a government - any government - given absolute power over its people will corrupt that power absolutely.

 

Auschwitz Arbeit Macht Frei gate

Auschwitz wide view from the tower

Auschwitz prisoner rail car

Auschwitz end of the rail memorial

 

Returning to Krakow mid-afternoon, I did a quick turnaround at the hotel and then took its free boat taxi to Wawel Castle. It was a cold, overcast day without any other passengers or much river traffic, so the captain gave me the wheel for most of the trip (first picture below). Approaching from the river gave me a good wide shot of the castle and its walls (second picture below). Arriving at the dock without causing any major international maritime incidents, I walked around the north wall past the fire-breathing dragon (third picture below), which is the symbol of the Castle, to the entrance. The grounds of the castle are beautiful and the views from its hilltop over Krakow were wonderful. The inner courtyard (large picture top of page right) has the entrances to its many museum rooms, all of which were closed or closing when I arrived in the early evening. After walking the grounds and the rooms that were open, I took the short walk into Krakow's Market Square where I had a remarkable last dinner in Poland at Vintage, a wine bar and cafe right on the square. Armed with only my small tripod, I used my point and shoot camera to take a night shot of myself in the square - fourth picture below. The next day I returned home to LA via Frankfurt and Houston. All-in-all a good business, extended into sightseeing, journey through Poland.

 

Vistula River - Wayne at the wheel

Wawel Castle from the Vistula River

Wawel Castle's dragon

Krakow Market Square night

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