Poland - Warsaw and Kraków

Author: Sue Rogers
Date: 14th August 1999

Warsaw, the Capital of Poland

From Berlin an overnight train across East Germany to Warsaw, capital of Poland.

We met an Australian girl, Karen and had breakfast for three for the equivalent of 40 pence when we arrived. Bread and jam and red and white checked table cloths.

Jenny had booked us a cheap hotel and we went to take a taxi there, so we could dispose of our backpacks. The drivers in the rank gesticulated at one particular car and we clambered in. The vehicle immediately started to head out of town, the meter spinning at an astonishing rate. A tourist set up. We asked the driver to stop and he did. He was big and burly, and he wouldn’t open the boot until we paid up. We trudged back into the city with our rucksacks. It was hard work.

Once described as the 'Paris of the North', Warsaw was believed to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world, until it was ravaged in World War II.  Some of the damaged buildings were (contentiously) replaced by Stalinist architecture. Most notable is the  towering Stalinist Palace of Science and Culture. The 237 metre high Palace of Culture and Science was a 'gift' from Stalin, built in 1955. Much of the old town is scuffed or under scaffolding. but there are still pointy castles, stepped gables and pastel houses.  The shops are all virtually empty, a few stacks of tins on the wooden shelves.

There are also plenty of churches, mostly Gothic  architecture, with a sprinkling of neo-classical.  Jenny insisted on visiting every one we saw, even though I kept trying to divert her attention. The Church of the Holy Cross next to Czapski/Krasiński Palace, where Frederik Chopin's family lived, was the largest church in Warsaw at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Chopin's heart is kept in an urn here. They hid it during the war, when the church was partly destroyed.

Kraków, Poland

Another train to Kraków, much more touristy with its well-preserved medieval core. Kraków was included on the first list of World Heritage Sites, in 1978 (alongside Yellowstone National Park and the Ecuadorian capital Quito). This thirteenth century merchant’s town  has remnants of the city’s old walls and is centred on the huge Rynek Glówny (Market Square), Europe's largest, with its arched promenades alongside the Cloth Hall and St. Mary’s Basilica, a (nother) 14th-century Gothic church. (There are numerous tea rooms  juxtaposed between the houses , palaces and more churches to compensate here.)

Auschwitz and Birkenau

A side trip to  the town of Oświeçim, the site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camps, where at least 1.1. million Nazi prisoners were killed by gassing with the pesticide Zyklon-B and many more died in other ways. Ninety percent of the prisoners killed were Jewish. The first exterminations of prisoners took place in September 1941. Everyone should go at least once. It was a bleak, misty morning. We arrived early at Birkenau, and while Jenny was looking for the entrance or ticket office I wandered in past the bucket toting cleaners, no-one else in view.  It was vast and flat and eerie. I followed the gruesome railway lines decanting the Jews to to the gas chambers and the ruins of the crematoria blown up by the retreating Nazis. The huts that housed those not immediately doomed   and the messages painted on the hut walls ‘Arbeit macht frei’, Bleak and haunting. Then I got lost behind all the barbed wire. and couldn't work out how to find my way back. A frightening and evocative experience.

Auschwitz, a more organised, but equally sobering experience. The poignant piles of suitcases, shoes and teeth. The execution yard. The frailties of mankind.

Next, a train to Hungary.

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