Just after the wall came down friend Jenny and I took a flight to Berlin and an overnight train across East Germany to Warsaw, capital of Poland. In 2020, I'm on the train to Warsaw again, continuing on my diagonal line south east through Czechia from Prague to the south of Poland and Katowice. Hills, flat plains and more hills, the fields covered in David Hockney style rolled hay bales. The churches still have tall thin spires, but small onion domes are creeping in below. There’s an area of small lakes.
The train is even more decrepit than the last one, in Germany. And I’m in a carriage with compartments. At the end, a tiled toilet that looks as if it was built in the 1950s. It’s a six hour journey, but there’s no dining car. A guy in the end compartment has a rickety trolley with crisps and wafers and coffee that he pours into containers that people have saved from Starbucks and the like. He also has a few packets of sandwiches he’s enterprisingly picked up at the local supermarket.
Someone is playing a video so loudly that you can hear it through the whole carriage. I go to investigate but it’s a burly security guy with a flak jacket and a gun in a holster, so I retreat quietly.
Over the border into Poland. We have to wait while they change locomotives. I’m the only passenger in the whole carriage at this point. The steward with the food says that this route is very quiet nowadays. The electricity has gone. And so has the Wi-Fi. It takes them over an hour to sort out the transfer. I’m not sure what’s happening - we’re shunted backwards and forwards several times. The steward doesn’t know either – he says the crew all speak Polish and he only understands Czech.
The upshot is that I’m half an hour late into Katowice, but that’s still enough time to find the right platform for the next leg to Warsaw. Surprisingly, this train is in complete contrast to the last one. It’s a smart Pendolino with waitress service and free food - mini buns on china plates. We whizz along – the views outside as far as I can tell through the blur are mainly farmland and birch forest.
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 (237 metre high) Palace of Culture and Science, a 'gift' from Stalin, built in 1955. The Old Town (Stare Miasto or the Starówka) is UNESCO world heritage listed. It's a medieval layout, from the 13th century, with a market square and city walls, but most of the architecture dates back to the 17th and 18th centuries and most of that is restored.
Jenny has booked us a cheap hotel and we go to take a taxi there, so we can dispose of our backpacks. The drivers in the rank gesticulate at one particular car and we clamber in. The vehicle immediately starts to head out of town, the meter spinning at an astonishing rate. A tourist set up. We ask the driver to stop and he does. He is big and burly, and he won't open the boot until we pay up. We trudge back into the city with our rucksacks. It's hard work.
We meet an Australian girl, Karen and have breakfast for three for the equivalent of 40 pence. Bread and jam and red and white checked table cloths. 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 insists on visiting every one we come across, 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 buried under his monument here. There’s a commemorative plaque on the wall. His sister smuggled the heart from Paris, in a jar of cognac. The Nazis stole it during the war and banned the playing of Chopin's music.
Warsaw has changed more than Prague. The first sight that greets me as I exit the (relatively) new station is the Soviet monolith - the Palace of Science and Culture. It remains majestically awe-inspiring and still the tallest building in the country. But now it’s surrounded by other skyscrapers, including the Marriott where I’m staying. I’ve got a great view over the palace from my bedroom window. In fact it's better than the view from the bar on the top floor. Though the bar provides better cocktails.
Since I was here they've created the Royal Route (1994) utilising the old communications paths. This road links the old town to the new and is lined with palaces, churches, statues and parks. It’s an interesting affair, mostly grandly baroque, though I would have been happier if it were easier to find on a map. It’s over two miles from the Marriott to the Old Town and I accidentally manage to circumvent the Royal Route entirely, walking parallel with it most of the way. So I have to cover the same distance again, once I’ve found it, on my way back.
The streets are quiet, for the most part. The dusky red roofed Royal Castle above the Vistula River used to be the home of the Dukes of Moravia and the city grew up around it. Then it became the home of the Polish Senate. Now it's a museum. And it's closed. I clamber up the steep, urn bedecked garden paths and peer in the windows. There are panoramic views across the river to the National Stadium beyond and to the parks stretching either side. In normal years they feature fountain displays. There is no-one in those at the moment.
Beyond, leading to the Old Town, is Castle Square, with a tall column and Sigismund II up top. This is where the really interesting buildings start. The Old Town is much the same, but extended and cleaned up. Like Prague it’s now full of tourist cafes and restaurants with outside tables. The narrow streets showcase arches, courtyards and sundry decorative additions. Świętojańska Street is the main thoroughfare, joining the two main squares. Along here are some of Warsaw's oldest churches, including the brick, Gothic Cathdral, where the Dukes were buried. The Market Square, once home of fairs, showcases the most beautiful houses and is empty of visitors when I arrive. The buildings are copies of the original medieval merchants houses, replaced after the Second World War. They've done a good job, restoring them further over the years.
They're arranging the tables under the awnings in the cafes and an organ grinder is setting up in the centre. A surly girl refuses to serve me, but a more kindly young man across the cobbles is amenable and a few other tourists drift in and reward him with more custom. It's the same picture at the pristine four turreted Barbican (redundant almost as soon as it was built).
Here, and at the New Town, (this only dates back to the turn of the 14th century as an independent city), the other side of the Barbican, it’s very sleepy. The new Ol Town was also destroyed in the war and almost completely rebuilt. There are plenty more churches here, including the Military Cathedral with its twin towers. It's closed. There's also a New Market Square, several museums and more gardens.
There are at least 20 palaces in Warsaw, mostly now used as museums, or for state business. After the Royal Castle, the most impressive is probably the Presidential Palace, on the Royal Route, close to the Church of the Holy Cross.
The churches - there are just as many as before and at least three cathedrals - are mainly shut. The Royal Route is lined with them. Though the door to the Church of the Holy Cross, housing Frederic Chopin’s heart is ajar and I slide in. The plaque is still there. and so is his heart. I'm told they exhumed it in 2014 to make sure it was still in good condition, well relatively speaking. There's very good ice cream in a little café opposite. Just up the road is Chopin’s house – a white porticoed museum.
Then there’s the theatre and the opera house and some more museums and more pretty gardens, with fountains. Endless statues of course, especially outside the various palaces – Marie Curie and Copernicus feature heavily, as do various kings and generals.
The mode of transport of choice here is the e scooter; these are rented out like Boris Bikes and zip along the pavement without warning, frequently cutting me up. The riders, it has to be said, are not always fully in control. Nevertheless, it's a rewarding if exhausting day. It's been a very long walk.
(Read more about Poland here.)
Poland joined NATO in 1999 and the European Union in 2004
Poland is generally considered to be a safe country to travel to. However, petty crime has also increased with the influx of tourists since it joined the EU. There are also warnings about scammers.. …
Poland is classified as a high-income economy by the World Bank and ranks 21st worldwide in terms of GDP. It is also a relatively cheap place to visit.
Jenny and I on our After the Wall Came Down tour. Berlin to Warsaw. Another train to Kraków, much more touristy than Warsaw, with its well-preserved medieval core. The Old Town of Kraków, with Wawel Castle, was included on the first list of World Heritage Sites, in 1978 (alongside Yellowstone National Park and the Ecuadorian capital Quito).
Kraków dates back to the seventh century, but the early town was destroyed by the Mongols and the main pace of early development of this merchant town took place in the thirteenth century. It was the capital of Poland until 1596. It remains the second largest city in Poland, with a large suburban area (population eight million), and a leading European centre for the arts.
The Old Town is centred on the huge Rynek Glówny (Market Square), Europe's largest, with its arched promenades alongside the Renaissance Cloth Hall and St. Mary’s Basilica, a(nother) 14th-century Gothic church with imposing towers. There's also the tenth century Church of St. Wojciech and sundry other monuments and sculptures including the 1898 Monument to Adam Mickiewicz (Poland's national poet).
Rynek Glówny is definitely the heart of town and the place to go for people watching. There's plenty of street entertainment, both organised (concerts, dance, music) and impromptu. The downside of course, is that it can get overly crowded and hectic. But there are a whole range of shops in the arches under the Cloth Hall to wander, tempting folk to part with their tourist dollar. The level of the Market Square has risen, over the centuries and the exposed cellars (like the arches on Brighton seafront) are now converted into lines of cafes, bars, restaurants and pop up art galleries. This fascinating square could easily consume a day on its own, if you include the surrounding streets. Each hour is marked by a trumpet that is played from the highest tower of the church.
The Wawel Castle complex sits atop a limestone outcrop on the left bank of the Vistula River, 228 metres above sea level. Wawel Cathedral is also there, so the Polish monarchs could be conveniently crowned and buried next to their home. Some of Wawel's oldest stone buildings can be traced back to 970 AD, but the current castle was built in the fourteenth-century, and expanded over the centuries. Today, it's an art museum.
What else? There are remnants of the city’s medieval walls to see. Kazmierz The Former Jewish District rewards exploration. Otherwise, charming townhouses, ornate palaces and plenty more churches to visit, with numerous tea rooms juxtaposed between them, to compensate.
A side trip to the town of Oświeçim. We had time to visit either the salt mines or the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camps. We decided on the latter. Everyone should go at least once, if they can.
Auschwitz was the German name for Oświeçim. The concentration camp here consisted of Auschwitz I, the main camp, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, a concentration and extermination camp with gas chambers, Auschwitz III-Monowitz, a labour camp for the chemical conglomerate IG Farben and dozens of subcamps, mainly near industrial plants. At least 1.1 million prisoners of the Nazis were killed by gassing with the pesticide Zyklon-B. Those not gassed were murdered via starvation, exhaustion, disease, individual executions, or beatings. Others were killed during medical experiments. Ninety percent of the prisoners killed were Jewish, as part of Hitler's "Endlösung der Judenfrage" (the final solution to the Jewish question). The first exterminations of prisoners took place in September 1941. In 1947, Poland founded the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum on the site of Auschwitz I and II. In 1979 it was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
It is a bleak, misty morning. We arrive early at Birkenau, and while Jenny is looking for the entrance or ticket office I wander in, past the bucket toting cleaners; no-one else in view. It is vast and flat and eerie. I follow the gruesome railway lines decanting the Jews to to the gas chambers and the ruins of the crematoria blown up by the retreating Nazis. Most of the remaining inmates were sent on a death march into Germany and/or Austria.
New arrivals to the camp were subject to 'selection'. An average of just 20% kept alive, as prisoners performing slave labour. Employed mostly in constructing new parts of the camp, or at German companies supporting the Third Reich. Or transferred on a mass scale from Auschwitz to sub-camps. German doctors performed a variety of experiments on prisoners here. These included testing. the efficacy of X-rays as a sterilization device, infecting prisoners with fever for vaccination research and exposure to various poisons. The most infamous doctor at Auschwitz was Josef Mengele, the "Angel of Death", who worked with identical twins, dwarfs, and those with hereditary disease. Mengele set them up in a kindergarten, gave them better food rations, experimented on them and then killed them.
The dilapidated wooden huts that housed those not immediately doomed and the messages painted on the hut walls ‘Arbeit macht frei’. Bleak and haunting. Then I get lost, in the foggy lands beyond all the barbed wire. and can't work out how to find my way back. A frightening and hugely emotional experience.
Auschwitz I, a more organised, but equally sobering experience, with a tour. This was the administration centre. The Punishment Block - flogging and torture, for the minutest offence - were the order of the day. One of the most famous of the many heart wrenching stories told of this place is that of Father Maximilian Kolbe (now canonized). He was imprisoned in Auschwitz and continuing to act as a priest, was subjected to considerable violent harassment. At the end of July 1941, a prisoner escaped from the camp.
So, as a deterrent to further attempts, the deputy camp commander, decided to pick ten men to be starved to death in an underground bunker. When one of the selected men, Franciszek Gajowniczek, cried out, "My wife! My children!" Kolbe volunteered to take his place. According to an eyewitness, an assistant janitor, Kolbe led the nine other prisoners in prayer. Each time the guards checked on him, he was standing or kneeling in the middle of the cell and looking calmly at those who entered. After they had been starved and deprived of water for two weeks, only Kolbe remained alive. The guards resolved the situation by giving him a lethal injection of carbolic acid.
Adjacent to the Punishment Block, the execution yard - the bullet ridden Death Wall. This was used, in the main, for Polish political prisoners.
The poignant piles of suitcases, shoes and teeth. The frailties of mankind.
Next, a train to Hungary.
(Read more about Poland here.)
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