Europe 2006, Kraków and Warszawa
Here is my narrative about my trip to Europe in October 2006.
Tuesday, October 17
It is early morning in Kraków, around 6 to 7 a.m. Orange Poland welcomed me on
my mobile phone. I stored my luggage at the train station and headed into the
old town. By the way, if you want to change currencies at the train station or
elsewhere in Poland, you look for a kantor. However, I did not need to change
currencies, so I just used ATMs to get zlotys.
This is the market building in the central square of the Stare Miasto
I did not get into the modern parts of Kraków.
My itinerary for Kraków was tight; I planned to visit Auschwitz the first day
and then stroll through the city sights the next morning before leaving on an
afternoon train. After I bought the tickets, Dena recommended I visit the
kopalni soli (salt mine) in Wieliczka, which is a short ride from
Kraków. It has been a salt mine for centuries, and the miners have carved
sculptures and other art in the mine. So, I bought a ticket (over the Internet)
and planned to decide whether or not to take the tour when I was actually in
Kraków and had a feel for how well I could get around the city and how much
risk of missing the train there was. Of course, getting around many European
cities is easy and convenient, so I did take the tour. More about that later.
On the far right is Wieza Ratuszowa (Town Hall Tower), which contains Ludowy
Theater. Cells in the basement used to be the city jail. The tower is in Rynek
Glówny, the main market square. The market building in the center is set in a
large open plaza, and the plaza is ringed with shops. I do not know what the
significance of the giant head sculpture is.
|Head sculpture in Rynek Glowny.|
I located my hotel, checked in, and went to get what photographs I could before
the Auschwitz tour. This is the Wista (Vistula river).
Here are some views around old town. No time to tour the castle!
After checking in, I crossed the old town and walked a few blocks west to the
Cracovia hotel, where the tour meets. The tour company runs some buses and vans
to various hotels, picks up customers, and brings them here to change buses.
They cover mostly hotels elsewhere in the city and did not pick up at mine, so
I just walked here, which also gave me the maximum time free before the tour
left. The Cracovia has a pretty good breakfast buffet. That is always something
to watch for; most European hotels have little more than bread, cold cuts,
cheese, cereal, orange juice, coffee, tea, and a few spreads like jelly. And
maybe eggs. However, the Cracovia’s breakfast is expensive if you are not
staying at the hotel.
So, we are at Auschwitz. Auschwitz is the German name for the town. The Polish
name is Oświęcim. The memorial is the
Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum.
The tour was faster paced than I would have prefered. I would not say it was
rushed, but there was not enough time to take everything in. It was crowded,
and I suppose they have to get people through. In 2003, I visited the
Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial, and
that visit felt to me like it had more weight.
So, these pictures will only document my visit, and not much document the
events that happened here or even the museum that this place is now. At
Birkenau, I did try to get a few photographs that illustrate the magnitude of
the place. These first photographs are at Auschwitz.
Here is a camp fence, with a guard tower in the distance. The tour went through
several buildings, such as barracks and offices, but we were asked not to
photograph inside. I am not sure why. The guide referred to Auschwitz as a
museum. I am not sure if they were making a distinction from a memorial, which
Dachau was described as.
|Fence and tower.|
The barracks rooms held various exhibits, some showing a few possessions of
prisoners or letters or other personal papers, or exhibits about various
history and events. Some of the exhibits were huge collections of things taken
from prisoners. One was a room filled with thousands of suitcases. Another
space held thousands of dishes. Others held human hair, combs, eyeglasses, and
baby clothes. One held 43,500 shoes.
Another fence and tower.
|Fence and tower.|
This is a wall where some prisoners were executing by gunshot. People bring
memorials here now.
Rudolf Höß (also known
as Hess) was the camp commandant. (This is not the Rudolph Hess who was
Hitler's deputy.) The two photographs at right are taken from almost the same
|House across the street.
||Gallows inside the camp.
|This is where Rudolf Höß lived.
||This is where Rudolf Höß died.
This is a fence we saw while leaving Auschwitz.
This is Birkenau seen through some electrified barbed-wire fences. Each of
these photographs shows just a small part of the camp. Birkenau held 100,000
people at a time. In a few of the pictures, I try to show the scale of the
camp. The guide said only 144 people escaped over the life of the camp, most
from work outside the camp. Wikipedia said about 300 escaped, but it is still a
miniscule number of prisoners.
|Birkenau through fences.|
There were 3,000 guards at a time, 7,000 in total, and only 780 were tried in
This is the train entrance to Birkenau. Trains with prisoners entered directly
into the camp.
|Birkenau train entrance.|
Here is a fence and a border ditch at Birkenau.
This is one of the barracks. The center structure was a toilet, with 192 seat
This is another barracks. Each level of each bed may have held four or five
people. Sometimes 2,000 people were put in one of these buildings. The ceilings
leaked, and people got sick, and conditions were unsanitary, and sick people
were left in the barracks, making others sick.
These are the ruins of barracks. This is one of the photographs where I tried
to capture the scope of the place. Look at how many buildings there were. This
is in the center of the camp, viewing one half of it.
After passing through the entrance, trains arrived on these tracks. This is
inside the camp, and the barracks are inside the additional fenced-in areas you
see to the left and right.
Here is another view of the same half of the camp as before, seen from a guard
tower above the train entrance.
|Birkenau from tower.|
That is the end of the Auschwitz-Birkenau tour.
Back in Kraków, my mobile phone changed networks again; now I was on Plus GSM.
The image to the left shows the inside of the main market building. It is one
corridor lined with stalls. Primarily tourists shop here. The vendors sell
tourist trinkets, better than average, but the market is not intrinsically
interesting. The stores around the market square and in the surrounding blocks
are more diverse and a bit less touristy. Wedel and Wawel chocolate is
available in the square.
Near right is a gate in the wall around Stare Miasto, on the north side. The
old town is partly ringed by parkland with grass and trees—and a lot of
loud birds. Spoiled birds, too—the pigeons in the square were fat and
happy, barely moving as people approached, unlike those in Venice.
Far right is a street in the southwest part of Stare Miasto.
I found a restaurant the guide book recommended and tried pierogies (for a
sample of Polish cuisine) and apple pie (to see what they did with American
food). Conclusion: Poland should make pierogies, and the US should make apple
pie. Actually, the apple pie looked superb, and it had an excellent structure.
But the chef did not get the spirit, and the taste wasn’t there.
Here is a theater in the northwest part of Stare Miasto. It wa evening, and all
the tourist things were closed, so I walked back to the train station to
retrieve my luggage. On the way, I peeked into the mall next to the train
station. It is a very western-like mall, except for the language and some of
As you see, the mall is quite western.
The food court looked a lot like a US food court, although not as exotic as
Budapest or even Germany. I did not eat there, though.
Here is the train station. It is okay to sell your forints at the train
station; the rates were competitive with places in town. However, the buy rates
were atrocious. The spread was more than 20%, compared with 3% in town (for
dollars and euros, 9% for zlotys).
Here is the mall, seen from almost the same spot as the train station
photograph. In fact, you can walk directly from the trains into the mall
without going outside—and that is not true for the train station. There
is a bit of a walk from the tracks to the station building.
The mall is Galeria
Cracovska, and a sign said they were adding 270 shops and 1400 parking
places. More importantly, though, it already has two fine chocolate shops, Mont
Blanc and Hildebrand.
Wednesday, October 18
In the morning, I walked to the Cracovia hotel again, this time for a tour of
Wieliczka (Wieliczka Salt mine). The salt mine has operated uninterrupted
for at least 700 years, although today it is operated primarily to keep it in
working condition and safe. There have been tours of the salt mine for around
200 years, and now it gets thousands of visitors a day.
This is the first sculpture we saw. The museum part of the mine has eight
levels, the deepest around 1000 feet. The entire mine has about a hundred miles
On the right is my favorite sculpture of the mine, a scene from some fable.
Darn, and I have a bunch of pictures left to show you. Well, it is all downhill
from here. Literally, too. You start the tour by descending several dozen
flights of stairs. I lost count. Then you walk through rooms and down stairs
and around and so on. Fortunately, there are elevators for the trip out.
The guide was reasonably funny, with a dry delivery.
There is some stuff growing on the wall. I did not find out what it was. It has
too many resemblances to fungus to be any good.
|Stuff on wall.|
The tube, pole, and flame are props, obviously, but the figure is sculpted.
This scene shows how miners would prevent dangerous gases from accumulating by
burning them off. They are lighter than air, so they gather around the ceiling.
Some of the scenes were all or almost all props, to enhance the tour and
illustrate mine activity. Part of the tour discussed different ways salt was
extracted over the centuries, such as cutting out cylinders, rolling them to a
shaft, and lifting them out with an elevator.
Another sculpture. A king?
|Scultpure under stalctites.|
Here, on the left, is the main hall. I think it can be rented for weddings and
other occasions. The steps are carved, and there are carvings on all the walls.
|Last Supper carving.|
Those are salt crystals in the chandelier.
|Salt crystal chandelier|
Although the mine is pretty safe nowadays, they do not have complete control.
The room to the left is flooded.
Here is a dining room deep inside the mine. This is after two or three gift
shops inside the mine and before the last one on the way out. That is more
shops per attraction than Disneyworld! They were decent shops with better than
average trinkets, including little sculptures of dwarves mining salt or trees
with salt ornaments. They were almost cute enough to buy.
From here, you line up for the elevators out. The elevator shafts are thin and
long, so they make the most of them with quadruple-decker elevators. Each deck
holds eight people squeezed in, and they load two decks, then move the
elevator, then load two more decks. Then it makes the trip up, and they unload
two at a time.
I went straight from the tour to the train station (well, with a side trip to
the mall next to the station, to pick up some chocolate). I spent my last
zlotys on chocolate, a Nintendo DS charger, and the bathroom, leaving me .45
zlotys for Warszawa (Warsaw) (not counting the zlotys I put aside as
souvenirs). Unfortunately, I had a Nintendo DS Lite, which needs a different
charger than the DS. I thought I had checked at home and my US charger would
take 240 volts and only needed a mechanical adapter, but it did not, so I
needed a European charger. I had to buy the right one in Essen.
I was traveling from Kraków to Essen but had to change trains in Warszawa. I
mentioned previously that I had nice flights for this vacation, and I also had
nice trains. This was the only time I had to change trains. All my other trains
were direct city-to-city, and at nice times of day too, except when border
agents woke me in the middle of the night. Anyway, I was in Warszawa briefly
and just stepped outside the train station long enough to take a few pictures.
|Warszawa from train station.|
The train was named after Polish singer and actor, Jan Kiepura. It was a bit
nicer than the train from Budapest. The power outlets worked, for one thing,
and the bathroom down the hall even had a shower.
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