Europe 2006, Kraków and Warszawa

Here is my narrative about my trip to Europe in October 2006.


Tuesday, October 17

Open plaza and central market building on a damp morning
Rynek Glowny.
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 (old town).

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.

Tall narrow building in plaza
Wieza Ratuszowa.
Sculpture of a huge sideways head in plaza
Head sculpture in Rynek Glowny.
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.

I located my hotel, checked in, and went to get what photographs I could before the Auschwitz tour. This is the Wista (Vistula river).

European city street Castle Blue streetcar in street
Street. Castle. Streetcar.
Here are some views around old town. No time to tour the castle!

Several blue streetcars in street
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.

Auschwitz entrance gate with ironwork reading “Arbeit macht Frei”
Auschwitz Gate.
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.

Barbed-wire fences, guard tower, wood buildings
Fence and tower.
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.

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.

Several fences and brick building
Fence and tower.
Another fence and tower.

Brick wall with flowers and candles on the ground in front of a stone segment
Execution wall.
This is a wall where some prisoners were executing by gunshot. People bring memorials here now.

House across street behind a fence Gallows
House across the street. Gallows inside the camp.
This is where Rudolf Höß lived. This is where Rudolf Höß died.
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 location.

Barbed-wire fences and warning sign
This is a fence we saw while leaving Auschwitz.

Ruins and many buildings beyond several barbed-wire fences
Birkenau through fences.
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.

There were 3,000 guards at a time, 7,000 in total, and only 780 were tried in court.

Railroad tracks in a short tunnel through a building
Birkenau train entrance.
This is the train entrance to Birkenau. Trains with prisoners entered directly into the camp.

Barbed-wire fence, guard tower, ditch
Ditch by barbed-wire fences
Here is a fence and a border ditch at Birkenau.

Shell of a wooden building with a stone trough running down the center
This is one of the barracks. The center structure was a toilet, with 192 seat holes.

Barracks with numerous wood bunks
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.

Ruins of too many buildings to count
Birkenau ruins.
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.

Railroad tracks
Birkenau tracks.
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.

View from about 30 feet in air of barracks, fences, and ruins of numerous buildings
Birkenau from tower.
Here is another view of the same half of the camp as before, seen from a guard tower above the train entrance.

That is the end of the Auschwitz-Birkenau tour.

Corridor lined with merchant stalls
Cloth Hall.
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.

City street
Gate in city wall
City gate.
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.

Statue of Copernicus
It’s Copernicus!

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 the food.

iSpot, a store selling Apple products
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.

Train station at night
Train station.
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).

Shopping mall building lit in blue and white
Galeria Cracovska.
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 Kopalnia Soli 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.

Statue of a figure holding a sphere
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 of tunnels.

Statue of a kneeling man offering something to a crowned woman, with several guards or others
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.

Overlapping balls of white substance on wall
Stuff on wall.
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.

Sculpture of a figure with a long rod holding a prop flame to the ceiling
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.

Wax figures engaged in mine work
Museum exhibit.
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.

Bust of a king
Another sculpture. A king?

Gnome with light on a hill
Mine tunnel

Gnome under stalactites
Scultpure under stalctites.

Large hall inside mine, with five chandeliers, grand staircase, carved walls, and several dozen people
Main hall.
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.
Carving on wall
Carving on wall

Carved steps
Carved steps.
Carving of the Last Supper
Last Supper carving.

Salt crystal chandelier
Those are salt crystals in the chandelier.
Wood framework
Wood frame.
Carving on the wall

Sculpture of two people, possibly mine workers Statue Statue

Room with floor covered with water
Flooded room.
Dark tunnel Light tunnel Bust carved in wall
Dark tunnel. Light tunnel. Carving.
Although the mine is pretty safe nowadays, they do not have complete control. The room to the left is flooded.

Dining room
Dining room.
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.

View of Warszawa by train station
Warszawa from train station.
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.

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.

⇐ Back to BudapestOn to Essen ⇒

© Copyright 2007 by Eric Postpischil.