Catch up on my Wanderlust journey!
Wanderlust Part 1: Hong Kong and London
Wanderlust Part 2: Paris, Swiss Alps
Wanderlust Part 3: Florence and Rome
Wanderlust Part 4: Rome to Venice
Wanderlust Part 5: Salzburg and Vienna
Wanderlust Part 6: Budapest to Krakow
Day 20: January 13th Krakow, Poland
Never in my life have I ever experienced cold like in Poland. From the moment I step outside the hostel door, the chill is unbelievable. Even layered up with thermals, merino wool, snow boots and my down coat, I’m highly aware of my exposed face. Tiny flakes of snow are falling from the sky during the short walk to the largest medieval square in Europe. The mercury is definitely below zero, but I don’t mind. There’s a small Christmas market still open, and I’m in time to hear St Mary’s Trumpet Call.
A number of people are going to explore the Jewish Quarter, and others are braving the terrors of Lost Souls Alley. I’d like to go to the Jewish Quarter, but Schindler’s Factory is number one on my list, and there’s something else very special I want to do as well.
First, I need to eat. On a recommendation, I head to a nearby cafe for a hot chocolate and a croissant. With melted chocolate.
As lovely as the cafe is, I soon have to brave the chill and walk several metres to the nearby tourist information office. I book a tour, that afternoon, for the Wieliczka Salt mine. First though, I ask for directions to Schindler’s Factory so I can visit before the mines. This is where my saga begins.
To be perfectly honest, Krakow doesn’t have the best signage and the map…could be better. It takes me a while to find the tram stop, since the factory is bit outside of the town. I get my ticket from a woman who can’t speak a real lot of English, but that isn’t a problem. She points me in the direction of the tram I’m meant to get. Or so I think.
After about ten minutes on the tram it dawns on me that I’m not going the right way. None of the signs are in English, so I get off the tram and catch one in the direction I came from, until I recognise the city. After managing to connect to WiFi at a Starbucks, working out the right tram from another tourist information centre, and a rather spectacular fall over my own feet, I’m on my way to Schindler’s Factory but I’m conscious of the time and seriously doubting whether I’ll make the Salt Mine tour at this point. I get off near some historical site where Jewish people were rounded up during the Holocaust. It’s an icy walk to the factory and my face is getting so numb from the cold that I’m wrapping my cashmere scarf around it.
Schindler’s Factory is…not what I expect. I’m actually stunned at how it’s not about Schindler himself. It’s 99% about the Nazi ocuppation of Poland. Needless to say, I already know most of the history on display. Schindler is only featured in the very last room, and I whip through the entire factory in about an hour.
I get the correct tram back to the main square and, big shock, I’m the first to arrive for the Salt Mine tour. Also the only Australian on board.
The Wieliczka Salt Mine is absolutely glorious. Over 40 years it was dug out by hand in the 13th century. The tour begins with 350 steps down into the Danilowicz Shaft, and we are actively encouraged to lick the walls (“1kg of salt is included in the ticket price!” jokes the guide).
The mine is peppered with animatronics and statues showing what the workers looked like hundreds of years ago. We see lakes, the magnificent Chapel of St. King full of hand carved salt murals and salt chandeliers that’s booked for weddings (“It’s such a long way down ladies, plenty of time to change your mind!”), the Saltdiggers Horn, the treatment centre further down, and the gift shop halfway through where I get some salt scrub. Three hours of beauty and coloured salt that defies description. I’m in awe. And the tour ends with a ride back to the surface in a tiny mine elevator.
When I arrive back in the main square, I take myself out to dinner and then return to the hostel. Some people – and I am not joking – bear minor injuries from Lost Souls Alley, others have been recovering from hangovers (!) but I’m the only one who experienced the glorious salt mines. And I’ll never forget it. But tomorrow, we head to the most harrowing historical site imaginable.
Day 21: January 14th, Krakow to Prague via Auschwitz-Birkenau
Nothing can really prepare a decent human being for a visit to Auschwitz. And I mean nothing. It’s actually difficult to put the experience into words.
We go through a security check before being met by the guide at the gate, that awful sign looming above. Arbeit macht frei. Work will make you free. “The biggest lie of all,” says the guide.
We’d been warned to layer up, but heavens alive, this is a new realm of freezing. It’s about -6°C. The guide tells us this is an unusually warm day. My eyes almost pop out of their sockets. But it’s true. In winter, it can get to -30°C. The wind is like a blunt knife sawing on my exposed skin (which is just my face). For the rest of the day, all anyone says is, “We’re layered up in down coats, thermals, hats, gloves, scarves. The people here just wore thin uniforms. How did ANYONE survive in this cold?” It seems even more shocking when we’re informed the prisoners were given 250-300 calories per day, doing back-breaking labour, and the minimum calories needed to survive is around 2,000. It’s just gut-wrenching.
Photos are allowed at most places in Auschwitz. But I only take two. I don’t want to do any more than the barest minimum. Just the entrance is all I can bear. This place has the weight of death all over it. I can’t bring myself to take pictures. I can’t explain it. It just feels…wrong.
We go through many buildings. Some go over the locations of the death camps. Others contain Zyklon B canisters. Rooms full of statistics and photographs of the people who were killed. A building containing the items taken from the Jews before they were murdered in the gas chambers. Tonnes of shaved hair. Prayer shawls. Piles of glasses. Thousands of shoes. Suitcases labelled with names and addresses, promised to be returned. A mass of cooking equipment, face creams, brushes, combs, razors (the guide told us they had recently discovered gold jewellery hidden in a teapot’s secret compartment for 70 years). And most hauntingly (for me): crutches, wheelchairs, prosthetic limbs from the disabled victims. “These aren’t the things people bring when they think they’re going to die, are they?” says the guide. But very few of us can speak at this point.
There’s photos lining the walls of haunted, tortured faces glaring down from beyond the grave. The execution wall where people were shot. Every step is like a punch of reality.
Worst of all is visiting the torture block. There you’ll find sleep-deprivation cells, suffocation cells, starvation cells. Yes, those mean exactly what you think they do. We don’t get inside the building dedicated to the horrendous medical experiments, and I’m somewhat grateful for that.
Birkenau is the second half of the camp, and we have to get back on the coach to get there. Birkenau contains the only gas chamber still standing here. Originally there were five. But as the Allies closed in, the Nazis tried to destroy the evidence. So there’s just one that we walk through. And disgracefully, the walls are covered in tourist’s carvings. It’s sickening. The barracks where people slept have the same vandalism.
Three hours at Auschwitz that will stay with me forever. In the next 20 years, there will be no Holocaust survivors left. Everybody needs to come visit this place. Everyone.
For the rest of the day, no joke, I’m trying to warm up again and the vibe on the coach is very subdued. We arrive in Prague that night, where the temperature of 2°C feels absolutely pleasant. I’m way too tired to head on the walking tour, and ok, I have to do some laundry as well.
Day 22: January 15th, Prague
My day starts with an attempt to make myself look presentable for a Skype call with my Dad. He advises me to head to the Astronomy clock, and I add it to my list. With my down coat zipped, and my trusty cashmere scarf, I step out into the wind. The temperature is close to zero, but after the virtual blizzard in Auschwitz yesterday, I will never have the right to complain about cold weather ever again.
Prague is the only major city in Europe untouched by war, and that was on Hitler’s orders. There’s a large Jewish Quarter in the city, and Hitler had a sick plan to preserve it as a museum to the Jewish people. When I arrive in the main square, I’m disappointed that the Astronomy Clock, dating back to 1410, is covered in plywood and undergoing restoration! I shake off the momentary annoyance, and resolve to head to the Castle District.
It takes me an embarrassingly long time to find the Charles Bridge, but in my defence the streets aren’t exactly in a grid. The bridge gives me some spectacular photo opportunities and I’m absolutely thrilled to see that the Castle District is practically deserted. I get to see the changing of the guard, and I have the run of the place to take all the photos my little heart desires. This place is straight out of a fairytale. It’s just stunning.
On my way back, I stop at a cafe for lunch, where the workers are kind of impressed of how happy I look, and also that I’m traipsing around by myself.
Walking back across the Charles Bridge, I get myself another trdelnik. Without cinnamon. I learned my lesson in Budapest.
In an upscale shop, I get myself a hand-painted Swedish-made crystal ornament for my room back home. I’m initially concerned about it breaking, but the women in the store have a special padded box to keep it safe.
Many of the souvenirs I’ve seen on the trip have been easy to dismiss, but here I decide to indulge a little, like with my puzzle ring in Florence. I honestly haven’t bought much so I have quite a bit more money than I thought, and because I’m flying solo (so to speak), I’ve been able to avoid doing activities I don’t want to do.
However, being on your own can have its disadvantages. Such as when I’m about to get a ticket to a museum I really want to visit and the Romeo next to the counter wants to know if I’m married. I say no, (you’d think the lack of a wedding ring would clue him in, but what do I know?) and he responds slyly “Guess I’m lucky then!”
I roll my eyes and snap back “In your dreams!” and hightail out of there. No, it’s not nearly as bad as it was in Venice, but still.
Although any lingering irritation with that last encounter is swept away while I walk back to the hostel and witness the most magical sunset of my life with Prague’s castles in the distance. Another experience that’s all mine, and nobody can ever take away from me.
Next time: Part 8/10: Berlin and Amsterdam!