September 2013


Our arrival in Cracow, after four hours of bus travel and five hours touring Auschwitz, could not have come quickly enough, but we realised that we hd come across the prettiest and perhaps most historical town in our journey so far. Raf was in hi element — he is justifiably proud of this town and pleased to show us around, joined by his wife Magda.

The accommodation was interesting, again. We have gone from standard Berlin four-star, to daggy Warsaw three-star too far out of town, to Willa Orla (architecturally, one could describe it as comfortably timber-quirky), to Polish guest house. Interesting, but not what we would usually do, but we are out of the room for so many hours a day that you never notice and sleep is pretty easy with all the walking we are doing — except for the travel days, so I’m not looking forward to the last of the big trips, the five hours to Prague.

Cracow is charming and historical, especially around the square and through the old city. Ironically, many of the municipal improvements were initiated by Hans Frank, who ran the General-Government of Poland from the castle. Our visit to the Schindler Faktory Museum showed a real attempt to celebrate at once the Polish identity of the place, the impact of Nazism, the expulsion of Jews from the city into a ghetto across the river and ultimate liquidation, and the work of Schindler and others in attempting to mitigate the persecution of the Jews.

The castle is a monument to Polish history and religion. Paula remarked that we have never seen such an ornate cathedral, full of memorials to decapitated bishops, good and bad kings of forgotten kingdoms — though never forgotten by the Poles — and saintly queens. It has links with legend, as our visit to the dragon cave demonstrated, and links with modern history, as the Austrian barracks that became Frank’s headquarters demonstrated. No photos inside, thanks god because the crows was worse than any I remember in our travels.

The old town itself is quite unspoiled and the spirit of this part of Poland alive and well: a Church on every corner, a convent down every street, Dominicans in full rig, nuns in proper habits. One street is Trinity street; Dominican St becomes, Franciscan St on the other side of the main road. There are at least three basilicas I could count. Religion and history are wound together. In the market square, the trumpet is sounded every hour to the four compass points, each call cut off because of the fatal arrow that wounded the watchman against the Islamic invaders.

It’s no pure centre of history, though! Krakow is a university town, so all the work in the cafés and bra — hundreds of them — is done by uni students; and every church seems to be in close proximity to a strip club! The amber trade is everywhere but very overpriced. The food, when we got to it on both nights, was plentiful and good.

Tonight is rebellion night — six of us are doing Mexican because we will do something nasty if offered another pierogi! Fresh food it is.

Like anyone with an ounce of soul, I came away from the museum moved, horrified, repelled and bemused, the latter because one was confronted with ‘man’s inhumanity to man’. For all the labelling that identified the perpetrators as SS, the fact remains that they were by and large Germans perpetrating crimes on ethnic and cultural minorities and anyone who was weak and vulnerable. They did so with the cooperation of other Germans, Poles, Slovaks and especially Hungarians, and with the tacit acceptance of the Allied governments. It is neither the first, nor has it been the last, act of genocide. It is not the only place of horror on European soil. Yet it is unique in that it preserves for us to see the willingness of an ideologically possessed group to employ industrial methods to achieve an inhuman goal.

I don’t think one can understand it sufficiently, certainly not from a purely historical point of view. Perhaps a philosopher or poet might capture something of its meaning. It is, ultimately, beyond comprehension; indeed, beyond even the simple act if commemoration. The Holocaust condemns everyone, ultimately. It is the seminal event in history, because it has become a symbol of all other suffering and evil.

Why come to Auschwitz? To become a witness, so that one can bear witness. There is evil, and where it cannot destroy good, it will destroy everything else in despicable but ultimately futile acts of depravity. We are now witnesses to what can be, so that one day such things will be forever past.

It was a very long day yesterday: when we disembarked from the train in Cracow, we had a two hour trip into the mountains ahead of us on a coach, and then a minibus to take us to our “Willa”. Of course, it was pitch dark, but it was already obvious that we were in a ski resort — you can always tell. The local architecture is all timber, with the favoured look for the lodges being slabs caulked with rope. I wonder what their fire regulations are!

This tour goes at a cracking pace. There is little downtime, so the washing bag is becoming interesting. We were out and about after a very traditional Polish breakfast (sausages, hard-boiled eggs, cream cheese, cheese, cold meat, bread and pickled everything), finding our way to the old iron road that ran through the Tatra valleys, carrying iron ore to the smelters below. For us, it took us to a traditional cheese dairy and smoke house, which was instructive as sheep’s cheese is a traditional local delicacy and smoking is the preferred method of preservation. I don’t know how they stood it: one minute in the smokehouse and my throat was burning. The valley, notwithstanding the ski resorts, is beautiful and we left the hut to walk along the trail beside the national park, stopping for coffee in one of the little cafés that dot the path.

We came out of the woods near the International Ski Jump Centre, and met the world of tourist tat, but this was just a stop before minivans took us to the cable cars that run to the top of the Tatras, on the border between Poland and Slovenia. It had not been warm all morning, but once at the top we were in temperatures below zero and a wind-chill factor to match, as the gale tried to blow us off the ridge. We were at 2400 metres and climber another hundred or so to the summit for photos and a bit of kudos! The clouds were roaring out of the south and, as we moved inside for a snack, it started to rain.

The cable car is an engineering marvel and, in one of those sad but uniquely Polish ironies, was completed as an engineering marvel just before the War. The area is dotted with references to JPII, as he loved to hike up the mountain, even as a sixty year old. One understands the psychology of Wojtyla a little more having been in Poland, because it is very different culture from much of Europe and really quite distinct from the West. The cemetery we walked through on the way to dinner illustrated this very well

The afternoon was spent vainly searching for a new hair-straightener for Paula and a new backup battery for the iPads. Of course, I saw them at the airports and didn’t get one! Then we had a truly ordinary meal — probably Raf’s only mistake so far, because there were some good restaurants around, and the rather two-dimensional Polish cuisine takes on a truly disappointing hue when done badly. Paula is hanging out for a good white wine, but has taken to flavoured vodka in lemonade. I’m OK, because there are some interesting dark beers around as well as vodkas with which to conduct human trials.

Time to pack for another move. Tomorrow is Auschwitz.

Last night’s trip had only whetted our appetite for a walk in the restored Old City of Warsaw, so we federated with Gail and Barry and following Leigh’s leadership, staged a mutiny. It was a very mild one but we didn’t want to waste the most beautiful sunny day on a museum. Our walk through the CBD did nothing to improve our impressions until we turned off the main drag and walked into what looked like Georgian architecture. Away from the reconstruction and transport redevelopment that characterises every town we have visited so far this trip — and this applies to both Paris and particularly London — is a pocket of prewar city that has been restored and, in many cases, rebuilt.

We only had a couple of hours and just walking around took most of our time, so we did no interiors, but the faithful restoration of the exteriors made for great photographs. Again, a city we would come back to so that we can fill in the gaps. A couple of photos have to suffice because I haven’t even had time to understand what we saw, but return we will to see glorious churches, museums and especially the castle.

In the afternoon, we were reunited with the rest of the group and made our way back to the train station. The trip took three hours and it was marked by some hysterically funny moments, although we have collectively worked out how to board the train and pack an impossible amount of luggage into two small compartments and then throw sixteen adults on top.

Sohailia had the bright idea of a picnic, so wine, beer, cheese, bread and meat came on board with us. Drinking semi-sweet red from plastic shot glasses is not top-shelf drinking, but washed the food down, especially some delicious sausage. Our sister compartment finished off the rest, amidst a considerable amount of mirth.

We disembarked using a similarly organised approach, with a lot of luggage going out the windows, and made it to the coach on time.

The scene is Berlin. Grey clouds shower unwelcome rain on the laden pilgrims as they inflict their oversize baggage on the city’s public transport system. The local mental health system is bracing itself for a flood of anxiety attacks and post-traumatic stress disorder as commuters report random attacks of laden Canadians and Australians, roaming the buses and trams with attitude and backpacks.

Cut to the Bahnhof, as we caught the train. Polish Railways don’t believe in luggage racks, so getting all of us and all our luggage into three compartments was quite hysterical. We all are getting to know each other a bit, so the cooperation was impressive, but it was quite an achievement to get comfortable. Paula and I shared with the Albertans — Bruce and Beverley, Barry and Gail — and enjoyed the trip, but six hours on a slow compartment train was too long. Two ideas for our evaluation: flying top Warsaw, and changing our Warsaw hotel!

No disrespect to the proprietors, but the area near the station is a drab building site more than thirty minutes walk from the Old City, which is really what you would come here to see. Warsaw is not a pretty city outside the old areas, and that was where we wanted to be. We didn’t see enough on our way to dinner this evening, so the plan is for five of us to break away from the group and share a separate walk through the old town. Hopefully we get to do some good sightseeing before we leave on another five hours of travel tomorrow afternoon.

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Kimberley’s load!

I think we walked our legs off today. A little too enthusiastic about the exercise, we jogged for about six km in the morning and then found that Raf — the tour guide who will need to be introduced later — had a similar approach to sightseeing as us. By the end of the day we had walked at least twenty km, so I think it was great preparation for the camino, but thank heavens tomorrow is the train trip to Warsaw. We didn’t join the younger members of the party in their jäger bombing, so we will have to save that up for another night!

So, to the comrades in arms: I think we have got lucky! I think both Paula and I had been wondering about what sharing a tour would be like, and finding that we have a mix of Canadians and Australians, with a lone American, has been really pleasant. We have a mix of ages and backgrounds, so it is good fun.

Rafal is the tour leader and is a young doctoral student from Krakow, very knowledgeable and good fun. We found out that he has just got married and just submitted his thesis, so he has had an adventurous year. Everything is well-organised and the restaurants he has chosen have all turned out well so far.

Beverley and Bruce, and Barry and Gail, are two couples travelling together from Alberta, Canada. I think Bruce has and Bev are retired and they seem to do a lot of travelling — great fun and lots of laughter, particularly now that Bruce has beaten his jet lag. Leigh is from Melbourne and travelling solo, and she seems to have been on the road for months, travelling in some exotic places. Kimberley is the red-haired speech path from Melbourne, on her way to working in England for a year — her backpack is bigger than she is! Sohaila is from San Francisco and quite exotic, as she is originally from Iran. Dale and Rachel have been travelling for months but got engaged on the trip. Both have a basketball background, Dale as a first grade coach in Brisbane and Rachel — well, when she stands up you can see that she was a college and professional basketball player! Daniel and Caroline are a young Canadian couple, much quieter than the older four! Finally, there’s Crystal, who is from small-town Alberta and Laura, who is training as a psych nurse in Edmonton.

The four young ones are making the going as the party animals, but I think Rachel and Dale will not be far behind when the time comes. So far, we have gone quietly, but I think the beer will get even better as we go east and Raf has promised an introduction to Polish vodka. Estupendo! Or if you’re Polish …

Today was bucket list stuff, the wall, Checkpoint Charlie, back to the holocaust memorial and the Bundestag. The photos tell is best, particularly the checkpoint itself, which was a tourist trap. However, some of the historical information was great and there is a real effort to remember the appalling social cost of the wall as well as the lives lost.

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Because it is eighty years since the Nazis seized power, there are street installations everywhere commemorating those who suffer persecution or death at the hands of the Nazis, with a particular emphasis on intellectuals, politicians and unionists. I think that, as the last of the scars of both the DDR and the Reich are swept away, there is a sense that commemoration is important.

I would come back here, because there were museums galore and some beautiful buildings we never saw, as well as trips to Wannsee, Potsdam and the Zoo district. Oh well, you can’t do it all, and finishing the day with a drink and pub meal with a pretty riotous group was good fun. Enough, onward to Poland.

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This could be a very prosaic entry, as the first day of a trip often is as one gathers one’s thoughts from the rags of jet lag and attempts some sort of orientation; but Berlin is such an interesting place that we’ve been constantly engaged even from our first moments. We have been lucky to end up in a hotel in Mitte, the busy area in old East Berlin, so we are ten minutes walk from the Museum Island and fifteen from the Brandenburger Tor. This morning, on our walk, we got as far as the Tiergarten and felt pretty adventurous. It was not until the afternoon that we realised just how enormous the Tiergarten actually is! It must be bigger than Central Park, and certainly the Prussian regularity of the Unter den Linden puts Paris to shame.

Or it would do if the Reichskanzler hadn’t decided to rebuild Central Berlin, all at once! Down the centre of the axis is a gigantic building site where they are building the long-overdue missing link in the U-bahn, while on every side, buildings are being restored. This includes the opera house, which is roofless at the moment. Even twenty-five years since the wall came down, and seventy years off since the war, this is a town dealing with its past. Every building near the river is marked by bombs and bullets, some repairs better than others, and sometimes there are more dramatic holes where the marks of shells are still there.

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The tour didn’t start until the briefing in the evening, so our day was spent dealing with a bit of a hit list, and it has turned out that what we have seen doesn’t duplicate what is on the itinerary for tomorrow (Monday). We walked back down the Unter den Linden — I need to note at least once that Berlin has a talent for name dropping when it comes to streets, so crossing Rosa Luxembourg Strasse is no surprise after a while) and eerie suitably impressed by the Dom, although we couldn’t visit like we had done with Marienkirche yesterday.

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We walked a lot, and managed to get a sense of the old central district and museum island. We found both the Jewish Memorial and the Topographie of Terror, which is the old Gestapo and SH site cleaned up and turned into a memorial.

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Last, but not least, we visited the Palace of Tears, the checkpoint and control centre for the passage through the Friedrichstrasse Bahnhof. Here was the closest the separated families could get to each other, and where many hopes of contact we’re dashed. We hopped on a river cruise to escape some of that gloom, the returned to the Hotel to meet our group and share a first meal. A pretty good first day.

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