- Andrew with Margaret Ziemianin - 2002
Gdańsk and Malbork Castle - Andrew, Jacqui and her Mum - 2006
Gdańsk - various visits - Andrew and Jacqui and her Mum - 2007-2009
Sobieszewo Island - Andrew - 2007
Gdańsk in the snow - Andrew - 2010
Westerplatte - Andrew - 2010
Warsaw - Andrew and Jacqui - 2010
for a more detailed map
Poland is at the heart of Europe, but has suffered over the centuries from its strategic position between the great powers of Russia and Germany.
World War II, in particular, was a time of great suffering in Poland. Its Jewish population was utterly decimated, the site of some of the worst suffering being the Concentration Camp of Birkenau-Auschwitz near Kraków. After the War the Communists moved in and Poland went into a period of decline.
The death of Communism in Europe began in the shipyards of Gdańsk and spread across the whole continent and now Poland is leading the way for the rest of the former Eastern Bloc.
Its capital is the rebuilt Warsaw (destroyed by the Germans and the Red Army in equal amounts at the end of World War II), the country's historical heart is at the old capital, Kraków. Other cities include Gdańsk, Wrocław and Poznań.
Andrew's penfriend, Margaret Ziemianin, lives in Kraków.
Kraków, Auschwitz and Zakopane - Andrew with Margaret Ziemianin - 2002
I have been penfriends with Margaret Ziemianin for many years - in fact over a decade. Way, way back in 1994 she came to England for a month to visit me. Despite one or two near things it took eight years for me to return the favour, I nearly made it in 2000 (see Prague trip), but this time I was determined it would happen. Alas this determination coincided with a time of distinct monetary shortness, so I had to settle for travelling to Kraków by coach, a 27 hour trip each way. It was about £200 cheaper than flying and I had plenty of spare holiday left from work - so I added a day each end and booked up with Eurolines.
The coach trundled out of Victoria Coach Station at 11:30 on May 2nd, due to arrive in Kraków at 4:30 the next day. It seemed to take forever to get out of London, the driver seeming to take the most indirect route he could think of and we ended up on the M20 which was quite surprising. The boat trip over was a brief interlude of moving about before we were off again, squashed in like sardines and jammed full with luggage. The route went up the coast from Calais passing Dunkerque, Brugge and Ghent before heading inland and passing into the Netherlands somewhere near to Eindhoven. It seemed to take forever to reach Germany and we passed over the Rhine just as light finally faded completely.
2 AM in the morning and my first footsteps on German soil were not quite what I had expected. Wandering around the back of a German Motorway Service Station in the dark whilst all the Polish passengers puffed gratefully on their cigarettes (which, thank God they weren't allowed to smoke on board). An Englishman started chatting with me, he was married to a woman in Katowice and did this journey regularly. Unfortunately beyond that his conversation didn't vary much from how drunk he used to get on his business trips to Poland which lost their charm quite promptly. After 15 minutes it was back on the coach again to try and get some kind of sleep, not an easy task at all. Just as Morpheus was thinking about visiting we were out again into the darkness of yet another Service Station somewhere, I think, just before Hannover.
It was something of a relief as daylight slowly began to permeate through the mist of Eastern Germany, looking for all the world like the set of some spy drama - think forests of silver birches shrouded in fog. We reached the Polish border at about 5 AM and then sat around for a couple of hours whilst various Germans and Poles looked at our passports. Once through I examined mine and was surprised to see no stamp. Just inside the border we pulled up again at one of the bleakest places I think I've ever been. A small café with a very sad little shop and a series of places selling cheap tobacco from shanty-like huts clustered around a concrete square in the middle of the middle of nowhere. These were my first steps on Polish soil and were no more encouraging than my first ones on German soil had been.
I should have made the most of the rest though as the road we turned onto which took us to Wrocław was without a doubt the bumpiest I have ever been on. Bags were rattled off the racks above our heads and many came crashing down onto unsuspecting people below. I retrieved mine and held on to them not wishing to see the contents wrecked. Just when you began to expect bits of the coach to start falling off we turned off the road and headed into Wrocław where we would make our first drop off and refuel. A succession of towns took us to Katowice where most of the passengers got off to meet other services. From Katowice to Kraków the journey was at its most pleasant. Some attractive landscapes and nice wide roads sped us on our way and, surprisingly, we arrived in at Kraków Bus Station two hours early.
I had arranged to meet Margaret here, so I settled down to wait. A man approached me and asked me if I wanted a taxi. Margaret had told me to watch myself at the Bus Station as there were many people who "preyed on tourists", so I was ultra-reluctant when the man shepherded me across the road to insist I phoned Margaret up to tell her I had arrived early. The phone, alas, did not work, so he took me back across the road and I settled down to wait in the blistering afternoon heat.
Margaret arrived and I had my first surprise. I thought she would be in a car, but she wasn't - she didn't have a car - we would be travelling by public transport. My friendly taxi driver came over again and he took us to Margaret's apartment which was about a kilometre from the town centre.
After a bit of settling down and a very welcome shower we set out for a quick trip into town to find some sustenance. The tram stop was just outside Margaret's apartment (we had to cross a railway line and walk up a path to the main road) and it was about 10 minutes tram ride to the Station. For the first of many times I walked through the underpass separating the Station from the Planty Park which encircles the Old Town (Stare Miasto) along the lines of the ancient fortified walls of Kraków. All this was about to rebuilt, Margaret told me, although she wasn't sure how many years it would take, but there were big plans afoot.
We entered the Old Town along the portion of Town Wall which still stands on either side of the Floriańska Gate and wandered down Ul. Floriańska (Florian's Street) which is generally referred to as the main street of Kraków. This leads directly to the Old Town Square, the Rynek Głowny, the largest medieval square in Europe which is truly a staggering sight - more about which later on.
We walked straight through and headed down a side street before arriving once more at the Planty, having walked across the Old Town which is not a huge area. We walked through the lovely shaded paths for a while and then stopped short of reaching the Wawel Hill before heading back into town and finding some food, a rather nice pick it yourself salad eaten in the courtyard of the Chimera snack bar. As I was pretty tired after my journey we decided to head back to Margaret's flat where I got my second surprise ... she was letting me stay here on my own, she would be sleeping at her parents' flat across town. We had a little drink to celebrate my long-delayed arrival in Poland and she left me to my own devices which mostly consisted of finally getting a decent night's sleep!
The next day would be the day for exploring the Old Town of Kraków. Once more we got the tram to the Train Station. Margaret had heard about hot air balloons being flown in Błonia Park (a big triangular park to the east of the City Centre). We walked once more through the Old Town Square without really stopping and headed down past some superb Art Nouveau architecture (including the House under the Singing Frog in ul. Retoryka) down to the Park. There we found a small but not particularly exciting funfair and a distinctly deflated looking balloon. We asked the men by the balloon what time the rides would start. They shrugged and said there might be some flights today or their might not ... how nice to still find Communist ideals of service alive and well!
Slightly disappointed we trammed it back to the City Centre and the small square of Pl. Matejki (named for Jan Matejko, a painter, one of Kraków's favourite sons, albeit an adopted one). In the centre of this square stands the Grunwald Monument - a memorial to the Battle of 1410 which took place about halfway between Warsaw and Gdańsk in which Polish forces beat back the Germans (a battle which the Poles are very keen on remembering). In fact the Battle was far more important than history tends to remember it as it involved troops from Poland, Germany, Russia, Lithuania, Bohemia, Hungary, Romania, Ruthenia and Tartars. Something like 30,000 men fought on both sides, making it one of the largest battles of medieval times. As the previous day had been Poland's National Day there were many flowers strewn in front of the monument decorated in red and white ribbons (to match Poland's flag). The Monument itself is rather typical of this kind of thing, the poor wretched German laying defeated at the feet of the mighty Pole, the usual tale of war memorials everywhere. It is said if you touch the dying German's foot you will return to Kraków - or be lucky, depending on which version of the story you are listening to at the time.
Margaret and myself sat down in a café on the shady side of the Square. As we sat there I noticed a number of men in uniform walking past me. I joked something about the Police coming to get me and Margaret told me they were firemen, the church just up the road was dedicated to St. Florian who is, apparently, the Patron Saint of Firemen ... you learn something new all the time! Finishing our drink we wandered up to St. Florian's Church in time to catch a procession leaving the Church made up of firemen from all over Kraków and the region (including some in the distinctive feathered hats of the mountains) and various priests and nuns, they were carrying various relics and statues from the Church and down around the Square. I did wonder what would happen right now if there was a fire somewhere!
Once the procession had disappeared we went inside the Church. It was the first of a very large number of churches I would visit in Kraków, I think I saw more people praying here than any other place I've been to, including Rome! St. Florian's is not the most elaborate or impressive of Kraków's churches, but is in many ways a fairly typical example of a Polish Baroque church.
At the bottom of Pl. Matejki is the Barbican, one of the few large parts of the City Wall system still existing. It is a large semi-circular brick structure with pointy towers based, it is said, upon Arab designs rather than European. It was added in 1498. It was once joined to the rest of the fortifications by a walkway and moat, both of which are gone now making the Barbican appear more like a separate castle than part of the system. The inside of the Barbican is fairly bare, although it is worth walking around the ramparts for views of the Pl. Matejki and the Florian Gate to which the Barbican was once linked.
Immediately opposite the Barbican is the largest surviving part of the City Walls, the Florian Gate, linked by walls to two other Gates (the Haberdasher's and the Joiners' - all the towers in the wall system were built and maintained by one or another of the trades in Kraków). The only other major chunk of walls is not far away around the Armoury and the Carpenters' Gate. The Florian Gate is on the Royal Way - the route taken by Kings of Poland as they progressed through Kraków to the Wawel Castle across the other side of town.
In the inside of the City Wall on either side of the Florian Gate is famed for being covered by art for sale, a good deal of which is kitsch at the very least, but it is certainly a colourful spectacle, particularly in the kind of hot weather we were still enjoying. I hadn't expected to come back from Poland with a sun tan but it was certainly looking like I was going to.
Just around the corner from the Florian Gate is the Czartoryski Palace and Museum which contains various exhibits from Poland's history (including a lot of stuff from the Battle of Vienna (1683) where Polish forces played a central role - another battle the Poles like talking about!). The most important exhibit in the Museum (especially since their Raphael was stolen by the Nazis) is Da Vinci's Lady with an Ermine which me and Margaret somewhat irreverantly dubbed "Lady with the Rat". It's an important painting, but in itself is not spectacular or particularly large but it does show Leonardo's playful side ... it is a painting of Cecilia Gallerani the mistress of Da Vinci's patron, Lodovico il Moro - the Latin for an ermine is galé (a pun on the woman's name) and il Moro's nickname was "Ermelino". Oh, those Rennaisance wags!
There are a number of other quite important paintings in the Gallery, including a Rembrandt, but it is Da Vinci's work that Kraków is most proud to possess. A few days later I picked up a superb postcard of the Lady with a Dragon instead of an Ermine ... the Dragon being the one defeated by Kraków's founder, Krak, which lived under the Wawel Hill and has become the mascot of the City.
Back onto Ul. Floriańska, and halfway down on the left is the famous café Jama Michalika which is Kraków's version of the "artists' haunt" which every City worth its salt should have. The interior is, in the nature of these things, decorated with art and memorabilia from its many notable clients. Famous it may be, but the quality of the cakes and coffee was still high, and only slightly higher than elsewhere in the centre. If you are short of time in Kraków and want to stop somewhere for an atmospheric and worthwhile lunch I would say this place is your best bet.
After a satisfying snack we went back out into the afternoon and Margaret said we were going to look around the Rynek Głowny (at last! I thought, having walked through it three times now I was eager to have a proper look around).
Ul. Floriańska ends at the top right hand corner of the Rynek Głowny, by St. Mary's Church, generally referred to as the Mariacki Church. The Church's twin towers dominate the sqaure and the Mariacki Church is, to my mind at least, the most striking building in a city of striking buildings. As usual it is surrounded by folklore and tales. The two towers, for instance, are of uneven height. It is said that two brothers were commissioned to build a tower each, as is the nature of these things intense rivalry turned to bloody murder. The older brother won, built the higher tower and then the younger brother stabbed him before turning the knife upon himself. It is from the taller of these these towers that the famous Hejnał trumpet call is played. This was originally a warning sounded from the tower by a trumpeter. The most famous thing about the call - which is broadcast at noon on Polish radio and is played every hour from the tower - is that it suddenly stops in the middle of the note. This is because during the Tatar Invasions of the 1200s a trumpeter playing the call was shot through the throat with an arrow at precisely this point and the call has been cut short ever since.
Inside the Mariacki Church is stunning. This was the first hugely ornate Polish church I had been in, St. Florian's being quite drab in comparison. The first thing that strikes you is the amazing ceiling with its star-spangled sky look. Like most of the wall painting this was designed by Matejko whose work would become increasingly familiar to me as I spent more time in Kraków. An absolutely massive crucifix hangs in the centre of the Church where the rood screen would be in an English church and beyond it is the High Altar. This is decorated with a massive pentaptych, an opening painting with four separate "wings" rather than the normal two which make up a tryptych. This is carved and painted wood and was designed by Veit Stoss, another adopted Krakóvian son who began his life in Nuremberg but is idolised here in Kraków (mostly for this piece of work which was consecrated in 1489). At 11:50 am every day the Altar Piece is opened with great ceremony and then closed again at Evening Mass. You enter the Mariacki Church by the side door - this is northern Europe's most Catholic country and the back half of the Church is sectioned off for the faithful for prayer.
To the side of St. Mary's is a small square, the Plac Mariacki, with a famous fountain topped with a statue of a boy in its centre. Behind that stands another of Kraków's ancient churches, St. Barbara's.
Across the Square from the Mariacki Church is the Old Town Hall of Kraków. I was delighted to find that you could ascend this and from this high vantage point I got some of the most distinctive photos I took during my time in the city. You get a good, wide view of the entirety of Rynek Głowny with the Sukkenice (Cloth Hall) in the centre.
From here I got a great photo of the Mariacki Church framed by the coloured glass windows in the Old Town Hall tower.
Back down at ground level we wandered down towards the Wawel, stopping briefly by the shortest street in Kraków, Ul. Sw. Idziego, little more than the space where two other roads meet. This is by the city end of the Wawel Castle complex – the heart of Kraków and the heart of Poland.
The whole of Ul. Sw. Idziego - the shortest street in Kraków!
The Wawel is best seen from the opposite bank of the Wisła river, but is entered from a pathway along this bank of the river. You walk up into the main courtyard of the castle which is full of elegant arcading and then through this to a second courtyard outside the Wawel Cathedral.
The Courtyard of the Royal Wawel Castle, Kraków, Poland
The Cathedral is the burial place of the Kings and Queens of Poland. One of the most revered is the tomb of the Blessed Queen Jadwiga (1373-1399). Oddly enough she was actually considered a King at the time of her reign. Today her elegant alabaster tomb is one of the focal points within the Cathedral – she was canonised (oddly enough as Saint Hedwig) by Pope John Paul II – himself, of course, a Kraków man in 1997.
It is quite hard to do justice the Wawel Hill complex without going into long screeds of historical detail and architectural notes. Consider it as a combination of the Tower of London and St. Paul’s Cathedral – the Royal and religious heart of the nation of Poland and a place of great significance. Even strictly atheist Margaret was burningly proud of this place.
Outside the walls of the Castle by the River stands a statue of the Dragon slayed by Krak (which actually breathes fire, although it isn’t obvious in this picture) around which the children of Kraków like to be photographed.
The next day we took a bus trip to the Wieliczka Salt Mines a few miles south of Kraków. Now, it may sound an odd tourist destination – a salt mine – but not at all. Forget any pictures you may have in your head of small tunnels and grimy miners. The Royal Salt Mines here operated for centuries and vast caverns have been excavated over the years. The networks of wooden walkways and scaffolding are remarkable enough in themselves, but more remarkable still are the carvings.
Everywhere you find statues carved of rock salt. In one quite astonishing chamber everything is carved from salt – the walls, the floor, the steps, the rails, the chandeliers, the artwork – every last thing. On one wall is a salt carved version of The Last Supper which is a thing of consummate skill. The most recent addition was a life size statue of Pope John Paul II. Everything down here is preserved in a pristine state by the dry atmosphere (all that salt leeches out any moisture). The Mines are quite rightly now UNESCO listed.
I wrote a story set in Wieliczka long before I’d even visited – "Stanisław and the Salt Gods" which appeared in Mixed Nuts! (1998) and was translated into Polish and published in Dziennik Polski in the UK.
Back in Kraków, that afternoon we headed for Kazimierz, the old Jewish Quarter of the city. Kraków once had one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe. It was all but wiped out by the Nazis in World War II (Auschwitz is, after all, only a few miles from here). Whilst there is now a small Jewish community back in Kazimierz it still has an overwhelming feeling of haunted emptiness.
The Old Jewish Cemetery behind the Remuh Synagogue somehow managed to survive the horrors of the Holocaust and it is today an atmospheric reminder of a history wiped out deliberately. Walking around the overgrown but not neglected graves is sobering. One of the most notable features is a wall made up of the broken remains of those gravestones which did not survive the War which were subsequently gathered up and set along the wall as a memorial to that which was lost.
The main square of Kazimierz, ironically dominated by a church, has a light, airy feel. A small market sometimes operates here, and various restaurants offer Kosher food in the neighbourhood and in the evening some give concerts of Jewish music. That evening we returned to Kazimierz to go to such a concert at the Ariel Restaurant which was very interesting, although on occasion the musicians slipped into predictability with a tourist-pleasing selection from Fiddler on the Roof.
One of the oddest things Margaret took me to see was the Kosciuszko Mound – basically a big mound of earth with a wall built around it that was erected around 1823 to celebrate the local military hero of the same name. When we visited everything was buried under construction work and so we never really got to see the Mound to its fullest advantage. We weren’t allowed to climb up for the view and had to make do with seeing Krakow from the café terrace, which wasn’t quite the same.
Returning to town by bus we arrived by the Pauline Church – yet another Kraków Church to visit. This one is set apart by its elaborately decorated crypt which is open, at one end, to the air and is accessed from outside the Church. The Church stands on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Wisła and is often referred to as the “Church on the Rock”. It was the site of the martyrdom of the Polish equivalent to Thomas Becket, Saint Stanislas Szczepanow, who is patron Saint of Kraków and of Poland.
That evening, after our little show in Kazimierz, we walked around part of the Old Town Centre by night. Kraków is particularly well floodlit and my pictures are enhanced by a little bit of rain that had fallen giving the cobblestones of Rynek Głowny a shine.
The next day we took a train ride to the north of Kraków. This would not be a day of jollity and fun as we were visiting the town of Oswiecim – better known by its German name – Auschwitz.
It comes as a surprise to most, but there were actually three concentration camps at Auschwitz, Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II – Birkenau and the now vanished Auschwitz III.
The bus from town dropped us first at Auschwitz I. This is where the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei sign stands over the gateway – Work Makes Freedom. The sign was stolen in 2010 and subsequently found abandoned and is being re-erected.
The original Auschwitz camp started out life as an army barracks. As such it was better built than the later camps and has remained more intact since the War ended. The various buildings look fairly innocuous from the outside, little more than long sheds and barrack buildings. Once inside you begin to get the first inklings of the horrors that occurred here.
You are led through a series of rooms displaying items that were discovered when the camp was liberated. A massive room full of suitcases, a strange collection of prosthetic limbs, a heap of human hair and a battered pile of shoes. All of these things were removed from those who died here and often re-sold. Hair was turned into blankets and mattresses, gold teeth were removed and melted down. What remains at the Museum today are merely what was left by the fleeing Nazis.
If this was not affecting enough, you then go down into the dark pit that is known as the Death Block. It was here, deep underground, that Joseph Mingele, so rightly called “The Angel of Death”, performed horrific experiments on his “patients”. Although there is little to see here except empty rooms, the walls are redolent with the pain endured inside them and you bid a hasty retreat to the outside world.
As The Final Solution began to really build up steam it was decided that Auschwitz I was not big enough, so a purpose built camp was constructed a short distance away. This was Auschwitz II – Birkenau. This was where mass murder took on the industrial scale for which the Holocaust is notorious. A special train station was built and prisoners coming through the infamous Gate of Death were unloaded from the train and separated into groups. One set would be worked to death, the others went straight to the gas chambers.
At Auschwitz I the killing had been on a smaller scale. Here it was intended that many hundreds of victims would be ‘processed’ every day. So vast gas chambers were created. The prisoners would be stripped, their heads shaved and they were herded inside to the point of not being able to move, all doors and windows were closed and they were then gassed to death. The bodies were then removed, all valuables were taken and the bodies were burnt.
This went on for years until liberation finally came by that time an estimated 1,500,000 people – men, women and children – had died here. This number feels meaningless until you realise that it is equivalent to the combined populations of the British cities of Birmingham and Liverpool, or of the US States of Idaho or New Hampshire, or astonishingly the entire population of Estonia or Qatar.
When the Nazis retreated they attempted to destroy all trace of Auschwitz II – Birkenau. The gas chambers were dynamited and the vast majority of the barrack buildings destroyed. Auschwitz III was almost totally removed and its purpose is unclear. Auschwitz I was disguised as a barracks as best was possible. However, nothing could hide death on this scale.
Margaret looking at exhibits in the "Shower" block - Auschwitz II - Birkenau
There is an oft-repeated story about no birds singing at Auschwitz. I have to report that this is true. I didn’t hear any birds, the only signs of life apart from those visiting and paying their respects, were some insects buzzing around.
A truly cold and subdued atmosphere permeates every inch of Auschwitz, even on a fairly warm and sunny day like this one. By the time you have been around all of the exhibits you begin to become numb with the scale of it all – but the train journey back to Kraków and the subsequent few days allows it to really sink in. Just what was done here. It should never be forgotten – and everyone, particularly everyone with any European blood in them, should visit this place.
After a frankly harrowing day at Auschwitz, it was a welcome relief, on my last full day in Poland to see the opposite end of the scale.
South, this time, the bus reached the edges of the Tatra Mountains which form the border with Slovakia. Here is the ski-resort town of Zakopane. Now it was early summer, so no skiing was going on, but the town and its surrounding countryside are still lovely.
The main street of Zakopane is almost impossibly picturesque. At its far end is a small funicular railway up Mount Gulbalowka. At the top is a complex of restaurants and tourist shops plus the usual crowd of horse and carriage drivers.
We gave in to temptation here and took a carriage ride along the ridge of the mountain which afforded us some superb views across the valley to where the Tatras really start to become serious. We were then taken back to the main area around the top of the funicular where we spent a bit of time admiring the view, having some lunch and generally relaxing.
We had our picture taken on a peculiar dog-sled display (not real dogs I hasten to add) with an even more peculiar white bear-dog-yeti thing behind us. It was a nice, funny little interlude after yesterday’s seriousness.
Zakopane still retains one of the ancient wooden churches which once typified the area, which is tiny and feels oddly like a sauna on the inside (albeit one with pews!). Outside even the grave ‘stones’ are made of wood.
Back in Kraków that afternoon we wandered around the Old Town once more, taking in more details of the Sukkenice Hall and the various statues around the Rynek Głowny.
My final thing to do in Kraków was to go up the Bell Tower of the Mariacki Church to see the Hejnał being played and cut off abruptly as was tradition.
The next day I woke to the unhappy prospect of another horrendously long bus journey back home to England but I had enjoyed my first taste of Poland – a country I would return to many times in the future.
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