Auschwitz & Kraków, Poland
Danny was only a little hungover this morning but he powered on through the day. We drove to the small town of Oświęcim, more commonly known by its German name, Auschwitz. Amazingly we had a fantastic drive today – no roadworks, no trucks holding us up, no potholes and two lanes available. Unfortunately the good vibes didn't last for long.
Auschwitz Concentration Camp was obviously quite depressing, even without joining the tour to hear all the harrowing details. Over 1.3 million people were held in this one camp, nearly all murdered. Almost every building contained a museum of some sort, including personal effects of the prisoners, over two tonnes of hair cut off the dead bodies, photos of starving inmates, stories of hope and stories of despair. It was easily one of the most heartbreaking places I had ever visited. We also walked through Birkenau Camp (Auschwitz II) down the road, where the trains with prisoners arrived and the gas chambers were located. The train tracks still exist, leading down to the remains of the gas chambers (the Nazis tried to destroy them to remove evidence of the atrocities they had committed). The site was mind-bogglingly massive; so many houses that held thousands upon thousands of people. Overall: horrific.
We stopped at a service station/hotel car park to have dinner. We managed to find meat dumplings (not ricotta) and served them up with a veggie ragout. Not bad, but not the sort of dumplings we were used to. We discovered that a few other campers were spending the night in this car park so we decided to join them (I guess it wasn't illegal if this many campervans were parked here, right?).
We managed a great sleep for a petrol station car park. The people in the van next to ours were travelling with a large dog, who decided that the shade provided by our van was a great spot to lounge around. Once we moved him along we were on our way.
Today was incredibly hot - it was the first time we really appreciated air con in the van. We drove to Kraków, our last stop in Poland, and parked about two kilometres out of town. It was a long, sweaty walk to the centre square, the largest square in Europe (200 metres across we were told). Definitely not the prettiest though, compared to the beauties we had passed through in Poland. Most of the buildings were beige and there was nothing that really stood out as noteworthy. In the middle was the "cloth market", which was basically a souvenir market (and also not noteworthy). We walked around old town for a while, settling for a pub that was supposed to serve a ginger flavoured beer but for some reason it wasn't available today. Afterwards we meandered through a long park, passing a beautiful theatre that was almost the highlight of the city. Most of the old town was also beige and not at all memorable.
We walked over to the run down Jewish quarter, past some plain looking synagogues and through a flea market. Danny went in search of a new pair of sunglasses and was successful in finding a suitably cheap pair. Afterwards, we wandered over to a large church, with numerous statues and monuments in the gardens that seemed more impressive than the church itself.
By mid afternoon it was unbearably hot, and Danny decided he had done enough sightseeing for one day so walked back to the van. I kept going, opting to climb the tower in the centre square but the views on offer from the top were terrible. Only three sides were open to viewing and the windows were tiny. Plus there was a rope barrier about a metre back from the windows, preventing me from leaning out to see anything worthwhile.
The last touristy thing I did was climb Wawel Hill to see a castle. It turned out that the castle consisted of several buildings, most of them mundane. There was a great cathedral though, which consisted of a mishmash of architectural styles on the outside and an overly cluttered and dark interior, complete with crypts, gaudy decorations and artwork scattered about.
After picking up a mixed pack of flavoured Polish vodkas for Danny (because he needs more alcohol) I walked back to our van, which was unbearably hot despite all the windows being open. We ate a quick dinner then drove further out of the city to find a car park for the night. Once again, our indicator stopped working. Danny pulled it apart, cleaned off the sediment that had built up and it miraculously worked again. Looks like this will be a recurring issue.
The next morning we headed straight for Wieliczka Salt Mines and made it early enough to join a small English tour (we find large tours slow and highly frustrating). It was the most expensive thing we have paid for in Poland. Only once we had started the tour did they inform us that there was also a photography fee that we were required to pay, otherwise we couldn't take any photos. It was going to be a break-the-budget day. The tour lasted two hours and covered three different levels of the salt mine, the third being 125 metres underground. It was amazing to be walking through tunnels and into chambers where the walls, floor and ceiling were all made of salt (although the greyish tinge due to clay and other impurities wasn't particularly attractive). There were dozens of figures carved into the surfaces by salt miners, who were not at all experts. We saw several chapels, one being enormous and having several “paintings” (e.g. The Last Supper) cut into the walls. It was also a fully functioning church, holding services every Sunday. The acoustics would be outstanding. We walked past an artificial lake that was apparently so salty that you couldn't actually sink, but they wouldn't let us test that theory. The tour itself was fantastic, and we enjoyed it way more than the ice cave in Austria. Danny couldn't resist stopped by the gift shop to buy a packet of salt for cooking.
As we drove out of Poland we saw some of the best scenery we had witnessed in the country. We drove up actual hills for the first time in many days and caught views over towns and the countryside. It rained on and off all day, which gave rise to mist through the trees – it was absolutely stunning. Hopefully this is a sign of things to come.