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Day 6 – Krakow & Wieliczka Salt Mine

Our main site today was the Wieliczka Salt Mine, just outside Krakow. Through the middle ages, it was a primary revenue source for Poland and is one of the largest salt mines in the world. They no longer mine it, but offer tours. The draw there are the carvings made in salt by miners and, more recently, sculptors.

Getting there was part of the experience. We chose to take a privately owned mini-bus which both guidebooks recommended. After finding the stop (temporarily across from the post office during major construction at the bus/train station). We boarded and paid the 5 zlotys (2.5 ea.) to the driver. The trip was fairly long and site filled: through the old town, over the river, past new and communist era apartment blocks, onto an expressway of sorts with a great view of the nuclear power station, and finally over a hill and around some bends. We almost missed our stop. It seems that passengers need to remind the driver of their stops. We had told him our destination when we boarded but he passed by it without stopping and didn’t stop until we asked him to.

The salt mines were mostly underwhelming, with only a few highlights. Was it worth the price? Yeah, I’d say it was although only once in a life time. 🙂

Most of the carvings we saw on our tour were done by professional sculptors rather than miners, as we’d been told about. Tours of the mine started more than 100 years ago for wealthy individuals and diplomats. The mine realized then the value of the tourist trade and started hiring ringers as miners. They were professionally trained sculptors put on the payroll as miners but who probably didn’t mine a day in their life.

They had statues, reliefs, rooms, and even a full chapel carved in the salt. St. Klinga’s chapel was the most elaborate set of carvings we saw, but it was done by the professionals. The untrained miners were responsible for other pieces and chapels not on the guided tours. The real miners made more simple carvings but those were still fairly cool. There were also some obviously made during the communist era in a very Soviet style. Overall, I wasn’t as impressed with the mines as I thought I’d be.

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The mines were a great example about how far from communism Poland is. Commercialism was everywhere. They were selling to us before we entered; during the middle of the tour at the center of the mine; at the end of the tour where they had gift shops, kiosks, a restaurant,and banquet hall; as we waited for the elevator up and out; and in the room we exited the elevator in. We did buy and send a few postcards from the bowels of the mine, 125 meters down, but we didn’t fall into the trap and buy expensive trinkets or a bite to eat.

Krakow is a popular place for school trips this year for classes from all over Europe and was overrun by school kids from ten to 18 years old. Kids were everywhere we turned, every museum, swarming the streets, and even in our hostel. The salt mine also seemed to be on all their schedules. A group of Danish high schoolers was waited for their tour on the benches in front of us, our tour group was behind another school group from Germany, and we waited in a long line for the elevator up with several different school groups speaking different languages. When we were writing our postcards, one group of Polish boys, about 11 or 12 kept saying “hello” to us and then jumping behind a corner when we would look up. Polish kids all start learning English in primary school and these boys were practicing. Kids these days. 😉

The ride back up in a four level elevator was a highlight, made better by the screaming kids in the levels above us. I think some of them were actually frightened by the ride.

Afterwards, we ate a late lunch at the milk bar (Eight pierogi, a carrot salad, a yogurt drink, and a borscht cost us 9.60 zloty) and then walked around the old town. We had been eying all the lody (ice cream) shops and finally found ourselves in front of one with space in our stomachs. Brett and I each had two [very small] scoops (cost: 4.80 zloty). She had orange and lemon-ginger and I had cherry and walnut-honey. Anyone who knows Brett may ask why in the world she ordered something with ginger in it. We’re still both wondering how that happened, but at the time she told me she was in the mood for something lemony. The ice cream was excellent. I don’t think I’ve had ice cream that good before.

Our walking took us into a section of the old town called Kazimierz which had been the old Jewish district before the Nazis evicted the residents. As we started to walk around Kazimierz, the sky opened up and we soon found ourselves in a small coffeehouse. I ordered a beer and Brett a latte and chatted about the trip as we waited out the storm. We abandoned our walk and decided that we’d need to see Kazimierz another day.
We ended the day by eating dinner at Chlopski Jadlo (meaning: “country folk”), a restaurant recommended by our guide books and someone we chatted with at the hostel. It was touted as authentic, traditional food. I didn’t like it. My Polish-American palate felt that the food was saltier than it should have been and saltier than lunch which had been salty. When we arrived, the waitress brought us a dish of lard, another with butter, and bread; they meant business. I ordered bigos and Brett salad, which was sauerkraut and carrots. My bigos was also too sour to my liking.

Day 5 – Day trip to Oswiecim (Aushwitz-Birkenau)

One word: “overwhelming”

The Polish countryside reminds me so much of Michigan. The same scenes, same plants (horticultural and industrial), and same hardiness evident throughout. Obviously there are differences, but I feel those are superficial. For example, there are many fewer historical objects and relics available in Michigan.

The death camp of Auchwitz-Birkenau is being ovrtaken by that same natural environment. From the birds, to plants, to frogs, nature has shown that what the Nazis did are but a blip in real time and overall scope of the universe.

This is a visit everyone should take. Like the Grand Canyon, the magnitude can’t be appreciated unless you see it in person and walk among the ruins of Birkenau.

There are actually three camps collectively known as Aushwitz, the German name for Oswiecim. Aushwitz I, Aushwitz II (Birkenau), and Auswitz III (Monowitz). Auschwitz I was our first stop. It is where the museum ticket offices are and most museum-type displays. Birkenau our second stop. We didn’t see Monwitz.

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We chose to pay the extra money for a guided tour (26 zlotys each). The tour put us on their schedule which was fast paced and didn’t give a chance to see everything. But it did get us over to see Birkenau. Most people we spoke to didn’t get around to seeing Birkenau and ran out of time to see it. They spent their day viewing exhibits.

We first toured Aushwitz I, walking through several of the many brick army barracks which were converted by the Nazis into prison buildings. When we were done there, we took a bus to Birkenau for the end of the tour.

Birkenau was the true death factory. It was designed for one purpose: to kill. Birkenau is the place where cattle cars pulled through the camp gate and prisoners were immediately sorted. Most were told they would recieve showers and were herded into the gas chambers. The few remaining were put to work. Birkenau was gigantic compared to Aushwitz. Except for a handful of brick buildings and wooden prison barracks maintained, the camp is now mostly ruins. Only the foundation shells and chimneys remain of the camp buildings.

The train there and back was super-bouncy. The train shook like a bowl of jelly. To the left and right, and up and down, and even in some round motions which made it seem as if it would bounce off the tracks every now and then.

Brett was right that we should buy a few ubiquitous bread rings before we left for Oscwiecim. There wasn’t much in the way of food or snacks that I could see. It is as if they don’t want to ruin the sanctity of the place. Even then, there are a dozen or so homes buildt close by (100m), slose enough to have a daily reminder of the camps. I havn’t seen or smelled lilacs in bloom since 1992. What a lovely fragrance.

Dinner? Pierogis, of couse. Also, golabki (stuffed cabbages) and cababage salad. We stuffed ourselves for 21.50 zloty (~$7). Piwo (beer) isn’t as ubiquitious as guidebooks make it seem and isn’t served at the type of places we like to eat at. We drank mineral water with most of our meals.

It seems the Polish habit and penchant I have for eating pierogis with sour cream is regional. Today’s restaurant serves them with bacon grease bacon grease poured over them, complete with a few itty-bitty bacon pieces (crumbs, really).

I ordered a second batch of “ruskie pierogi” but got a blank stare when I asked for sour cream and amazed look when I aksed for plain pierogi, without bacon grease, no butter (the substitute for bacon grease I was immediately offered). Afterwards, I emailed a coworker and his wife asking for the Polish word for sour cream; he’s from Ukraine and she’s from Poland. The word is “kwasna smietana.”
Eating like we have so far puts us on pace to return home 20 lbs heavier.

Thoughts:

  • Tour guides for Aushwitz are worth the price, however it is only worth it if exploring along afterwards. We ended our tour at Birkenau and then walked most of the remaining circumference.
  • I disagree with the Rick Steves guidebook aout using the train to reach the camps. It took us 1.5 hours exactly from Krakow Glowny to Oswiecim and another 20 minutes to walk there. Maybe in the dead of winter or dog days of summer would it be worse. It was a pleasant walk and the return journey from Birkenau to the station gave some time to contemplate, and for us several lilac bushes to admire.
  • I love the fragrance of lilac
  • Mmmmm… Polish food
  • Poland has a small but active nazi movement. So sad, after what the Nazis did to them. Some graffiti seen so far: “White Power” and “RAHOWA” (RAcial Holy WAr)

Day 4 – Krakow

*Brett and I recently finished a trip to Europe. Based on a journal I kept during our travels, these posts are being made after-the-fact for those who are interested in reading more about it. Our photos are all in Flickr, some available only to my contacts for increased privacy.*

We arrived with bed hair and night breath at 9am, if not completely well rested. After a trip to the Bankomat (ATM) I tried unsuccessfully to buy a bread ring costing 70 glowny (Polish version of cents) with a 50 zloty bill. I felt bad afterward, realizing the guy probably doesn’t see that much in a week and can’t make that kind of change. His face full of surprise and the gesture of hands over the head universal. There are about three zlotys in one dollar, but the actual cost in Krakow for food was about six zlotys to the dollar.

The first thing we did was walk the Planty to our hostel. In the nineteenth century, the city wall around the Stare Miasto (old town) was crumbling, obsolete because of modern warfare and too expensive to maintain. The residents chose to replace the wall and moat with a public park – the Planty. I can’t remember a more pleasant city park. The trees are all mature, there are benches every ten feet or so, and it is full of regular people going about their business. It serves such a wonderful purpose.

We were early and couldn’t check in, but we were able to leave our bags in a secure room and freshen up. With combed hair, brushed teeth, and without our packs, we were all set to find grub. In a little cafeteria, we ordered placki (potato pancakes) with mushroom and a plate of ten meat filled pierogis. I ate more than half the pierogis and the placki. Afterwards, we walked a block or so to the Rynek (square) to check it out and then back to our hostel to complete check-in, shower, and for Brett to nap.

Later on, well rested, we walked through the stare miasto, starting at the Barbican, a huge defensive fortification from the middle ages, through Florianska gate, part of the only surviving section of the city wall, down Florianska street, and into the rynek. While we were visiting Krakow, half the rynek was a construction zone while new paving stones were laid down. We paid three zlotys to enter St. Mary’s cathedral, the big church on the rynek, and snapped a few photos before being told only who’d paid an additional five zlotys could take photos. Whether that was a scam or not, I wasn’t sure. I just put my camera away.

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Thoughts:

  • Krakow is vibrant.
  • There is graffiti but not half as much as Berlin.

Day 3 – Berlin and Night Train to Krakow

*Brett and I recently finished a trip to Europe. Based on a journal I kept during our travels, these posts are being made after-the-fact for those who are interested in reading more about it. Our photos are all in Flickr, some available only to my contacts for increased privacy.*

We walked, we took the U-Bahn & S-Bahn, and then we walked some more …

We started by taking the U to Alexanderplatz to find grub for breakfast but weren’t very successful after walking around and then settling for a too-salty, not-so-fresh brat place. I was too picky and it ended with us being in a pickle. Oh well. After that fiasco, we checked out from the hostel and left our bags locked together in the hostel’s locked luggage closet. It was a little too open and left unsecure for our liking. Oh well.

Our first site was Checkpoint Charlie, then to a pile of rubble nearby that had been the SS headquarters during WWII and is now an open air museum called the Topography of Terror. We walked around some more in that area of the city. We passed the former Luftwaffe headquarters which is now the Finance Ministry. It is a very imposing building. On one wall, the soviets created a mural touting socialist ideals. How ironic that the building with that mural is now occupied by the Finance Ministry of a somewhat capitalistic government. Next we passed through Potsdamerplatz where we checked out an installation art project which required us to peer into headless statues to see a video presentation of something to do with nazi germany’s atrocities, or at least that’s what was playing when I looked inside. From Potsdamerplatz, we took the S Bahn to HackescherMarkt to walk a short distance to Museum Island and the Pergamon Museum.

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The Pergamon Museum was built to house the Pergamon, a partially intact greek temple and the art treasures from it. The Pergamon is more impressive than the Elgin marbles in the British museum. Question of the Day: How did they transport all those heavy marbles from Greece to Berlin? The museum also housed impressive Babylonian and other old world treasures.

After we left the Pergamon, we walked to the tomb of the unknown soldier (moving), Babelplatz and GendarnMarktplatz, all blocks from Checkpoint Charlie and the Brandenburg Gate. One big loop. We ate dinner at an Italian restaurant named “Rocco” (I know, what were we thinking) located at HackescherMarkt. Brett ordered vegetarian lasagna (it came with cheddar cheese on top) and I had bratwurst.

After dinner, we collected our bags from the hostel and made the trek deeper into the former East Berlin to Lichtenberg train station to wait for our train to Krakow. We were about an hour early for our train and sat on the ground leaning on our bags propped against a wall facing an industrial skyline. The train was colored like a rainbow, representing the several different railways whose cars were part of a motley rail crew going east. As we pulled into major stations, a car would be disconnected and another one or two connected in a seemingly complicated dance which sorted itself out in the end. Even our railcar would change trains and directions several times in the night.

The night train wasn’t luxurious but the experience was worth it. Six beds, three on either side, were suspended from the ceiling with sheets and pillows on top of each. An area over the door for our luggage. As we left the station, five of the six beds were taken. A silent man on the bottom right read. Above him, a Polish woman in her fifties. The bunk above her was empty. I had the top of the left side, Brett immediately below me, and a young Polish woman immediately below her.

An hour or so after leaving Berlin, while half asleep, we stopped and “Passports!” rang out from the corridor. The German border agents passed through. A while later, the train moved slightly and “Passports!” rang from the corridor again, this time from the Polish border guards. A little while later, as all was black, a young man entered (after Brett unlocked the door for him) and quickly took to the top bunk where, in a few quick moves, he made the bed and fell asleep. He got off a few hours later, while it was still dark out, followed a little while later by the man on the bottom right bunk, and then the young woman below Brett. They seemed to be pros at this. The woman in her fifties exited with us in Krakow the next morning. She was extremely helpful with preparing us for getting off the train at the right place. As we closed in on Krakow, Brett chatted with her in German. She was coming home to celebrate her daughter’s birthday for a few days before returning to Berlin.

Day 2 – Berlin (Unter den Linden, Reichstag, Brandenburg Gate, etc.)

*Brett and I recently finished a trip to Europe. Based on a journal I kept during our travels, these posts are being made after-the-fact for those who are interested in reading more about it. Our photos are all in Flickr, some available only to my contacts for increased privacy.*

We were up at 6am. I guess jet lag does have some benefits.

Berlin does have more graffiti than L.A. It is everywhere in massive quantities. We started out walking early to the Reichstag from our hostel near Alexanderplatz to beat the crowds. To get there, we walked down Unter den Linden, a beautiful avenue lined with linden trees (hence the name ‘under the lindens’). The avenue passed other significant buildings and places such as Berliner Dom, Babelplatz (where Nazis held some major book-fed bonfires), and Humboldt University. Definitely a street to explore some more. We were side-tracked by the Bradenburg Gate, a block short of the Reichstag. It was such a powerful icon that Brett didn’t want to leave. After ten minutes of pushing her away, we walked the final block to the Reichstag and were first in line at the security checkpoint for the next batch of visitors. They accept visitors in batches of twenty to thirty for security checks (x-ray, metal detector, the works). The Reichstag is pretty cool, however it couldn’t have been worth more than the current cost – free.

After a second photostop back at Brandenburg Gate, we took the U-Bahn to Zoo Garten station and purchased tickets from Euraide to Krakow for Saturday night. The clerk at the Euraide station was very friendly. He’s from Chicago and loves living in Berlin because the hockey there is cheap and entertaining.

Learning the public transportation system was easy but did confuse us a little because the map colors are duplicated by different lines. There are also four different rail types: U-Bahn (subway), S-Bahn (elevated train which sometimes goes underground), trolley (thin light rail), regular rail train. Only the first three are covered by the day passes we are getting to make our way around. LA needs a system like this. Berlin proves a sprawling metropolis can get it right.
For lunch, we had a sandwich from a stand-up sandwich shop in Zoogarten station. We hurried from there to cross Mitte (city center) to catch a bunker tour of two old bunkers from WWII and the Cold War, and a history lesson. The tour was almost worth the ten euros each. I was disappointed that photography wasn’t allowed inside the bunkers. I think they really need photography opportunity, even if only in one or two places. The guide, Robin, was knowledgeable and friendly, if only a little rushed. Bring a fleece if you go; it is cold (54 F). The tour ended at the top of the mountain in Volkspark Humboldthain. It isn’t really a mountain, just a pile of rubble left over from WWII piled on a super bunker (Flakturm Humboldthain) that the French couldn’t destroy after the war. Tours are available for that bunker, but it is was only available in German during the days we were in Berlin and, as we were told, is more like a caving expedition than a casual walk like ours was. What I would have done to take that tour.

The city parks in Berlin are wonderful. We spent some time in Volkspark Humboldthain after the tour. Brett napped for about an hour while I wrote in my journal and observed people go about their business. Mothers and fathers taking their children for strolls or leisurly bike rides, couples picnicking, businessmen cutting through the park off to their next appointment, and elderly men sun bathing in a meadow. I know that last image isn’t necessary, but it is true. There is an unholy fascination with sunbathing in Northern Europe.

Our next stop was Ostbahnhof (east main train station) and the East Side Gallery, the longest remaining portion of the Berlin Wall (how could we resist). The East Side Gallery is covered in art completed in 1990, just after the wall became obsolete, and some portions were restored in 2000. It will soon literally fall as progress sweeps through the neighborhood. It appeared that every lot was a construction site, including the old Ostbahnhof and scores of surrounding industrial properties which are across the street and next to the new Ostbahnhof.

Dinner was spent at Pratergarten, a biergarten just beyond our hostel. What atmosphere! The place was packed, the weather balmy, and the twilight magical as it filtered through the chestnut trees to the crowds below. There were three buildings in a U shape: the indoor restaurant (empty), the food stand, and the beer stand. Between it all was a grove of chestnut trees covering long picnic benches crowded with families. A small playground along an outside wall was covered with children bounding forth in play, and their activities boiled over to include and cover a stage next to the playground. There were several long food lines snaking from the food stand and and we hopped in line even before we had read the menu hanging from the eaves. We ordered a bratwurst for each of us, a pretzel, and a soup. Of course, I then went over to the beer stand for our compulsory beer and appelsaft. 🙂 It was all wonderful, particularly the soup, a tomato base with a full nutty flavor (I think it was tomato-almond cream soup).

Although we were tired, I dragged Brett back to the Brandenburg Gate (this time through the S and U Bahn system) to gawk at the icon of Imperial Germany at night. I also wanted a night photo and shot about 30 times before I got something useful. I know, that is a lot, but I had a number of blurry photos I took (two second exposure without a tripod) and a number of heads sliding into the picture. It was worth it; much prettier at night.

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to Europe

*Brett and I recently finished a trip to Europe. Based on a journal I kept during our travels, these posts are being made after-the-fact for those who are interested in reading more about it. Our photos are all in Flickr, some available only to my contacts for increased privacy.*

We each took a backpack which the airline would allow as carry-on, as well as a small day backpack. Brett’s bags totalled 6kg (13.2 pounds) and mine just over that. We took British Airways which told us the carry-on limit is 6kg, though I don’t they ever checked the weight of our bags. We even cut our bar of soap in half to help us stay below that weight limit.
We started our reliance on public transportation early by walking the mile to the train depot and taking Caltrain to BART and on into SFO. We were thrilled. Not used to Caltrain, we padded our schedule and were four hours early for our 4:45pm flight, arriving at 12:45pm to the SFO departures hall. By 1:15pm, we were sitting by our gate. We passed the time away by reading guidebooks and calling a few friends and family. Our course to Berlin went smoothly: ten hour flight to London Heathrow (mostly sleep time), two hours lounging in Heathrow, and a two hour flight to Berlin Tegel. In all, our trip took 20 hours, door to door.

We stayed in the Circus Hostel, which was more like a hotel than a hostel, located on Rosa-Luxemburg Strasse in the heart of the former East Berlin, one tube stop from AlexanderPlatz.

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A picture taken towards Alexanderplatz (where the tv tower is located).

The first thing we did after arriving was shower. I was done before Brett and went back to our room to wait. I sat down on the bed and the next thing I knew, she was shaking me awake. She had to go down to the front desk to get a second key because I’d slept through her pounding on the door. 🙂

After I’d woken from my nap, we went out for dinner. We walked around all over and finally ended up at a restaurant at HackescherMarkt serving Bavarian food. I had weisswurst (white sausage) and weiss bier. Brett had bratwurst with sauerkraut and a lager. We both enjoyed our meals.

Random thoughts:

  • Wow!
  • I should have studied German.
  • Berlin is beats LA hands-down for graffiti capital. There is graffiti everywhere.
  • I’m glad we held out for German food instead of settling for falafels.
  • The hostel has a perfect location. The beds are comfy but the Internet access they have at 50 euro cents for 15 minutes seems like highway robbery (later I found out that it is a common price and in fact quite reasonable in tourist zones).
  • I need flip-flops.
  • I meet the most interesting people in transit. On the plane from London to Berlin, we sat next to an older British woman who was traveling to Berlin as part of a four day tour of Berlin/Potsdam. She had been part of the British contingent at the signing of the Potsdam treaty which ended WWII in Europe. She hadn’t been back since then and talked about how the last time she saw the city, it had been in rubble. She told us that her children and grandchildren had no interest in the history she’d lived. We could tell that broke her heart and encouraged her to write it down for later generations. She still has her diaries from those days to help her tell the story. I hope she does write it down and shares it with the rest of us.