Although we’ve only been to a few places, Poland has surprised and delighted us in its variety of experiences and with it having so much to offer. The country is more modern and closer to Western Europe in style and familiarity than where we’ve been lately. The people are more abrupt and we’ve had to get used to not exchanging nods and smiles in the street or on the hiking trails, being ushered in and out of eateries quickly and receiving curt service at checkouts. This isn’t to say they aren’t helpful or that they’re unfriendly… simply less open and more serious than the laid back Kiwis, super friendly Americans and sweet Latvian/Estonian/Lithuanians.
Having thoroughly educated ourselves about how to not get ripped off by taxi drivers, we arrived in Warsaw and got totally ripped off by a taxi driver.
Warsaw was completely decimated during WWII, so its “Old Town” is in fact a recreation of the ancient buildings which used to stand there. It impresses me that they made the effort to recreate these intricate old buildings on their original foundations – many other cities have rebuilt in a modern style after a disaster, so this seemed a unique approach. The basements of the city are the oldest part, as these were largely undestroyed and remain intact underneath the current buildings. Our first impression of Warsaw was of a colourful, spacious and pretty city. Seeing the sun for the first time in weeks might have had something to do with our favourable impression! We spent a lovely morning checking out the old town and the huge Lazienki Park and Palace. Here are many royal buildings of importance, from the palace of the King of Poland, to the Orangery for Tsar Alexander II of Russia, and a Roman Theatre.
In contrast to the historic touring of our morning, we spent the afternoon enthralled at the Copernicus Science Centre! This entire museum is dedicated to Science, with exhibitions about the beginnings of life, the environment, physics, psychology, neuroscience, the human body, water, robotics and more. Every single exhibit is interactive, and adults and children alike were completely engaged. We did puzzles, irrigated farmland, competed against each other in using brain waves to move a ball, participated in psychological analyses, simulated a political utopia, learnt about social change, built bridges from different materials, competed against virtual animals in sprint tests, performed laparoscopic surgery on a teddy bear and did a cloning simulation to name just a few activities.
This large city loaded with so much history, has also become a hugely popular tourist destination for families and young people alike. There were a number of Stag Dos happening and in general the town was much more crowded. This however meant there was a busy, happy vibe and in the evenings the main square was filled with diners eating outside, buskers playing music and tourists being driven around on horse drawn carriages. The castle still sits atop its hill overlooking the Old Town, and a trumpeter heralds from the top of the clock tower in the square on every hour. Nearby is the Jewish Quarter; a hip bar district where we stumbled upon a mass public folk dancing lesson!
No visit to Krakow of course is complete without paying respects at Auschwitz-Birkenau. We were transported by van to the sites where countless horrors occurred not so long ago. Our tour guide took us first through Auschwitz I, where the camp commandment lived and conditions although still horrific were somewhat better. We did visit underground prison cells where so many were murdered, and saw the building where Dr Carl Clauberg performed his medical sterilisation experiments on women. This site is an excellent museum, with photos and information throughout.
Our second stop was Auschwitz-Birkenau – the second, larger and more famous camp. Here we saw behind barbed wire fences rows of wooden barracks which were designed and built as horse stables for the German Army to house 50 horses. They each housed over 700 men. The train tracks still lead ominously from the fields outside, through the imposing gates and to a platform inside the camp. Here an old cattle wagon stands, to remind us of how the prisoners travelled for days. Past the rows of wooden houses are the remains of the gas chambers and crematory ovens – partly demolished but still eerie, ghastly structures of pure evil. Although it is difficult to imagine the conditions of these empty camps when they were filled with people, they are so well known from history books and pictures that it is an extremely sobering experience to be there in person. Interestingly, we still don’t know everything that went on here – documents are only allowed to be released every 50 or 60 years, and the majority are being held by the Russian government, sealed and locked away with no definite release date.
The story of the day had to be one of our tour guide’s own experiences. He was bringing a group of people through the camps, and an elderly woman was speaking as though she was somewhat familiar with the place. He asked “have you been here before?” She answered “yes, I have”. He asked “Oh, when was your last visit?”
After Krakow we headed once again into the countryside, to the mountain village of Zakopane. Here we had planned to hike over the Tatra mountain ranges into Slovakia – in summer months usually a challenging but achievable climb. Unfortunately, since the weather has been unseasonably cold the high mountains were still covered in snow and a lot of ice. We spoke with local people, experienced mountaineers and park rangers, all of whom advised that we would need crampons, ice axes and experience. None of which we had, let alone gloves, hats or emergency survival gear. Sadly and reluctantly we had to pass on this adventure.
We still embarked on a hike of similar distance and intensity, on the lower mountain instead. Hiking here is very different from in N.Z… along the main road there are benches and picnic tables every km or so, cafes at the top of every peak and portaloos in convenient locations. We took a more off-the-beaten-path track, but even this was busy with serious hikers and day-walkers in pretty sandals alike. We came across two fully equipped mountain chalets with restaurants! The actual walk was very steep and rocky, with the way up being aerobically difficult and the way down torture on our quads. The views however were worth it; cascading waterfalls and alpine lakes nestled amongst green forests in the middle of the mountains.
In our hostel in Zakopane, we met some fellow travellers who we think ought to do a bit more travelling! A Turkish medical school student was convinced that cannibals are still rife in NZ and didn’t really believe us when we told her this wasn’t true. We went with it, and told everyone we were travelling around Europe “sampling” the different nationalities. A guy from Poland felt quite proud of himself for knowing that the Tasmanian Devil is native to NZ and a boy from America was quite put out that the Poles don’t speak more English. After all, America and English have been around for a lot longer than Poland….
After a fascinating and very fun 6 days in Poland, we boarded a bus to head around the mountains to our next destination, Slovakia.