Category Archives: Poland

Arbeit Macht Frei

Auschwitz and a Salt Mine, Poland: Tourist Attractions

Arbeit Macht Frei
Arbeit Macht Frei, “Work sets you free,” the entrance sign to the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Kraków is itself a great tourist attraction. Not far from Kraków, however, are two other tourist attractions: the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps from World War 2 an the Wieliczka Salt Mine. I think I paid 100 PLN for the A-B trip (about $30) and the same for the Salt Mines. Both were interesting, although I had mixed feelings about the day trip to Auschwitz.

Auschwitz-Birkenau

Birkenau Train and Railway
A train left at Birkenau concentration camp.

Post-Schindler’s Factory trip, I wanted to see Auschwitz with my own eyes. Joining two ladies I met in the hostel, we took a day trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Auschwitz is the more well-known concentration camp but Birkenau is the one where just as many, if not more, horrors took place. Seeing the place with my own eyes put a real image to all the things I’d heard and seen in the past. It’s horrific to think about the days they must’ve endured, cold, hungry, no music, no coffee. When they walked off the train in Birkenau, they turned either left or right. Left meant work til death, right meant death right away. 1.3 million people died, 90% of them were Jews. Staggering numbers. Not to mention imagining the process of dying in a gas chamber. The initial thrill that you will get a shower only to be burned alive. Sickening.

Birkenau Rail Sculpture
Rail Sculpture at the Birkenau concentration camp.

I was surprised, however, that I wasn’t more shocked. Having seen Steven Spielberg’s heart-rending movie Schindler’s List, Auschwitz seemed a little too clean and touristy. I heard that there is some discussion about whether or not Auschwitz should actually be open as a tourist attraction. I can see the problems they are facing. On the one hand I recognize the historical significance of the place and that people need to be made aware of the horrors that went on there. On the other hand, I can’t help but see the place being used as a tourist draw. I believe the entrance and souvenir money goes toward the preservation of the camp itself, but the fact that Auschwitz itself is a tourist draw is a little unnerving. Makes me wonder what other, currently war-torn, countries will do with their trouble spots. Rwanda? The Middle East? Ukraine?

Overall, although Auschwitz is touristy I recommend seeing it anyway.

Wieliczka Salt Mine

St. Kinga's Chapel
The underground St. Kinga’s Chapel in the Wieliczka salt mine.

My last day trip from Kraków involved the Wieliczka Salt Mine. More than a few people recommended that I go and, I’ll admit, especially after Auschwitz, the Salt Mine was a welcome relief and astonishing trip. Trudging down 2000 steps behind our amusing tour guide, we meandered through the salt mines for the whole afternoon, stopping to look at how they mine salt, some salt sculptures (few of my pictures actually turned out), and even witnessed an orchestral presentation in St. Kinga’s chapel. Many luminaries have been here before, including Nicolai Copernicus and Pope John Paul II, and the chapel hosts quite a few weddings every year.

But them Poles impressed me yet again, not just with the salt mine itself, but its extra features. First, a super clean, deepest-toilet-in-Poland in which I had to pee just to say I pissed in the deepest part of Poland and, even more shockingly… Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi? Yep, you can update your Facebook status, tweet a tweet, send an email, or look at porn, all for free, in the deepest nether regions of Poland. Why does this fascinate me? Try getting cell phone reception on a farm field in rural Manitoba or the Ukrainian subway system, it doesn’t happen. Although I’m sure there are more practical applications for Wi-Fi access in the deepest part of Poland, it is a touristy gimmick available near the restaurant and cafeteria.

Overall, the Wieliczka Salt Mine? Highly recommended.

I stayed for a few more days in Kraków but I needed to make a choice: either stay and find a job (and finally learn Polish) or get going toward Ukraine. I decided to go to Ukraine. Before Ukraine, however, I needed to find a cemetery, particularly one located somewhere in southeast Poland where, apparently, my Polish/Ukrainian/Austro-Hungarian ancestors, are buried. In order to do that, however, I needed to stop over in Rzeszow, Poland.

Krakow Rynek at Night

Kraków, Poland: A Shit Head and A Dragon

Sukiennice, 'cloth hall', in Kraków, Poland
Sukiennice, ‘cloth hall’, in Kraków, Poland.

Some folks mentioned to me that visitors to Poland usually have one of two reactions: they love either Warsaw or Kraków. Although I wasn’t taken by the city when I was there, Kraków, in retrospect, is a great city. I spent a week and a half there debating life, drinking coffee and vodka in the Kazimierz district (especially at the Moment Restobar), trying to learn Polish, visiting the Bar Mlecny on Ul. Grozdka (milk bars = cheap Polish food) and preparing for my Search for a Cemetery in Southeast Poland.

Kraków Streets at Night
Kraków Streets at Night

My opinion of Kraków would have changed earlier had I taken a walking tour first and then done everything else. The tour was well worth it. Although advertised as “free,” the folks running the tour depend on the tips paid out at the end of the tour. I tipped 10 PLN (about $3.25) for the 2-hour walk through the city. That tour opened my eyes to the vast history surrounding the city. It was after hearing the tour guide’s presentation that I especially noticed the north-south differences: folks who like Warsaw don’t really like Kraków. Folks who like Kraków, don’t really like Warsaw. It has to do with the architecture of the cities. Warsaw was completed bombed by the Nazis so city looks a whole lot newer and polished. Kraków, however, was favourited by the Nazis and thus preserved during the war, giving the city an “aged” look.

The tour started in the city centre, right by the Mariacki Church (the same one that hosts the hourly bugle call) and finished at Wawel Castle. During the tour I learned that Kraków USED to be the capital of Poland until a few hundred years ago when the capital was moved to Warsaw. Since then, Kraków has housed the remains of royalty while Warsaw hosts the remains of presidents etc. So when the Polish President died in a plane crash in 2010 and was subsequently buried in Kraków, that caused some commotion. Things were sorted out and he’s still in Kraków.

Blurry Shithead
Blurry Shithead, Krakow, Poland.

Whilst in the main square, we were exposed to the church with a bugle call and a shit head. Bugle call? Shit head? Well, the bugle call belongs to the Mariacki Church, which, if you walk in, is absolutely stunning. After seeing so many churches in Poland I got kinda numb to them but this one made me say full loud “Holy shit. That’s nice.” Much to the chagrin of the folks around me. I tried to take a picture but they didn’t turn out. Stunning. Go visit. It’s free. And remember to pray. The shit head, I forget some of the story, but it was a gift to the city. Unfortunately, the statue is nicely located so all the bar-hoppers have a toilet in which to relieve themselves, before, during or after their night out.

Speaking of churches, the walking tour also took us by the “Pope window.” Though now marked by a picture of Johannes Paulus Secundus, it’s where he, the first non-Italian Pope, used to stay when he was in Poland. Often he would address followers and believers from his balcony.

Then there’s the Florian Gate, an old gate at the edge of city centre. My attention was waning with the movement of tourists down the street, but I recall my guide saying that the gate was well preserved because it creates a wind tunnel that lifts the skirts of women. Maybe that’s why Polish women wear nice underwear. In any event, the gate used to be the the main northern gate, just outside of which lies the Barbican, part of the old defence system of the city.

Kraków Dragon
Kraków Dragon

Then there is the story of the castle, dragon, and the virgin. I can’t remember most of the story but I recall the tour guide saying something about a lack of virgins to offer the man who could slay the dragon. I could be wrong. The “real” story is that there was a dragon terrorizing the local population until Mr. Krakus (after whom the city is named) slayed the dragon by dressing up some sulphur in sheep’s skin.

The museum in the Sukiennice building (“cloth hall”, pictured above) was good an hour of entertainment, mostly because of the very cool interactive iPod exhibit. The iPod was free when we went. When you pointed the iPod at a special mark near the exhibit, it would play a movie about that painting. Very cool… but sometimes it didn’t work properly. Either my positioning was wrong or the thing just had some glitches that weren’t yet ironed out. In any event, I like the idea. Even without the app, the paintings themselves were great to admire. A good portion of the paintings took up entire walls. Small museum, but worth the trip.

Museum iPod
Cool iPod and app in Sukiennice Museum.

Lastly, one of the more infamous places to visit in Kraków is Schindler’s Factory, which is an important piece of the larger historical significance of Poland. I also visited Schindler’s Factory. Schindler’s Factory was an interesting exhibit and displays all the information you need to know about the near-extermination of Jews in Poland. There’s even a Nazi flag with spit on it. The thing I took from this museum is that if you’re smart during a war, you’ll be executed more quickly. Same with musicians. To be stupid means to be sent to the camps to work until your death. Makes me wonder about my career and travel choices.

Next up would be a visit to Auschwitz and the Wieliczka Salt Mine.

Wroclaw Town Hall Thumbnail

Wrocław, Poland: Snow White and The 14 Dwarves

Wroclaw Town Hall
Wroclaw Town Hall.

I really liked Wrocław. It’s a beautiful city, and I drunkenly stumbled into a pretty girl who offered to be my tour guide. Pretty good combination.

My favourite part was probably Rynek, main square. Cobblestones surround the Town Hall, giving the city a medieval look. It was a good place just to walk around, despite the cold weather the first few days I was in town. My walking tour took me around the four faiths district, an old church with a walkway way up in the sky, and to see some dwarves.

But my sight-seeing of Wrocław didn’t really take place until after a night of drinking with some folks from the hostel and, more importantly, stumbling into a pretty woman. Drunk and slurring Polish, I ask what anybody in my condition would ask, where’s a good pizza place? Nothing open, she says. Naturally, my second question is, can I have your phone number?

River Odra and Cathedral Island
River Odra and Cathedral Island, Wrocław, Poland.

I didn’t actually have a phone at this point, but she says yes.

And guess what?

It’s her REAL phone number! Not the fake one that you give to creepy boys but her REAL phone number. I’m as shocked as you are. (I found out later that she was walking back from the clubs and wasn’t sober either.)

The next day I decide that it might be time to get the phone I brought with me from Canada unlocked. I was surprised at how fast they can unlock these things.

Knowing that I was a film buff, she suggests we go to a movie on our first meeting. Since I had no clue what was playing in Poland at the time, she picks the movie, 127 Hours. Ewwwwww. If there’s one movie that is kinda a bad choice for a first meeting, it’s the one where the guy, a lone traveller, has to chop his arm off cause he gets stuck in a cavern under a rock. Kinda gross.

After the movie we hit the pubs. She takes me around to the more popular pubs in the area which, unfortunately, I don’t remember most of the names. Turns out she used to work for the tourist information centre in Rynek. She offers to take me on a tour of the city the next day. I agree.

We rendez-vous at the Aleksander Monument (a monument to a guy who created some literary circle or something to that effect) and then head over to the nearby Starbucks. She pulls out some city guides and gives me one as a souvenier. She used to work for the tourist information place in the central square so she knows both the touristy spots and the not so touristy.

Musician Dwarf and His Admirer
Musician Dwarf and His Admirer.

After walking around the main square we head to cathedral island. Along the way we spot the old market and some dwarves. I’m like, “wtf is with those dwarves? Is this some sort of Polish fetish?” No no, silly, she says, back in the ’80s when Poland was still under communist rule, there were some folks who were kinda pissed at the way they were being treated. So they created the Orange Alternative Movement, an organization dedicated to mocking the contemporary communist government. It was led by a man named Frydrych who is quoted as saying, “Can you treat a police officer seriously, when he is asking you the question: “Why did you participate in an illegal meeting of dwarfs?”

The movement wasn’t effective in overthrowing the government, but it sent a message: Poland wasn’t just going to role over and take communism. So, these dwarves represent the uprising against communism.

Oh. That makes sense.

Cathedral of St. John, Wrocław, Poland.
Cathedral of St. John, Wrocław, Poland.

There are 173 of them. We contented ourselves with seeing  a fraction of them.

Cathedral Island. What else is there to see but a cathedral? Oh, and a brick of hash.

Well, it wasn’t really a brick of hash, but it was a small, silver-wrapped package. Turns out my tour guide’s mother had made brownie slice the day before and she wanted to share. :D I inquire as to whether she herself can cook. Of course, she says. Check one.

We resume our walk and visit the Racławice Panorama, a massive 360-degree painting that depicts the Battle of Racławice. It depicts a few battles between the Poles and the Russians. Sparing you the details, since we bought tickets to the Panorama we were also allowed to visit the National Museum for free. She didn’t want to go but I insisted. I enjoy paying to see old stuff.

It was in the National Museum that we talked about the uselessness of studying history. Ah, how I love having two degrees in the subject! To think, I told her, one day her own belongings could be hosted in a museum for all to see. My favourites, however, were the self-portraits of the painters. And that’s when I my own photo. :D

Portrait of the Author in the Wrocław National Museum
Portrait of the Author in the Wrocław National Museum.

We also stopped by the Centennial Hall, UNESCO heritage site 1165, designed by Max Berg. And it had a tall pointy tower in front of it. Just behind the Centennial Hall was a skating rink. Since neither of us were dressed for it, we skipped skating. By this point we were both getting cold and tired of walking, food and beer were needed.

We headed back to the main square to a place called Spitzle (I think), a place that apparently makes their own beer. We try a few rounds and, deciding not to use the line “Hey baby, you wanna come back to my hostel,” we call it a night.

I hung around Wrocław for another couple of days, not wanting to leave. I saw some English schools and probably could’ve found employment. I decided, however, that I wanted to see Krakow before committing to any serious employment.

And with that, off I went to Krakow, the city of the dragon slayer and milk bars.

Old Market Square

Poznań, Poland: Goats in a Clock

For Poznań, the fifth largest city in Poland, I have more pictures than words. I didn’t stay very long and managed a quick walking tour on my own. It wasn’t too cold the first day, but it snowed on the second day.

Below you can see some photos of the main square, inside of one of the numerous churches in the church district and the old city walls. I wanted to visit the national museum and the Lech brewery but didn’t have the chance.

Old Market Square
Old Market Sqaure, Poznań, Poland. Image via Wikipedia
Church Interior, Poznań, Poland.
Church Interior, Poznań, Poland.
Poznan city walls.
Poznan city walls.

The highlight of my trip, however, wasn’t a church, a museum or even a mall. Nope, this time it was goats. Goats in a clock.

Poznań’s answer to Prague’s skeleton clock (also known as the astronomical clock) is a clock with goats atop the old Town Hall. There are a few versions of the story, but the central theme seems to be that, during a feast, two goats alerted the town to a fire that had just broken out in the town center. Because of the dueling goats, the townsfolk were made aware of the fire and able to put it out before any serious damage could occur.

Without further adieu, I present to you Poznań’s goats.

You’ll notice at the end of the video you hear a trumpet playing. That melody is played in commemoration of a boy who awoke to see a gnome. The gnome gives him a bugle and tells him to blow it when he’s in trouble. Then the gnome turns into a crow and flies away. As luck would have it, some bad guys try to attack the city at night so he blows his horn and, well, the city is able to defend itself. This is the stuff of folk tales. Gnomes and crows and boys with bugles.

After Poznań, I ventured south to Wrocław, a city that would prove to be one of my favourite cities in all of Poland.

Danzig is German. World War 2 propaganda poster.

Gdańsk and Sopot, Poland: Danzig and Driving Devices

Danzig is German. World War 2 propaganda poster.
Danzig is German. World War 2 propaganda poster.

Day Trip #2 with my homestay folks from Bydgoszcz took us to Gdańsk (I think it’s pronounced Geh-daown-sk) and Sopot (So… pot?), two of the three cities along the Baltic coast that make up what is known as Trójmiasto (or, three-cities). (The third city is Gdynia, but we didn’t have time for a visit.)

The trip started early in the morning, 6:30 am or so, much to the chagrin of Homestay Daughter and I. Homestay Father was ready to go, however. He woke us up, had breakfast ready so we could eat (with eyes closed) while he went and got the car. By 7 am we were in the car, and this is when I learned about Polish road trips.

You see, I didn’t know what Homestay Father actually did for work. I’m sure my friend had told me before but I’d forgotten. So, when Homestay Father plopped a GPS device, a radar detector and a two-way radio into the front seat and began assembling everything, I couldn’t help but wonder. The GPS and radar detector I understood, but the two-way radio? I ask Homestay Daughter. Apparently he works for some transportation company. The two-way radio is for contacting other drivers on highways… especially about highway cops.

Smiling, he pointed proudly to the radar detector and said “Not legal!”

I could do nothing more than nod in agreement.

And so we drove to Gdańsk, conversing with one another, listening to Polish and English pop music, and, every now and then, radioing other cars for info about cops in the area. We had no problems.

Gdańsk

Długa Targa in Gdańsk, Poland.
Długa Targa in Gdańsk, Poland.

Gdańsk (known, in German, as “Danzig,” like the musician) is the port city of Northern Poland. Surprisingly, our stay in the city was very short despite the historical importance of this city. In recent history the city has undergone two momentous occasions.

First, World War II started here. The first attack by the Nazis occurred at Gdańsk’s Westerplatte on Sept 1st, 1939. Apparently the Poles were able to fend off the invaders for a week before they were overtaken. The city was liberated (or almost wiped off the map) in 1945 after a good ol’ bomb-fucking by the Soviets.

The next big thing that happened here were the revolts against communism some four decades later. Those revolts culminated in the “Lenin Shipyards strike” of 1980, and is now commemorated by a huge pillar with three anchors hanging at the top. It would be almost a decade before Poland would be released from communism after the so-called “Round Table” discussions of 1989.

Whew. (Shot of Żubrowka.) History lesson over.

Nazis, Soviets, and revolts aside, our stay in Gdańsk was more of a walking tour than anything else. The main street is ulicia Długa (dwoo-ga), marked by many pretty buildings and turns into Długi Targ after the Town Hall (see picture above.) Długi Targ is made memorable by Neptune’s Fountain, which sits in front of the historic Dwór Artusa (Arthur’s Court). The Court was apparently built by some folks who were inspired by King Arthur’s Knights of Camelot and wanted their own place to assemble and scheme.

Whoops, that was more history learning. Sorry. (Another shot.)

Then we walked through the Green Gate to the waterfront, admired the view and took pictures.

Gdańsk Waterfront
Gdańsk Waterfront.

We couldn’t miss, however, the staple of any walking tour in Europe: a visit to a church. (Are there any tours in Europe that don’t have a visit to a church?) Walking down ulica Mariacka we visited the monumental and old Bazylika Mariacka, or St. Mary’s Church, built sometime in the 14th century. It was a nice church, complete with images from the Bible, Latin inscriptions, and icons. The bleached-white interior didn’t look anything like the brick exterior. Unlike St. John’s Church in Toruń, which is the oldest brick building in Poland, St. Mary’s Church is the biggest brick church… in the world.

St. Mary's Church altar, Gdańsk, Poland
St. Mary's Church altar, Gdańsk, Poland.

Jumping back into the car, we drove to Sopot.

Sopot

Funky building in Sopot, Poland.
Funky building in Sopot, Poland.

We did a quick tour of Sopot on foot. The main street is ulica Bohaterów Monte Cassino, complete with a funky looking building and a boy on a rope. The main street stops at the beach facing the Baltic Sea and is taken over by the Sopot Pier.

Steve Among Swans.
Steve Among Swans. It was very cold that day.

We walked the pier and took a look at the marina they are building at the end of the pier. Along the way we saw swans, ducks, the Baltic Sea and a camera crew. Maybe my host family and I will be in a Polish movie as unsuspecting extras.

We stopped for dinner, but I forget the name of the place. I thought it was funny that I could try something call gypsy pie. I remember making some comment about “them wretched gypsies,” which Homestay Daughter didn’t find too funny and thankfully Homestay Father didn’t understand. Noting that gypsy-jokes were off-limits, we made other conversation.

The last cultural experience of Sopot was smoked cheese, called “oscypek.” It was good and greasy.

Polish oscypek.
Polish oscypek.

And then we drove back to Bydgoszcz.

I’d been staying in Bydgoszcz for a week before I accepted the fact that my Polish wasn’t going to get any better. Deciding to leave Polish lessons and a singing toilet behind, I decided it was time to leave. Saying thank to my host family and trying to figure out how many kisses on each cheek I was supposed to give, I returned to Warsaw for a few weeks before finally going westward to a town called Poznań.