Travel: Krakow, June 2013

Krakow Square

It’s taken me over a month to get around to writing this post about my travels to the wonderful city of Krakow, Poland, in June of this year. Oops.

So, Krakow – a beautiful city, centred around a square that’s both vast and architecturally stunning. We went there pre-UK heatwave, and found ourselves experiencing a Polish heatwave (I’m led to believe that countries with more consistent climates than England refer to these weeks of warmth and sunshine as ‘summer’), much to our delight.

The square is lined with places to eat, both indoors and al fresco, and since this is Poland the food is both tasty (seriously, try the Pierogi – Polish dumplings, which can be either savoury and sweet and come with a bewildering variety of fillings. They’re on pretty much every menu and they’re absolutely delicious) and inexpensive. You’ll find it a touch pricier on the square than elsewhere in town, but it certainly won’t break the bank. While we’re on the subject of food, there are ice cream and kebab shops everywhere. Unlike in the UK, kebab shops aren’t merely something into which you stumble after a heavy night – for a couple of quid, I grabbed a mighty, not greasy at all and bloody mouthwatering falafel kebab for lunch one day. If you’re after something a little more sophisticated, though, you really won’t be disappointed – there are excellent eateries all over the place, and while as a veggie I wasn’t spoilt for choice in terms of dishes in each place (but then, I never am!) I never lacked for quality meals.

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First order of business after tipping off the plane was to go forth and fall upon dumplings and a cold drink, and then explore the city.

Since we’d been up since 4am, we figured we’d take it easy with one of the buggy rides around the main areas of the town. You’ll find various vendors around the square (always unfailingly polite and never even slightly pushy), and it pays to negotiate on the price, but if you do the full tour of the old town, the Ghetto, and the Jewish Quarter it’ll take you a couple of hours and give you a good overview of the city and an idea of the places you’d like to come back to on foot. Also churches. You’ll see a lot of churches. Very religious country, Poland, so you will see more elaborate churches than you’d think it would be possible to cram into a few square miles. They don’t call Krakow ‘Little Rome’ for nothing! But of course, it’s not without a synagogue or several either – despite less pleasant recent history, Catholics and Jews lived and worshipped in the same city perfectly harmoniously for many years.

Salt Mine ChurchSome of them are even several hundred feet underground. The church in this picture is in the depths of the Wieliczka Saltmines, and has been entirely carved from rock salt by the miners. Everything. Altar, statues, friezes depicting the Last Supper – all of it is made from salt. Even the beads on the chandelier are pure salt.

This may be the most spectacular part of the salt mines, but it’s certainly not the only thing of note. It’s an extraordinary place to visit – cool, clean air (reputed to be extremely good for the health – there’s a spa hotel on the same site), decorated at intervals with wonderful statues and sculptures ranging from ancient kings to for some reason an odd little woodland scene involving dwarves. Again, it’ll take a few hours (and isn’t suitable for those of limited mobility – there’s a lot of walking and stairs; there is an alternative wheelchair-friendly route, however) with a knowledgeable tourguide.

Worth a visit, too, is Schindler’s Factory over in the Ghetto. It’s a media-rich, densely informative museum to war-era Krakow, and honestly speaking I found that after a couple of hours I simply couldn’t take any more in, between sensory overload of how the messages were delivered and the sheer awfulness of what was being talked about. The reminiscences of people who had been children at the time of being forced into – and out of – the Ghetto were a bone-shocking level of powerful.

Ariel restaurant - Jewish Quarter, KrakowAbove ground and when you’re not steeping yourself in history, Krakow is a fabulous city for fans of al fresco people-watching. The Jewish Quarter is still the site of some beautiful buildings (you’ll get the spiel about how some of them appeared in Schindler’s List), including a bar/restaurant that now occupies the site of what were several tiny shops – the original external signs are retained, a suggestion of brickworks illustrates where the shop walls used to be, and the whole is rather charmingly decorated with appropriate knicknacks. Ariel restaurant, shown here, does indeed feature in the film – and serve rather delicious food!

It’s worth venturing into the main square in Krakow in the evening, too – it has a beautiful vibe, and there’s always the chance that as well as being able to soak up the atmosphere and gaze at the swifts circling one of the high towers at twilight, you’ll catch an unexpected street performance

AuschwitzOf course, we had ultimately come to Krakow for a reason. Auschwitz.

We left it until the day we were flying home, knowing that we didn’t want such a powerful and painful experience to taint our entire break in what is a genuinely beautiful city that is well worth a visit and revisit in and of itself.

And it was horrible. Truly horrible. Words can’t really describe the experience with any justice. As you enter, a sombreness descends. The feeling that you’re in a place of such extensive and systematic vileness is almost tangible and grows more oppressive and upsetting as your guide – and hats off to them for doing a tough job with extreme skill and sensitivity – takes you around the camp.

The scale of massacre was, as we all know, vast – but numbers can be hard to appreciate on their own, as abstracts. Here, you will be forced to see just a fraction of what those numbers meant in real terms. Collected within, in various piles, were the belongings of just some of the lost victims of Auschwitz. A mound of glasses. A whole room of brushes. A collection of baby clothes. A huge, huge expanse of several tonnes of human hair, from the heads of just some of the women.  And two full rooms full of shoes. Flat shoes, heeled shoes, fancy shoes, plain shoes, new shoes, beaten up shoes, big shoes, small shoes. Just piles and piles and piles of shoes stolen from the dead.

And a collection of empty gas canisters.

Only one of the gas chambers survives, at either Auschwitz or Birkenau, and it’s a solemn and silent procession of visitors to end your time at Auschwitz I before heading just a little way up the road to the terrifyingly industrial-scale deathcamp that is Birkenau – Auschwitz II.

It’s a vast and desolate place now. There’s little there but the site itself, an imposing brick entranceway, a railway line that terminates there. Most of the buildings housing inmates were wooden (pre-fab stables, actually) and have not survived but for the eerie brick chimneys rising in neat rows across the fields. Those that remain give just the tiniest hint at the squalor in which the inhabitants must have been kept. Piles of rubble now mark the spots where thousands lost their lives – the gas chambers, where the clinical art of murder en masse was perfected, were blown up before Allied forces arrived.

A memorial, in numerous languages, now stands. Because people should have somewhere to pay their respects to the dead, and events such as these should never, ever be forgotten.

And the birds do fly over Auschwitz, now.

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Flickr set of Krakow.

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Travel: Trainspotting tour of Leith, 1st June 2013

Edinburgh

At the start of June, I was lucky enough to find myself in the rather beautiful city of Edinburgh. Of course, there was whisky and for the 50% of the group that eats meat there was haggis, neeps and tatties.

But on Saturday morning, we strolled out to Leith and met up with the fascinating Tim of www.leithwalks.co.uk to embark on a Trainspotting tour. At this point, I have to confess that I haven’t actually read much Irvine Welsh. In point of fact, I haven’t really read any. No idea why, just one of the many authors I haven’t encountered as fully as I could have done. Two of  my party, however, are avid fans and I am never one to turn down an interesting literary experience. Meeting up with Tim at the Port O’ Leith pub – a familiar haunt of Welsh himself back in the day – it became clear immediately that this is a man who knows his subject inside out, upside down and back to front. His copy of Trainspotting is the sort of battered, patched, post-it noted, much-loved book that can’t help but make a book lover smile at the amount of sheer love it’s received.

I won’t spoiler the details or route of the walk itself for you, as some things are best discovered in person. But if you ever find yourself in the vicinity I really do strongly recommend you try to commandeer a couple of hours of Tim’s time. We’re not talking about a typical ‘and on your left, Welsh once had a coffee in that very bar’ umbrella-following tour here – we’re talking something much more in-depth, personal and fascinating.

Tim took us on a walking tour of Leith that encompassed its socio-economic – and indeed, political – history just as much as it encompassed the physical setting of the streets of Leith and the background to the novels of Welsh. Emphasis was on Trainspotting, but with an expert at the head and two Welsh fans and two fascinated onlookers in the group it was inevitable that Welsh’s other novels feature strongly too.

At every stopping point along the way, Tim explained the background and history, talking eloquently about everything from the way working men’s clubs worked (familiar to us, but must be an interesting thing to explain to those whose culture doesn’t really include such institutions) to the architecture of the old station with a side order of the ravages the 60s’ fetish for concrete high rises on community. And of course, Welsh’s narrative decisions were woven in seamlessly. At every stop, having set the scene with wonderful eloquence and passion, Tim also read us key passages from the novel – and at one point caused much hilarity by encouraging our party to act out a section in their best Sean Connery voices.

Seriously well worth attending if you ever get the opportunity – Tim’s enthusiasm and frankly phenomenal storehouse of knowledge make it something far more than simply a novel way to spend a couple of hours.

And yes, I am finally getting around to reading the book. It’s a lot easier now that I’ve actually heard some of it read in the appropriate accent!