** POLAND  2010  -  Weeks  3~4 **

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CAMPING IN POLAND 2010 - Wrocław, Upper Silesia, Auschwitz and Kraków:

The morning we left the Karkonosze, misty rain clouds obscured the entire line of hills making the wooded landscape bleak and grey. This area of Lower Silesia had once been heavily exploited for its coal resources, but now with all the mines closed, the large industrial town of Wałbrzych had a sad and depressed air as we passed through: the industry was derelict, the roads full of unrepaired pot holes, and even worse the people looked care-worn. On a grey, rainy day, it was one of the most woe-begone places we had seen on our travels.

Click on 2 regions of map for details of Southern Poland

After a visit to the giant Riese underground complex, built by the Germans in WW2 in the remote Sowie Hills of Lower Silesia using slave labour from the nearby Gross Rosen concentration camp, to shelter their armaments production from Allied bombing, we camped in the grounds of the delightful Leśny Dwor (Forest Manor), a small campsite near the village of Wolibórz. The precipitous 900m high plateau land of the Góry Stołowe (Table Mountain) National Park is weathered into huge pinnacles, part of a range of similar rock formations at Adršpach across the nearby Czech border visited last year. Paths squeeze a way through narrow clefts and crevices (Photo 1 - Tight squeeze among Góry Stołowe rock towers) between the outcrops and rock towers to emerge at the rocky profile of a great ape looking out across the Czech valleys (Photo 2 - Ape Rock in the Table Mountains). That night in camp, fire flies again danced like tiny fairies around our supper table.

Continuing eastwards along the Czech border, we reached the small town of Paczków. This quiet market town founded in 1254 to guard the SW border of the Duchy of Wrocław from marauding Bohemians has managed to preserve intact the entire circuit of its medieval fortification walls and defensive towers, and is according labelled the 'Carcassonne of Poland'. While perhaps not in that league, it has at least been spared embellishment by over-zealous 19th century restorers and invasive crowds of tourists. The Town hall tower gave panoramic views over the town's quiet Rynek (see left), its surrounding medieval walls, towers and shady park, and the huge parish church fortified in the 16th century against Turkish invasion. Paczków may not be in the main tourist route, but its multilingual guidebook shows it to be one of those delightfully unpretentious places which admirably sets out to promote its charms, and deserves to attract visitors.

The main Route 8 to Wrocław typified Polish driving hazards with speeding and impatient overtaking; we were thankful to reach the city and share the busy streets with trams on the way through to Camping Stadion Olimpijski set next to the city's stadium. The grandiosely styled but rather careworn campsite was certainly welcoming, providing street plans and tram tickets for a city visit. It was a large open site with little shade, but we managed to tuck George into a clump of willows for relief from the scorching July sun. That evening, we relaxed with welcome chilled beers, trying to avoid the voracious midges.

The following morning, we caught the tram from just outside the campsite into Wrocław centre. The city, founded in the 9th century as the Slavic market town of Wratislavia on a sandy island in the River Odra, came under Prussian control at the 18th century Partition of Poland and was restyled Breslau and became second only in importance to Berlin. It remained under German control even after post-WW1 Polish independence, and in 1944~45 the retreating Germans made a determined stand at Breslau; it took the Red Army 4 months of intensive bombardment to recapture the city leaving 70% in total ruins. As part of post WW2 Poland, Wrocław was renamed with the modern version of its Polish name; the residual German population was expelled westwards and the city repopulated by Poles displaced from Lwów in Western Ukraine by Stalin's annexation of that former region of Poland. These new Wrocław citizens brought much of their Eastern Polish culture and traditions, and considering the scale of wartime damage, Wrocław has been wonderfully restored in the years since. Getting off the tram at Plac Dominikański, we stood looking around in amazement at the bright, modern city-scape.

Our first visit in Wrocław was to the Racławice Panoramic Painting, similar in design and nationalist sentiment to its Hungarian equivalent at Ópusztaszer. The enormous panoramic painting, 120m long and 15m high is now displayed in a specially-built rotunda building. It was commissioned in 1874 to celebrate the centenary of the defeat of the Russian Tsarist army by peasant militia led by Poland's national hero Tadeusz Kościuszko at Racławice near Kraków in April 1794. The victory was in vain since within a year, the final Partition wiped Poland off the map. Despite this, the battle was viewed a century later by patriots of the still subdued Poland as a supreme expression of national will and self-sacrifice which deserved fitting memorial. The painting's history is a remarkable saga which mirrors the fate of Poland itself: originally displayed in Lwów, it was damaged by bombing in 1944 and brought to Wrocław after WW2 by the Poles of Western Ukraine. Being politically unacceptable under communism to allow Poles to glory in the historical defeat of Russians, it was consigned to storage; Solidarity's rise in 1980 forced the authorities to review patriotic traditions and the painting was meticulously restored and displayed in the new purpose-built rotunda. This we had to see.

Exactly as at Ópusztaszer, the darkened approach ramp suddenly emerges into the bright display rotunda, the cleverly arranged natural foreground giving the painting a wonderful 3D effect. The commentary gave the historical background to the insurrection, with the Polish hero rallying his troops against the Russian cannons (see right). With their tragic history of repression, it was unsurprising to see 21st century Poles taking such pride in this symbol of their triumph over oppression, and a privilege for us to share in this sentiment (Photo 3 - Racławice panoramic painting displayed at Wrocław).

Along the delightful embankment of the River Odra, we crossed to Ostrów Tumski island, site of the original Slavic settlement and home to Wrocław cathedral and other magnificent churches (Photo 4 - Wrocław Cathedral and bridge to Ostrów Tumski island). On the nearby south bank, the Market Hall (Hala Targowa) was filled with a wonderful array of stalls loaded with attractive fruit, vegetables and flowers (Photo 5 - Wrocław vegetable market hall, Hala Targova). In the University quarter, a student cafeteria, Bazylia, served us a cheap and filling Polish lunch of pierogi (dumplings) to sustain our afternoon amblings. Wrocław University's Collegium Maximum showed its Habsburg origins with the ornately Baroque Aula Leopoldina, and the terrace of the Mathematicians' Tower gave wonderful panoramic views over the city (Photo 6 - River Odra from Wrocław University Tower).

Wrocław's iconic image is without doubt its Gothic-Renaissance Town Hall in the centre of the glorious Rynek (central square), symbol of the city for the past 700 years (Photo 7 - Wrocław Rynek and Renaissance Town Hall). The bright afternoon sun lit the intricate carvings of its south façade, and children played in impromptu fountains set up around the square. We sat for a relaxing beer at a pavement café before catching the tram back out to the campsite. Without doubt, Wrocław was one of the finest cities visited during our travels, and its citizens can be rightly proud of its heritage and splendour.

We now had a long motorway drive to Katowice in Upper Silesia and the next phase of the trip. The huge conurbation of Upper Silesian industrial cities, the most densely populated area of Poland with 2 million inhabitants, has the collective name of Górnośląski Okręg Przemysłowy (GOP) - Upper Silesian Industrial District. The region, with its rich coal and mineral reserves, had been heavily exploited during the 19th century industrial revolution. Post WW1, the Allies were divided as to Upper Silesia's fate despite strong claims from the new Polish state to its industrial economy. The Poles seized control of the industrial areas by armed insurrection, and in 1921 the League of Nations partitioned Upper Silesia, awarding its industry and coal mines to Poland. In 1945, Poland gained control of the whole region and during the communist era, Upper Silesia's industrial workers enjoyed privileged high wages, but over exploitation by heavy industry produced devastating pollution and high incidence of disease. The once mighty coal and steel industries of the GOP went into decline in the post-communist 1990s, dramatically increasing unemployment around Katowice, but there are still large numbers of working modern pits.

Our reason for coming to Katowice, despite its industrial urban sprawl, was to see a preserved part of its industrial heritage, the former Guido Pit, now a mining museum, at Zabrze near to Gliwice, once one of Upper Silesia's most prolific coal, iron and steeling producing cities. Driving in from the motorway past depressed-looking buildings, we reached the headstocks of the former Guido coal mine (Kompalnia Węgla Guido) (Photo 8 - Head stocks of Guido Mining Museum at Zabrze). Named after its 1855 founding owner, Count Guido Henckel von Donnersmarck, the mine finally closed in 1990, later becoming a mining museum. Two of the working levels are preserved, showing both historical and modern coal extraction techniques. Issued with hard-hat and lamp, we descended in the cage to the 170m and 320m levels to the clanging winding-gear bell-codes. For 3 hours we were led by the retired miner guide along a network of tunnels and galleries, seeing ventilation equipment, coal-conveyers and modern coal-cutting and propping technology (Photo 9 - Underground gallery and coal-cutting). The climax came with a demonstration of an enormous brute of a coal-cutter which an operator drove forward on its caterpillar tracks, its massive cutting head moving to and fro, with pneumatically operated props moving in behind. As we returned to the surface, the guide taught us the Polish version of the traditional miners' 'Good Luck' greeting, Szczęść Boże (pronounced sh-chen-sh-ch bozh-e) which needed practice over a few Polish beers.

Katowice campsite, wedged between motorway and urban dual-carriage-way, provided a surprisingly restful night. The campsite leaflet produced by the Katowice authorities made brave attempt to downplay the city's industrial image by promoting its modern appeal as a centre of arts and learning; it felt more like a PR consultant's unconvincing offering. But next day's visit to the Tyskie Gronie Brewery in Tychy provided a welcome restorative. Now part of the same brewing conglomerate as Lech and the Czech Pilsner Urquell, Tyskie Browary Książęce (Ducal Brewery) is one of Poland's major brewers, taking its princely name from its 1629 aristocratic founder. The brewery covers a huge area and as we approached, the air was filled with the refreshingly hoppy smell of freshly brewed beer. Ewa our guide for the visit spoke perfect English and in the brewery museum took us through Tyskie's history. The buildings of the old brewery site are set in parkland and included the original brew house which was lined with decorative blue tiles and equipped with copper mash tuns (Photo 10 - Tiled Brew House and mash tuns at Tyskie Brewery). Alongside the fermentation, filtration and maturation building, enormous modern cylindrical storage tanks towered overhead. After seeing the automated bottling and canning plant, the visit concluded with a generous tasting of freshly brewed Tyskie in their sampling cellar. The company's open policy of visiting makes commendably good commercial sense, and we extend our personal thanks to Ewa for her patient hospitality.

We moved on to the small, otherwise insignificant town of Oświęcim (pronounced Osh-vien-tsim), where before finding tonight's campsite, we relaxed with a beer (Tyskie naturally) in the quiet Rynek. Like many eastern Polish towns, Oświęcim had a sizeable Jewish population which had grown to 7,000 by the 1930s, some 60% of the population; by 1945 this number was reduced to 40, because something supremely evil happened at Oświęcim, better known to the world by its more sinister German name of Auschwitz. Driving out to the campsite, we passed what appeared an innocuous collection of brick-built warehouses; only the electrified barbed wire topping the concrete wall betrayed the fact that inside German barbarians perfected the ultimate practice of inhumanity, degradation and industrial-scale mass murder, utterly incomprehensible to the civilised world.

Immediately following the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, Oświęcim was incorporated into the Reich and its name changed to Auschwitz. Concentration camps for Polish political prisoners and POWs was a German priority for imprisoning and eliminating Polish intelligentsia and leadership classes. Oświęcim already had a pre-war Polish barracks and its position on the railway network singled it out as the site for a concentration camp. Under the notorious commandant Rudolf Höss, work on adapting the barracks began in April 1940, and the first round-ups of potential Polish opposition to German domination were delivered in June. Overworked, undernourished and subject to disease and utter brutality, prisoners suffered high mortality from the start. Following German invasion of USSR in mid-1941, Soviet POWs flooded into Auschwitz making conditions even worse. A second camp was therefore constructed at Birkenau at the site of the village of Brzezinka 3 kms north.

Auschwitz-Birkenau's role as the key extermination centre for Europe's Jews developed from the Wannsee Conference chaired by Rienhard Heydrich in January 1942 which decided on the 'Final Solution to the Jewish Question'. Auschwitz provided the ideal location for conducting mass murder on an industrial scale: the technology for such grotesque inhumanity had already been perfected by experiments on Polish and Soviet POWs, using Zyklon B pellets to produce cyanide gas and disposing of the bodies in crematoria. By mid-1942, Jews were being transported to Auschwitz by rail from all over Europe; the SS already had lists of 11 million European Jews, even from neutral countries such as Switzerland, Sweden and Ireland, who were to be eliminated with systematic German thoroughness in the forthcoming genocide, along with others considered by perverted German ideology as 'untermenschen' such as Roma-gypsies. After a rail journey of up to 10 days locked in cattle trucks, the dazed prisoners were herded out onto the unloading ramp at Birkenau where the railway line came straight through the gatehouse into the camp compound. SS doctors segregated women and children from men, and after cursory examination, those considered unfit for work (elderly, disabled, pregnant women and infants) were ushered directly to the gas chambers for immediate murder. Zyklon B was sprinkled through ceiling vents into the underground 'shower rooms'/gas chambers, and their bodies burnt in crematoria or open pits. Those deemed fit for slave labour were lucky to survive for 2 months, dying of infectious epidemics in the unsanitary overcrowding, Polish winter temperatures of -20°C, malnutrition, overwork and brutality. The precise numbers murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau cannot be known since Jewish prisoners were never registered, but it is estimated that 1.6 million human beings died here at German hands, including Jews, Poles, Russians and Roma.

With nervous forebodings about our forthcoming visit to Auschwitz, we stayed at the well-appointed camping area of the Oświęcim Centre for Dialogue and Prayer just 10 minutes walk from the Auschwitz Museum. With the number of visitors in summer, you are obliged to join one of the multi-lingual organised tours but the guides at Auschwitz provide a knowledgeable commentary, pulling no punches about Germanically perfected practice of utter barbarism. The guide led the small group through to the infamous gate at Auschwitz with its cynical superscription Arbeit Macht Frei (Photo 11 - Auschwitz concentration camp - Arbeit Macht Frei). Some of the barrack blocks are now set out with modern exhibitions to illustrate exactly what happened here, while others have been preserved in the same state as when the Germans evacuated the camp in January 1945. Some show the material remains discovered by the liberating Red Army: huge bales of human hair shaved from prisoners for use in the German textile industry, piles of spectacles, prosthetic limbs and tooth and hair brushes, piles of suit cases showing the names and home towns of victims. These pathetic piles of belongings taken from prisoners, the detritus of mass murder, evoked such extreme feelings of sorrow and rage, as did the catalogues of prisoners photos systematically recorded by the Germans. One block showed evidence of grotesque experiments carried out on their human victims by SS doctors like Josef Mengele. Around the lines of barrack blocks stood the gaunt remains of the electrified barbed wire boundary fencing (Photo 12 - Electrified barbed wire fence at Auschwitz 1). We were led through to stand inside Auschwitz 1's gas chamber, peering up in the gloom to the ceiling vents where experiments with Zyklon B poison gas were carried out, and next door the surviving crematoria, fitted by a German engineering company, the starkly chilling sight of its brick chimney visible through the trees outside (Photo 13 - Gas chamber and crematorium at Auschwitz 1).

A bus took us out to the Birkenau death camp where the 175 hectare site contained over 300 huts. The most chilling sight here awaited us as we stood looking back along that infamous railway line running through the gatehouse to bring trucks of victims to their deaths (Photo 14 - Gatehouse and railway line at Auschwitz-Birkenau), as was portrayed in Spielberg's film Schindler's List which was filmed here. We were shown the interior of one of the desperately over-crowded prison huts where cold, malnutrition, and insanitary conditions produced epidemics of infectious diseases like typhus (Photo 15 - Hut interior at Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp) and the gaunt remains of barbed wire fencing and watch-towers (Photo 16 - Watch-tower & electrified barbed wire at Auschwitz-Birkenau). In the extreme heat of a scorching hot July sun, we walked along that railway line to the remains of the gas chambers and crematoria which are preserved exactly as left when the retreating Germans dynamited them in an attempt to remove evidence of their crimes against humanity. It was an indescribably horrific sight looking down the steps into the underground undressing room and gas chamber where victims were directed, believing they were to take showers. In reality just deadly poison gas fell from the shower heads (Photo 17 - Underground gas-chamber at Birkenau). Their cremated remains were dumped into 2 ponds where modern memorials marked the scene of this vast crime.

Words simply cannot describe the incomprehensible barbarism of Auschwitz. Suffice to say that if any readers are inclined to feelings of forgetting and forgiveness towards German crimes against humanity, then let them come to Auschwitz to see for themselves the sins committed here by Germans. Perhaps such an experience will evaporate ingenuous and misguided feelings of forgiveness. Certainly all that we saw and felt at this small Polish town of Oświęcim will remain with us for ever, to be recalled whenever we witness the arrogant behaviour still shown so often by modern Germans. It is also to be regretted that the natural human empathy felt towards Jewish suffering in the Holocaust is today overshadowed by modern Israeli bigoted and genocidal policies towards their Palestinian neighbours.

Our trip continued with a couple of days in the small Ojków National Park just north of Kraków, and spread along the limestone gorge of the Dolina Prądnika with its varied landscape of river valley, limestone rock formations and peaceful forests. Equally appealing are the remains of 14th century castles built by King Kazimierz the Great to protect the Polish Kingdom and its trade routes from Bohemian incursion.

And so to Kraków. About the only thing to be said in Camping Smok's favour is that it is just a 15 minute bus ride from Kraków's centre; other than that, it is excessively overpriced with utterly surly owners who complacently believe that guests will always want to come to Kraków and there is no need to offer any hospitable help whatsoever. Given the size of the camp, the facilities are hopelessly inadequate and not particularly clean. The site is named after Kraków's legendary dragon, ironically apt given the owners' rapaciousness. Having said that, Kraków is a tourist dominated city with prices that reflect this; but it is also a beautiful and historically significant city which has to be visited. Just don't expect to come away with other than an empty wallet.

Any visit to Kraków inevitably centres around the Rynek Główny, the huge central square, dominated by the Town Hall tower, the iconic statue of Poland's national poet, Adam Mickiewicz and the Sukiennice historical market hall now filled with attractive stalls aimed naturally at relieving the tourists of their złotys (Photo 18 - Rynek, Mickiewicz statue & Sukiennice market, Kraków). Within 15 minutes' walk however, beyond the Floriańska Gate you can be clear of the crowded tourist sites and find more interesting historical and architectural gems like the Grunwald Memorial and Poland's Tomb of the Unknown Warrior (see right), and the small Church of the Holy Cross whose nave and choir are decorated with beautiful 15~16th century murals and whose Gothic vaulting is supported by an exquisite single palm-like central column (Photo 19 - Palm-like central column in Holy Cross Church).

Perhaps the most evocative areas to visit are those associated with Kraków's Jewish community and the notorious WW2 ghetto where the Germans murdered 60,000 Kraków Jews bringing to an end 600 years of Jewish history in the city. Under the Polish Republic, Jewish citizens had during the 1930s figured prominently in Kraków's political and social life, but following the 1939 German invasion and setting up of the so-called General Government with Kraków as its capital, Jews were immediately subjected to discriminatory legislation. In 1941 a ghetto was established in the suburb of Podgórze surrounded by a 2m high wall in which all Kraków Jews were imprisoned in overcrowded insanitary conditions. By 1942, mass deportations to death camps began the systematic extermination of Kraków's Jews. A forced labour camp was set up at Plaszów under the notorious commandant Amon Goeth (as portrayed with such evil conviction by Ralph Fiennes in Spielberg's film Schindler's List) and in 1943 a major SS operation removed or murdered the remaining ghetto population. Many were simply butchered in cold blood on the streets, or transported to Plaszów and worked to death or subjected to Goeth's insane brutality. Oskar Schindler saved 1,200 Jews from inevitable death by managing to bribe the Germans into allowing them to work in his enamelware factory.

A short tram ride brought us from the busy centre across the River Wisła to Plac Bohaterów Getta in Podgórze in search of the memorial to the exterminated Jews of the Kraków ghetto. The open space of Plac Bohaterów Getta, once centre of the WW2 ghetto is now filled with a poignant memorial made up of large metal chairs strewn in rows across the square, symbolising the ransacking of furniture thrown out from Jewish homes and German troops murdered Jewish citizens cleared the ghetto in 1943 (Photo 20 - Memorial to the exterminated Jews of Kraków Ghetto). In the corner of the square the Pharmacy pod Orlem, operated by the non-Jewish pharmacist who was allowed to remain in the ghetto to serve those impounded there, still stands as a museum. Nearby a short section of ghetto wall is preserved as a further memorial. We walked through the grubby workaday back streets to find the remains of Schindler's enamelware factory, recently transformed into a museum portraying the horrors of German occupation and extermination of the ghetto Jews. The hard-drinking, womanising Schindler, a Sudeten German, bought up the failed enamelware business to make his fortune using Jewish slave labour. Enigmatically his motivation changed and he expended his fortune saving his Jewish workers, as portrayed in the Spielberg film. Little of the factory survived the war other than Schindler's office which now forms part of the museum along with other displays presenting a candid record of life under German occupation. Later that afternoon, we walked back across the Wisła bridge to see the former Jewish residential area of Kazimierz with its restored synagogues and Jewish cemetery (Photo 21 - Remu'h Synagogue in Kazimierz and Jewish cemetery).

No visit to Kraków would be complete without seeing Wawel Hill which from medieval times became the seat of Polish royal and ecclesiastical power with the Castle and Kraków's Cathedral. Even after the capital moved to Warsaw, Polish kings were still crowned in the Cathedral and buried in its crypt. Following the Partitions and loss of Polish independence, the Wawel Cathedral became the symbol of Polish national identity and a national pantheon of leading figures, and since re-establishment of the Republic, Polish statesmen have been buried there. Entering the Wawel courtyard, we were taken aback by the huge open space surrounded by Castle buildings and the Cathedral with its towers and distinctive copper and gilded domes (Photo 22 - Wawel Cathedral at Kraków). The Cathedral interior is filled with royal tombs and chapels and the mausoleum of St Stanisław, Poland's patron saint.

Perhaps the most moving experience however was to enter the gloomy confines of the crypt to see the tombs of Polish kings and queens from throughout Polish history. More recent heroes buried here are the post-WW1 independence leader Josef Piłsudski who despite his almost dictatorial period of rule, is now revered by Poles as symbolising their passion for resistance and independence, and the WW2 leader of the Polish government in exile General Sikorski who died under mysterious circumstances. The final tomb was that of the late President Lech Kaszynski and his wife, killed in the April 2010 plane crash on their way to the 70th anniversary commemorations of the Katyń massacre. Kaszynski had been a contentious figure as president but his death prompted a mass outpouring of grief. The decision to grant him the honour of a Wawel burial alongside Polish kings and national heroes has caused much controversy, but it was clear from the crowds filing past the tomb that he now symbolises the expression of Polish identity and pride (Photo 23 - Tomb of late President Lech Kaczynski and his wife, in crypt of Wawel Cathedral). We readily joined the line to file past and pay our silent respects to the late president of the country which is now our adopted home for 3 months.

Leaving Wawel Hill, we returned to the Rynek to visit the magnificent 13th century Mariacki Church which towers over one corner of the square. Legend has it that in 1241 the city watchman sounded a bugle alarm from the church tower to warn the citizens of Kraków of the approaching Tartar invasion; he was killed by a Tartar arrow before he could complete his hejnał bugle call. Today the legend is kept alive as every hour a lone bugler sounds the curtailed alarm call from the Mariacki tower. The church's interior is startling with richly coloured 19th century decorations, but the highlight is the gilded and polychrome panelled altar piece, carved in the 15th century by master craftsman Veit Stoss (Photo 24 - Mariacki Church in Rynek Glówny at Kraków).

This has been a fullsome 2 weeks of experience and learning, and is duly celebrated with an unprecedented gallery of more than 24 of our photos. We now move on for a period in the Tatra Mountains, the Dunajec Gorge of the Pieniny region, and on from there to the isolated far SE corner of Poland in the Bieszczady Hills. Join us again for further ventures, and until then, Do widzenia.

   Sheila and Paul

   Published: 29 July 2010   

Next edition to be published in 2 weeks


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Mazurka Op 33 No 1 in B minor

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