First stop was a salt mine a few miles outside of Kraków which is a major tourist attraction. Luckily I’d booked the English speaking tour with about 25 people. I think I was the only actual person from England. We started off by descending 64m via a wooden staircase that seemed to go on forever. Temperatures in the mine were between 14 and 16°C. The lowest point in the mine was 327m underground which is more than the height of the Eiffel Tower. The mine dated back to the 13th century.
The 90 minute tour was good but once again my expectations were a little too high. I was glad to know that Copernicus and John Paul II had both visited the mine. John Paul, or Jan Pavel as they say in Poland, twice, before he became pope.
It was massive. Each time I thought it couldn’t get any bigger, we’d enter an ever larger room. There was a bar, cafeteria, dining room and wedding venue. There were two kilometres of trails and I think we walked them all.
At the end of the tour it was a 1km walk to the elevator back to the top. It started at floor -137.
After the mine I headed to the mountain resort town of Zakopane. The weather changed from “Patrick friendly” to shit. I was caught in a rain storm which according to one resident, was the worse rain he’d seen in 2 years. Fire trucks were out on the streets, along with residents with shovels clearing debris. It was actually quite exciting.
The forecast Zakopane was absolutely terrible. 90% chance of rain. It’s a shame because this is meant to be one of the most beautiful areas of Poland in the Tatra mountains. After arriving, I went straight to the gym followed by the spa. Indoor stuff!
The rain stopped and it brightened up so I went walking in the town. First up was the upsidedown house which was appalling. Possibly one of the most pointless tourist attractions I think I’ve ever seen. My tour lasted slightly less than a minute. The entrance fee was £4 – the least value for money, for time spent, ever. The main thoroughfare of Zakopane was heaving with people so I headed to an elevated restaurant and drank beer.
I was up with the sun (although I couldn’t see it), and went strolling. The hotel was located in a lovely wide tree-lined road with flowers, grass verges and attractive chalet style buildings either side. It really was a very pretty mountain town. Zakopane lies at the bottom of the valley about 2300 feet above sea level. The mountains are all around apparently. I couldn’t see them on this morning as they were shrouded in cloud. It was a good 10° cooler than what I was used to – some might suggest I was inappropriately dressed. Crowds had gathered in the Main Street and I asked what was going on. A festival no less.
I was interested in doing some light shopping for mountain gear (just what I need), but I found myself caught in the festivities. It was an annual festival and consisted of representatives of various countries passing by in national/ regional costumes with a little dancing and singing. It was actually highly entertaining. I’m sure I saw Terry Venables in one of the groups.
The countries represented were Poland, Hungary, Macedonia, Czech Republic, Romania, Serbia, Bosnia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Turkey, and then bizarrely, Mexico and India. I was disappointed that an English contingent of Morris Dancers didn’t waft by, but I was far more distracted by the footwear to care too much. Mexico were the most lightly represented but they made up for it with noise.
After the festival “footwear watch”, I needed a beer, so found a nice quiet spot watching people dodge the rain.
Back at the hotel I went to the spa and was dismayed when a couple brought their 18 month old baby into the steam room. It became the “scream room” and I wondered what on earth these, so called, parents were thinking. I left immediately. Then, in the sauna, another couple brought their young daughters in with temperatures that a Bedouin would have struggled with. I left again.
The rain didn’t stop so I remained in the hotel and watched “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas”, in preparation for the following day. Good movie.
Monday – Auschwitz day
The traffic from Zakopane to Auschwitz was terrible. It was only 83 miles but ended up taking three and a half hours. I had to check myself. I was visiting Auschwitz and I was complaining about traffic.
Whilst driving, I decided to torture myself with a Barry Manilow playlist full of sentimental lyrics. I figured I may have been the only person, ever, who was driving towards Auschwitz listening to Barry Manilow.
It was raining when I arrived and there were people everywhere with umbrellas and ponchos. I was on an English speaking tour and this time there were English people in the group. We all got herded through security, similar to an airport. They were looking for screwdrivers. Apparently it’s a thing that people want to take home momentos from Auschwitz.
About two minutes after I bought an umbrella, the rain stopped. I can’t remember the name of our guide however he didn’t convey the solemnity that I was expecting. He could’ve been describing how to assemble a carburettor. The groups of about 30 people, were following one another closely on the two hour tour.
Auschwitz was a former Polish military base and on September 1st 1939, the Germans invaded Poland. The first inmates arrived in Auschwitz in May 1940. The camp would be operational until January 1945. In total 1.3 million inmates passed through Auschwitz, with 1.1 million being killed. Famous or notable inmates included Anne Frank and Victor Frankl.
Once an inmate arrived they were given a number and their names were no longer used. They were given between 1500-1700 calories a day in sustenance. I did find it interesting that inmates were allowed to bring between 20-50kg of luggage. That’s quite a generous baggage allowance.
Around 800 prisoners tried to escape but only 144 successful were successful. The camp had a double layer of barbed wire fence around 10 feet apart.
We were taken through a number of buildings exhibiting belongings – spectacles, luggage, shoes. The most disturbing was the exhibit showing just hair.
Towards the end of the tour we were shown one of the gas chambers which could hold up to 700 people at a time. There was a hole in the roof and the Zyklon B gas pellets were released into the chamber from there. The Jews were told to strip naked and walk into the room on the pretense of decontamination and delousing. Zyklon B contains cyanide and affects the respiratory system. An adult of average weight will be dead within 2 minutes. In the room adjacent to the gas chamber was the crematorium. Extermination was swift and effective. What took time was disposing of the bodies.
Only about 15% of the SS guards were brought to justice. The camps first and longest serving commandant was Rudolf Hoss, not to be confused with Rudolph Hess, Adolf Hitler’s right-hand man. He was convicted by a Polish court in 1947 and hung at Auschwitz. He was 45 years old.
Hoss lived in a house adjacent to Auschwitz with his wife and five children. Apparently, they enjoyed living there and had a nice garden. In 1942 Hoss had an affair with an inmate who became pregnant.
After Auschwitz there was an option to visit the second camp, called Birkenau (Auschwitz II), however I’d seen enough.
After Auschwitz it was less than an hours drive to Katowice where I was staying in the only five-star hotel in town for a modest £73. The Monopol Hotel was very interesting with the room door opening outwards. Inside the furniture look like it belonged in the 1940s, but the spa downstairs was very special.
In the morning I had a little mooch around Katowice but I didn’t see much of it. I wasn’t taken with it. By 10am I was heading back to Warsaw to catch my plane back to the UK.
I’d got to the airport with four hours spare, hoping that it would allow me some good quaffing time in the lounge, however, checkout didn’t open until two hours before, so I was thwarted. At least it wasn’t the unfortunate 15 hours I spent in Las Vegas airport.
I was forced to find a bar and actually pay for my “flying wine”. Luckily, Chopin airport doesn’t charge an arm and a leg for wine. The plane was delayed, so I went to another lounge after passport control and found myself sitting amongst a group of Jews in full regalia. They were sprawled over the sofas and some looked dead. Especially this chap. A good trip.