Zakopane, Southern Poland, Sunday, August 12, 2012
One of the drawbacks of a city based campsite can often be its situation. If it is well sited for visiting the city then the chances are it will be crowded, noisy and not particularly suited for relaxation between excursions.
We were expecting this as we approached Korona Camping just south of Krakow. For a start the site is situated directly off a major dual carriageway which is treated by most drivers as a motorway. Then the approach on that motorway is through the
sort of out of town sprawl common in any western city: petrol stations, car dealerships, sheds manufacturing or selling all sorts of stuff, Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonalds etc. etc. Then having negotiated the tight right left slalom to get off the
main road onto the track running alongside it, we turned into the site with some trepidation. How wrong we were. The lane down to the site dropped down through some trees to reveal a campground beautifully laid out with good sized pitches shaded
by silver birch trees and small fir trees that looked like Christmas trees should. The drop from the motorway and the trees cut out most of the traffic noise and the size of the pitch meant we could relax in sun or shade at any time of day. The
toilet block was clean, but small, there was a little bar which served food and provided free WiFi and we were give details of local minibus service which passed the main gate every 15 minutes to take us into town for less than €1. We regularly
saw a little red squirrel that came down to the bird table near the bar to pinch bread buns, and the trees were well populated with a variety of tits and even some nuthatches. What more could we want?
We woke to a hot and sunny morning and had breakfast outside, for the first time in many months. We spent the day relaxing. Well I did, while Lesley struggled with the operation of the washing machine. It was too hot for doing much anyway. However by lunchtime there was the rumble of thunder in the hills around us and the clouds became very ominous. By late afternoon the storm broke, with lightning shimmering up and down the electric cables from the nearby pylons and the crashing of thunder shaking the ground. Fortunately the air was much cooler afterwards.
Next day we set off for Auschwitz, or Oswiecim to give it its Polish name. The huge car park was lined with bars, pizza restaurants and other fast food outlets, which seemed a bit out of place, but we queued for our ticket and joined a guided tour in English. The site at Auschwitz was originally a Polish army barracks, so the brick buildings seem quite smart and not at all what I was expecting. We were taken into a number of them though and inside brought it home with a jolt. Most of the buildings have been made into mini museums, with some visited by all tours, others by specific nationalities on their own tours. Each building has its own theme, such as the transportation of the Hungarian Jews, the rounding up of the Roma. The first building we entered was one of the warehouses where confiscated belongings were stored. Mountains of shoes, mountains of suitcases, spectacles, combs, shaving brushes, all sorted into categories for later use. Another building had been left to show the appalling accommodation, where hundreds slept on the floor of each room. The corridor of this building was lined with photos of all the (mainly) Polish prisoners there, the date of birth, occupation, date of arrival in the camp and the date of death. Eventually the Germans had tired of taking photographs and prisoners were given numbers instead, tattooed on their arms. Then there was the punishment block, where prisoners who had broken the rules were beaten, forced to stand for days on end or locked in a room without food water or air until they died. Next to this was the block where the Nazis experimented with chemicals to perfect the operation of the gas chambers, and doctors like Mengele were able to carry out their experiments. A number of pharmaceutical companies, including Bayer, paid to be able to use the prisoners to test their new drugs. Just outside the wire was the first of the gas chambers and crematoria.
Initially Auschwitz housed Polish prisoners, to be joined by Soviet prisoners of war (to whom the Geneva Convention did not seem to apply). Then the Jews started to arrive and the Nazis realised they would need a much larger camp. They took over the nearby village of Birkenau and three associated hamlets and sent all the occupants as slave labour to Germany. The Auschwitz prisoners were then instructed to take the village apart, piece by piece, and use the materials to build the vast new camp at Birkenau. Then the shipments of Jews began in earnest. Trainloads arrived daily and the prisoners were inspected by a“doctor”. Those that were fit for work were taken to the new huts, where they would have a life expectancy of about two months. The rest were herded down the platform in the belief that they were being resettled. Their life expectancy would be less than two hours. At the end of the platform they entered the shower rooms, stripped and were gassed. The gas chambers were destroyed by the Germans as they fled, but the remains are there, and there is a huge monument to remember the estimated one and a half million who died there. The tour of both sites took the best part of four hours and was very physically as well as mentally exhausting.
The whole experience for us was very sobering. The camps are somewhere one has to see, but somewhere one does not want to go back to see again. It was difficult to comprehend the enormityof what went on there, to comprehend the reasoning behind it, and to wonder whether now, 70 years on, we have learned and remembered the lessons this sorry period of history has taught us.
Early on Monday morning we got the crowded little minibus in to Krakow. The day was forecast to be hot, and we wanted to get a fair bit seen before it got too hot. When we got into town we were standing looking at a city map, deciding which way to go, when a young lad struck up a conversation with us. He was an Australian student, from Brisbane, studying for his Masters degree at the University. He had Polish grandparents, so could speak Polish well. He had half an hour to spare so he guided us into the main square in the Old Town, telling us all manner of folk tales and snippets of history as we went. As we walked along we could here chanting and singing, and caught glimpses of a procession of ordinary looking people in the next street. When we reached the square the procession was still passing. It must have been over a mile long. It was a procession of pilgrims going to visit the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, one of the most popular pilgrim destinations in Europe apparently. It is a site very close to the hearts of the Polish, a source of their nationalism. At one time the Madonna was even proclaimed Queen of Poland. The pilgrimages are not just for the deeply devout. Many young people join in and the festival takes on the same aura as, say, Glastonbury.
Krakow old town, the Stare Miasto, is dominated by the central square, the Rynek Glowny, which is the largest medieval square in Europe. The square, in turn, is dominated by the centralCloth Hall, the Sukiennice, a 16th Century market hall now filled with local art and craft (and junk) stalls, by the town hall tower, which is all that remains of the 14th century town hall, and by the Mariacki, the 14th century church, towering above one corner of the square. Unusually for our eyes, this huge old church is brick- built Gothic, which gives it an appearance of being Victorian rather than its real age. The inside of the church is highly decorated, with blue painted ceilings and an enormous carved high altar covered in lifelike sculptures. It has two towers, one topped by an “amazing ensemble of spires”. The other is the bell tower. Every hour a trumpeter sounds a plaintive melody from the tower four times, once in each direction. The melody is cut short, said to be from the time the tower was used as a watchtower and the watchman was shot with an arrow by the invading Tartars as he was in the middle of sounding the alarm.
The Rynek Glowny is surrounded by elegant houses most of which are now bars and cafes where Krakow’s finest sit and watch the world go by. As it was so hot we sat with a beer rather than the usual coffee. Then we walked across the square to the Jagiellonska University’s Collegium Maius, Europe’sthird oldest university, where Copernicus studied, to see the 14thcentury arcaded courtyard and the clock, which on the hour plays “Gaudeamus Igitur” while displaying models of academics in gowns.
Then it was a walk down to Wawel Hill, calling on the way at the Basilica of St Francis which has some lovely Art Nouveau murals and stained glass windows. Wawel Hill, the site of the palace, cathedral and castle, is a popular destination for Poles and was, as expected, very crowded. There was a long queue to buy tickets to go in the cathedral, a longer queue to buy tickets for the Royal Palaces, and, given the heat, we decided not to bother. The cathedral houses the tombs of many of Poland’s monarchs, which it is why it is so popular with the Poles, who have suffered several centuries of foreign rule by Austrians, Hungarians, Prussians, Germans and Russians.
On the way back to the bus we lunched at one of the Old Town’s street restaurants. Lesley had “Pork Roulade”, a sort of rolled stuffed pork steak, while I had “Grilled Chicken with Fruit”, a strange mixture of chicken breast grilled with a slice of pineapple and half a peach on top, then covered in a sauce of whole cranberries. By then it was too hot for anything so we caught the bus home. On the way we noticed a motorway temperature sign. There are many of these at the roadside in Poland, giving the air temperature and the road surface temperature, presumably as a warning of ice. This one gave the air temperature as 38 degrees and the road temperature as 56. When we got home we sat in the shade with many beers and litres of water.
Next day we did some shopping in the morning (at Tesco) then in the afternoon we visited the Wieliczka Salt mines, which had been recommended to us. Wieliczka is quite a large place just outside Krakow, clearly shown on the small scale map we had, and the mines are hugely popular, but I don’t think the Krakovians like it, as there are no signs to the town at all on any of the roads in and around Krakow. We eventually found the town and started following the brown tourist signs to the mine. The locals have learned that tourists look for brown signs, so have made all their own advertisement signs brown as well. In the end we found a renovated pithead in the town centre that looked like it, but no sign of a car park. All the parking places around were metered, which was not really appropriate as we had no idea of how long we would be. Eventually we found a small car park, paid the meter up to closing time and walked back to the pithead. Oh no, it was the museum, not the mine entrance. They directed us to the mine, about 200 metres away. The 200 metres turned out to be nearly 400, but we found the mine by the crowds. Again, not a signpost in site, but right at the top of the road was a P sign, and when we studied the plan of the site on the board saw that there was a huge car park. We joined the queue for half an hour to get tickets for the English guided tour and eventually got into the mine nearly three hours after we had left the campsite 8 miles away.
The entrance to the mine is down a staircase of over 50 flights, of seven stairs each, zigzagging down to the first level. The tour was most interesting, showing how the miners worked the salt, how they carried it up to the surface. They have been mining salt there for centuries and the mine only closed in the ‘90s when flooding became too dangerous and the mine became uneconomical. As a tourist attraction it was good. In many of the caverns there were salt sculptures of various famous people who had visited, including some monarchs, Goethe, the Pope and others whose names are unpronounceable and unspellable. There were salt carved tableaux of miners working, then, best of all, there was a full sized church carved within the salt.
It is a working church, used for mass every Sunday. It is used regularly for weddings, and on a higher level there are reception rooms, conferencerooms and restaurants carved into the salt. Return to the surface, fortunately, was by lift. It was the proper four storey miners’ cage lift. One lady in front of us would not go into it as she was claustrophobic. What she was doing down there in the first place, and how they ever got her out, I have no idea. Perhaps she is still there.
Next day was to be our last in Krakow, so we had a relaxing day, apart from a trip to Nowa Huta, the new town
built by the Russians just outside Krakow, together with a giant steelworks. The Russians had decided that Krakow was too cultured and intellectual for their purposes, so they built Nowa Huta as an example of how a communist community should work. Laid
out like a British model village such as Saltaire or Port Sunlight, but with blocks of flats instead of houses, it had quite the opposite effect to what was intended. Instead of fostering the Stalinistic type of communism they had hoped, it became
the seedbed of proper Socialism, with trades unions growing. When the uprising in Gdansk started, Nowa Huta was the second town to foster the quiet revolution that was to finally oust the Russians and give Poland its long awaited independence.
It was a short journey in miles to our next stop, Zakopane, but it took a couple of hours longer than it should simply because of the volume of traffic. The last ten miles was at walking pace. We found our site, on the outskirts, with no difficulty and the owner came rushing out to greet us like long lost friends. It is a small site, almost akin to an English CL, with room for just 20 units at most. While we were there there were only about eight others. The owner, Maciej, fusses about like a mother hen, helping to pitch the caravan, filling the aquaroll, offering advice etc. At first we thought it was charming, then we realised he is a bit obsessive, as is his wife. He hovers by the door to his house, mop in hand, and whenever anyone uses one of the toilets or a shower he rushes over to clean it straight away. It is not unusual to see the wife polishing the sinks and taps at 11 at night. Nevertheless it is a very pleasant site.
Zakopane itself is delightfully situated in the Tatra Mountains, with high peaks all around. The architecture is unique, wooden chalet type houses on stone bases made with round river-worn stones and with roofs that have ridges and peaks going in all directions. The town was once a very smart resort, but sadly has become a victim of its own success. The one road to and from it is perpetually clogged with traffic, car parks are full, buses are stuck in the traffic too so they are no faster, and the geography of the place means there are no short cuts or back streets to bypass the jams. Fortunately the main street has been pedestrianised, but even here the pedestrian traffic is slowed to a crawl by the masses of people, mainly Poles, out to buy the truckloads of tack that is for sale. Traditional Zakopane goods like stuffed toys, plastic walking sticks and all the other stuff you find at a fairground are being bought as if they were the latest and best. There are long queues at every cash dispenser. Yet hardly anyone stops at the stalls where aged farmers’ wives sell their home made cheeses and herbal drinks. Amongst all these tack stalls are restaurants serving anything from burgers, to sausages, to steaks, to ribs. Anything that would be quickly cooked and served with fries. It is all such a shame.
And now it is raining, and the mountains we have come this far to see have disappeared behind the clouds. Maciej promises it will be better tomorrow, but then he said that yesterday. Whatever, we will be moving on on Monday (or possibly Tuesday) as Croatia is calling and we have three more countries to cross before we get there.
PS there was 2 cm of snow fell on the mountains last night, but we can't see it through the cloud.