Our European adventure has taken us from Lithuania, down to Poland. Our first stop in Poland was Warsaw. We arrived after a 10 hour bus ride on what is considered a highway, but after 10 hours of bumps, turns, and continuous shaking, we are not sure if we would classify it as such. After Warsaw we took another bus down to Krakow where we spent the second half of the week exploring the cultural capital of Poland and visiting Auschwitz.
Since we saw so much of Poland in such a short period of time, this post is a little longer than usual. There are headings at the beginning of each section to help find the information that interests you most.
Warsaw is the capital of Poland, and boasts an abundance must-dos for the would be traveler.
The Run Down (Warsaw):
- Warsaw Uprising Museum – The Warsaw Uprising Museum chronicles 2 separate uprisings that took place in the city during WWII against the occupying Nazi forces. The first was within the Jewish Ghetto, and the second was within all of Warsaw. Unfortunately, both rebellions were eventually put down. We both found the museum very educational as neither of us were too familiar with the history. One stunning fact that we found out while we were there is that Warsaw was over 85% destroyed by the end of WWII and only about 1,000 people of the over 1 million still resided there by the end of the war.
- Jewish Ghetto Walls – during WWII the Nazis created Jewish Ghettos in a number of cities; these were essentially walled off areas where Jews were concentrated and forbidden to leave on punishment of death. Inside the walls Jews were forced to work as slave labor in factories. The walls today have almost entirely been deconstructed, but a few sections still stand and have been tucked in around the ever-growing city. Searching for the remaining pieces of the wall and one surviving synagogue was a task all on its own as they were difficult to locate, and on each occasion we were the only ones at the site. The picture below is of a piece of the Ghetto wall we found in between some apartment buildings.
- Old Town – Like many European cities, Warsaw has a scenic old town nestled in the heart of the modern metropolis. We spent several hours exploring the various shops and taking in the sights. However, as stated previously almost everything in the city was destroyed during WWII including the old town, so most of this area was actually reconstructed after the war.
- Royal Palace – The palace can be found in the center of the old town, and has many interesting rooms where either the royal family lived or the parliament met through the ages. Unfortunately, the Nazis demolished this palace during WWII (the holes for explosive charges can still be seen in the basement), so the palace was reconstructed in the late 1900’s.
- Marie Curie’s House – Marie Curie was born in the house that we visited in Warsaw. She lived in Warsaw for the first part of her life until she decided to move to Paris to pursue a career in chemistry. We stumbled across her old residence one afternoon which has been changed into a museum of her life. It was quite interesting.
- Other Tidbits – The weather here was quite unpredictable,and not so gentle of showers seem to pass through each afternoon. One of the storms we witnessed was violent enough to actually take down a couple trees and large branches around Warsaw.
Krakow is an extremely fascinating city with so much history and so many sites to see, it should not be missed if you are visiting Poland! While in Krakow we found time to take two day trips to see a ginormous salt mine and also to visit the Auschwitz concentration camp.
The Run Down (Krakow):
- Old Town – The old town in Krakow is quite pretty. The main square features various shops, a massive cathedral, and a market in the old cloth building – all of which are worth a visit. While the original defensive walls that used to surround the old city no longer exist, their footprint has been transformed into a beautiful park which now encircles the old town.
- The Krakow Castle – This castle can be found on the edge of the old town overlooking the Vistula River. It is sitting on a hill, and is quite impressive when you fist see it. The cathedral within the castle grounds has played a prominent role in Polish royal history. This includes being the site of multiple coronations and royal weddings, as well as housing the tombs of various notable figures. Here we also learned more of the interwoven history between the Polish and Lithuanian aristocracy, and how it has shaped both countries.
- Milk Bar – We ate delicious Polish food at a milk bar which during the Soviet era served hearty subsidized meals to workers.
- Salt Mine – A HUGE salt mine resides right outside of Krakow and brought wealth to the country for centuries. We walked over 2.5 KM in the mine which only accounted for 1% of the overall area. Over the years miners created many statues and large ornate rooms like the church shown in the picture below.
- Schindler’s factory – Andy and I never saw the movie Schindler’s List, but we could not pass up the opportunity to see the actual factory where the story took place. The condensed history: Oscar Schindler, who was not always the nicest of men, began using Jewish labor during WWII from the nearby ghetto to boost profits. After witnessing the atrocities the Nazis were committing, he took it upon himself to make a difference. He did this by employing additional Jews and providing them with regular food, healthcare, and a job which the Nazis saw as important enough to leave the workers alone for the most part. He is credited with saving approximately 1,200 Jews.
- Auschwitz-Birkeneu – We had the opportunity to visit many concentration camps as we moved throughout eastern Europe. However, realizing that a day at any of these camps would be difficult, we opted to only visit the notorious Auschwitz camp where approximately 1.5 million people lost their lives. The town of Oswiecim is about 70 km away from Krakow and is the site of the camp. The German name for Oswiecim is Auschwitz, which is where the camp got its name. During WWII the residents of Oswiecim were given a half hour to pack their things and leave. The Nazis made a 40 km ring around the town that no one was allowed to enter. Auschwitz itself was split into 3 separate camps that can be found in different parts of the city. During a visit to Auschwitz today you are able to visit camps 1 and 2. Camp 1 was the first camp erected by the Nazi’s, and was made from old army barracks. It is said that Hitler visited the camp and determined that the rate of extermination was too slow, hence it was ordered that camp 2 be created. Camp 2 is shocking when you first see its sheer size. The wire fencing and prison barracks (or in some cases their remnants) stretch as far you can see. A rail line runs through the middle of the camp and marks where cattle cars packed with hundreds of prisoners were unloaded and sorted. One shocking fact that stuck with us is that some of these people actually paid for train tickets since they were told they would be relocated to a better life. At the back of the camp lays the ruins of 4 large gas chambers and ovens which were used to kill thousands of prisoners each day. Many of those who entered the gas chambers were deceived and told they were only there to receive showers. There is now a memorial at the end of the rail line to honor of those that lost their lives.