Gdańsk: Not forgotten by history

Gdańsk may be best-known for its fraught political history: it is the site of both Nazi Germany’s initial attack on Poland that precipitated World War II and the influential Solidarność trade union that provided the catalyst for the decline of Communism in Eastern Europe.  Much of Gdańsk was destroyed during WWII, and in many places old and new buildings alike are being constructed or reconstructed.  However, beyond the cranes of its shipyards and streets is a charming and optimistic city.

Comprising one-third of Pomerania’s Tri-City (alongside Gdynia and Sopot), Gdańsk is defined by several symbols that are far older than its more widely-known history.  As part of the Hanseatic League, it played a significant part in Baltic trade from the 14th-Century, with evidence of this importance reflected in its striking medieval crane (there we go again), the Żuraw, which at one point was the largest in the world.  A further symbol is Neptune’s Fountain, which stands approximately halfway along the wonderful Long Lane (Długi Targ), and according to legend flowed with Goldwasser liqueur.  It stands in front of Artus Court, a mansion that operated as a meeting place for merchants and dignitaries in the 16th and 17th centuries, and next to Nowy Dom Ławy, from which every day a statue of a lady appears at a window and gazes out over the street.  Although supposedly based on a romantic tale, I found it rather creepy! Although these are probably the most famous two buildings on Długi Targ, every town house on this street is characterised by its architectural precision (and narrowness, invoking Amsterdam but with greater Central European colour), and with the addition of artists, buskers and entertainers, makes for a lively atmosphere.  At either end of Długi Targ is a grand gate, green at one end, gold at the other, again distinguishing Gdańsk from other cities: after all, most Polish cities are based upon market squares rather than principal thoroughfares.

 

A further symbol of Gdańsk is its basilica, St Mary’s.  Some reckon this to be the largest brick church in the world, and should you decide to ride the city’s new panoramic wheel, you will notice that this grand church dwarfs all other structures.  However, it is the streets around St Mary’s that I found most lovely; in particular Piwna, with its brightly-coloured town houses and Mariacka with its terraces and gargoyles.  I visited at the beginning of August, during which the large-scale open-air St Dominic’s Fair was in full throng, which only added to the city’s allure.

For an alternative view of Gdańsk, I also enjoyed renting a boat from ulica Żabi Kruk (pedalos, kayaks and motor-powered boats are all available).  This enabled unrivalled access to the city waterways and gave me some practice in avoiding the larger, local cruises that share the water.

However, it is also worth exploring beyond the old city.  A short walk to the north is the European Solidarity Centre, a highly informative, interactive and moving museum dedicated to the history of the Solidarność movement.  The admissions fee was not large and it should represent an essential component of a visit to Gdańsk amongst anyone interested in recent European history.  I also visited Sopot, the most popular town on Poland’s Baltic Riviera, which was only about 10 minutes’ journey by train.  Known best for its expansive sandy beach, Sopot is also home to one of the oddest buildings I’ve ever seen (Krzywy Domek/Crooked House) and is a good place to enjoy a lody (delicious ice cream) or gofry (waffles).  In between Gdańsk and Sopot is the suburb of Oliwa, which is marked by its lovely cathedral and grand organ, as well as a beautifully-landscaped park.  Given that I did not have time to visit Westerplatte (site of the first battle in the Nazi invasion of Poland) and Zaspa (home to a remarkable collection of building murals), I have plenty of reasons to return to Gdańsk one day.

Key Phrases:

Hello: Dzień dobry

Thank you: Dziękuję

Please: Proszę

Yes: Tak

No: Nie

Street: Ulica

Boat: Łódź

Ice cream: Lody

Waffles: Gofry

 

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Helsinki: A quick trip to Finland’s capital

I never thought I’d find a city that could rival Oslo for expensiveness across all fields (apart from perhaps in Switzerland), but Helsinki gives Norway’s capital a run for its money (no pun intended).  A 500ml bottle of water: €2.50.  A single scoop of ice cream from a kiosk: €3.50 at least.  But if you can accept, albeit somewhat begrudgingly, that a visit to Helsinki will be expensive, you will find a handsome and forward-thinking city surrounded on three sides by a wonderful coastline.

I admit that I found it quite difficult to ‘break’ Helsinki at first.  Even at Saturday lunchtime, the city felt half-asleep, as I saw barely a passer-by anywhere but the central Senate Square and Market Square.  However, the waterfront area, in particular that extending from the market and around the southern-most peninsula convinced me that this is a city with its own charm.  The lovely park, though quiet, contained locals enjoying a range of activities, from jogging to bungee-jumping, and with its series of offshore islands, reminded me of Stockholm’s archipelago.  This is not to say that Helsinki is devoid of other places of interest: it certainly is.  The Temppeliaukio Church (Church of the Rock) is truly unique, and the Sibelius Monument in honour of Finland’s most famous composer epitomises Helsinki’s clean sense of style.   The Kiasma, a modern art museum, perhaps best-represents Helsinki’s futuristic urban landscape: it may be difficult to believe, for example, that the city’s snow-white Lutheran Cathedral was completed as long ago as 1852, before even the hilltop Uspenski Cathedral to its east.  However, on a warm and sunny day, it was the waterfront that most captured my attention, and enabled me to make the most of the city without spending a cent.

Key Phrases:

Good day: Hyvää päivää

Thank you: Kiitos

Finland (as all philatelists know): Suomi

Street: Katu

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St Petersburg: Rushing in Russia

Visiting Russia can be a challenging endeavour given the requirement to purchase visas and the continued suspicion with which the country has been treated by much of the Western world.  Part of the appeal of the St Peter Line is its facilitation of visa-free travel to St Petersburg, enabling visitors to save some money when travelling to one of the world’s most remarkable cities.

Arriving by water is an eye-opening experience in itself.  Early glimpses of the city are rather dystopian, characterised by grim (yet somehow wonderful) industrial docks and railways depots.  Queuing at passport control is a relatively slow process, although it can be exciting to receive a landing card printed with one’s name in Cyrillic.  Taking the compulsory shuttle to St Isaac’s Cathedral, I was excited to make the most of my single day in Russia’s unofficial cultural capital.

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Arriving in St Petersburg by boat may seem inauspicious, but it’s worth the wait

Bearings, first of all.  Central St Petersburg is loosely based upon a series of concentric rings of canals and rivers, similar to Amsterdam’s if less extensive.  Boat tours travel along two of the most scenic, the Moika and Fontanka.  Remaining on dry land, the principal thoroughfare is the famous Nevsky Prospect, which was intended by Peter the Great as the beginning of the long road to Moscow.  However, St Petersburg’s churches and cathedrals represented my favourite aspect of the city.  St Isaac’s is one of the largest in the world, characterised by its distinctive gold-plated dome and almost completely symmetrical neoclassical facades.  Colourful marble, malachite and lazurite, alongside numerous iconostases, ensure that the interior is even more spectacular.  Kazan Cathedral on Nevsky Prospect, meanwhile, is modelled on St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican and it is amazing to think that it was only built in the 19th-Century.  However, the finest structure must be the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, whose onion domes resembles those at St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow.  The interior is completely covered in beautiful religious mosaics.

Crossing the broad Neva River, I arrived at Peter and Paul Fortress, one of the oldest parts of the city (it was the original citadel, founded at the beginning of the 18th Century).  In the centre of the Fortress is the bright yellow Peter and Paul Cathedral, the bell tower of which is the largest of its kind in Orthodox structures.  Returning south of the Neva in an anti-clockwise direction, I briefly crossed Vasilievsky Island with its neoclassical Naval Museum and red Rostral Columns, gaining the finest waterfront view of the Winter Palace and Hermitage Museum.  There can be few buildings worldwide in such a green shade, or that appear so beautiful even in a torrential downpour.  Hoping to view some of the world-class exhibits in the Hermitage, I was disappointed to find the afternoon queue substantial and with time running out before my return to the port, I resigned myself to seeing the Palace only from the broad Palace Square.  On the short walk back to St Isaac’s Cathedral, I passed yet another reminder of Peter the Great’s role in St Petersburg’s landscape, the Bronze Horseman statue erected in his honour by Catherine the Great.

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The Winter Palace

It is easy to feel that this is a city on show, masking relative poverty with some of the globe’s most colourful and intricate architectural styles.  Site-seeing and eating in St Petersburg is amazingly cheap (try Teremok for delicious blinis), and stepping a few blocks south of the very centre, signs of urban decay are evident.  However, this also makes the city feel more ‘real’, reminding us that this is a working city of great contemporary relevance, rather than a museum to Russia’s historical, imperial grandeur.  One day I would love to return and venture further from the centre, but for those on a tight budget, the visa-free opportunity provided by St Peter Line represents an excellent option to gain a glimpse of this spectacular city.

 

Key Phrases:

Hello: Здравствуйте (Zdravstvuyte)

Good afternoon: Добрый день (Dobry den)

Please: пожалуйста (Pozhaluysta)

Thank you: Спасибо (Spasiba)

Yes: Да (Da)

No: Нет (Nyet)

Cathedral: Собор (Sobor)

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Tallinn: Old-world charm, new-world society, best coffee ever!

Tallinn is an intriguing combination of fairy tale old town and technologically-advanced new town.  Indeed, Estonia’s embrace of computer technology – Skype’s software was created by Estonians, the country’s population is deemed one of the most technologically literate in the world and the country even offers a form of virtual, e-residency to individuals interested in administering an online business – provides a reminder that its capital is more forward-thinking than its medieval streets might at first suggest.  As an important Hanseatic trading settlement, Tallinn has long drawn upon external influences too, with Scandinavian, Germanic and Soviet architectural styles contributing to its unique built environment.

With only one day to visit Tallinn, I largely remained in the old town.  Walking from the port, the first two significant sights are the rather disparagingly-named Fat Margaret, a rotund 16th-Century tower that now houses the Estonian Maritime Museum, and a memorial to the tragic sinking of the MS Estonia in 1994.  Continuing further, I enjoyed looking at the colourful churches and houses of Tallinn’s narrow streets, and soaking up the increasingly buzzy atmosphere of tourists and locals alike enjoying their drinks in the numerous street-side cafes and purchasing amber and woollen items from the market stalls.  Activity is centred on Raekoja Plats, the city’s largest medieval square, whose most noteworthy structure is the Raekoda, the oldest town hall in the Baltic region.  Looking up, it is possible to view a small number of (rather comical) dragon-headed gargoyles.  Continuing south-west, the streets become progressively steeper, eventually leading to two of the most famous symbols of the city (both of which represent relatively modern – and Russian – additions to the old town): Toompea Castle, whose pink façade dates from Catherine the Great’s rule during the 18th century and now hosts Estonia’s parliament, the Riigikogu; and the Alexander Nevksy Cathedral, completed in 1900.  Nevertheless, encircling these sites and most of the rest of the old town are the remarkably well-preserved medieval fortifications and towers, of which the imposing Pikk Hermann arguably represents the most spectacular.

Two of the finest (and oldest) religious structures in Tallinn are St Mary’s Cathedral and the colossal St Olaf’s Church, which some historians reckon was once the tallest building in the world.  For a different perspective of Tallinn, one can visit the KGB Museum, which is found at the top of the Hotel Viru, revealing a more recent and sinister period of Estonia’s history.  Overall, Tallinn offers much to interest history-lovers in a compact, picturesque package, and in my personal opinion, some of the most delicious coffee I have ever tasted.

Key Phrases:

Hello: Tere

Yes: Jah

No: Ei

Please: Palun

Thank you: Tänan

 

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Stockholm: Walking on water

Numerous cities, from Bruges to Birmingham, have been given the moniker, ‘Venice of the North’, but in Stockholm’s case, I find this highly reductive.  Stockholm, like Venice, may be built on water, but it offers so much in addition.  Gamla Stan, the old town, is criss-crossed by colourful, cobbled streets as well as the impressive – if somewhat boxy – Royal Palace.  Södermalm to the south is trendier: a gentrified district containing some of the best (and cheapest) eateries in the city.  Norrmalm provides a reminder of Sweden’s international, commercial significance: this is, after all, the nation of IKEA, Ericsson, Electrolux and H&M, the latter of which dominates an entire block of this district.  However, descriptions of Stockholm must inevitably return to the water, and within one mile of the city centre, you can feel like you are in the middle of countryside, whether travelling by boat in the archipelago or walking through Djurgården island’s expansive parkland.

Stockholm also contains some excellent museums.  Although I did not have the time to visit Skansen (the world’s first open-air museum, demonstrating folk traditions from across Sweden), I loved the Vasa Museum, a ship that sank on its maiden voyage in 1628, remained underwater for nearly 350 years, and has now been preserved to an outstanding standard.  The exhibits are highly informative and clearly reveal particular details on the ship, such as the Roman emperors in chronological order on the beakhead.  Other buildings of note include the oval Riksdagshuset (Parliament House), imposing Riddarholm Church (in which the vast majority of Swedish monarchs have been buried), and the waterfront City Hall, which hosts Nobel Prize banquets.  Most of all, however, I enjoyed wandering the tiny alleys of Gamla Stan with its yellow and red plaster-and-brick buildings and arches.  The Stortorget (which translates as ‘The Big Square’, although the first half of its name is a bit of a misnomer) is the historical centre of Gamla Stan, and is a perfect place to pick up an ice cream or waffle from any number of shops. Few places in Europe so seamlessly marry the best of urban and rural life and offer so many photogenic views. Stockholm simply has a lovely vibe, and is a city I would happily return to again and again.

 

Other points to mention:

  • Stockholm is served by four airports. Arlanda and Bromma are the closest to the city, although I landed at Skavsta, 80 minutes to the south-west. I purchased a return ticket on a Flygbussarna coach, which was clean and comfortable.  However, be aware that returning to the airport from the coach stop at Central Station, you must walk past the coach, go into the building via two sets of doors, and then back out again through another set of doors.  The process seemed a bit nonsensical and is unlikely to be a hugely enjoyable experience for claustrophobes, as you are likely to be locked between the two doors for about 20 seconds.
  • SL Travel cards can be shared by users and are operational on a number of forms of public transport, although be aware that they usually need to be topped up before embarkation. I did not use much public transport given that it is relatively expensive, but I noticed several people struggling to use the machines at a bus stop, in part because they were only able to buy one person’s ticket at a time.  These two points about public transport are at odds with the rest of my experience in Stockholm, as I found the city to be extremely user-friendly in all other aspects!
  • Speaking of transport, bicycles are popular and can be rented easily from a number of points around the city. Cycle lanes are clearly marked and looked like the most enjoyable way of getting around, aside from perhaps the boats.
  • Sweden has a reputation for being expensive, but in terms of food, finding good deals is less difficult than you might expect. Many restaurants operate a fixed lunch-time specials menu (dagens rätt), and if you are happy to avoid restaurants altogether (especially in the summer when the weather can be very pleasant) there are several good places to pick up inexpensive street food, such as fried or pickled herring dishes at Nysekt Stromming at Slussen, where Södermalm and Gamla Stan meet.  One indoor location I enjoyed was Falafelbaren on Hornsgatan in Södermalm, and indoor markets such as Östermalms Saluhall also offer a range of high-quality food.  Burger joints are popular in Stockholm too, including the ubiquitous Max.
  • Swedes almost invariably speak fluent English, but pleasingly for those willing to practise their Swedish language skills, locals are generally happy to converse in their native tongue.
  • From Stockholm, we took the St Peter Line cruise on the Princess Anastasia to Tallinn, St Petersburg and Helsinki. This is an excellent budget option (for under €300 two of us were able to stay in an A-class window cabin for four nights with transport included) for those hoping to see a number of Baltic cities, and several restaurants, bars and leisure activities are also offered on-board.  Be aware that some staff only speak Russian, so learning a few key phrases is worthwhile.  The cruise leaves Stockholm from Frihamnen every four days.  Frihamnen is approximately 30 minutes’ walk (or a simple journey on the 76 bus) from Stockholm’s centre.  The following three posts will detail my experiences in these cities.

 

Key Phrases:

Hello: Hej

Please/thank you: Tack

Yes: Ja

No: Nej

Archipelago: Skärgård

Square: Torg

Cinnamon bun: Kanelbulle

Sandwich: Smörgås

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Kraków: A great base for Auschwitz, but so much more

I am cautious of basing evidence on anecdotes, but something that has always struck me about Kraków is its apparent association with Auschwitz.  Several friends have remarked to me that they would be reluctant to visit Kraków because they are ambivalent about ‘having’ to go to Auschwitz as well, as if avoiding the notorious death and extermination camps in Oświęcim would reflect poorly on their own sense of moral conscience.  School trips, both those with which I have been involved, and those organised by my former teaching colleagues, have ‘used’ Kraków as a mere base to travel to Auschwitz, the ‘star’ attraction of Poland.  Even those who have been to Kraków have returned somewhat disappointed that they did not allocate more time for the city, focusing most of their time and attention on Auschwitz instead.  It is indisputable that Auschwitz is (and should be) an important place for individuals with diverse concerns and interests about the Holocaust – or 20th century history more broadly – to visit and commemorate the lives of those grotesquely and inexplicably imprisoned and killed there.  As a centre of pilgrimage, few places worldwide can compete with Auschwitz in terms of visitor numbers and – admittedly immeasurably – determination to attend.

However, Kraków is so much more than a convenient (but also beautiful) stop-off point for people to stay when visiting Auschwitz.  It contains one of the most impressive medieval centres in Europe, an enormous indoor market, and numerous churches of differing ages and architectural styles.   Kazimierz, the former Jewish district, is a vibrant and constantly revitalising neighbourhood where Jewish culture is increasingly being celebrated by non-Jews (and some reckon that Jewish population figures are rising here too).  A 30-minute tram ride to the east, visitors can see Nowa Huta, an enormous Socialist-Realist suburb, offering its own intrigue.  Wawel is a great castle in a country of great castles and arguably Poland’s most important symbol of national identity.  Wawel also contains a cathedral and Renaissance architecture that would not look out of place in Verona or Ferrara.  South of the River Wisła (Vistula) is Oskar Schindler’s factory, immortalised by Steven Spielberg’s film.  Several easy day-trips of diverse content are also possible from Kraków, including Poland’s largest winter resort town of Zakopane, other medieval cities such as Tarnów, and just 20 minutes or so by train the mines of Wieliczka with their chapels and sculptures made from salt.  In fact, Auschwitz is nearly 60 kilometres (40 miles) west of Kraków, which should enable those reluctant to visit the death camps to see Kraków as a tourist destination in its own right, and not intrinsically linked.

Time to explore Kraków’s appeal a bit further, then.  The Stare Miasto (old city) is the best place to start, centring on the enormous Sukiennice (cloth hall) within the Rynek Główny (Main Square).  Most of the stalls inside the cloth hall are rather underwhelming, selling a variety of souvenirs, although Poland is famous for its wonderful amber.  However, the sheer scale of the cloth hall is quite unexpected, and its condition belies its nearly 500 years of age (the original version was even older and reckoned by some as the oldest shopping mall in the world).  Size and beauty seem quite important in Kraków more broadly: the Rynek is one of the largest and best-preserved medieval market squares in Europe, and at one corner stands St Mary’s Basilica with its two uneven towers, whose disparity has been mythologised as a competition between two brothers to build the taller and more beautiful tower, ultimately resulting in the murder of one brother by the other.  Every hour a bugle player performs the city anthem (hejnał), but is cut short abruptly, symbolising the 13th-century Mongol invasion of the city and the arrow that pierced the unfortunate bugle player’s throat.  The interior of St Mary’s Basilica is incredibly ornate and well worth the small entrance fee.

The Rynek Główny is also home to several other noteworthy structures, including the beautiful Town Hall Tower; the tiny Church of St Adalbert, which is almost 1,000 years old; and a statue of Adam Mickiewicz, a romantic poet who never actually visited the city and appeared to self-identify as Lithuanian rather than Polish.  Nevertheless, he is revered in Poland too, and his statue enjoys pride of place opposite the Sukiennice.  The Rynek is also surrounded by elegant, colourful town houses and represents the city’s focal point with the sheer tourist numbers to match.  Visitors can take a horse-and-carriage or segway tour, or simply sit back with a delicious Polish cake – sernik (cheesecake), kremówka (cream cake) and szarlotka (apple cake) are particularly popular – and a cup of coffee or tea.

Surrounding the Old City are the concentric rings of the city fortifications, which meet at the Barbican to the north, and the Planty Park, a pleasant place to enjoy a lody (ice cream) from one of the many parlours located around the city.  To the south is Kazimierz, a charmingly shabby neighbourhood that is fighting its own gentrification battles, but draws in tourists seeking some of the city’s Jewish history and culture (there are at least four active synagogues plus several synagogue-museums here), as well as numerous restaurants and bars offering less convention and lower prices than in the old town.  Two popular places to find street food are Plac Nowy (New Square), which is the polar opposite of Rynek Główny in aesthetic appeal but is home to numerous holes in the wall where one can buy a zapiekanka (essentially an open baguette smothered in cheese and a choice of toppings), and św. Wawrzyńca, which has several food stalls offering cuisine from across Europe. If you prefer to eat inside, an excellent place for inexpensive pierogi (Polish dumplings) is Pierożki u Vincenta, a restaurant painted in Van Gogh style and offering both sweet and savoury pierogi, although be aware that not all flavours are available every day.  I can particularly recommend chicken and spinach (which comes with garlic sauce) and cherry (which comes with sour cream – a Polish staple).  The bars of Kazimierz are buzzy but not overcrowded, and have their own distinctions; Singer, for instance, provides a sewing machine at each table. Poles are rightly proud of their vodka (or wodka), which comes in an array of flavours; I would particularly recommend fig.  Perhaps Kazimierz’s best museum is the Stara Synagoga (Old Synagogue) where one can learn about Jewish practices and history as well as the changing dynamics of Kraków’s Jewish community.

Across the River Wisła is Podgórze, a largely industrial district famous for Schindler’s Factory (which was unfortunately closed when I visited).  Although Kazimierz represented the cultural heart of Kraków’s Jewish community, the city’s Jewish population was forced into Podgórze by the Nazis in 1941, creating a squalid Jewish ghetto. A memorial to the victims is present at Plac Bohaterów Getta (Ghetto Heroes Square), where chairs are ‘scattered’ to represent the abandonment of belongings and ultimate absence of people during World War II.  Although this was the most organised and systematic form of scattering I have ever seen, it was easy to feel the poignancy of the place.  Somewhat reflecting the work of Schindler in saving Jews from the concentration camps, the pharmacist Tadeusz Pankiewicz protected many of the Ghetto’s families by clandestinely supplying medicine and food and allowed his pharmacy, Apteka Pod Orłem (Under the Eagle) to operate as a social centre for the resistance movement.  The pharmacy is now a museum.

Returning north of the Wisła is Wawel Castle, which dates from the 14th century.  The Castle is today a complex of museums and a cathedral, each of which requires a separate ticket.  Perhaps the finest exhibit is to be found in the Crown Treasury and Armoury, but even a walk through the grounds provides a glimpse of Polish national identity.  Much of the Castle was designed by Italian architects and it can be easy to forget that you are in Poland.  The Castle is in phenomenally good condition and ought to form a component of any trip to Kraków.

Finally, I will mention Nowa Huta.  Trams can be caught from the centre of Kraków, and tickets are bought from kiosks or machines at tram platforms.  Stations are listed within the tram, so it is not difficult to identify the correct stop.  Do not go to Nowa Huta expecting the same architectural beauty as central Kraków: as a socialist-realist town, it may reasonably be described as ‘functional’, but it represents an intriguing place in its juxtaposition to Kraków.  A utopian project, the district was intended to house the growing industrial population of the city and was designed to minimise fire and nuclear damage as well as defend itself from any invasion.  Although many of the prospective buildings were never constructed, one noteworthy site is the Kościół Arka Pana (Lord’s Ark Church).  The church resembles Noah’s Ark and was constructed by local volunteers from 1967 until 1977 without any state support: after all, the residents’ adherence to Catholicism stood in stark contrast to communist secularism.  Such religiosity is one of the few things that ties Nowa Huta to central Kraków, but a visit to this district enables visitors to understand some of the city’s history under communism and Cracovian life beyond the centre.

I am certain that Kraków is one of the most beautiful – but also atmospheric and characterful – cities I have visited anywhere in the world.  It represents excellent value, and although it is becoming increasingly popular with international tourists, it is still far quieter than Prague or Vienna, perhaps the most comparable Central European cities in terms of architecture and international fame.  Do not hesitate: it will reward you.

Getting in:

Worth noting is that a newly reopened railway line serves the airport from the main station (Główny), and trains are clean, comfortable and fast (but without the high fares one might expect elsewhere).  Kraków is also easily served by long-distance train or bus, and other southern Polish cities such as Katowice have international airports that are well-connected to Kraków.

 

Key phrases:

Dzień dobry: Good morning/good afternoon

Do widzenia: Goodbye

Proszę: Please

Dziękuję: Thank you

Kawa: Coffee

Herbata: Tea

Przepraszam: Sorry

Rozumiem: I understand

Nie rozumiem: I do not understand

Tak: Yes

Nie: No

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Auschwitz-Birkenau

This was my second visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the two notorious concentration and extermination camps based in the small town of Oświęcim, approximately one hour from Kraków.  The camps are situated 2-3 kilometres apart although a free shuttle service exists between the two.  I opted to take one of the organised tours from Krakow simply for the ease of returning to the city after what would undoubtedly prove an emotionally fraught day; however, Oświęcim is also easily accessible by public bus or train.  I have had several conversations with friends who remain sceptical about visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau, and I am sure many others are uncertain whether to undertake such a morbid experience.  I would simply say: “Make sure you know your motivations for going to Auschwitz”: it should not represent an ‘obligation’ for visitors to Kraków and the experience is far more fulfilling, both for oneself and for others, if you know why you want to visit.  Unfortunately, a few people on my tour did treat the visit with minimal obeisance and appeared to visit because “it’s what you do when you’re in Kraków”.  A quick complaint: taking smiling selfies in front of the Death Wall and inside the crematorium is thoroughly inappropriate, as our guide, visibly frustrated and upset with such behaviour, explained.  Thankfully, most people were highly respectful of the countless (literally: numbers are still much-debated) people who were murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau, as well as those who survived almost unbelievable suffering, but the presence of even some unwelcome behaviour was disappointing.

There is not much that I can say about Auschwitz-Birkenau that has not been said elsewhere.  It is a thought-provoking and distressing experience, even in the midst of a spring heatwave; I am sure a visit during Poland’s bitter winter would be even more atmospheric.  I found the most disturbing part the railway platform at Birkenau (Auschwitz II), where prisoners were divided into two groups.  One group was sent to work; the other to the gas chambers.  It was not difficult to imagine the confusion, stress and panic experienced at this site.  Auschwitz I is arguably the more famous of the two camps, owing in part to its ironic sign, ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’.  It is disturbing in its own way, surrounded by guard towers, barbed wire fences and signposts decorated with a skull and crossbones that instruct those considering escape to “Halt! Stoj!”  Indeed, the place’s sinister atmosphere is constantly apparent.  Most people take guided tours, which are organised effectively, with visitors receiving headsets, enabling them to tune into the guide’s explanations without having to physically stand beside their guide at all times.  Moreover, guides do not need to raise their voices and visitors can listen to the history of the site as they walk through the (often narrow) corridors of the barracks.  Particularly poignant exhibits include piles of suitcases inscribed optimistically with their owners’ names, the shoes and hair of the prisoners, and photographs of prisoners taken shortly after their arrival, along with their nationality, occupation and the date of both their arrival and death.  Very few of the prisoners survived for longer than three months, whilst changes in the politics of the camp, particularly as Nazi resources became increasingly strained, were also apparent.

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Auschwitz I

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Auschwitz I: At first glance, it’s eerie how unassuming it appears.

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Birkenau/Auschwitz II

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International Memorial

On returning to Kraków, there was still enough light to take a walk in the city’s beautiful centre, before heading to Kazimierz, the historic Jewish district located a short wander to the south.  Here I booked a meal with live klezmer music at one of the highly recommended Jewish restaurants, and was able to reflect on the day’s experiences whilst enjoying some of the rich culture of Polish Jewry.  Kraków has seen a recent revival in Jewish culture, celebrated beyond the Jewish community, enabling me to honour the dead as well as participate in its rediscovered vibrancy.

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