Having left Budapest I decided to continue north to Poland and in particular Krakow, somewhere I had always wanted to visit. I’d discovered whilst in Budapest that Hungary operated a vignette system, something I was blissfully unaware of. I certainly do not remember seeing any signs until I’d rejoined the motorway after visiting Tesco which prompted me to do some internet research whilst in Budapest. Unsure what to do ‘after the event’ I decided to not use motorways at all which naturally added to the journey time. During this research I learnt that Slovakia also had a vignette system whereas Poland had tolls. It seems this idea of a united Europe where you can travel freely between countries is not quite the reality; you almost need to plan everything with military style precision!
As the hours ticked by and it began to get dark I found myself in Slovakia, close to the Polish border. The area is known as the Tatra mountains and I remember thinking how forested and unpopulated it seemed. I noticed another sign for a Tesco supermarket in a town called Hrinova and decided to buy some food and drink before finding somewhere to park up for the night. I was also getting low on fuel so set the GPS for the nearest petrol station. It was about 9:30pm when I arrived and they had been closed for half an hour. Since they would re-open at 6:00am I decided to park up, cook a pizza, have a shower and go to sleep.
Wednesday morning I was up bright and early and after taking on more fuel I continued my journey. It seemed to take forever to cross the border into Poland, not helped by the state of the roads in both countries. I was headed for Camping Korona in a town called Gaj which is a short drive from both Krakow and the Wieliczka Salt Mine. Its main entrance was close to a busy 6 lane road which typically was down to 2 lanes due to road works. I’d missed my turn once already and spent almost an hour sitting in traffic. I could not see a way to access the slip road I wanted and finally found myself stuck in a narrow side road, unable to reverse. As luck would have it a young Polish man who happened to live there spoke to a neighbour who opened his gates, allowing me to turn around in his courtyard. This young man even closed his front door, hopped in to the passenger seat and directed me to the campsite entrance, before walking the short distance back home in the driving rain! The weather did not improve that day and my only journey out was to the local bank to withdraw some Polish currency (Zloty) which I would need to catch a bus the following morning.
Thursday began overcast but with signs that the sun was trying to poke through. I packed a sweatshirt and waterproof coat and headed out to catch the minibus that would take me to Krakow. It turned out to be a really warm day, too warm for the jeans I was wearing. I’d not done any research on what to see in Krakow and just followed my instinct starting in the central square taking some photographs. I saw some signs for the Royal Castle and decided to check it out. On my arrival I bumped into a free walking tour that was being conducted in English. It was quite fortunate as not only did I get to learn some of the history of the place but I feel sure I saw things I would have missed had I been on my own.
All around the city were various forms of transportation aimed at tourists including electric buggies. I noticed that some of these buggies toured the old Jewish ghetto and Schindler’s factory. I’d forgotten that Schindler’s List was based in Krakow and decided to follow signs for the Jewish old town. It must have been my lucky day as just as I was beginning to think I would never find the factory I came across another free walking tour concentrating this time on the Jewish history of the city. Two hours later I’d visited synagogues, cemeteries, Helena Rubinstein’s birthplace and Schindler’s factory and places used in the filming. During the tour the guide explained that both Krakow and Prague claim to have the oldest Jewish cemetery in Europe. At the end of the tour he told us about a young boy who managed to escape the ghetto during the war. His name was Rajmund Roman Liebling but he changed it after the war. Being proud of his Polish background he changed it to Roman Polanski.
By the time this second walking tour had finished it was approaching 6:00pm. I could have easily spent another few hours in the city watching all the pretty girls go by but I had to catch a bus back to the campsite. Perhaps I will visit Krakow again one day.
Just before noon on Friday I checked out of Camping Korona with plans to visit the salt mine. I knew that I would probably need to visit the cash machine to pay for the entrance, parking and more fuel later that day. The first cashpoint machine I visited did not accept my card. Things seemed to be conspiring against me as the GPS wanted me to take a road that was closed to traffic due to road works. The other roads it suggested as alternatives either had signs indicating no through road or stated that only vehicles less than 2.5 tonnes were allowed. Failing to see any alternative I took one of these roads, fully expecting problems but I finally found myself at the salt mine car park. When I saw the cost to park I knew I did not have enough Zloty on me. The thought of driving round looking for a cash machine did not appeal and I decided visiting the salt mine was just not meant to be and instead headed for the Auschwitz Museum.
On arrival I was directed where to park, told I could overnight with electricity if I wanted to (all for a reasonable fee) and since it was after 3:00pm entrance to the museum was also free. Once inside the museum entrance there was a cinema showing a film about the concentration camp but since it was not in English I only stayed for a few minutes. Leaving the cinema you then enter the concentration camp through the main entrance gates complete with German text Arbeit Macht Frei which means Work Makes Free which certainly was not the case for those sent to the camp.
The camp has many buildings, each one with a sign stating its purpose whilst it was a concentration camp. I was surprised to learn that at first it was mainly Russian prisoners of war who were kept at the camp but that later Jews from various European nations were sent there as well as Sinti and Roma (gypsies). It is estimated that over 1.1 million people perished at Auschwitz, the vast majority of them Jews. Many were sent to their deaths immediately on arrival without even being registered, those considered fit to work were registered and given the blue and grey striped uniforms. Affixed to the uniforms were coloured triangles which indicated what type of prisoner you were, for example political, clergy, anti-social, common criminals, homosexuals etc. Sometimes a letter was also used on the triangle to indicate the prisoner’s nationality. Some buildings contained personal items that were found at the camp at the end of the war like spectacles, combs etc. Many buildings recreated the living conditions of those at the camp. Boards with the names and photographs of those who died really made the experience more personal. One building was dedicated to the suffering of the Jewish people from the early 1930’s until the end of the war. It was this building that seemed to be the busiest. Whilst I was looking around this building I could hear this woman singing and playing a guitar. I could not make out the words as I assume it was in Hebrew but it was obvious from the way it was sung that it was a sad song. The room where the music was coming from seemed full and the corridor leading to it was blocked. It seemed to be the way out of the building and I was about to try and nudge my way through to leave when I suddenly heard sobbing from inside the room. From what I could see a large group of young Jewish people were gathered round in a circle. Many of the girls were sobbing and were being comforted by friends. I was not really sure what the significance of that particular room was or whether it was just the song that has caused the sobbing. I felt very uncomfortable to be witnessing it, being British I just don’t really do public emotion. A few minutes more passed and other tourists began to make their way past the young people gathered and I finally joined them, making my way to the exit.
Back outside there were more reminders of what the camp looked like. Barbed wire fences, gallows and a wall where prisoners were lined up before being shot. One of the final things I saw was another gallows with a sign that read:
‘This is where the camp Gestapo was located. Prisoners suspected of involvement in the camp’s underground resistance movement or of preparing to escape were interrogated here. Many prisoners died as a result of being beaten or tortured.
The first commandant of Auschwitz, SS-Obersturmbannführer Rudolf Höss, who was tried and sentenced to death after the war by the Polish Supreme National Tribunal, was hanged here on 16th April 1947.
My visit to Auschwitz had been relatively short but it certainly had left a lasting impact on me. Not feeling like cooking or driving I decided to visit the restaurant for goulash and stayed in the car park for the night. In the morning I would begin my journey back towards Slovenia.