Tag Archives: Krakow

European Capital of Culture 2000 – Krakow

On the second day of our visit to Krakow there were two groups with very different plans.  Micky, Sue and Christine were going to visit Auschwitz but as we had been before Kim and I chose Mike’s Crazy Communist Tour instead.

We had seen this on a Michael Palin travel programme and it looked like fun so we were keen to give it a try.

To be honest, we were all a bit surprised that Christine wanted to go to Auschwitz because when we had visited Seville the previous year she refused to visit a bull ring because animals had been killed there but she didn’t seem to mind visiting a Nazi concentration camp where over a million and a half people were abused, tortured and murdered.

Auschwitz

After an early breakfast the Auschwitz group set off in their taxi and with an hour to spare before our trip we walked around the streets of Kazimierz, through buildings that were little more than empty shells with rapidly deteriorating structures, through the grounds of a grand church and into the main square that used to be even more important than the market square in Krakow itself.

Without a street map we inevitably became confused and ever so slightly lost and only made it back just in time for our scheduled nine-thirty pick up.

The feature of the tour is that the transport is in an original ‘communist’ Trabant car with the promise of a ‘crazy’ driver and sure enough outside our hotel was the vehicle and the driver who presented himself as Eric and who immediately introduced us to the features of the car.

The Trabant (which in medieval German was a foot soldier or personal guard) was an automobile that was produced in former East Germany and was the most common vehicle in that country but was also exported to neighbours inside the communist bloc and sometimes even to the west.

It was called the People’s Car and was so popular and production was so inefficient, that it could take up to fifteen years to deliver after placing the order.  The main selling point was that it had room for four adults and luggage in a compact, light and durable shell, which western critics mocked and suggested was made of cardboard but was in fact a sort of fibreglass/plastic.

There were four principal variants of the Trabant, ours was the 601 Station Wagon model, hand painted in black with socialist red trim and finishes.  Eric explained that the engine was a small 600cc two-stroke power unit with only two cylinders which gave the vehicle a modest performance with a top speed of seventy miles per hour and zero to sixty taking twenty-one seconds at full throttle ( for a rather pointless comparison a modern formula one car will achieve 0 to 60 in under two seconds).

There were two main problems with the engine, the smoky exhaust and the pollution because the car was responsible for producing nine times the amount of hydrocarbons and five times the carbon monoxide emissions of the average modern European car.

Eric explained that the car had no fuel gauge so even though there was a small reserve tank getting to a destination could be a bit of a guessing game and require a large stroke of luck.  Because there was no fuel pump in the car the petrol tank was placed high up in the engine compartment so that fuel could be fed directly to the carburetor by way of gravity.  As the engine does not have an oil injection system two-stroke oil has to be added to the fuel tank every time it is filled up, which I imagine is a bit of a chore.

This all sounded rather dangerous to me because you have to open the bonnet to refuel and after a run to the petrol station it would be almost certain that the engine will be hot so I imagine it takes a great deal of concentration and Indiana Jones type nerves of steel to visit the filling station!

Nowa Huta Krakow Poland

Keeping a car like this roadworthy probably requires divine intervention but once on board Eric carefully negotiated his way out of Kazimierz and towards the main road that would take us to our destination, the communist model new town of Nowa Huta, to the east of Krakow.

Inside, the car was basic with rudimentary controls and dashboard.  The four speed gear box was operated by a column mounted gear change which looked quite tricky to me but Eric seemed to know his way around the gears well enough and he guided us effortlessly through the early morning traffic.  One of the problems he pointed out was that other drivers didn’t often show a lot of respect to the little Trabant and this sometimes made progress slow and difficult.

I was moderately relaxed even though I knew that if the inefficient drum brakes ever failed and there was an accident that my legs were effectively the crumple zone and just a few centimetres in front of my face was the fragile little petrol tank ready to burst into flames and there was a couple of occasions when I found myself operating an imaginary foot brake and Kim admitted later that even though she was in the back seat that she was doing the same.

It took about twenty minutes to drive to our destination and in between dodging the gaping potholes and keeping an eye out for discourteous fellow road users, in preparation for the tour and over the clatter of the engine and the creaking of the chassis, Eric kept up an informative narrative about the history of communism in Poland.

It was great fun especially as we rattled over tramlines and Eric fought with the steering controls to negotiate some tight bends but eventually we arrived at our destination, left the car and began our visit to Nowa Huta.

http://www.crazyguides.com/

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Boundaries

We now had some time to spare before the others returned from their visit to Auschwitz so we walked into the market square which was now bathed in gentle central European mid March sunshine and found a café with pavement tables and a good vantage point to be able to see what was going on.  As the horse drawn carriages jangled by and the place filled up with tourists I wondered how they were getting on at the concentration camp tour and I began to recollect our own visit there in 2006.

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Cities of Poland

Krakow – Read the full story…

Wroclaw – Read the full story…

Warsaw Old Town and Royal castle

Warsaw – Read the full story…

Warsaw was good but it doesn’t have the historical swagger or confidence of Krakow or the quirky charm of the more manageable Wroclaw because Warsaw is a modern European capital with the raw edge and the buzz of a major city.

Whilst I might consider returning to Krakow and Wroclaw, once in Warsaw I think is probably enough.

Warsaw, Research and Travel

Map of Poland

I have visited Poland before, twice to Krakow some time ago and last year to Wroclaw.  I liked it and this year there was an opportunity to travel to the capital city of Warsaw.

I had never really thought seriously about going to Warsaw before and I put this down to the fact that when I was younger I always associated it with two things.  Firstly, word association and the town of Walsall, which is a dreary unattractive, industrial town in the Black Country in the United Kingdom which is a place that few people would visit by choice.  Secondly the term Warsaw Pact, which was the name of the Soviet military alliance in Eastern Europe which during my early years seemed to be the sinister organisation responsible for plotting to wipe us of the face of the map in a messy nuclear strike.

Anyway, I have overcome these objections now and when cheap air fares and a good hotel deal coincided on the same dates I needed no convincing to go there and I set about carrying out my usual research.

Warsaw Old Town and Royal castle

Poland is placed thirty-ninth in the Human Development Index which means that it is the top fifty or most highly developed countries.  The Index ranks countries by level of ‘human development’ and the statistic is composed from data on life expectancy, education and per-capita gross national income.  It is rated nineteenth out of thirty in the European Happiness Index, which may not sound very impressive but is two places above the United Kingdom so when people complain about Polish immigration I say perhaps it is a good thing and more Polish people might cheer us all up!  Iceland, by-the-way remains way out in front.

Poland has fourteen UNESCO World Heritage Sites which puts in nineteenth place in the World and tenth overall in Europe which is no mean achievement.  One of these sites is the historic centre of Warsaw which was rebuilt after the German army destroyed it as they retreated in 1945 and this one of the sites that I was really looking forward to seeing.

Perhaps not surprisingly the country was rather late joining the Blue Flag Beach initiative but is now catching up and has by 2014 achieved the status at seventeen beaches and Marinas on the Baltic Sea, although that represents a loss of eleven from the previous year.

Warsaw Old Town

But some things are not going so well, in football Poland has finished third twice at the Football world Cup but has been spectacularly unsuccessful in the European Nations cup where it has qualified twice but on neither occasion progressed beyond the group stages and if you think that is disappointing it has made the finals of the Eurovision Song Contest only nine times in sixteen attempts although it did manage to come second in 1994 despite almost being disqualified for the curious reason of rehearsing in English!

But it is the history of the country that fascinates me most because Poland has had a most dramatic last one thousand years and the reason for this is largely down to its unfortunate geographical position on one of the volatile European political fault lines with powerful neighbours to both east and west using it a convenient buffer state and taking it in turns to use it as a punch bag.

For the entire period that there has been a place called Poland its borders have expanded and contracted and moved this way and that as other more powerful states have invaded it, subjugated it and periodically annexed those parts that they took a liking to.  The last great redrawing of the boundaries came in 1945 which gave us the geographical shape of Poland that we recognise today.

Poland Border Revisions in 1945

It was an early morning flight to Warsaw Modlin airport and as the Ryanair flight was called we lined up ready to board the plane. Ryanair has a reputation as being a pretty shabby airline but has improved recently but this morning it was back to the bad old days.  For this flight someone at the personnel department had assembled the rudest possible team of people to administer the departure gate and I can only assume that there must be a special selection process to achieve this sort of ill-mannered combination of staff.

They began with the baggage check and pulled out a couple of young girls for the ritual humiliation of testing the bag size in the dimensions checker.  While they struggled to rearrange the contents the sour faced rottweillers looked on smugly waiting for them to fail and to present them with a £50 bill each – a nice little earner!

Generally speaking I think it is people’s own responsibility to ensure that the baggage complies with the rules but this morning I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the two victims. Why? Well, because I cannot understand the selection process in the bag witch hunt and there were plenty of others that would so obviously have failed the dimensions test as well.  As I struggled to comprehend this the answer became blindingly obvious – most of the other oversize bags were being carried by six foot brawny Polish builders and I imagine that it is a whole lot easier to pick on a young girl than a towering man mountain!

And then on the plane one of these giants came and sat next to me.  Most people know that Ryanair seat space is not very generous and this man was huge in both height and girth and he had a massive padded coat that smelled of salami and stale cigarettes and he seemed strangely reluctant to remove it.  It was a very uncomfortable journey and I was so glad when we landed in Warsaw and I could get some space and some fresh air.

Palace of Culture Warsaw

Weekly Photo Challenge: Depth – Krakow, Wieliczka Salt Mine

“Wherever he saw a hole he always wanted to know the depth of it. To him this was important.”                                                                                                                           Jules Verne –  ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’

Down in the mine we walked for three and a half kilometres through a succession of chambers, carved chapels and exhibits that explained the history and the operation.   The route took us to a depth of three hundred and twenty-seven metres and down a precise total of eight hundred steps.  Almost at the bottom was the star of the show where an entire cathedral complete with a statue of the Polish Pope, John Paul II, had been craved into one of the largest caverns.

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Krakow, Wieliczka Salt Mine

Entrance Tickets – The Oskar Schindler Enamel Factory in Krakow

Oskar Schindler's Factory Museum After a while we arrived at the factory, which was being converted into a museum but as the project was way behind schedule there was only a temporary exhibition to look around. When Podgórze became the site of the Jewish Ghetto many Germans set up businesses in the area in an attempt to profit from the Nazi invasion of Poland. Oskar Schindler was such a man, but in the end he came to save the lives of over eleven hundred Jews that worked in his factory, often at great risk to his own life and at personal expense.

 

 

 

 

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Remembering Auschwitz

Auschwitz

“Dawn came on us like a betrayer; it seemed as though the new sun rose as an ally of our enemies to assist in our destruction.”                                                        Primo Levi – “Survival in Auschwitz”

27th January 2015 is the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.  In 2006 I visited Krakow in Poland and went on a bus trip to the notorious Nazi concentration camp.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect and I confess to being a little apprehensive at the beginning of the tour especially when a cold wind seemed to blow across our faces at the very moment we passed through the infamous gates of the camp; or perhaps I just imagined it?  There is a story that no birds fly across the camp but I did see a solitary crow passing by so I presumed that this was indeed just a bit of folklore.  I didn’t see any more however.

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