Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Traveling again…

You’re probably starting to think that all I do here is travel.  I’m starting to think that too.  Last weekend was the group excursion to Krakow and Auschwitz, and it was an entirely different experience than the previous weekend’s trip to Romania.  Instead of riding in vans with Janos and Robbie, our wonderful drivers and guides in Transylvania, we all rode together in a 28 passenger mini-bus.  That was kind of nice at times, because we weren’t secluded in three separate vans, but I still liked the vans better.  I’m more of a small group kind of girl, so it was easier to get to know the few people in my van on more personal terms, and we had a lot of fun.  We actually had more wiggle room in the vans, too, and on 8-9 hour drives, wiggle room is a very nice commodity. 

We left early on Thursday morning, picking up Professor Fetzer at his apartment on our way out of the city.  I think most people napped until we reached thr Slovakian border.  I can’t say that for sure, because I was sleeping, too, but it was very quiet on the bus.  Here’s a quick geography lesson for those of you who may be wondering why we were at the Slovakian border (don’t worry, I wouldn’t have known this myself before coming here): directly north of Hungary is Slovakia, and north of Slovakia is Poland.  The border crossing was a breeze and took much less time than the crossings into and out of Romania, the latter of which took nearly an hour.  This time the crossing was over in an easy 5 minutes.  And then we were in Slovakia.  My passport is getting a lot of stamps. 
Around lunch time we stopped in Banska Bystrica, Slovakia, for a 2.5 hour break.  It’s a fairly picturesque little town.  We wandered down the main street, looking in some shops for awhile and then had lunch in a little cafe.  I had brought a sandwich from home, so I ate that before we sat down and then just had a coke while Christy, Chandra, and Julia enjoyed some Asian cuisine.  After lunch we poked around a bit more.  We found a lovely old graveyard, quite possibly the nicest I’ve ever seen, and looked in a couple of churches.  Unfortunately they were both locked, so we took a picture with the statues outside one of them and headed back to the bus (after buying some ice cream of course - we do nothing without the oh-so-delicious gelatto they serve here!). 
 
Then it was back on the bus for six more hours.  We were all getting a little antsy by the time we reached Krakow, because even the border stop (again, very fast), didn’t give us a real chance to stretch our legs.  It continues to amaze me, however, how vastly different two bordering countries can be.  As soon as we entered Poland the houses had steeply sloped roofs to combat the heavy snowfalls they will get in about a month, and the industrial plants gave way to farmland and animals.  Both countries are lovely, but the High Tatra Mountains in southern Poland are breathtakingly beautiful.  More about them later.
We finally reached Krakow about an hour late, so we rushed to our hostel to confirm our lodgings and then zipped to the restaurant where we had dinner reservations.  We ended up getting there almost 45 minutes late, but they still seated us and served a Kosher supper (we ate in the Jewish district).  Vegetable soup, chicken with rice, spice cake, and, most blessedly of all, non-carbonated water!  I don’t know if I’ve adressed the issue of water here yet.  It is possible to buy non-carbonated bottled water, and in Budapest anyway it is safe to drink the tap water, but anytime you’re in a restaurant or a hostel or pretty much anywhere you are served water, it will be carbonated unless you specify that you prefer it with “no gas.”  I don’t care for gas in my water, so I was greatly relieved to be served unlimited (another welcome concept, and one that is not present in Hungary) gas-free water. 
After spending the night in our hostel (there’s not really much to say on that; it was a hostel like many others, complete with beds and showers), we went down to the Krakow main square where Saint Mary’s Cathedral is located.  This church is imposing enough on the outside, but upon going inside, we were blown away by the ornate beauty of it.  We didn’t take any pictures because there was a service going on, but it was simply stunning.

There are some interesting historical stories that go along with this church.  You’ll notice that the two spires are different.  They were designed and built by two brothers, one of whom took painstaking care on his spire, and the other of whom was a bit lazy.  It is probably obvious to you which is which, but in case it is one, the careful brother worked on the left-hand spire, and the lazy brother did the right-hand one.  Well, when the lazy brother realized that his spire was second-rate, he stabbed his brother, thereby killing him.  Later, overcome with anguish at what he had done, he stabbed himself too, with the same blade he had used to kill his brother.  The end.
Second story: every hour on the hour a trumpeter plays from the topmost window of the left-hand spire.  In the middle of his song, he abruptly stops playing.  This is to commemorate the fact that hundreds of years ago the watchman in this tower saw a coming Tartar invasion from far-off and played a trumpet to warn the citizens of Krakow.  He was shot by a Tartar arrow partway through his song, though, and killed.
We just don’t have stories like this in American history.  The best we have is Paul Revere.  It is so cool to be in a place with such history.
Anyway, after the church, we split up for awhile.  Some went to visit other churches while others went into the market to look at the Polish wares.  I hadn’t known this prior to going to Krakow, but the area is known for its amber, so the place was practically teeming with amber jewelry.  It was enough to make me drool, but too expensive for me to buy any of the pieces I really liked.  Someday, when I am a rich woman, I shall return to Krakow and purchase an amber necklace.  Possibly even the matching earrings.  We’ll have to see just how successful I become.
Before heading to lunch at a cafe, Kyla, Mary, Christy, Eric, Chandra and I climbed the many, many stairs up into the clocktower to get a view of the square.  The stairs were a bit precarious, but I’d say they were worth it in the end.  The views were specatcular.  Krakow is a gorgeous city.
 
After lunch the group reconvened and walked to the Wawel Castle (which is in Krakow).  I’m not really sure about the history of the castle, and we only toured the state rooms, which are now more like a museum with fabulous art from all over the world.  I think the pieces were castle decorations, but are now displayed more as works of art.  I was amazed at the good condition the castle was still in after all these years.  Obviously it has been preserved, but it still felt like a place of great opulence and elegance and not like an old building.  The castle grounds were my favorite part, though.  They were absolutely gorgeous - so well-kept and clean.

Mary and I went up into the belltower of the Wawel Cathedral (which is on the castle grounds) too, to see the view it afforded.  This set of precarious stairs was also well worth the climb.

Friday evening we were on our own for supper, so Mary, Chandra, Kyla, Julia, Christy and I walked the 15 minutes to the Jewish district where we found a little out of the way place to eat supper.  We had planned on a quiet supper before going back to the dorm to go to bed early so that we wouldn’t be tired for Auschwitz the next morning.  When we stepped into the Stajnia Pub, though, and asked if they had room for six, we were told that they did, and there would also be music and dancing later that evening.  Would we like to stay for that?  Well of course we would!  It was perfect timing, too, as the music and dancing was scheduled to start at 9, and we arrived just after 7.  That gave us an hour to order and eat, and then an hour to wait.  An hour is easily passed, and before we knew it, bad ‘80s music was playing and the pub was packed with late-twenty-somethings.  It was the perfect dancing experience.  All the men in the pub were there with their female counterparts, so there was no uncomfortableness from being hit on by someone who speaks another language (or even who speaks English), and everyone was just having a good time.  It wasn’t even too smoky, although our clothes stunk a bit the next morning.  Since the dancing started at 9 we were able to leave by 10:30 without the regret of not having danced long enough, but still with enough energy to walk back to the hostel, and we were still in bed by 11.  It was the perfect ending to our day.  Here we are in front of the pub after leaving.  (l-r, Kyla, Chandra, Mary, Julia, Christy, me)

Saturday morning we ate an early breakfast and then drove to Auschwitz, which is about an hour and a half away from Krakow.  I’m not really sure how to relate my experience there.  It’s really a place you have to see for yourself, because everyone will have different reactions to it, and I don’t want to tell you how you should or will feel if you go there yourself.  So I’ll try to keep my comments here more objective.  First of all, Auschwitz I is an old army barracks, and it almost has the feel of a college campus, what with the brick buildings, grassy lawns, and tree-lined walks.  I know that when it was being used as a concentration camp, it was not such a nice, well-kept place.  It was hard to reconcile such a pleasant atmosphere with the atrocities that I know happened there.  Auschwitz I is set up as a museum now, with the various exhibitions housed in the barracks.  It was terribly difficult to see all the shoes, toothbrushes, prosthetic legs, eyeglasses, and other objects that were taken from the oppressed when they arrived, but I think the worst part (for me at least) was seeing the piles of hair that was shorn from innocent heads and bodies, and to see the fabric that this hair was used to make.  So inhuman. 
After giving us a tour of Auschwitz I, our guide came with us to Auschwitz II-Birkenau, where a few of the barracks have been left standing.  We saw where the prisoners came off the trains, slept, washed, and went to the bathroom, and we saw the crematoria ruins.  The camp is huge, and it boggles the mind to imagine the number of innocent people who came, worked, and died there.  It is a memorial now, though, with grassy expanses where there used to be barracks and dirt, and a stone memorial to those who died and were murdered in the Holocaust in a dozen languages.

When we left Auschwitz-Birkenau, I was so emotionally drained that I slept the whole way back to Krakow.  After we got back to our hostel, I felt the need to be around life, so Julia and I headed back to the main square, where we just hung around for a few hours.  We both bought some necklaces to give as gifts at Christmas, and we watched a lot of street performers: a mime, a bagpiper, breakdances, accordianists.

There are so many street performers in Krakow, many of whom are children.  I spent probably $5 giving a little here and a little there to child performers before Julia and I rejoined the group at 7 to go to supper all together.  After supper we headed back to the hostel, and a few of the girls sat and chatted in my room until midnight, at which point we went to sleep.
Sunday we basically just travelled all day, with a 1.5 hour stop in Zakopane, Poland (in the High Tatra Mountains) for an early lunch.  Rachel, Aron, Chandra, Julia, and I went to one of the few open eateries in town, and had some of the best hot chocolate I’ve ever tasted.  We weren’t really hungry for lunch yet, so we just had dessert instead.  :)  Apple pie a la mode, but not the “mode” you’re thinking of, I bet.  Four scoops of ice cream were brought to our table, two of which were coffee-rum, and two of which were strawberry shortcake.  I was kind of hoping for vanilla.  Silly me.  Following our dessert and cocoa, we wandered around a bit, enjoying the mountain air and scenery.

All in all, it was a good weekend.  Auschwitz was hard, as expected, but I’m glad I had the opportunity to go there and experience it.  I think it is something that will stay with me for the rest of my life. 

Posted by Emily MacLeod on 10/03 at 07:11 AM
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