Category Archives: Poland

Travelogue Poland 3: Warsaw

WARSAW 
11-12 June 2014

We’d done the right thing booking the first flight out from Katowice to Warsaw because, while it was a mission to get up early after the NIN concert festivities, it meant that – even with commute and transfers – we had a full day in the nation’s capital.

We caught a taxi from the airport for about R200 that dropped us almost at our lodgings, unable to drop us at our door as we’d booked to stay right on the Old Town Main Square (Stare Miasto Rynek), which was pedestrian-only for a few blocks around it. 

Our apartment was a bit like the one we had in Zagreb; quaint, perfectly appointed, huge wooden bay windows, translucent curtains… but minus the unexpected old lady live-in landlord (and hopefully minus the church bells at dawn!). The building must’ve been super old, with its entrance a mere tunnel off the Square, the wide and winding staircase (we were on the 4th floor; no lift!) in the original bare wood, the front door thick, heavy and solid with the original brass key (and a collection of deadbolts that the door had obviously collected over the various periods of strife it’d lived through).

We were an hour early, so literally bumped into the caretaker and his wife (as they were coming up the stairs and me careening down the stairs to tell Christian the bad news, that there was nobody to let us in). They were more than happy to let us deposit our bags as long as we got out of their hair to make up the flat. Not that we needed any encouragement on that front; we were out the door in a flash!

As luck would have it, there was a Tourist Information office right beneath our apartment, so we grabbed a free map… and were almost immediately able to tick off number 10 (The Old Town Square), 11 (The Warsaw Mermaid Statue), 12 (The Historical Museum of Warsaw) and 13 (The Museum of Literature) of the Top 30 Things To See in Warsaw!

Founded in the 13th century as a prince’s headquarters and a fortified settlement, the Old Town is an exceptional place. Almost entirely destroyed during World War lI, it was restored so faithfully to the original that UNESCO still listed it as a World Heritage Site. The Square is a constant hub of activity, with cafés and restaurants on the fringe spilling out umbrella’ed decks and beer gardens, artists exhibiting sculptures and paintings, children playing in the fountain, and buskers creating a continuous melodious soundtrack making every moment a memory. 

In the centre of the Square is the Warsaw Mermaid Statue, paying homage as the mermaid is Warsaw’s symbol and on its coat of arms. Legend has it that a mermaid swimming in from sea stopped to rest near the Old Town and liked it so much that she stayed. The local fishermen thought she was interfering with their hauls so intended to catch her, but fell in love with her instead when they heard her sing. Along came a baddy rich merchant and actually did capture her, so when a young fisherman mobilised his mates to free her, she took arms with sword and shield and vowed to protect the city and its people. 

Our walking tour next took us one block down to an even bigger square, Plac Zamkowy, in front of the Royal Castle. This had been the headquarters of kings and authorities since the 16th century, was the place where the Constitution – the first in Europe and second in the world – was adopted, and is now a museum. It was almost completely destroyed in the war, but was rebuilt using the parts that survived. 

Again the Square was there to be enjoyed and people were darting in and out of purposefully-placed sprinklers to soothe the seating heat. There was a lively atmosphere and the resonance of people enjoying themselves – in the restaurants as well as just hanging out, walking or cycling. Not entirely sure why so many people were free on a Wednesday afternoon, but that’s a different discussion entirely. 

We walked past the Waza Column – erected in 1644 by King Wladyslav in honour of his father who’d moved the capital to Warsaw from Krakow – and down the road. While there weren’t any places of interest according to the tourist map, the road and its buildings are still surreal and breathtaking. Double lane wide pavements on either side of a double lane road, everything immaculately paved and cobbled, dotted with neat street lamps and flower boxes. Grandiose buildings on either side hosting all sorts of things, arbitrary and otherwise. And ice-cream shops. Lots and lots of ice-cream shops. 

Every second person has a varigated chocolate and vanilla softserve cone, with the ice-cream spiralled gravity-defyingly taller than the depth of the cone below it. Ice-cream is a big business in Warsaw, it seems. Apparently it’s all year round too; obviously in the blazing summers, but also in winter where people bundle up so much that they get hot in all their thermals and buy ice-cream to regulate their body heat!

By now it was lunchtime and so stumbling across a Molly Malone’s was all the serendipity we needed to get a grazing happening. We still went local though, sharing a wicked but delicious chleb (lard with bacon bits served with slices of sourdough and rye to smear it on), a bigos (sour stew made from cabbage, sausage and mushrooms) and a plate of pierogi (mushroom and cabbage). Polish food is really tasty – and of course agrees with me since their main food groups being sausage, potato, cabbage and mushroom!

Lunch gave us quite a bit to work off! Luckily all the sites are walking distance, in a convenient loop and – like Krakow and Katowice – Warsaw is completely flat, making walking a pleasure.

We tackled the inland sights first, heading for the Tomb Of The Unknown Soldier where, fortuitously, we caught some sort of military parade with loads of soldiers dressed in different types of uniforms were marching with all the usual pomp and regalia. 

On the road again, we headed through the Barbican and curtain walls into the New Town, which is not so new now having been around since the 14th century. Until the 18th century it was a completely separate town, with its own town admin, city hall and church. Its Rynek (Square) doesn’t hold a candle to Old Town though, being a fraction of the size and – besides living up to the by now quite passé breathtaking beauty of the buildings in general – quite unremarkable, with its only piece of interest being a cast iron well adorned with a virgin and a unicorn.

We’d long-since gotten church fatigue, which is a pity because, of course, all of them are magnificent. They stand out even among the rest of the picture-perfect city… but there are just too many to make any stand out as of consequence. We did however pop our heads into the St Francis Seraphic Church as it is famed for its original 17th century baroque interior escaping the fires ensuing from the War’s bombings. And we were walking past. And it was open. And it was free. And there was no queue. 

That was the farthest point on our plan, so we changed direction toward the Vistula on a road that junctioned at a panoramic viewing deck. Sadly, Warsaw has opted to put a double lane freeway along the bank of the river, so it’s not as pretty or serene as Krakow’s. They do however have a Multimedia Fountain Park on the riverside, with literally hundreds of fountain nozzles ejecting water in sequence for a constant show, which apparently is accompanied with lights and music on Friday and Saturday nights. The fountains are all housed in pools the size of Durban’s paddling ponds, but swimming is not allowed, just dipping of feet, made comfortable by a thick flat lip around the pools for people to sit on.

We of course were on a mission, so no time to dillydally in the fountains! We had a few last things to see before sundowners at the oldest pub in Warsaw (not that there was any danger of the sun going down for hours yet, just that our body clocks are preprogrammed on SA time and you can’t mess with that!)

The most notable stop was a turn through Kanonia, a small triangular square behind the cathedral where the canons (priests) had been housed in the 17th century. Besides being charming in its crude rickety cobbledness, it also houses a large gunmetal bell, which was never hung. Apparently, going round it 3 times brings luck so, never one to turn back on a superstition (as Granny said, just in case), that’s what we did.

We also saw the narrowest house in Warsaw, which is only one window wide. This shrewd builder avoided taxes as back in the day land tax was based on the width of your facade, just like in Hanoi). Still, more scientific than our dear City of Joburg who seem to do property valuation using ouija boards and bingo balls!!

Sights done and dusted – and probably a good 10km of tread clocked – we crossed the river to the oldest pub, Pod Barnlka, for a Guinness. We thanked our lucky stars that we booked the apartment we did as we’d very nearly booked one on this Square (almost expressly for its reference to the oldest pub!). While still ok and still an easy walk into the Old Town – everything is after all walking distance from everything – it didn’t hold a candle to where we were based, right in the thick of things! 

Having seen everywhere on our walking tour, we’d pinpointed New Town for our dinner so wound our way slowly back there, taking time to stop at some of the sights that had been busy earlier when there had been lots of tour groups (refreshingly seemingly mostly young Poles) out. The most notable was the Little Insurgent Monument – a statue of a little boy wearing a helmet way too big for him and carrying a big machine gun, commemorative of the contribution made by the heroic children who took part in the Warsaw Uprising. Scary that times were so awful that small children were actively fighting wars.

The day had provided lots of good fodder for dinnertime conversation at our chosen destination, Podwale Piwo Kompania, which we’d chosen for the setting, the atmosphere and – most importantly – gabolki on the menu… which turned out to be so delicious that we contemplated ordering a second round!

But we didn’t, and rather went for a second round of sundowners outside the Palace. Very confusing with the sun only setting so late and throwing everything out of sequence! 

When we were finally en route back home we considered stopping for a finale at the beer garden outside our apartment, but were lured into the Shamrock underground (literally) pub. With a normal (but small) entrance on rhe road level you enter onto a landing and then veer down some steps, snaking to the tunnels below, where the pub itself is housed. They reckon some of the cellars date back to the 13th century and are naturally the best preserved because they’re underground so they avoided all the chaos of the wars and whatnot. 

The tunnel we were in was semi-circular and only just high enough at it’s highest point for Christian to stand upright with a smidge to spare. Couches were built into the low part on the one side and a well-stocked bar ran the length of the other. Not a window in sight! Moving to the end of the bar we saw a few steps down, which opened into a full blown (big!) undeground tavern, with the only natural air or light coming from a small delivery chute at the far end. What a wonderfully weird and wicked place to conclude our trip!

Travelogue Poland 2: Katowice

KATOWICE
09-11 June 2014

The train from Krakow was supposed to be 2 hours (for the 70 km journey), but took almost 3 thanks to some indeterminable delays en route. It was hot as Hades on the train which, although spotlessly clean, looked like it had survived a bygone minimalist era with its maroon springy cushioned benches and spartan finishes.

The station is far grander though, with double volume ceilings, shiny floors and lots of shops, restaurants and cafés. Apparently this is a relatively new thing, with this sparkly new building only replacing its drab communist predecessor in late 2012.

Exiting the Station (at what we were later to discover was the worst possible exit) we found ourselves on a main road, with no clues as to where we were or where we needed to go. We ended up circumnavigating the block and ending up at the other end of the Station… and conceded and jumped in a taxi, showing him our hotel booking form for direction. 

We’d – cleverly, we thought – based ourselves at the hotel closest to the stadium hosting the concert we’d come all this way for, but started to have doubts about this wisdom as the timer ticked over in the taxi as we inched through the evening’s 5 o’clock traffic. Twenty minutes later we were checking in at the Olympic Spodek and not too concerned about anything, having laid eyes on the magnificent oddity that is the Spodek Arena. 

Built between 1964 and 1971 and weighing in at some 246 thousand square metres of circular arena with space for 11000 people, the building was nicknamed the “Latajacy Spodek” for its striking resemblance to a flying saucer. Our hotel was nestled in just behind the arena, and was very comfortable as a single storey of identical rooms laid out around a long central lounge area with several poof leather couches, a bizarre indoor putt putt course and a handful of gym machines, with the whole lot in the searing spotlight of a skylight that ran the length of the room.

The hotel provided us with a tourist map and Katowice guide, which we took to the only shaded couch to study, fearing we were to hell and gone from everywhere and everything would be a mission. Au contraire! Our location was not as dire as it had seemed. As can happen, the taxi had had to go the long way round, where we as pedestrians had the option to walk across the Square in front of the arena and through the spaghetti of tunnels that ran under the big traffic circle (of cars and train tracks) that separated our side from the main town.

It wasn’t much of a walk for us and we were at the station no more than 10 or 15 minutes later. Amazing how different – and much easier – the town looked when we had a map… and no luggage.

The Pocket Guide tourist map we’d been given was really self-deprecating on poor Katowice, apologising for its newness, its stem primarily functional in the industrial age. Not to say it didn’t have a long history before that – the area having been chronicled as inhabited by Silesians in 1299, changing hands a few times, and settling with the Prussians under the name Karolina in 1942 – just that, while it had suffered mercifully little comparatively during WII, it had been shamelessly and primitively exploited of natural resources following the war and all the ensuing Communist complications. Now, with many clunky bronze statues dotted around the city to commemorate their crawl toward a market economy, Katowice is only now starting to embrace the possibility of a bright future.

This is all gone into at great length in the guide as a prequel to stating that there is little to see and do in this city. 

While it does lack the textbook palace / Old Town / ruins / bohemian district, as long as you’re keen to eat/drink/shop in wide café-lined pedestrian streets then Katowice is not so bad! And  we’re always keen to do all 3 or any combo thereof, so had a lovely wander through a mall and around the town and then set about tracking down Bar Pod Siodemka (Bar 7), which had been recommended for its local fare.

While we were disappointed that they were out of golabki (meat parcels wrapped in cabbage and baked in tomato sauce), this gave opportunity to try other exciting things and, despite the temperature still being over 30 degrees in the evening, we had soup to start – zurek (sour rye soup with sausages and potatoes) and garlic broth with soaked croutons. For main course we shared 2 quite different things: placki (potato pancakes, served thick like flapjacks but crunchy on the outside like hashbrowns) stuffed with chicken and wild mushrooms, and a Silesian speciality called rolada slaska (rolled beef filled with onion, bacon and pickles, sort of like a beef olive) served with kluski slaska (pillowy potato flour doughballs – essentially a Pierogi without filling – like big gnocchi). All washed down with the local Tyskie beer (although our other favourite, Zywiec, is also from Katowice). Delicious! 

Having been solidly on the go for days and with the reason for the whole trip – the Nine Inch Nails concert – that night,  Tuesday was scheduled as a “go easy” day. We slept in, had a lingering and leisurely feast of a breakfast (watching the band busses and trucks buzzing around, preparing for the show), wandered into town, ambled through the mall,  grabbed some lunch, and retired to the hotel in mid afternoon to relax and prepare ourselves. But the excitement got too much and at about 4 we headed out to see what was happening at the Arena. There was already quite a crowd gathered on the steps at the entrance, but not enough to hold our attention, so we went into town for a sundowner.  

Much better idea! A good proportion of people were wearing NIN (or comparative bands’) merchandise and there was a lot of excited energy in the pubs and restaurants. It was all like one big pre-party!

Arriving at the Arena first order of business was, of course, the merchandise stand. Their prices were, as always, heinous. But one must do what one must do and I’m super stoked to have my most expensive to shirt yet!!

We stocked up with a tray of Tyskie only to find out on entry to the grandstands that no drinks – alcoholic or otherwise – was allowed in the stands (unlike home, where that is the point of decanting into plastic cups). Worked out to our benefit though as we were allowed to stand at the back of the landing and finish them and this turned out to be the best vantage point – and an excellent private dancefloor! So we sloooowly sipped our drinks to make our exile last well into the performance. And by time we were caught for having finished, the show was so far in and we were so immersed that there was no quieting us! We simply got more beers and moved to the next landing!!

The show was brilliant; truly worth travelling for and a quite lifeline landmark for me, as a lifelong fan! The venue was excellent; full of energy, but not too crowded. The set list was great – a good mix of crowdpleasers and unanticipateds with the usual emotional rollercoaster of cutting between the manic and the depressive tracks. And we’ve been in presence of (and probably quite close to, seeing as his tour bus was right outside our hotel window) our heroes – truly a legendary musical genius of our time.

We went into town afterwards to grab a much-spoken-of post-concert kebab, which was lifesaving… and it turns out shrewd as well, since the band was still packing up and weren’t allowed in until the talent had left the building. No mind though. After all that excitement, who could sleep?!?

Travelogue Poland 1: Krakow

KRAKOW
06-09 June 2014

I was lucky enough to be surprised with a trip to Poland for my birthday, ostensibly to go and see Nine Inch Nails, a lifelong favourite band. While a week surely seems long enough to go to a concert, once we started researching all there is to see and do, I was worried we’d be short on time. Our first eager-beaver landlord must’ve thought so too as he called me on Thursday at 2.30, enquiring my whereabouts and was surprised when I said “Johannesburg” as he was at the airport waiting for us – a full day early!

That must really thrown him off as he then forgot to fetch Alex and Robbie, who were flying in to join us for the weekend in Krakow and who he’d committed to collect at midnight. Tables were turned when he got their call, waking him up! He gave them details on a taxi company and they ended up getting a taxi cheaper than the committed transfer. 

We were very excited to hear the news that our apartment – and indeed all of Krakow – seemed at first impression to be a win.

We got this news update sms from our friends while we were connecting in Dubai, having flown Emirates as usual. We still had 2 flights ahead of us, to get to Warsaw and then on to Krakow, but the journey was easy enough and soon it was 3.30 and we’d landed and were manning the only carousel in the modest Krakow Airport Arrivals terminal, eager to get our bags and start our Polska adventure. 

We’d anticipated a relatively long transfer into town, having been told that traffic would be “very bad” at that time of the afternoon, but 20 minutes along a windy single lane road flanked thickly with trees on either side and we were in the Jewish Quarter, mounting a pavement (as seems conventional) on Bozego Ciala Street outside our residence, offloading our bags (mercifully light at a record 11kg and some change each) and gazelling up the four flights of stairs (no lift!) to the welcoming arms of our friends… and an induction Polish Vodka shot! 

There’s always much excitement when we reunite and this time was no different. Animated chatter and feverish catching-up on our marvellous balcony, over snacks and chilled beers and punctuated with Vodka shots with orange wedge chasers.

Lix and RoRo had, despite their late arrival, done a remarkable reconnaissance job the night before – and it was soon clear that the good people of Krakow had done more than their fair share to make sure that this was so. The city is as alive at night as during the day and our apartment had a 24-hour bottle store and an “open until the last person leaves” pub downstairs with numerous other entertainment options along the road, round the corner and on the rooftops.

We’d decided to start the evening with the Plac Nowy (square), literally around the corner from us… but we didn’t even get that far, being lured in by a gorgeous little beer garden on Meiselsa Street that connected us there. It seemed like the perfect place for a sundowner – and the perfect time, despite being about 8pm already, since the sun was still up and it was still bright as day! We had a lovely time at a cosy table nestled under a big old tree with low hanging branches creating a lush green ceiling.

By stark contrast, the next place we visited – one of many on the Square – was a dark tavern,  relying on candlelight even in the daytime to provide the murky glow. Still charming though, in its own way. 

I ended off my evening at (what we called) The Robert Smith Pub, so named for the psychedelic portrait of said hero on the wall in the main bar. By now the vodkas had done their mileage and the gals headed back to the flat, while the boys went to forage for food. Some time later they arrived with toasties, but I was out for the count already, so the only evidence of the mission in the morning was the 2 empty plates  (delivery vehicle of the clearly unplanned take away!) and a single lonely cherry tomato that had made its escape from the plate on the stairs at the front door (which remained there for much of our stay).

Saturday saw a slow start thanks to Friday’s antics – much to my chagrin, waking starving from having missed dinner the previous night. Christian and I eventually pulled ourselves together enough to take to the streets to gather supplies for a “simple” bacon buttie brekkie. Easier said than done.

No problem finding a shop (as with everything else, conveniently just around the corner), but once at the shop everything was complicated (on an already self-complicated day!) We managed to find the bread (flat oval loaves, not square ones like ones like have at home), cheese (marked “Salami”), butter (which turned out to be garlic butter), ketchup (which ended up being pimento flavoured) and orange juice relatively easily,  but couldn’t find bacon at all (!!!) 

Weirdly, there is no pre-packaged meat at all, with all meat offerings behind the (single) butchery/deli counter. An enormous amount of choice considering the space – mostly sausages and cold meats, but also all the essentials from a red meat and chicken point of view. We couldn’t see anything that looked like bacon and got got a blank stare when we asked for it. Christian asked the butcher lady if she spoke English; she nodded and said “f*@#” and the other 2 deli ladies roared with laughter. Clearly on our own, we ended up with white Kielbasa (the only ones that looked like they could be cooked, the rest looked like Russians or Franks) and Krakowska Kielbasa (which looked like ham).

Worked out OK in the end, with a delicious ham and cheese sandwich and a sausage sandwich each to show for our labours.

Good humour restored, we were newly motivated to take on the sights of Krakow. There was a tourist map on our coffee table that confirmed what I had ascertained from the accommodation search – the 2 big areas of interest are the Stare Miasto (the Old Town) and the Jewish Quarter (where we were staying) with one or two other things off to the sides.

We started with a walk through the Jewish Quarter, taking in all the many old and beautiful churches and temples. Krakow is a remarkable place being an ancient city relatively unharmed during World War II, so having much of its centuries-old history and landmarks perfectly preserved – and accessible to anyone and everyone. This can surely also only be possible with the support of a respectful and responsible people, which is evident but the noticeable pristine maintenance of the city, with no litter anywhere! 

We walked down to the Wisla River and enjoyed a stroll along the wide promenade, alongside a good number of Krakowians out taking a walk / cycle or sunning themselves on the grassy banks. It was a perfect day – not too hot, with textbook blue skies – and we’d walked all the way around the peninsula to the base of Wawel Castle, so we stopped to have a cold drink on one of the many bankside barges with rooftop cafés. 

Refreshed, we walked around the inside of the castle complex with its famous Royal residence and cathedral and enjoyed the spectacular views over the Dragon’s Den. This deposited us at the bottom of the Planty (park) that runs in a light bulb shape around the entire boundary of the Old Town. The Planty is divine – a thick, lush green avenue with lots of benches and places to sit and enjoy and wide smooth walkways to easily traverse the town as an experience rather than a chore.

Our destination was the middle of town – Rynek Glowny,  the Main Market Square – and we were there in less than 10 minutes. Alex and Robbie went up St Mary’s Basilica while we went on the hunt for a tour operator (for an Auschwitz tour for the following day) and some Pierogi (stuffed dumplings, already a day overdue). We had no trouble with either mission and 15 minutes later were reunited and in the Number 7 bar beer garden,  with beers and Pierogi (one portion filled with meat and another with cheese) on order.

I left the gang and went off to shop for souvenirs at the legendary Cloth Hall at the centre of Market Square and soon returned with arms laden with bags of goodies. Poland is mercifully cheap even travelling on the Rand!!

We’d spent the whole day skirting around the idea of having a hangover curry, with only the faintest hint of conscience at needing to have a traditional Polish meal instead. Now, having ticked the Pierogi box, we felt vindicated and succumbed to going to Roti Roti (their menu was also on our coffee table and had planted the idea in the morning). Our karma must’ve been good as we stumbled on a Carrefour en route and managed to secure their only 3 packets of bacon! Streaky, thin-cut and only 150g per pack, but still… it was bacon!

The curry was good, the setting fun (we had their single wooden table on the pavement, with a hand-painted map of India on it), the ordering complicated (our waitress’s English was only marginally better than our Polish! And the restaurant was out of Masala, which limited options somewhat) and the company superlative, so a great time was had by all.

We wound our way back home, with the obligatory stop-in at The Robert Smith Pub,  but didn’t make a big night of it seeing as we had our Auschwitz tour early in the morning. 

And bacon butties! 

The flat oval loaf bread turned out to be really good – soft on the inside with a nice chewy crust – and garlic butter and pimento ketchup fortunately all complimented each other, as well as the thin cut streaky bacon (which we gluttonous devoured all 3 packs of for breakfast!)

Exemplary tourists, we were outside and waiting when our driver arrived to fetch us at 9 on the nose. The same cannot be said for the other 4 passengers in our party,  who kept us waiting for 15 mins outside the Hilton while they smoked! We took an instant dislike to them and didn’t engage with them at all on the hour-long journey to Auschwitz. 

What an amazing excursion. I’m not much of a history buff, but you can’t help but have a mental image of what the place will be like. Having seen countless black and white images in textbooks and on TV of Jews and other prisoners being trundled along train platforms, stripped, counted, marked and worked to emaciation; having learned and regurgitated stats on the number of people that were delivered to these camps and the very different numbers on how many left; having heard the stories of what the Germans soldiers did to and how the German doctors experimented on these people…. none prepares you for actually being there. 

The planning, design and development are truly a testament to Germany efficiency. The camp is so much bigger than I would have thought. And super structured, symmetrical and organised. Everything accounted for and everything in its place. The buildings all still standing and in perfect condition – a credit to the Polish government for declaring the site a museum in 1947, when they could just as easily have torn it down. There is a sign at the entrance that says something to the effect of forgetting about what happened opening the door to it being able to happen again. What’s really scary is that this compound was built to last this long! Had history turned out differently, who would be there now? Would Hitler have continued the genocide, taking it further afield (he was already bringing in train loads from Norway and Greece, over a thousand miles away!) or finding new blights to remove from his world??

The Auschwitz tour is, hardly surprisingly, very well laid out and executed and you see and learn a lot in the 2 hours, being led in and out of buildings, each with different stories and artefacts. Some astounding exhibits that have to be seen to be believed like the goods removed from prisoners, including the 90,000 shoes, 40m X 6m room of suitcases, mountains of spectacles,  (wooden) toothbrushes, dolls… and the room of 7 tons of human hair that the Germans were cutting off the women before they were executed and selling to make hair cloth!

Other absurdities like the court and jail in the compound. It’s farcical to have run these token hearings when nobody was given a chance to defend themselves and everyone was found guilty and condemned to gallows or firing squad. The inhabitants of the jail were sentenced to death by starvation and the lucky ones either asphyxiated from the poor ventilation or froze to death on the stone floors in winter.

Truly atrocious. And so scary that it was all so organised and out in the open – not like the Killing Fields we saw in Cambodia that at least had the decency to be secretive and hidden!

Worse than Auschwitz I though was Auschwitz ll – Birkenau. Somehow at school it was the poor cousin to Auschwitz,  where in real life it is quite the opposite. It’s enormous and was an outright deathcamp, complete with gas chambers and incinerators, on mammoth scale.  

The purpose-built tracks saw trains pulled into the central platform whereupon a doctor decided by inspection who was well enough to work and who not. Being one of the 70% on the “not” list could make your stay at Birkenau less than 3 hours! You arrived, were separated from your stuff, herded into the queue, told you were going to be disinfected, stripped, gassed and incinerated. Making the other queue (a man healthy enough to work) gave you an average life expectancy of 3 to 6 months, doing hard labour on about 600 calories a day (a fraction of what you need to survive) so that you worked/starved yourself to death, if the cold / disease / rats didn’t get you first.

The Polish climate is not ideal for the prisoners either – very hot and humid summers and bitterly cold winters. By a cruel twist of fate the winter of 1942 was one of the coldest ever, with temperatures dropping to -40s!  It was a very warm day yesterday – but by no means the worst summer has to offer – and we each had a litre of water over the 3 hours of the tour. The prisoners were given none. They resorted to drinking from muddy puddles after the rain and melting snow. 

The cruelty and the indignity that those poor prisoners were subjected to. It’s shameful that people can do that to other people (and it took a *lot* of people to run that machine, with over 7,000 SS soldiers based at Auschwitz alone). The wording on the door at the entrance was right;  we can’t change what happened, but we can prevent it from happening again. And experiencing it firsthand really brings the history to life. It’s a pity more young people don’t have access to travel to see these things or I’m sure – maybe overoptimistically – that the world would be a better place. 

What was a better place was Market Square, and that’s where we got our driver to drop us off after the tour. We’d located the 2 Irish pubs in town and thought those to be the perfect mission to follow such a serious day. 

The first one, Mbassy, was just off the main market square, in Stolarska Street.  It was nice enough – the Guinness fresh and cold, the decor predictable,  the atmosphere average – but didn’t hold our attention for very long.  Alex and I had done a quick reccie in the adjacent little square (Maly Rynek), where there was a stage and some stalls erected in what seemed like a mini summer Sunday festival.  

We found an incredible food stall, retrieved the boys and relocated to the bench  tables on the Square for a tapas of sorts of glazed mini pork roast, giant mushrooms, pierogi and Kielbasa. YUM!

We then continued to the second Irish pub (creatively named The Irish Pub) where we were lucky enough to catch SA vs UK darts on the telly which was as good and reason as any to settle in.  Quite by accident we spotted the Florian Gate at the end of the road, which warranted a visit for the sake of completeness,  being the last actual landmark place of interest on the tourist map.

This left us at the most northerly point of town, so we walked along the Planty to enter the town from the West to find a pub recommended in the guide, called BaniaLuka,  known for its festive crowds drawn by the 1 Euro drinks and 2 Euro meals. We were having a much easier time with the map since Anglocising all the road names. For example, BaniaLuka was much easier to find on Ski Pants Street than on Szczepanska Street! 

The place was a bit of an oversell, although granted the guide did push it’s second main virtue (after bargain booze) as it being open 24 hours, so more the fool us for arriving sober in the harsh light of day.

We decided instead that the right mission was to hunt down a gabolki (meats and rice in cabbage parcel baked in a tomato sauce) closer to home in the Jewish Quarter, so off we set across the Stare Miasto, through the beautiful shopping streets and along the now-familiar Stradomska Street to our ‘burb… halted only in our mission by the quest for a loo.

We found a tiny bar, which had an online jukebox, so we had to stay and do a Furtado dance (to show Lix and RoRo what all the fuss is about). We asked the barman for the best gabolki restaurants nearby and when he recommended Kuchnia Domowa (“Dorothy Kitchen”, a good omen indeed) a couple of hundred metres down the road, we were sold!

And a good choice it was too! We shared meat and cheese pierogi and had the much-anticipated gabolki… and it was delicious! 

But obviously must have been very light as it didn’t take much more merrymaking  before we were queued up at the zapiekanki stalls in the middle of our local square.  Zapiekanki is a toasted baguette with melted cheese poured over it, then covered with mushrooms and ketchup and other toppings of choice. We kept it simple and just added pepperoni. What a perfect midnight snack!

On our last morning,  the only thing left undone was a visit to Schindler( of List fame)’s factory, so we got up and out and trekked across the bridge to Podgorze to find it. It’s not as well sign posted as you’d expect, so we had some challenges,  but we found it in the end. It’s been turned into a museum, but we were too short on time the help give it much attention. 

We instead caught a cab back to our spot to have a decent breakfast before going our separate ways.  Despite really really really wanting a Full English, I had the Polish breakfast, which turned out to be really good (and not too experimental) as a pair of fried eggs, toast, ham, cheese and cottage cheese with chives and cucumber diced in it (sort of like tsatziki).

We’d timed everything perfectly and had 10 minutes to spare to go up and get Lix and RoRo’s bags to meet the driver at 12. Christian and I jumped in the car too and got dropped off at the train station to see what time we should leave for Katowice. Fortunately, there was a 13h48 train which allowed a generous amount of time for us to get back and gather our things, drop off the keys and get back. We were delighted to find as well that the tickets – for both of us – came to 26 Zloty, which is only about R70!