|November 22, 2010
As we woke this morning we were just approaching Lviv, about an hour from the border. We had planned to stop here but had changed plans because of the visa issue. At the Ukrainian border we stopped for about 50 minutes and had no problem getting stamped out and after about half an hour of slowly rolling forward the train stopped and the Polish border guards got in and the train rolled forward again. The guards came in and checked our passports and stamped them straight away, without really looking at them too much. His little machine did take a while to reset itself in between swiping Elizabeth’s passport and mine which made her a bit concerned. We also noticed the date stamp on her passport said “22.12.2010” and about 5 minutes later the guard returned as he’d obviously noticed his error, too. Thankfully there wasn’t any problem as he just crossed one stamp out and stamped another with the correct date, “22.11.2010”. We were back in Schengen Europe!
We had about a 2 hour wait the Polish side of the border for the train wheels to be changed but unlike at the Russian/Chinese border on the Trans-Manchurian last year we were able to stay onboard this time and be buffeted around as the carriages were held over a pit and the wheels were dropped and changed. It was quite weird trying to watch them out the window as they removed the wheels.
Given we didn’t know where we would be staying tonight we didn’t have a reservation for anywhere so when we reached Krakow around 4pm we head for the hostel where we were supposed to be staying later in the week. Luckily, they had rooms available and we were in fact able to get a private double room for 3 nights for LESS than the cost of the dorm rooms we have booked from Thursday night onwards! The only problem was that the rooms were around the corner away from the main hostel and we would have to go back there to eat our meals and to use the internet. However, when we got to our room we found a massive double room with a nice clean kitchen and common area as well as a decent bathroom. Also, nobody else was staying in either of the other two rooms so it felt like we had a three bedroom apartment to ourselves! Considering this was only costing the equivalent of about $35 a night we’d really got ourselves a bargain. Not only that but the free meals included breakfast and dinner and they had a washing machine here (which we couldn’t get to work but we could use the one at the main building) which was free too! Considering we have an extended stay here now (3 extra nights + 4 nights + 2 at Auschwitz + 2 back here) we have really gotten lucky! We went around to the main building and got one load of essential laundry done, hung it to dry and then returned there for a dinner of tasty burgers and a great choice of salad stuff. I think Elizabeth was worried this morning about whether we could get back in but we certainly are making the most of it now!
November 23, 2010
After writing so much about Chernobyl, I feel I owe everyone a break so you get a day off today! Well almost. After getting up and struggling to get our washing machine to work, we headed to the main building for breakfast and took a bag of laundry with us. The choice of stuff for breakfast was good and we made sure we had a good fill. We went back to our room and lazed around, hoping the cleaners would turn up soon and show us how to work the washer! By midday they hadn’t arrived so while I waited for them Elizabeth took another load of washing around to the hostel. You might wonder how much laundry we had and I’m happy to tell you it was 5 loads. Yes, we had pretty much exhausted all our clothing stores and were running on repeat usage. Multiple repeat usage! Of course, just as Elizabeth left the cleaners arrived and I got a load of laundry on, too. An hour or so later we had 4 loads done and were running short on space to hang them around the hostel, a drier being a bit too much to ask for! By late afternoon we’d done all our laundry and were just waiting on it to dry.
We took the opportunity to visit the tourist information office and the supermarket. The tourist info office was a bit crappy with the woman there seemingly annoyed we were daring to interrupt her phone call with some questions. At the supermarket we were pleased to find a huge place stacked to the roof with everything we could want. As we had a nice kitchen and the place to ourselves, we decided we’d cook chilli as a late lunch and we stocked up on cookies, coke and beer, too!
After cooking and devouring our chilli, we headed out to get our first glimpse of real Krakow. We were going to see the local ice hockey team play – Cracovia. They were currently lying in 1st place in their league and were playing the second place team. It was early in the season but we were hoping for a good match. The ticket prices were crazy, too. My ticket was 10 zloty, just over $3 but Elizabeth’s was just 1 zloty – barely 40 cents! It was open seating so we got a seat right on the half way line and got ready to enjoy the action. The crowd filled up quite quickly and we were treated to the singing of the Cracovia team song as the teams came out. The first period ended goalless but not through lack of effort. Cracovia must’ve had over 10 shots on goal but the goaltender kept them out. The second period started and the teams shared 4 goals to go in at 2-2. The crowd was really into it and there was noise from fans of both teams. The final period saw 6 more goals and lots of penalties, including a couple of fights although the refs broke them up pretty quickly. Cracovia weren’t getting many decisions going for them and a couple of quick goals gave the opposition a 5-3 lead. Cracovia pulled one back to make it 5-4 but with one minute left and having sacrificed the goaltender, the opposition scored for a 6-4 win. It was only Cracovia’s second defeat of the season.
Back at the hostel we finished off the chilli and read about some of the things we wanted to do in Krakow. Even with spending a day doing laundry we had lots of time here and we’d certainly enjoyed our first evening out!
November 24, 2010
Having clean clothes on, we headed out today to actually see something other than two different hostels during daylight hours! Our first stop though was breakfast as we couldn’t dare go sight-seeing on an empty stomach.
The main theme of the day today was photography and we had three exhibits to go and see. The first of these was at the contemporary art museum, nicknamed the Bunker of Arts due to its bunker-like appearance. The exhibit here was taken from the World Press Photo 2010 competition and included a variety of pictures under different headings which had been nominated for or had won awards. The winner of the award was an Italian called Pietro Masturzo and he won the award for a series of pictures which showed Iranians on their rooftops, shouting and demonstrating against what they believed was a fixed election. Compared to some of the gritty and heart-breaking pictures we saw later on, I wasn’t sure this would’ve been my choice as the best. Even the critics and judges quotes struggled to give their exact reasons why they thought it was best, almost resorting to a “it just is” line because of the story that you know it is telling rather than what it really shows. The photos around the exhibit went from amazing to shocking to simply jaw-dropping. There were pictures of dead bodies – killed in war, killed in drug-related incidents, killed by gangs – but the most disgusting images for me were those relating to a man in Somalia who had been stoned to death for adultery. This sounds maybe a little naïve but when you hear someone is stoned to death you often don’t think about how the process actually occurs. Maybe, you just don’t want to and having now seen the pictures it isn’t something I want to dwell on for much longer than to write this next bit. The man was shown being buried in a hole with only his head showing. A group of other men from his village then took turns to throw stones at his head until he was dead. He couldn’t move anywhere as the weight of the earth was trapping his body still. The sight of the man’s head protruding from the earth, limp and resting on the sand, was horrifying enough but the men continued to pound him with chunks of rock. There were also scenes from US soldiers around the world, including one such soldier (photo by David Guttenfelder, AP) who had come out of his resting place in such a hurry to help his comrades defend themselves that his “I LOVE NY” underwear was clearly on display! The critical situation didn’t detract from the humour in that photo although the next ones made the scene a little more realistic as to what we are used to. One showed a US soldier being tended to by his mother having lost 40% of his brain in a mortar attack and another showed two soldiers dragging the dead body of a compatriot back into the trench, the deceased’s father over-turning a decision from higher powers that the image was “unsuitable”. Pictures by Argentinian Walter Astrada of the riots in Madagascar showed clearly how a photographic journalist risks their lives, too, taking pictures in the middle of people being shot and stabbed and all in the name of getting a picture of a dead woman or child being dragged away. I can’t argue that this is news and I can’t argue that these were amazing pictures but I do wonder whether the photographer is privileged to be able to be in these positions or are they mad/stupid?
Some pictures by a British photographer called David Chancellor reminded me of some I had taken myself although his were far, far more revealing. In Botswana, I had captured the image of an elephant carcass. This elephant had most likely died of natural causes and his flesh had been consumed by the surrounding prey of lions, hyenas, jackals and vultures. This series of pictures showed a Zimbabwean village themselves finding a murdered elephant and in a very short time they had reduced the body down to the barest of bones, the carcass being much smaller than that which the animals had left behind in my own picture.
It was not all blood and gore though. A heart-warming story about an American couple adopting a blind Indian boy was brilliantly documented by Matt McLain of People Magazine. Not long after the adoption, the adopted father himself suffered an eye disorder which blinded him and together him and the youngster learned to live with their disabilities and the pictures of a bonding family were so precious and so moving. There were also the pictures of the Senegalese wrestlers getting ready for battle and Lance Armstrong doing similar before his latest attempt at winning “Le Tour”. The picture of him having a pee for his drugs test was, er, interesting! Of the sports ones though there were two which I really liked, not just for the picture but for the timing, too. The first was a picture of a diving Jonathan Trott being run out by Simon Katich during the fifth test of the Ashes last summer. Given the current bi-annual dual between England and Australia is due to commence tonight it was fitting to see such a picture. On this occasion the Australian was the victor of the battle but England won the war, a trend I hope to see repeated over the next couple of months. The other picture was taken from the air prior to the Rose Bowl on January 1, 2010. The scene as the players of USC and Penn State lined up for the National Anthem caught the setting of the massive stadium perfectly and not only could you make out the fans and field clearly but you could clearly see the US Air Force stealth bomber making a fly-by beneath the photographer (Mark Holtzman, Sports Illustrated).
I really liked the exhibit and the choice of pictures was stunning (apart from the nature ones, which were nothing better than I’ve taken) although without seeing the entries which were not selected it is hard to know which would be my “winner”. Elizabeth took her time going round the pictures and had to leave at one point as some of the pictures were so bloody and horrific. It is a harsh reality sometimes and whilst you know it goes on you just don’t ever think it can be THAT bad. I did mention to her afterwards that awards such as these are a little unfair, given the access to funds and restricted areas that journalists have. Looking at many of these pictures, I’m probably glad I wasn’t in some of the situations presented by a part of me was envious of these people for getting to see such things, as horrific as some were to as wonderful as others. For someone travelling I’m always looking out for that new experience or that “different” angle for a picture and whilst I’m not going to shove my hand in the air and volunteer for a war-zone, it does make me wish I could just keep going and going and to summon up the courage to put myself in slightly less comfortable surroundings than most we’ve put ourselves in. I can see both my mother and Elizabeth’s shaking their heads and cursing me right now!
After that we had a stroll through the main square and saw St Mary’s Church and the Cloth Hall, packed full of souvenir stalls, before heading towards Kazimierz and the Jewish Quarter. After a short walk around we went to the Galicia Museum. The first section here talked about the effect of WWII in Lviv, which is now part of Ukraine but before the war was within the Polish boundary and was part of an area known as Galicia during it. Lviv was a town which had a large Jewish settlement and when the war started a lot of Poles headed there thinking that they would be safe from the Germans. However, once the Soviets got involved and attacked Poland from the east, many of these people were forced either back into Poland and into the hands of the Nazis or further east to the Soviet gulags. The small temporary exhibit was well laid out and quite informative and made up for us missing Lviv! The main exhibit is a series of photographs taken around the Jewish Quarter. They don’t so much tell the story as it was during WWII but show how the story has panned out, detailing buildings and monuments and areas and how they look now after the effects of the war. Pictures of Jewish symbols around the city showed the signs of age and even the years of Nazi occupation couldn’t completely hide the evidence. The most damning signs around the city which the museum seemed to highlight were the old synagogues and how they were turned into other buildings after the Germans closed them down. The museum didn’t seem to have a problem with them being used as public buildings such as libraries but took great offence at “inappropriate” uses such as cinemas and restaurants. From a personal viewpoint, I thought this was a bit petty given the atrocities the Jewish people suffered. I understand that these places were holy and sacred to them but arguing over whether a synagogue-cum-cinema has a plaque on it is kind of missing the point for me. Maybe I see it more as a horrific loss of lives rather than the loss of life and living and culture being as I am removed from the Jewish faith. If that was the point they were trying to make, then of course I can see it as valid and I guess that was more what the museum was about rather than many we’ve been to which constantly throw numbers at you about loss of life on top of the cultural down-treading. This exhibit was certainly different in that regard. The pictures from the concentration camps at Płaszów, within the city itself, and nearby places such as Auschwitz and Birkenau were quite horrible and not because they actually showed anything but just because you knew. You knew what had happened here and pictures of empty parade grounds and ditches did little to undermine those views and just gave you a chilling reminder of the holocaust and the horrendous genocide carried out. I’d never be so callous as to say I was looking forward to visiting such a place as Auschwitz and in this case I am actually really dreading it. Places like Dachau, Cambodia and Rwanda all tell their own stories and all of them are tear-jerking and the result of disgusting acts of terror against groups of people but just the sheer mention of Auschwitz and everyone knows to what and to where you are referring. The display was really excellent though and showed a different side to the story explaining the now rather than the then.
We went for lunch after that and we headed to a small café called Bagelmama. They did, you guessed it, bagels and the place was run by an American guy who looked like he’d lived in Poland a fair while. I had a really good tuna melt and Elizabeth had a sweet one. It wasn’t cheap but we were certainly hungry and had already clocked up some time on our feet so were glad of the break.
Our third photography exhibit turned out to not be a photography exhibit. We had read about an exhibit of Jewish historical photography in the Ethnographical Museum so we headed there and paid to get in. Of course, what we found was your usual ethnographic stuff about Poland consisting of some pretty interesting reconstructed houses and buildings, a load of fancy costumes and a range of other bits and bobs from hunting tools to fishing lines to beer mugs and the like. They did have a display of Christmas ornament type things which were pretty gaudy but at least a bit different but nowhere did we see a photography exhibit. At the end, I checked the flyer and it said it was running until November 28 so Elizabeth asked at the information desk. It turned out that the museum had two sites and the exhibit was at the second site, some 50m down the road. And there we headed, paying an additional entry fee and heading down into the basement of this building to look at the old pictures of Jerusalem and Israel. The old images were really interesting and showed many of the religious sites which still remain but are threatened by the trouble in the region. It was certainly a well laid out display and had some interesting quotes around the walls, including the one which simply states “whoever saves one life saves the world entire”, a saying we’ve heard so many times of late.
After a stroll around the Jewish Quarter we decided we would stop for some refreshment and so we headed to the Singer Bar, where every table has an old Singer sewing machine on it! We decided to try the Grzane Piwo which translates to “warm beer”, something I normally avoid like the plague. The slightly unfriendly barmaid poured a small amount of raspberry syrup into the glass, topped it with lager and took it out the back, presumably to shove it in the microwave. She then added cloves, an orange slice and some cinnamon before letting us get on with it. It smelt weird and it bubbled up strangely when you prodded the ingredients around (as I did!) and it tasted quite foul. The sweetness of the orange and cinnamon did not mix at all well with the bitterness of the lager and the raspberry syrup just hung around at the bottom until the end. I was glad to reach it though as I was really suffering through the first part of the pint and was hoping for some sweet, sugary respite and was glad when it arrived. I don’t think I need to tell you we didn’t have a second one!
After the rancid beer we decided we needed some food to take away the flavour and so we headed back to the main square in Kazimierz and got ourselves one of their pizza breads, known as zapiekanka. We didn’t know when we ordered but these pizzas have a base of mushrooms rather than tomato and this was unfortunate for Elizabeth as she doesn’t like mushrooms! She still battled through a large chunk of the massive pizza bread which was also topped with cheese and salami. They were at least reasonably palatable unlike the previous beer we’d had! From there we had a half hour or so walk back to the hostel but on the way we stopped at a small photo exhibit we’d read about which chronicled backpacker “places” (whatever those are compared to normal places). The exhibit was within another of the hostels in the city and when we got there we were a bit disappointed as the pictures were really just a load of snapshots taken from around various tourist traps and nothing much off the beaten track. Most of them weren’t labeled but given the subjects they didn’t need to be as most places were recognizable, anyway! We didn’t view the whole exhibit but we took the opportunity to use their toilet! The toilets here were filthy so we were glad of the hostel choice we’d made as this place was supposed to be our second choice! By the time we got back to our hostel we just collapsed. It had been a really interesting day and we’d tried some different food and drink and it was a good first “real” day in Krakow!
November 25, 2010
Today our plans were not so ambitious as to see so many museums and exhibits and so we didn’t start quite so early. We were changing rooms today which also meant a change of buildings and so we packed our bags and headed to the other building and put our bags in our new room. After breakfast we hung out at the hostel for a while before heading to the St Mary’s Church for its 11.30 opening time. The church was known for its altar but Elizabeth was more interested in the stained glass windows. I wasn’t particularly bothered about either but it was cheap enough that it was worth paying to get inside and out of the bitter cold weather! After that church we had a bit of a walk around and saw some other cool stuff around the city. It is so nice to feel almost at home here after the crappy few days we had in Kyiv.
Our next stop was lunch. I know reading the short paragraph above you might not think there was much time in between breakfast and lunch but it was over three hours, I promise! We found a traditional Polish place in the old town but although it had a menu in various languages for tourists it didn’t have the tourist prices! We both had the “Hunter’s Stew” with fried potato pancakes. The stew was really tasty and had a whole variety of meats and flavours to it and was really filling and after that we didn’t feel like doing a whole lot. However, we had something else planned and we didn’t let a bloated stomach deter us.
We passed by the Franciscan Church and popped in for a brief look. This was another church which was supposed to have amazing stained glass windows and at least here I could appreciate them a little more. They were really quite modern looking and had very vibrant colours. The scenes within weren’t of much interest to me but the way they were depicted certainly was.
Our final, and main, stop of the day was the Schindler Factory. To get there we walked right the way through Kazimierz and into a district called Podgórze, just south of the Wisła River. Podgórze was the area of the city which the Nazis used as the Jewish ghetto and here we were able to see part of the old wall around the ghetto. The wall had been built to resemble gravestones as the Nazis wanted to remind the Jews that this was to be their last resting place. There was only a small section which had been reconstructed and it was really hidden away but it was interesting to see it before reaching the Schindler Factory. We also saw a memorial to the Jews who were held in the ghetto and, almost entirely, exterminated by the Nazis. The memorial consists of a number of old chairs. The reason for this is that when the Jews were moved to the ghetto they brought chairs with them so they had somewhere to sit but when they were transported to the camps they were only allowed to take one small bag with them and the chairs were left behind. It reminded me of the Oklahoma City bombing memorial.
Schindler’s Factory has only recently opened as a museum and it was really well laid out. The displays took you through the war in Poland, the effects on Krakow and the surrounding areas, the Jewish population in the city (approximately 25%) and also about Schindler himself. If anything the displays on Schindler were all too brief given the location we were in but it at least helped tell his story and keep his legacy alive in something other than a Hollywood movie. Schindler began his time in Poland as your regular businessman and was merely running the factory to make money. He began “employing” Jews primarily because he didn’t have to pay them and so they were a cheaper source of labour than the Poles. However, he soon became aware of the poor conditions and treatment the Jews were getting at the concentration camp at Plaszow where many of his employees were forced to reside. Many days, the workers didn’t turn up at the factory as the guards marching them there decided they would play games with them and take them elsewhere or they would make them stand for hours on parade after a long shift meaning the next day they could barely work through tiredness. Schindler didn’t like this as it affected his business and so he arranged, via a few bribes by the sounds of things, that he would build barracks at his factory and house his workers in his own “camp”. He had also been told that the Jews and Poles were not allowed to mix at the workplace so he first split the shifts to give the Poles the day shift and the Jews the night shifts but before long the number of Jews in the factory grew from around 200 at the beginning of his time in Krakow to around 1,100 when he finally left and opened his new factory with all his staff and their families accompanying him, much to the disgust of the locals near his new factory and many German officials. There were only really a couple of rooms talking about him despite the fact the museum was housed in his old factory. There were some video clips of interviews with people who used to work at the factory and it was funny to hear one old guy describe him as a Nazi, but a nice Nazi! The term “Nazi” doesn’t exactly strike a symbol of niceness and pleasantries but this man said that Schindler was the only Nazi who ever addressed him by his name rather than an insult.
Overall, the museum was really good and it looked like it had been well thought out and well organised, unlike some museums where the order or content of the displays seems to have just been thrown together as an after-thought.
By the time we left the museum it was cold and dark and so we started the long walk back to the hostel. We had spent around 3 hours in the museum and were still suffering the hearty effects of the stew and fried pancakes so some more time on our feet was a good tonic. Back at the hostel I grabbed a coffee and ate some of the biscuits we had leftover and almost immediately I felt sick. I didn’t really need the biscuits but they seemed like a good accompaniment to the coffee! At around 8pm we headed downstairs to the hostel kitchen to try some of the dumplings they’d made. Dinner is ready at 7 so by 8 there wasn’t much left but we grabbed a few dumplings each and tried them. I still felt a bit sick and after two mouthfuls I just couldn’t face any more. They weren’t very nice, lacking in flavour but certainly not lacking in stodginess! Elizabeth was the same – she tried a mouthful of each of the two types of dumplings and then threw the rest away. We felt bad taking them and then throwing them away as there was so little left but we certainly didn’t need to be force feeding ourselves! We just lazed around after that and even having had no dinner neither of us felt hungry so we just skipped it completely.