Wednesday 26 February 2014

Krakow, Poland III: Auschwitz concentration camp

We arrived at the Auschwitz concentration camp on a gloomy cold day with slight drizzles, reflecting the solemn mood we were all in.

Electric wires that fenced up the camp.

The building on the right is a guard house where guards kept a watchful eye on the prisoners/fences.

Rows of houses where prisoners were kept. Now they host exhibits.

Photo of people arriving at Auschwitz. Such photos were used as propagandas to show that everything was all good and rosy at Auschwitz.

Belongings that the prisoners brought with them to the camp.

There were photos of the prisoners on the walls stating their birthdays, their occupation, the date they were deported to Auschwitz and the date they died. The triangles sewn on their uniforms meant different things depending on their colour (whether they were Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies, etc) but the photos were in black and white so we couldn't tell. Read here for what the colours represent.

According to the guide, at least 6 people had to squeeze on one bunk. Before the introduction of these three tier bunks, they had to sleep on the floor.

Furnace to cremate the bodies of prisoners.

Auschwitz II-Birkenau was constructed because there was not enough space in the main camp.

People were brought here via this train.

Those who were deemed fit to work would stay in such houses and sleep in such beds.

Those who were not healthy/fit enough were sent to the gas chambers straight away and subsequently all those who fell sick. Subjects of experiments were also sent here. Above is a picture of the ruins of a crematorium and gas chamber.

Read more about the Auschwitz concentration camp here. It was such a tragic place..

How to get there?
I joined Cracow tours, one of the cheapest in town. Transport and guide were all included for 65 PLN for students.

Sunday 23 February 2014

Krakow, Poland II: Wieliczka Salt Mine

Have you ever seen such a beautiful chapel.. underground? To get there, we had to walk down 380 steps round and round a stairwell. There are 9 storeys in the salt mine but only 3 floors are open to visitors. The air was really cooling down there and according to our guide, the air is good for health.. every breath adds a few years to your life span which is why there's a fitness centre built in the mine. She urged us to take as many deep breaths as possible haha.

The inside of the salt mine. The first picture looks like a stale cauliflower and the second picture looks like the inside of a freezer. The guide told us to feel free to give the walls a lick (she recommended the ceiling since they are the 'cleanest').

We saw many exhibits of how miners worked in the mines, they even brought horses down under! The horses made their job a lot easier and the guide kept stressing that this is a salt mine so the horses were not blinded (unlike in a coal mine but I googled and apparently the horses were not blinded due to the coal, but old age.. hmm..). There's a model of how the pulleys worked. And when you're climbing up and down the steps in the salt mine, you'll realise they are extremely shallow and rather slippery. I can't imagine how the miners carried blocks of salt up and down these tiny steps.

Can you guess who this is? Honestly I thought it was a woman but it turns out to be a man. It's Nicolaus Copernicus!! He's a Polish (I didn't know that) astronomer and mathematician who came up with the heliocentric model of the universe - aka we are not the centre of the universe! It's the sun that is. And hey, I visited the college that he went to! Collegium Maius, literally Great College in Latin.

This is a story about a Hungarian princess called Princess Kinga. According to legend, when Princess Kinga was to marry a Polish king, her father wanted to send gold and silver to the Poles but Kinga asked for a salt mine instead since Poles had gold and silver but they did not have much needed salt. The king agreed and Princess Kinga simply dropped her engagement ring into one of the Hungarian salt mine before going to Poland. After her wedding in Krakow, she went for a trip to a nearby town of Wieliczka and she ordered to dig a well. People who dig the well had to stop because they encountered a hard stone. She then ordered to lift up a chunk of the stone - it was a pure salt with Kinga's ring inside. Princess Kinga thus became the guardian angel of miners in and around Krakow (via here).

King Casimir the Great. They were all carved by the miners! Amazing handiworks. 

There are even lakes inside the mine. There used to be a boat to take visitors for a ride but it was removed after one boat capsized and the people were trapped under the boat because they could not surface dive due to buoyancy of the extremely salty water.. And so they suffocated/drowned. :(

Due to the dangerous nature of their job, miners built many chapels to pray for safety. And one such chapel was the breath-taking St. Kinga chapel. The beautiful chandeliers were carved from salt! Can you imagine? I was so blown away. And all the carvings along the walls were done by the miners, impressive! Just in case you're wondering, you can get married here but it will probably cost an extravagant amount.

Carving of Pope John Paul II who was one of the most influential leaders of the 20th century. He was known for his humour and wit too. Our walking guide in Warsaw told us that once he was on a flight and he wasn't feeling too good so the air stewardess asked if he'd like a glass of wine to help him relax. Pope John asked how high they were flying and when he heard the stewardess' reply, he said "Ah that's too bad. My boss is too near." ;) 

After the end of the tour, we were brought to souvenir shops where you can get salt for cooking, bathing, etc. Then we took this traditional old lift up to the surface. It was just a metal cage and rather flimsy too but it was so fun! 

How to get there?
I booked a tour with Cracow Tours which is the cheapest tour around town, 68 PLN for students. But the salt mine is actually just 20+ minutes away and I met a Polish guy in my hostel who told me I could have easily taken a bus there, get an entrance ticket and join the English tour happening every hour. 

Saturday 15 February 2014

Krakow, Poland I: Old Town Square and Wawel

Reached Krakow at 5.30 in the morning and I was absolutely freezing. With frozen hands, I tried to find my way to my hostel. Since it was way too early to check in, I warmed myself up with a cup of coffee in the lounge. After breakfast I went off for a walking tour. The Old Town is so near! Just 5 minutes away. Krakow Old Town is a lot busier and smaller than the one in Warsaw.

Statue of Adam Mickiewicz who was the greatest Polish Romantic poet in front of the Cloth Hall where you can get all sorts of souvenir from.

St. Mary Basilica which was supposedly built by two brothers. One brother, the designer of the smaller tower, was envious of his brother's success, murdered him and then threw himself from the higher tower from remorse. The knife that was said to have been the murder weapon is hang at the gate of the Sukiennice. I saw it but don't have a photo of it.

Every hour, a trumpet signal—called the HejnaƂ mariacki—is played from the top of the taller of St. Mary's two towers. The tune breaks off in mid-stream, to commemorate the famous 13th century trumpeter, who was shot in the throat while sounding the alarm before the Mongol attack on the city.. well according to legend.

Town Hall Tower - Krakow's leaning tower! It leans just 55 centimetres so you probably can't really tell. And near the tower is the sculpture of a head called "The Head" haha ok official name is Eros Bendato. The rest of his body is supposed dotted in various locations in Europe.. I tried to google for images but can't seem to find any. Did anybody see the other parts of his body somewhere? This is like in hidden object game but in real life. Scary.

Wawel Cathedral seemed to be pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle. The architecture is like a mish mash of styles (at least to my untrained architectural eyes). The interior is really beautiful. I always wonder how people in the past managed to build such extricate cathedrals.

The two bright windows were positioned there to make people think they were doors opening up to rooms. Clever eh? King Sigismund had a love for Italian architecture so he hired two Italian architects to design Wawel Castle.

But a fire broke out and restoration was carried out but this time it was mingled with Gothic style. The guide pointed out the difference to us but I couldn't see it so I took two photos. The left side is supposed to be a different style from the right. Can you tell?

Krakow's iconic Wawel dragon that blows out fire every few minutes. There's a story behind the dragon. There used to be a dragon living in a den just at the foot of Wawel Hill, it killed villages, ate their livestocks and the whole village lived in fear. So the king announced that whoever who could kill the dragon would get his daughter's hand in marriage but nobody could defeat it. Then a shoemaker/cobbler/basically a poor young man came along and claimed that he could do it. He stuffed a lamb with sulphur and placed it in front of the dragon's den. The next morning when the dragon awoke, it saw the lamb and ate it. Then he felt so thirsty that he drank up the whole of Vistula River and his stomach (and it too) exploded. It explains why you see dragons all over Krakow, in the form of stuffed toys, t-shirts, on cups, bowls, plates, etc.

And a friendly beer said hi. :)