Hello from the overnight (18 or 20 hours I think) train from Warsaw, Poland to Moscow, Russia via Belarus! No, no there is no WiFi on this train (wouldn’t that be nice!?) but I’m typing up the draft and will publish later.
Well, my trip has been getting more interesting (in a good way) the further East I’ve gone. Prague was simply beautiful – even though I was too tired after my train ordeal to really enjoy it on the first day. My plan was to arrive at about 9am, well rested – see the city for the day, have a siesta and then go out and enjoy the nightlife. In reality, I arrived at the hostel about 1pm, had a few hours sleep then went out and saw the city for a few hours and was exhausted, so just chilled in the hostel with a couple of beers and had a relatively early night.
The next day I had to check out, as I only had the 1 night in Prague – making the delay even more frustrating. I did a walking tour (as I’ve mentioned before I really enjoy) – it was one of the more comical walking tours I’ve done! The guide was an Irishman who had lived in Prague for about 5 years and was very passionate about this beautiful city – and a very animated story teller, who I’m pretty sure is actually an overgrown goblin.
Apparently Prague survived World War II relatively undamaged (not that it wasn’t touched, but it wasn’t actively bombed much) for a few very interesting reasons. I’d like to say before I go on, that I’ve not independently checked these facts, and they may well be myths! The Jewish Quarter is very much intact, while in most cities the Nazis destroyed it – the reason I was given for this is that Hitler had planned to make the Prague Jewish Quarter a museum of an extinct civilisation!
Prague sustained its first real damage in just the last few days of the war, when several buildings in the Old Town centre were destroyed. This is because the people of Prague started to really fight the Nazis to take back their city when they heard the allies were gaining ground. The fight was not going well to start with, and hearing the allies were only a couple of hours away, the people of Prague radioed for help…
Sadly this went unanswered because the Soviets and the West had already agreed on a boundary and Prague was on the Soviet side of the iron curtain. Due to a bunch of reasons that I honestly can’t really recall, the people of Prague managed to get the upper hand and had the Nazis in the city surrounded so they could not get out – and so the bombing of Prague began. Of course, they did not like their beautiful city being destroyed, and they came to an agreement with the Nazis – they would let the Nazis leave as long as the bombing stopped.
This is the story of how Prague liberated itself from Nazi rule. The Czechs celebrated, as they love to do! Then the very next day, the Soviets arrived to liberate the Czechs – and obviously didn’t care that they didn’t need liberating any longer. And so began the Soviet Communist period for Prague.
An overnight train from Prague to Krakow went smoothly, quite comfortable considering. I shared my compartment with a guy from Singapore and a guy from Sri Lanka. They both seemed nice, and I’m sure would have been interesting to get to know, however as it was a fairly late train we pretty much just went to bed. The train arrived at about 6am too, so we woke up just as we had time to get ready to get off the train.
Krakow was also quite a beautiful city, which escaped much damage during the war – however of course it had Auschwitz nearby which wasn’t exactly nice for them. I love the castle/cathedral in Krakow – it’s such a mish-mash of styles, and this is because each king wanted to put his own mark on it, and so added an additional chapel to the cathedral in the style of the times. Inside its amazing – although it’s fairly small for European cathedrals, it was one of the more amazing inside. You’re not allowed to take photos inside though.
Again, I did a walking tour in this city and Gosia who was the tour guide was probably the best guide I’ve had on any of my walking tours in any European city in the time I’ve been travelling in the last 2 years. Now that is a big statement! Simply amazing, very passionate, informative and patient with stupid questions – the group we had was HUGE, one of the biggest I’ve been part of, which can ruin a walking tour but she handled it perfectly.
As I mentioned, Krakow had Auschwitz nearby – about 70km in a town called Oswiecim – the reason it was called Auschwitz is that it is the German translation of the Polish name of the town. I read online that you could only go to Auschwitz as part of a group tour before 3pm, so I didn’t arrive until 3pm as I wanted to do it by myself. I wish I’d arrived at 1pm – not because I’d want to do a group tour, but because I simply didn’t have enough time there. I found out that Auschwitz I, you have to be a group tour to enter before 3pm, however Auschwitz II – Birkenau, you can go it alone at any time of day. If I could go back in time, I’d have arrived about 1pm and gone to Auschwitz II – Birkenau first, and then gone to Auschwitz I.
Getting the public bus to Auschwitz was very easy to organise – and was definitely an Eastern European experience! I walked to the bus station, which is just behind the main train station, walked up to the counter and said “Auschwitz” – the lady spoke minimal English, but clearly understood and gave me a ticket for the next busy to Auschwitz. From memory, I think it cost 12 Zloty each way – this was a one way ticket and you buy the return from the driver on the way back.
It was a mini bus, and when we left the bus station it was full. Full in that every seat was taken…. However, in what quickly started to remind me of a bus trip through South East Asia, more and more people got on! Every time you thought it would be simply impossible to squeeze another person into the small standing space on the bus (and by standing, I mean half bent over as the bus was too short to stand in!), another person would get on! It was quite a humourous drive of about 90 minutes.
As we went along, eventually people started to get off one by one, until it was just people sitting again. Much more comfortable! Although I luckily had a seat the whole way, I was still squashed by the people trying to force themselves onto the bus, and was relieved when they started to get off the bus.
When we got to Auschwitz, I had no idea – because the bus stopped at the back entrance, not the main entrance – luckily the bus driver is obviously used to foreigners on their trip the the concentration/death camp and stopped the bus, looked at me and said “Auschwitz” – to my surprise, I was the only person who got off here. But then, as I said, it was quite late in the day.
Entrance to the Auschwitz Museum is free, however donations are gladly accepted. I first went to Auschwitz I – which is where the bus drops you off. It is very much a museum – so much information that you could spend days, weeks even reading everything. It was quite a moving experience, except there were so many people, mostly in big tour groups and it really ruined it for me. I’d be reading something, and all of a sudden 30 people would surround me, I couldn’t see the information anymore and I didn’t have any personal space – and nobody seemed to care! After a while it was REALLY getting on my nerves and I just wanted to leave. I persevered though and saw a fair amount of the site.
I definitely didn’t get the same deep emotional experience from Auschwitz as I did in Srebrenica in Bosnia or the Killing Fields of Cambodia – mainly because of the amount of tourist there ruining it. Also I think it’s partly because it’s so clean, organised, planned and clinical.
I then went to Auschwitz II – Birkenau, which is about 5 or 10 minutes by bus from Auschwitz II, there is a free bus that goes every 30 minutes. The 2nd site is HUGE, as far as the eye can see, all there is is barns (or what is left of them), which were where these people lived. I honestly can’t tell you a whole heap about it as I only had 30 mins here, as I said I got there far too late. There might be heaps of information in each of the buildings, but I didn’t have time to see. I just walked straight down to where the ruins of the crematorium/gas chambers were, paid my respects and rushed back to get the last bus back to the first site and then the bus back to Krakow.
Well, this post is a lot longer than I expected it would be… But then, it has several cities to catch up on, and I’m on a very long train. There is also Warsaw to write about, however I’ll leave that until the next post when I also write about the experience of this train including the border crossing into Belarus and Russia. Wish me luck!!!