Weeks 8 and 9 - Hanging out in Krakow

17th - 30th July 2017.

Monday 17th
If it’s Monday it must be MOVING DAY - wrong, it’s raining.

Thats just an excuse really, it’s not raining but we did so little preparation yesterday that we need today to get ready.

It is also another excuse for a meal in the site restaurant, Sue had Bigos, also known as Hunters Stew, a hearty, cabbage and pork-based stew that has been called the national dish of Poland. It definitely has an Eastern European feel to it: Cabbage and sauerkraut, lots of different meats—many of the them smoked—and a variety of mushrooms, she thought it delicious. I had pork tenderloin with a mushroom sauce, that too was top notch.

Tuesday 18th
We did actually get up and moved today and are now ensconced at Campsite Smok ***, just 5 km from Krakow city centre. We are planning to stay here until after Alex’s visit and although it’s not the best campsite we have ever been to neither is it the worst. The site is on several layers and we are sited next to a set of metal steps that gives access to the toilets and showers. We hope it won’t but it may be noisy here with virtually every camper clumping up then down the stairs at some point.

The standard of driving in Poland, while far better than the last time I was here, is without doubt the worst we have experienced anywhere in Europe. Speed limits can be anything from 20kph to 120kph awhile few conform to the speed limit unless the driver at the front of the queue is doing so and they will desperately try to pass you. We have on several occasions been overtaken when towing the van, so 12.5m (41 feet) of vehicle, being overtaken on blind bends where the overtaker has had to cross double white lines.

To cap it all we were on our way to Tesco (one of the biggest we have ever seen) when some clown ran into the back of us. Getting out and walking round the back I found a brand new BMW driven by a late teen/early 20’s woman who explained that “. . . sorry I was not looking . . . ” the fact that I had been stationary for some seconds and we had been in stop start traffic for the last mile or so . . . . . !! Still SsangYongs are still built on a good old fashioned chassis so a little bonk on the back end did nothing for it, but a tow bar ball making sharp contact with the front end of a BMW even at slow speed!!

Wednesday 19th
Breakfast on the BBQ this morning, eggs, bacon, mushrooms fabulous. Never bothered before when on our own, so it made a very nice change.

Sue has decided she does not like this pitch. It is, it must be said, convenient for the loos, showers, water tap and electric but is a bit like camping in Romford market on a Saturday morning, so heavy is the traffic going to and from the loos and showers.

We found a pitch on the other side of the field near to a willow tree that should give a little shade as the weather is hot today. The temperature in the van is 35ºC (95ºF).

Sunday 23rd
The last few days have been absolutely sweltering. We are avoiding Krakow as we are saving it for when Alex visits. We are told it is a fabulous city that takes several days to appreciate so we have hung about the campsite doing odd jobs and re-doing this blog, I had been told that the the home page of the blog was showing an “oops - page not available” message. It’s taken several days in 35°C heat but everything is now back on track. The site is now up and running as it should.

Tuesday 25th

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Looking over the balcony, 360 steps to go.

Back in full tourist mode today. We went to the Salt Mine in Wieliczka. The site we are on act as agents for a tour company that in turn act as agents for a number of local tourist attractions, the salt mine being one. You are collected from your camp or hotel taken to the attraction, in this case the salt mine, whisked to the front of the queue and straight in. This particular tour is not for the faint hearted as it starts with negotiating a 380 step staircase - thats right 380 steps, fortunately you have to go down them as you do the other 420 you climb down during the tour. Thats a full 800 steps and you walk around 2km of tunnels. When mining first took place at this site there were no pre-existing caves or rock fissures there are now some 300 kilometres (186 miles) of tunnels and workings although only around 1% is accessible by the public of the rest the lowest level is permanently under water or I should say 100% saturated brine, and most of the rest too dangerous for non-experts to access.

Although the mine has been closed since 1997 it still produces salt by a desalination process. The mine requires constant pumping to keep water at a safe and acceptable level. The water pumped out of the mine, some 2000 litres per day, is 100% saturated brine and cannot be disposed of in the local river system, until the salt is removed. It is this salt that is sold in the tourist souvenir outlets on the site it is not available elsewhere.

There are still 300 miners working full time in the mine whose job it is to keep all areas safe, and to maintain the all timber supports, used because the brine soaks into the timber and dramatically slows the decay process while it increases the rate of corrosion in iron and steel. Some of the timber supports have been in place for hundreds of years. Three hundred miners in a non producing mine may seem a lot but they have 2000 tourism colleagues.

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Underground Chapel

There are a number of sculptures in the mine all bar one, a carving of Copernicus, done by miners. Rock Salt is as hard as granite to carve but one wrong tap of the hammer and you have a pile of small Rock Salt fragments. The carvings were done by two brothers and one other miner who when he left the mine became, at age 91 years, a professional artist.

It is a great tour but what about those 800 steps you have climbed down during the tour? Fortunately you go back to ground level in a lift. Of course Mr Elf and Mrs Safety would certainly frown as they are the original mine lifts, nine people went in a small cubicle about 0.6m deep x 1.2m wide x 1.8m high (2ft x 4ft x 6ft) there were three rows of three cubicles all joined and you were whisked to the top in no time. The last two people in and the first two out had the biggest problem as the doors, be they quite small opened into the lift. The Salt Mine in Wieliczka is a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Wednesday 26th

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Arbeit Macht Frei - the entrance to terror

We have spent so long sitting on our butts doing nothing that we organised another day out today, same company as yesterday but this time the visit was to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

All over the world, Auschwitz has become a symbol of terror, genocide, and the Holocaust. It was established by Germans in 1940, in the suburbs of Oswiecim, a Polish city that was annexed to the Third Reich by the Nazis. Its name was changed to Auschwitz, which also became the name of Konzentrationslager Auschwitz.

The direct reason for the establishment of the camp was the fact that mass arrests of Poles were increasing beyond the capacity of existing "local" prisons. The first transport of Poles reached KL Auschwitz from Tarnów prison on June 14, 1940. Initially, Auschwitz was to be one more concentration camp of the type that the Nazis had been setting up since the early 1930s. It functioned in this role throughout its existence, even when, beginning in 1942, it also became the largest of the death camps . . . source Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum web site.

The first and oldest was the so-called "main camp," later also known as "Auschwitz I" (the number of prisoners fluctuated around 15,000, sometimes rising above 20,000), which was established on the grounds and in the buildings of prewar Polish barracks;

The second part was the Birkenau camp (which held over 90,000 prisoners in 1944), also known as "Auschwitz II" This was the largest part of the Auschwitz complex. The Nazis began building it in 1941 on the site of the village of Brzezinka, three kilometers from Oswiecim. The Polish civilian population was evicted and their houses confiscated and demolished. The greater part of the apparatus of mass extermination was built in Birkenau and the majority of the victims were murdered here . . . source Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum web site.

On my first visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 2001 we drove into the empty car park strolled over to the museum and after a look around, and discovering no English speaking guides were available, wandered into the Auschwitz camp itself and spent an hour or two looking around, with virtually no-one else on site, reading the English information and trying to understand what on earth had happened here.

Our visit here today could not have been more different, we were collected from the camp site at 8.15am and driven to Auschwitz-Birkenau where we parked in the same car park as had I in 2001. The difference was amazing every inch that could be was filled with vehicles, cars, mini-busses, coaches etc and those inches that were not covered with cars were covered with people. There were crowds everywhere, but to give them their due the company we were with had three or four minibuses there from different areas/hotels and soon had us in one large group and ready to enter. We went through airport style security which caused a few minutes delay and we were issued head phones and radio receivers so that we could all effectively hear the guide without her shouting. She was very knowledgable and talked in an interesting and engaging manner but all was, for me, spoilt by the huge number of visitors trying to get around the site. In some areas we were forced to go in single file and keep moving to allow those following  access. After the tour of Auschwitz I we were herded through a gate and retrieved of our audio equipment without the opportunity to quietly contemplate the enormity of the events that took place there.

After a short toilet break (1.5 zloties per person please pay at the door) we were back in the mini-busses and on our way to the Birkenau Camp or Auschwitz II as it was known. This was where the train carrying the prisoners steamed straight into the camp, the people disembarked on the platform where they were sent to the left or to the right. Those sent to the left went to the registration area. Those sent to the right did not need to be registered as they had just minutes to live, the time it took to walk to the end of the road, enter the changing room where they took off all clothing and stepped into the “shower”. The showers had a capacity of around 2000 people and were used twice weekly and as the business of cremating or otherwise diposing of 4000 corpses per week took considerably longer the crematorium gangs worked 24 hours per day seven days per week 365 days per year.

The Birkenau Camp or Auschwitz II was a much less frenetic place when we arrived (although it was filling up as we left) so we were able to stand and stare, contemplate all that occurred here and try to understand why and how it had been allowed to happen. 

Thursday 27th is Alex Day.
We left the van at the spot of ten this morning to collect Alex from Przemyśl Główny (Przemyśl Central) railway station on the Polish Ukrainian border around 260 km (160 miles) from where we are camping. It looks a long way, particularly as we have to go there and back but apart from 10km (6 miles) at each end it is 140 kph (87 mph) motorway. We had hoped to “top up” our viaToll box today as virtually the entire route is chargeable by the box but there are just four services on the A4 motorway between Krakow and Przemyśl but not one was able to top up our box. We know ‘cos we stopped at every one!

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The train from Kiev

Ukraine has just last month removed many visa requirements from its citizens travelling in the EU and started a one each way per day train service between Kiev and Przemyśl, which is proving to be very popular. The track was laid during the Russian era and is the only one that will take you into Poland without changing from an 1.52m gauge track to a 1.7m gauge track. All Russian railways were laid to a different gauge to the rest of us to prevent enemies using their railway tracks in the event of invasion.

The Kiev - Przemyśl train arrived within a minute of the scheduled time but for some unknown reason the customs had not been able to clear the whole train while travelling so those passengers at the rear of the train had to wait while those from the front of the train went to the customs hall, this took a few minutes but before very long we were back in the car and on our way back to Krakow.

Friday 28th
Our first trip into Krakow city, the initial problem was bus tickets. The busses have machines and although you can press a button to scroll through a number of languages including English it is still unintelligible. The bus we were on reached the end of the line without us understanding or getting tickets, still no matter, the ticket gives you travel for a period of time, so the company still finished up with the same amount of cash when we bought tickets on the tram.

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The River Vistular pictured from the Krakow Castle

We had a long pleasant walk around Krakow and in the afternoon rather than catching a tram and then a bus we walked back to the site. 17964 steps I logged on my Fitbit, the most so far in one day.

Saturday 29th
Another day in Krakow and had less trouble getting tickets today as we had the experience from yesterday. We arrived in the city and walked along the river front before climbing the hill to the Wawel Royal Castle. The castle covers quite an area and encompasses as well as a castle, a palace with state rooms and royal apartments and a cathedral.

The leaflet for the palace indicated in its photos that the rooms were empty and devoid of any indication of how the residents lived so we chose not to pay the entry fees and went to the (entry free) cathedral. We were not in the cathedral very long, it was a very interesting place but the huge numbers of visitors and the huge numbers staff checking that you don’t take photos or commit any other transgressions made it a place to visit in the low season only.

Sunday 30th

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Setting out on our rafting adventure

Today is the third and last of the trips organised by a tour company, Dunajec River Rafting. It is rather expensive but without someone else to do the driving I don’t think we would have gone, in fact I know we would not have gone. We were collected at 9.00 am and driven for nearly 2hrs 45 mins, it should have been 2 hours but the traffic was horrendous. Once we arrived we bypassed the 100 metre long ticket queue and went straight onto a raft and away. The rafts are each made from five sections each section like an 300mm wide X 300mm deep X 2m long boat. Five of these sections are roped together to form a craft for twelve passengers and two oarsmen or rather “puntsman" as they use long poles to steer and control the craft as the current moves it down the river. The scenery as you slowly travel down river is outstanding but 2.1/2 hours on a narrow hard wooden bench is a little too long for us old folks. I had a numb bum after the first hour and with no opportunity to stand or move about it doesn’t get easier, and of course you still have a two hour minibus ride to look forward to.

© S W Ghost 2017