Thursday, August 4, 2011

Prague - the end of the trip

Today was our last day of touring, and what a beautiful place to finish in.
We arrived in Prague about 4 pm the day before after a long trip of over 500km. On the way we hd a few games of euchre with Tony and Jenny to pass the time,with a bag blanced on our knees for a table.

Playing Euchre to pass the time
We have been really  lucky that most of our hotels have been centrally located near the main attractions, or within walking distance, and in this case we are about 5 minutes' walk from the Old Town. As in all the other cities we have visited the shops are open til about 9 pm each day so it's easy to shop when you want,  There is also a big cafe culture in Prague. We walked past one place today where all the beautiful people were turned facing the Square, hardly facing their companions. It looked like they were trying to be seen.

In another cafe early this morning there were 2 girls, looked about 12 years old, sitting at a footpath cafe at about 10am, so obviously the pattern begins early.

One of the highlights in the main square is the Astronomical clock, built in the 1300s. As well as the time it shows the phases of the moon and the tides. It also shows the signs of the zodiac. The clock shows a parade of saints on the hour, a skeleton rings a bell, a rooster flaps its feathers, and a trumpeter plays. Hundreds of people jostle for the best position to capture it all. It's a favourite spot for pick-pockets I'm told.
The Astronomical Clock

This morning we met our local guide, Lucy, who gave us commentary from the bus, followed by a walking tour of various locations which included Prague Castle, St Vitus Cathedral, Castle District, the Lower town, Charles Bridge with its colection of saints.
Changing the Guard at Prague Castle

Ornate front facade of St Vitus Cathedral

Prague Castle gates

One of several modern stained glass windows in St Vitus

The Powder Gate in the old town, near our hotel

Ornate carving and decoration on a house in the Castle Area

Before street numbers houses had carved emblems to show who lived there, This one housed a violin maker. Violins are between the 2 lamps.

Saints statue on Charles Bridge

The city end of Charles Bridge

The narrowest hotel in Prague

After the tour we had a nice lunch in a cafe - Messo Cafe - where David was served the biggest Greek salad - he couldn't eat it all, then back to the hotel for a short break. Later we went back to an Art Gallery where we found a picture to purchase, and negotiated a better price. Unfortunately it is just a bit too big to fit into a suitcase, so a bit of juggling will have to occur.

Tonight we had our farewell dinner at a local restaurant, just across from the hotel. After a bit of a wander around the town we found a spot for a group photo, and found a group of young Aussie girls to take the photo as well.

The tour group in Republic Square after dinner, sporting our Bunniks luggae straps

As the tour ends it's always a bit sad, with everyone going their own way. It's been a good group with everyone getting on pretty well.

One of the strangest things to go home to will be the fact that there aren't 2 or 3 bottle shops in each block, and a complete range of alcohol in each supermarket. I thought Aussies were good drinkers, but they lag a long way behind the Europeans.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Krakow - beautiful and diverse

Yesterday we had an energetic day exploring Krakow, located in southern Poland. In past times it has been the capital of Poland, and has been the site where kings have been crowned. Due to its inland location it suffered very little damage during World War II, unlike the capital Warsaw. Also, on this trip it is one of the very few locations with any hills, so Wawel's strategic position on a high point, has meant that through history its old city has been able to be defended fairly well.

Our hotel is located on Kosciusko Street (pronounced kosh-oosh-ko) Kosciusko was a Polish patriot who made his name in Poland, and in USA, but never visited Australia. The mountain was named by another Pole, the explorer Strzlecki, who was honouring his countryman.

Thestreet sign in Krakow

Krakow is indeed a beautiful city, and it certainly merits more than a day to explore it. However, we did our best by undertaking a tour of the Salt Mines, followed by a city tour, some free time, a tour of the Jewish Kazimierz section of Krakow, and finally dinner.

We began the day with a tour of the Wieliczka Salt Mine. It has been operating as a salt mine for many centuries, but ceased mining in 1996. It has also been a tourist destination for a very long time and is now more profitable as a tourist destination than it had been for a long time as a mine. There are over 250 guides employed there, and it attracts tourists all year. The floors are in places made of salt, as are the walls, polished shiny by thousands of hands and feet.

To access the mine there is a lift in place of the first 350 stairs, but the extra 800 steps to reach the lowest levels are lift-free. Fortunately the lift takes you all the way back up to the surface. It takes 9 people squashed sardine-tight. Just as well we were friends.

The mine contains many life size displays - some showing the past lives of miners, others are decorative showing historical figures.

Model of a horse whim used to raise and lower loads of salt

Salt sculptureof Nicholas Copernicus

Salt sculpture of Casimir the Great, an early king of Poland

There is an enormous cavern used for weddings, conferences and other functions, located about 130 metres underground. It contains several statues and religious scenes, and a number of rock salt chandeliers. It took 67 years to carve. One of the statues is of Pope John Paul II, who is still very popular in Poland.

Chandeliers made of rock salt

Salt sculpture of Pope John Paul II

After the mine tour we had a conducted tour of the Old Town of Krakow. This included the Cathedral, Wawel Castle which sustained damage in World War I. The tour included as usual several churches which are beginning to merge into a highly decorated soup as the tour nears an end. Krakow has one of the largest town squares in Europe, dominated by an enormous Cloth Hall, used today as a market.

Gateway to Wawel Castle

The courtyard of Wawel Castle
Krakow Cathedrals where kings and queens have been crowned, and are buried in splendour

The Cloth Hall in Krakow Square

The house where John Paull II lived

We also visited the Jagellonian University, the 2nd oldest university in Europe. One of its notable graduates is Nicholas Copernicus, one of the early astronomers to develop sun-centric plans of the solar system.

Inside the courtyard Jagellonian University

Facsimile of Copernicus treatise

We had a real treat for lunch. David and Matthew (one of our group) were waylaid by an attractive young thing with technicolour eye makeup, trying to obtain lunch custom. As a result we has a 4 course meal for 15 zloty (about $5) which was very tasty. It was followed by a half hour walk back to the hotel to digest it.

At about 6.30 we set off again to explore the old Jewish quarter of Krakow, a bus and walking tour followed by a 3 course meal at a Jewish restaurant, complete with traditional Jewish music. We visited Oskar Schindler's factory, now a museum, which also featured in the book and film, Schindler's List.

Sculpture of 70 empty chairs to represent the Jews taken to Plaszow Concentration Camp

Oskar Schindler's Emailia factory in which he employed Jews who would otherwise have been killed. 

Old Jewish cemetery in Kazimierz district

Writing this blog nearly 24 hours later you'll be pleased to know that dinner tonight was a very basic affair to compensate for yesterday's over-indulgnce.

This was our last day in Krakow. This morning, Tuesday we set off early for a 500km coach trip to Prague, our final destination on the tour.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011


On Sunday we woke to a heavy fog over Warsaw, and I was hopeful that it would turn into a lovely day as it usually does in Australia. However it was not to be and the weather degenerated into the only totally wet day we have had on tour so far. Given our destination this seemed appropriate.

We left Warsaw for Krakow, via the Auschwitz- Birkenau Concentration Camp museums at Oswiecim. To get us into the mood for the Camp we watched the movie, The Pianist, much of which was set in the old town in Warsaw that we had visited the day before.

Our sombre mood was justified, and our guide also spoke in tones appropriate to the circumstances.

Surprisingly, Auschwitz itself was quite small and compact with substantial brick buildings, whereas Birkenau was large and rambling with timber buildings and a real sense of doom about its remnant buildings. Conditions there were extremely harsh, It was here that the trainloads of people were unloaded, separated, and most sent immediately to the gas ovens for extermination. Buildings were less substantial, overcrowded, unheated and lacked privacy.

In Auschwitz there were extensive displays, mainly of photos and personal effects taken from prisoners. They included 1 tonne of human hair, collections of spectacles, brushes and combs, shoes and even  prosthetic devices, mainly from disabled survivors of World War I.

The black and white photos were from the personal and private collections of SS Officers overseeing the camp.

Below are a few of the photos I took.

Places from which people were deported to Auschwitz

Monument containing 1kg of human ashes, representing all those incinerated at the camp

Photo of selection for the ovens - healthy young men and women were spared for work gangs, Old men and women, the disabled, children, pregnant women were not. 

Empty canisters of cyclone B which were used to gas people

A collection of suitcases from those who were murdered. Many have birth year on them, some as young as 1939

The execution wall adjacent to Block 11. Execution of prisoners by shooting was common until they perfected the process of gas chamber extermination.

Re-creation of ovens used for cremating bodies

Re-creation of an early gas chamber, used in the period before the process was "perfected" The square hole in the ceiling was where the canister was inserted.

This is part of the toilet block. Three rows of multiple seats. There was no sewerage system and typhus was a major killer
The link below is to a short video of Birkenau.
Birkenau Concentration Camp

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Warsaw - where old is new again

Poland has a population of about 38 million and is a relatively wealthy country with plenty of mineral resources and a well developed industry base. It's not a country you hear much about in Australia, si we didn't really know what to expect. What Warsaw has is a well developed western look to it, with an old town close to the centre, and an abundance of historical buildings in excellent condition.
The view from our hotel room. The Europenas are very good at facades, but often the back is a total wreck.

View from level 12 of the hotel. No pedestrain crossings on busy intersections. Walkways under the road are the norm
 However, all is not as it seems. Warsaw was heavily bombed during WWII, and much of the city has been rebuilt exactly as it was before the war, using photos, paintings, recollections and other documents to restore it faithfully. This is especially true of the Old Town.
These buildings were destroyed in the war and booby trapped by the Nazis. They have been faithfully recreated in the Old Town

Part of the Old City Wall
 There were parts of Warsaw which weren't destroyed, and these were the palaces and other similar buildings which were occupied by he Nazis, and were therefore protected.

Belvedere Palace, built in the 18th century, was destined for destruction, but although holes for explosives were drilled, nothing eventuated.

The gates to Warsaw University survived.

Warsaw has a number of significant statues. One is of Marshall Josef Pilsudski, a WWI patriot, known as Moustache Number 2. Moustache Number 1 was an early King John, and Number 3 is Lech Walesa, the Solidarity leader and retired President. Another is of Frederic Chopin, a son of Warsaw, whose statue was chopped up by the Nazis and recreated in the 1950s.

Patriot Josef Pilsudski

Frederic Chopin, polish pianist, under a weeping willow tree, He gained inspiration from its sounds.

The monument recognising the Warsaw Ghetto, is a large and powerful. So also is the monument recognising Poles murdered by the Soviets in labour camps in Siberia.

The front of the Warsaw Ghetto monument. Approx 300 000 Polish Jews were murdered from here. The Jewish population in Poland today is about 1% of pre war numbers.

The back of the Jewish Ghetto monument

Memorial to those transported to Siberia by the Soviets.
We saw a film about the destruction of Warsaw by the Nazis, which was quite powerful, but I'm sure the visit to Krakow tomorrow will be even more so.

Our guide, Yolanda, who was excellent, said that Poles had learned to forgive Germany for its actions in World War II since their chancellor Willie Brandt had apologised to the nation, and enabled the country to move forward with cordial relations between the two countries.

Although WWII left its mark, so too has the Soviet era. One of the biggest monuments was built by Stalin and is called the Palace of Culture and Science. It's pretty ugly and is over 200m tall. There are similar ones in Russia and in Riga, but as Yolanda said, "We're very lucky, we only have one. The Soviet Union built it for free, and we have been paying for it ever since." We took the lift up to the 30th level, and the view would have been fantastic on a clear day, but today was drizzly and the view wasn't terrific.

Stalin's birthday cake

The view from level 30

Following our trip up Stalin's birthday cake, we had another shopping adventure, trying to buy products by picture, and work out supermarket fresh fruit and veg. protocols, while holding up the queue. I suspect Poles are used to queuing, as the cashiers at Marks and Spencer were as slow as a wet week as well.

Well, that's Warsaw. Off to Krakow tomorrow.