Krakow, Poland - June 28, 2012
What an emotionally exhausting few days. Up, down, up, down... Getting back into solo mode is always hard and this was no less so. But sitting at a gas station in Slovakia on Tuesday after leaving Budapest, I saw that my guide book mentioned the town of Banska Stiavnica. Hadn't gone past it, and so made a little side detour there. Very, very cute place. It's a UNESCO site. Anyway, found a place to stay in the attic of a very old building (nicely renovated) but as it was 50 steps and 3 creaky stairways up, the owner gratefully allowed me to park the bike in the garden, so I only had to carry up the grim bag and could leave the cases on the bike. Nice weather. The best part was that on the hour, one of the churches didn't just ring bells, but had some sort of glockenspiel thing that played a whole piece. Changed each hour. Sounded just like a giant music box. Very, nice. I tried to keep one of the best tunes in my head, and was doing pretty well until the next hour, when a new tune played. They should sell a CD! Banska Stiavnica's greatest hits.
Just One Corner of Banska Stavnica
Parked in the Garden
So left for Krakow Wednesday morning. Slovakia was very pretty in the north as it became more hilly (actually quite mountainous in places) but except for Bianska Stiavnica... actually seemed quite foreign to me. I mean, it's no foreign than any other place, but I just felt quite a bit more alone and isolated. Guess it was the language. I was rather lost with it. For example, I stopped for gas and went in to pay. Now all across Europe, the word for motorcycle has been something like motorcycle... maybe just moto, or motorad or more like the Russian mo-to-tsee'-kl or something recognizable. But the guy at the counter kept asking me something using a word entirely different. I just sort of shrugged and one of the other customers answered for me. I guess he was asking if mine was the motorcycle. Well, I'm standing there in my bright orange motorcycle jacket and pants anyway... so I wasn't expecting the question which didn't help. But it was like that in most places in Slovakia.
Poland seems, however, much less foreign. Certainly more prosperous. I still can't catch much language wise, but English works a bit better here than farther south. Krakow is really very nice and worth a few days visit. Has a small old town center surrounded by a pretty park marking the location of the old city walls. No real car traffic in the old town so great for just strolling around on cobbled streets. Lots of street music and performers. Very active street night life.
But it's also very close to Auschwitz and Birkenau. Another of those "should go" places. I thought I'd take a tour out so I didn't have to deal with the bike, and that turned out to be a good choice. Anyway, it's a full-day thing... about 6 hours, 4 of which is the tour of the original Auschwitz camp and a second larger camp, about 15 minutes away at Birkenau. I was quite astounded as to what is there. I'm not sure quite what I was expecting... may some grassy fields with a few ruins or displays and films in a museum. But it's not like that at all. It is quite intact... barracks, beds, barbed-wire fences, gallows, gas chambers and crematoria... the last two which were thankfully temporarily closed by the museum for preservation work. I guess I wasn't ready for the rooms literally filled with shoes, rooms of luggage and baby clothes, discarded leg braces and artificial limbs, human hair for shipment back to Germany for the manufacture of felt, spectacles, tooth brushes... and shoe polish. There were numerous photos posted around the site that were taken while the camps were in operation. You could look at the photo and compare with the present. Everything pretty much was there. I think the most powerful was while standing along the railroad tracks, on the unloading platform, and comparing it to the photos of the exact same area, with Nazi doctors pointing right or left, live or die, to unsuspecting lines of people. I just can't quite grasp that. It is one of the most unbelievable places, but only because it is so unbelievable. When Diane and I toured the Budapest Opera House, it was said that all the gold decorations amounted to only 12 kg as it had all been hammered into thin foil. We heard today that at one point 10 kg of gold from fillings and false teeth, was shipped back to Berlin every day... almost enough to do the Opera House. Unbelievable.
A older Swedish couple from the hotel here also went on the tour and I was talking to them while we waited for the van this morning. He seemed to be some kind of history buff and said that he has been looking forward to going to Auschwitz since he was 10 years old. Actually we didn't talk too much after that. I'm sure he thinks that Canadians are aloof, but what do you say to someone who can't wait to see the horror that was that place?
Main Gate, Auschwitz
So this evening, walking around the square here, I kept looking at people and thinking of the doctor pointing right and left and thinking in general about the depravity of man. Then I saw some girl crouched down against one of the buildings feeding what I thought were two cats, but getting closer, I saw that she was feeding water from her bottle to two crippled pigeons. She was pouring water into the crack between the cobblestones, so the pigeons could drink. They were very close to her and very trusting. I felt like going over and giving her a hug.
A very young, but very wise man I deeply respect once said that "Crying is not always a bad thing". That's for sure. Sounds good to me.