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Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Poland II : Wieliczka Salt Mines & Krakow Jewish Quarters

After last weeks rather sinister and foreboding post, this one will hopefully have a slightly happier feel to it as I put up the last few photos from the trip to Poland. Which included visits to their
salt mines and to the Jewish quarters, with a slice of Jewish cake in the cafe where Steven Spielberg often sat whilst writing for Schindler's List (a film added to my must-watch list!). A little less text for this one with a fair few photos, which will please my sister who usually has the pleasure of quickly proof-reading before I post.

As before, diary extracts are written in italics.

Wieliczka Salt Mines

I peer over the shoulders of the passengers to watch out of the front windows. Brand new apartments sit next to buildings half torn down and derelict, their insides spilling across the neighbouring land. Small, tatty sheds for homes sit amongst the bare woodland. A grey haze rests across the sun. 

The bus ride to the salt mines allowed us to see more of the suburbs of Krakow, and gave us another chance to try to navigate the local transport. We met a Brazilian woman travelling with her son. Her son was six, and she was travelling Europe with him, alone. I thought this was incredibly brave and inspiring of her.

Looking down through the 360+ steps to the bottom of the shaft

The salt mines were built in the 13th Century, where people carved into the solid walls of salt with hand tools, extracting it for table salt. The mines were a dangerous place, dark and damp, with build ups of gas that could kill.

Wheels of an old cart, used to push lumps of salt around the salt tunnels

The salt does not look like the classic table salt we season our food with until it comes into contact with moisture. From solid, grey rock into a white 'cauliflower' of salt crystals. I licked the walls, and tasted the stream of water that run through the mines. As I expected, being made up entirely of salt deposited by a sea over 13 million years ago, the walls and water tasted just like salt. And left me needing a good helping of fresh water. 

Cauliflower encrusted salt walls

The saline lake - 100% saturated salt water. For perspective; the Dead Sea has a salinity of ~34%

Incredibly, some of the old chambers have been transformed by workers and artists that have carved into the walls. Statues, scenery and animals have been shaped into the solid salt. The underground cathedral was stunning. Everything made of salt, even the crystals on the chandeliers. The place made me wonder why people go to such lengths to create places and artwork of such intricate and incredible beauty, on such grand scales. These people believed so strongly in their religions that they dedicated so much of their lives to producing such places of worship and inspiration.

The underground salt Cathedral

Salt chandeliers

The last cavern before we exited

The rusty old lift flew up through the mine shaft from about 160 metres to surface level. And to think this place goes to well over 360 metres below the surface, is a genuinely amazing feat of engineering. The mines are still active today, and form one of the oldest working mines in the world. 

 Jewish Quarters

Disappointed there were no apple pancakes for breakfast this morning. Had to make do with cereal, yoghurt, sausage, egg and biscuits instead. Last night was the first time it felt cold here, a feeling I had expected to feel more of. 

We walked along the river and into the Jewish Quarters. The river flows with a film of iridescence shimmering on its surface. We stop at a bakery and get a lump of traditional polish cake, no idea what it is called, and ate as we walked.

The Star of David

Ariel: The Jewish cafe where Spielberg went to whilst writing for Schindlers List
Once inside, the rooms are filled with old, old paintings

A man smokes in the square

Shadows of the railings on the cobbled streets

Bridge over the River Wisla 

We crossed over the bridge and headed towards Schindlers factory. The place where Oskar Schindler saved the lives of over 1,000 Jewish people. 

The entrance gate to the factory

"Whoever saves one life, saves the World entire" Telmund 4:12

It took me a while to understand the quote. Put into perspective by one of the survivors, whose children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces, and all of their children and family thereafter are all alive today because Oskar Schindler saved that one person from the Germans, where they would have almost certainly have been killed. They estimate that around one million people could be alive today thanks to the actions of Oskar Schindler.

People watching from a cafe in Krakow

 Before we left for home, we headed back into the market square one last time. We drank coffee. We ate dinner. We shopped on the market, and took in the vibes of this historic and charming city. Being here has been far more enjoyable than I had expected. I am not much of a city person, preferring the rolling hills, running rivers and crashing waves of the countryside. But for three days, Krakow has opened my eyes and taught me a thing or two about the past.

It has also reinforced my belief that town centres and cities are far prettier and far more romantic when it is wet and raining. Sometimes, to top it off, being dark helps too.

Horse drawn carriages through the Square

We sat down to eat in the traditional cafe, where the off duty street entertainers ate - a man dressed as silver painted wizard statue, and a man with shells and crabs glued to a big coat and hat. Mulled wine. A tram ride back to the hotel. Awaiting taxi to airport. Our journey home begins. 

Back to wildlife for the next blog... Thank ya'll for reading! Hope you have enjoyed.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Poland: Auschwitz and Krakow

I hope everyone has had a very merry Christmas, and is enjoying the New Year! Before Christmas, I spent some time filming with Tim, for my first full episode on Grey Seals which I should begin editing for very soon. An update on film progress can be found here: And so it begins...

Seal pup at sunset

I then went on a bit of a road trip to South Wales, where I joined Sam for a walk around Cardiff and had a mini adventure in search of waterfalls on the Brecon Beacons. A beautiful place for a walk in the pouring rain.

Waterfall hunting in the Beacons

I have just returned from a trip to Poland. A place where my Dad has long wanted to go. He decided to book it spontaneously asking if I wanted to join him. I knew Auschwitz would be on the agenda, a place where I had mixed feelings about wanting to visit or not, and I had no idea what Krakow would be like as a city. In this blog I thought I would try something a bit different and include a few extracts from the diary I keep on the adventures I go on. I have put them in italics to differentiate them from the main text. Let me know what you think! Part two will follow shortly.

View from the window

5.1.14; Krakow

And now we sit, in a busy coffee house, windows still decorated with snowflakes from Christmas. Waves of Polish conversation merge into a messy and unfamiliar sound. We overlook the market square. Horse drawn carriages line-up underneath the Basilica; majestic as it stands tall, high above the square. The cylindrical towered pinnacles of the roof are intricately designed and topped with spheres. A faint smog-like mist lingers, softening the detail of the furthest buildings.

St Mary's Basilica

My first impressions of Poland were filled with disappointment. The outskirts of the city on the drive in from the airport were highly industrialised. Large pipelines run alongside and over the top of the roads, rusted and scarred with graffiti. The taxi driver informed us of their purpose - to deliver hot water as central heating to the buildings around. 

Urban graffiti 

Giant square blocks of concrete buildings stand tall and alone. Spread sparsely across the barren and heavily littered grasslands. The ghostly shapes of corvids, rooks and solitary crows, epitomised the urban landscape, as they sifted through litter and squabbled over scraps. 

After a tram ride into the city centre, and some terribly embarrassing attempts to learn how to simply say 'thank you' in Polish, we walked up to Wawel Cathedral. We have pronounced it to at least five people, all of whom politely corrected us with a smile on their face. 'Dziekuje'. The Cathedral is surrounded by impressive castle-like walls that were reduced to ruin. Reparation work began in the early 20th Century, and now it is a cross-stitch of modern brickwork, old timber frames and large stone walls.

One of the towers outside of the Cathedral

The sheer size and majesty of the buildings took us aback slightly, as the buildings were unexpectedly stunning. I had never released just how much influence Christianity had on Poland. Krakow has beautiful churches on their cobbled streets, elegantly mixing the new and old buildings. The architecture and effort that went into these buildings is phenomenal. 

Inside Wawel Cathedral. An elderly woman rocked in one of the pews alone. Clutching a chain of beads and a cross in her clenched hands, muttering words of prayer to herself. Stunning stain glass windows, finely carved gold-leaf decor, marble tombs and a bronze statue of an ancient Cypriat. The statues hands, one outstretched, were smooth and bright as they have been worn by groping religious folk that touch the hands and feet for prayer. Getting into the religious spirit, we made a donation and lit a candle on the bench for our family. Sparing them all a thought. After doing so, a child clumsily knocked into the rack of candles, extinguishing a few of the flames and the prayers they stood for. An innocent act of prayer sabotage. 

Wawel Cathedral

Back on the streets we bought some bread from one of many stalls that the locals seem to thrive on. The bread was simply a large bagel. We then come across a stall selling what looked like pastry at first glance, but turned out to be decorative smoked/fried cheese. The flavour was nice and smokey, but the cheese a bit ropey and left our throats dry and furry, and in need of a good drink. 

The world passes him by

A homeless man, hunkered down on a bench .Wrapped up warm, he slowly fell asleep forwards, jolting awake before he would fall to the ground. A nun waited patiently in a queue for a kebab. As sunlight faded and darkness set in, the lights on the old market square reflected and glimmered on the surface of the wet cobbled pavings, casting long shadows and scattering colour throughout. 

Horse drawn carriage in the square

We tried some potatoe, beef and cabbage dumplings. Much nicer than the bread and cheese of earlier. The extreme popularity of Baltic amber was evident in the quaintly bustling market. Beautiful amber trinkets and jewellery. Shockingly, amongst the handcrafted goods, clothes and ornaments, fur hats and deerskin rugs were sold. The hats were made of red and 'silver' foxes. Their tails clipped to the skinned animals head and body that has been stitched and wrapped to fit onto peoples heads. 

Red fox hat

The market smelled wonderful. As cooked meats, fried vegetables, sweet roasted nuts and homemade dumplings and bread wafted into the cooling air. The market fell silent as a trumpet played from the top of the cathedral on the hour. The melody echoed as it cut out halfway through the tune, in honour of a famous 13th Century trumpeter. 

St Mary's Basilica

Buying dumplings on the market

We sit on the tram back out of the city. The wheels rattle like a box of screws. The sound of steel creaking fills the carriage, as the tram meanders through the streets. Every person we have met so far has been extremely helpful, going above and beyond to help direct, translate and guide us around this intriguing City. 

6.1.14 Auschwitz / Oswiecim

The coach currently runs alongside the wide river Wisla, opposite the Wawel Cathedral. Every lamppost is strapped with tattered paper adverts, rings of tape holding them tight. Not a corner of this city sits bare without litter. The left side of my face warmed by the bright winter sun shining through the coach window. 

Birkenau, the largest of the camps at Auschwitz, taken from the top of the tower

Jackdaws welcome visitors to the site

Against the wishes of every Polish man that saw us clutching our map on the way to the bus station, squinting in the morning light, we opted for the challenge to take public transport to Auschwitz over the guided tours on offer. The hour and a half journey by coach had begun, and it was not long before we got to see some of the countryside of Poland. Lots of woodland, hills scattered with the red, brown, blue slate and terracotta roofs of suburban houses. Farmhouses dotted the open farmland. Buildings here begging to be photographed. Chickens sat in the openings of crumbling brick walls, derelict station houses with broken glass windows, and exceptionally designed churches.

"The work will set you free"

I do not know where to start with the concentration and death camps. 1.1 million people died at Auschwitz, made up of several camps. To see and witness the places where the stories of torture, slavery and slaughter took place was incredible. The horrific stories were endless and overwhelming. The remains left are distressing to see, and yet it is still ridiculously difficult, I would say impossible, to imagine what they went through and how it must have felt. I do not feel like it was a life-altering experience. But, there were a few things that really stood out for me. There are lots of stories I could share, but I will only share the few that had the most impact on me. I would definitely recommend visiting, and taking your own thoughts and feelings from the experience.

Some of the electric barbed wire surrounding the camps

The sight of the room full of hair really wrenched at my stomach. The Germans used the hair from the shaven heads of the Jews to make jumpers and knitwear for general use. Their hair harvested from them like wool from sheep, before they went into the chambers to be gassed with cyclone pellets. Nearly two tonnes of hair was recovered when the site was reclaimed at the end of WWII. Real hair, from real people that were killed here. Other rooms are full of their belongings. Separated into piles to be reused and recycled. Piles of shoes. Piles of cases. Piles of spectacles. Piles of clothes. The Jews were told to remember where they put their stuff before they entered the showers where they were gassed. Further lulling them into believing they had arrived at a working camp. Sickening.

The reconstructed first gas chamber at Auschwitz I

They never saw any of their stuff ever again. Strong men were kept as slaves. Often, their first job after being separated from the rest of their family was to carry the dead bodies of the 2,000 just killed to be incinerated. This would often include their sons, daughters, wives, and parents. They would have had to burn their own family.

The 'scratch' marks in the wall of the gas chamber

Some of the corridors were full of pictures of the prisoners and people that were kept and killed at Auschwitz. On and on the photographs go. Portraits of the deceased. Their face, with their age, date of death, and livelihood. Teachers, labourers, plumbers, priests, doctors, farmers. All prisoners. All killed in the camp.

Prisoners' Portraits

The concrete holes for toilets, barely bigger than the size of my hand, were an opportunity for the extremely desperate and suffering. Prisoners at Birkenau weighed as little as 25kg. That is less than a third of my body weight. In an attempt to miss a days work as a slave and prisoner, they would try to climb down into the toilet, where hundreds would have excreted, and spend the day in there. Those found were shot.

Wooden watchtower at Birkenau

Chimney remains of buildings destroyed by Germans when they realised they lost the war, in an attempt to hide the evidence. 

Sunset over Birkenau
 At Birkenau. We walk under the main tower, following the rail line up to the camp and the selection zone. Chimneys still stand, brick red and crumbling, where the buildings were torn down and burned. They in themselves appear like a graveyard. The electrified barbed wire fences line the outskirts. Wooden towers stand where soldiers would have kept watch. It is a vast area of flat land. A place I cannot bare to imagine just how horrific it was to have been prisoner in. 

Part II in the next couple of days. Thank ya'll for reading...