Slovakia to Krakow

Wednesday 8th June 2011, Tatranska Lomnica, Slovakia
We left Eger this morning, driving along very pretty winding roads through the green Bükk hills covered with beech forests. We have really come to love Hungary and too soon we'd left its last little town behind and were crossing the border into Slovakia.

A new country and neither of us could remember a single word from our visit to Bratislava several years ago. Nor could we remember anything about the currency. In the first town we came to we discovered a Tesco store with a cash machine. It dispensed Euros! When did Slovakia change to the Euro? It must have been around 2010. Such was our delight at being back in a land where we at least understood the currency that we trotted round Tesco comparing prices. Basically we could have been back in England! Tesco Value products lined the aisles and all the brands and products we've not seen for months were waiting to be purchased. Mind you, probably not a lot of the local people would be buying Heinz Baked Beans at 1.35euros a can! (That's exactly the same price as a litre of diesel).

We are heading for Poland, so for much of the day we've been driving northwards along roads that are worse than Hungary but infinitely better than Romania. Our impression of Slovakia is that the countryside is stunning, the villages rather drab and the towns just plain horrid, crowded with communist blocks of flats that were built to be purely functional without any concession to style or elegance. They dominated the skyline as we approached and the post communist trading estates filled with supermarkets, chain stores and furniture warehouses were just as uninspiring. We simply drove through and on.

Communist workers' paradise, Poprad, Slovakia

Much of our time has been spent driving up the steeply winding mountain roads through a very pretty and impressive rural landscape dominated by the grey, rugged, pine covered mountain range of the High Tatras. They form the highest range of the Carpathians that sweeps around in a wide crescent, right down into Romania. Wildlife includes bears, chamois, marmots and eagles. There are mountain lakes, flowery meadows and hanging valleys.

The little town of Dobšiná looked rather decrepit as we passed through with crowds of people outside a block of run-down flats next to a massive sawmill. The town was founded in 1326 and has long been a mining centre, having founded one of the earliest steelworks in the region and being one of the first places to mine cobalt. It looked much more attractive set in its valley in the Tatras viewed from the top of the corkscrew road leading over the mountains.

Dobšiná from the mountain pass

On the other side of the pass we came to the Dobšiná Ice Cave. This was discovered in 1870 by a local mining engineer and was listed by Unesco in 2000. Unfortunately by the time we passed by it was getting late. It was a steep walk up to the cave and would delay us at least two hours if we went to explore. I have been feeling fragile with the recent heat so used it as an excuse to give the cave a miss. Perhaps we will regret it but we cannot do everything.

Dobšiná ice cave

We have turned up a rural valley where we are camping in the grounds of a small hotel. It's only good point is the stunning view of the High Tatras mountains showing black against the evening sky. Otherwise the place is managed by the Slovakian equivalent of Basil Fawlty and I cannot wait to move on tomorrow. Amongst other problems we need to go into the hotel to use the toilet facilities as the ones for the campsite are not working. Every time we try we've either been locked out or somebody is using the shower in the room we understood was for our exclusive use. The manager professes to speak German but communication is pretty well non-existent. We've nowhere to wash dishes or collect fresh water and prices are higher than we would pay in France or Germany.

Thursday 9th June 2011, Krakow, Poland
After the exhausting heat of Hungary we are back to temperatures averaging 15 degrees dropping as low as 8 at night! We are not complaining though. It's so much nicer to feel comfortable walking around a city and our energy levels are higher.

Today we drove up and over the mountains of the High Tatras, down into Poland. Our stay in Slovakia was very brief and we really have not learnt very much about the country. It's not a place I warm to however. Certainly it has some lovely scenery but the villages are non-descript and the towns ugly. It somehow does not seem a very welcoming place.

It was raining heavily as we reached the border with Poland and wound our way through village after village of lovely wooden houses. The domestic architecture of southern Poland, up in the mountains is really delightful and the scenery rather alpine with sheep and cattle in the flowering fields.

Until we reached Krakow we found it impossible to get any Polish money and we urgently needed a map to find our way into and across Krakow. None of the villages had a bankomat and when we turned off into the small town of Nowy Targ we found it was market day, the streets congested and there was a charge for parking. How could we get money without parking and how could we park without money? So we drove on and through. Later we needed the loo but the public facility was coin operated and we had no zloty for the slotty! Next we tried a garage. They too wanted a zloty from each of us to use the customers' toilets. We were getting desperate! They did though sell maps. The one we needed only cost 6 zloty (about £1.50) but we managed to pay by credit card. Unfortunately we lacked the vocabulary to ask if they could add on two trips to the toilets! Meanwhile though, somebody had left the doors of the gents open. We each slipped in when nobody was looking, thus solving our immediate problems.

Ian decided the only way to reach the campsite was to drive into the centre of Krakow and out, rather than taking the motorway ring-road, requiring money which we still did not have. I'm well hard now. If I can cope with Florence, Riga, Thessaloniki and Istanbul I can conquer the world! With hardly a hiccough and only a barely audible knocking from my knees, we made our way across the city and directly to the campsite. Here the lovely lady on reception spoke charmingly to us in English. The site is rather expensive but this is a major tourist city and anyway, we had no idea of the exchange rate when she told us it was 85 zloty a night. (There are around 4 zloty to the £) We are now discovering we need lotza zloty for everything here. Having settled Modestine on a very nice grassy plot we were told there was nowhere nearby to get money and we'd need to take the bus and tram into the centre. Sobbing, we fell to our knees saying we were totally without money to pay for the bus. No problem, the charming lady gave us each a return ticket to the centre and added the cost onto our bill!

It was fun taking the clattery tram into the centre of Krakow. It dropped us within a couple of minutes walk of the Wawel – the massive royal palace during the time that Krakow was the capital of Poland - towering over the old town.

Wawel from ul. Stradomska, Krakow

In 2008 we visited Gdansk in northern Poland as part of our trip around the countries of the Baltic. The city had been very severely damaged during the Second World War and rebuilt. It was really beautiful and we found it difficult to realise that most of the mediaeval buildings we were admiring were actually younger than we were! Krakow is different in that everything here is original. Somehow it survived almost unscathed, so today the entire old town is wonderfully preserved, Poland's showpiece to the world with architecture from Romanesque to Art Deco.

Baroque House, Krakow

Eclectic style House, Krakow

Church of St. Barbara, Krakow

Florianska Tower, Krakow

Today we have walked around, discovering the lay-out of the city, and will return tomorrow. All around the town we see the face of the late Pope John Paul II, former Archbishop of Krakow. The house in which he lived is being developed as a shrine-cum-museum with round-the-clock free videos showing events from his life.

Archidiocesan Museum, Krakow

John Paul II Centre, Krakow

John Paul II, Wawel, Krakow

The old town can be visited easily on foot. A short walk through the streets of beautifully preserved buildings brought us to Rynek Głowny, a huge open square flanked by beautiful mediaeval buildings. It was once the largest square in Europe and is quite magnificent. Crowded with tour groups, guides, touts, candy-floss and ice-cream sellers and independent holiday-makers it was heaving with activity. The centre is dominated by the beautiful Cloth Hall dating from the 14th century. It now houses a bazaar selling jewellery, ceramics and souvenirs. The style of buildings is now north European with much use of brick. We are back in the land of gothic architecture, spires and stepped gables.

Cloth Hall, Rynek Głowny, Krakow

Church of St. Mary, Rynek Głowny, Krakow

Town Hall Tower, Rynek Głowny, Krakow

Dominican Church, Krakow

Nearby is St. Andew's Church and the convent of the Poor Clares, considered to be one of the finest Romanesque churches in Poland.

St. Andrew's Church, Krakow

Until the Second World War Krakow has always had a very large Jewish population. Under the Nazis 85,000 Krakow Jews were killed, starved or deported to the nearby concentration camp of Auschwitz. Initially they were herded together into a ghetto on the other side of the river at Podogorze and a wall built across the entrance effectively cutting them off from the rest of Krakow. We visited the pre-War Jewish quarter, known as Kazimierz, this afternoon. There is little evidence of its lively past, before being destroyed during the holocaust, but quite naturally it has become a shrine for Jewish visitors. There are several synagogues, a Jewish cemetery, and the tall, tightly packed buildings where families lived together in tenements.

Old synagogue dating from the 1570s, Kazimierz, Krakow

Remu Synagoga, Kazimierz, Krakow

Remu Cemetery, Kazimierz, Krakow

Remu Cemetery, Kazimierz, Krakow

Synagoga Templu, Kazimierz, Krakow

It was in Krakow that Oskar Schindler set up his enamelling factory that saved so many Jewish lives. The factory, he claimed, was for the German War effort and he needed Jews to work for him. They were selected from those undertaking forced labour at Plaszow concentration camp, the carefully selected list drawn up for Schindler by Mieczyslaw Pemper, a Jewish prisoner forced to work as the personal secretary to the Nazi commander in Krakow, Hans Frank. (Co-incidentally, Pemper's death in Bavaria aged 91 has today been announced.) Together Schindler and Pemper saved some 1,200 Polish Jews from the death camps.

Friday 10th June 2011, Krakow, Poland
This morning we were already in the centre of Krakow by 9.30 and we've been on our feet all day. This evening we are both exhausted. Maybe we are getting too old and creaky for such hectic days but we need to make the very most of our time here.

First we climbed the steep ramp up to the Wawel on its hilltop beside the river Vistula overlooking the old town. There were a number of museums but all were charged for, time limited and with queues waiting. So we contented ourselves with exploring the grounds and the castle courtyard. This dated from mediaeval times but the tiered gothic galleries had been altered in the 16th century giving it a lighter, Italianate appearance that was quite delightful. Over its chequered history it had suffered badly, being used at one time as an army barracks and then left abandoned to the ravages of time and weather before gradually being restored to its original splendour.

Wawel seen from the River Vistula, Krakow

Wasa Gate and Statue of Kosciuszko, Wawel, Krakow

Castle courtyard, Wawel, Krakow

Within the castle grounds is the Cathedral where all but four of the kings of Poland are buried. It is rather a mixture of different architectural styles as it has been added to or adapted over the centuries. It is dominated by a golden dome covered in fish scale tiles. Below in the crypt is the tomb of the pre-war independence leader Jozef Piłsudski. We shuffled past in a long line of Polish visitors paying their respects. There were many groups of school children of all ages on history field trips. They were genuinely interested in their national history taking photos and making notes. We have been very impressed at just how friendly and well mannered Polish schoolchildren can be.

Cathedral, Wawel, Krakow

Polish kindergarten visiting the Wawel, Krakow

The trouble with visiting tourist honeypots is that they are crowded with tourists! Krakow is choked solid with them, just as in Venice. They all flock along behind a guide waving an umbrella to keep them together and they all want their photo taken in front of anything from a statue of Pope John Paul II to the Nazi flag with its swastika! Have they no sensitivity! There are always queues to get in to any museum or exhibition and once inside visitors are hassled along to make way for those still waiting outside. Because of this, with limited time to discover the city we gave up on seeing inside the cathedral or the state apartments. Later, for the same reason, we were unable to visit the University museum.

Browsing the streets during the morning we explored the Franciscan church with its decoratively painted internal walls and recent stained glass windows.

Stained glass window in the Franciscan Church, Krakow

We sought out the buildings of the Jagiellonian University set in tranquil leafy gardens. It had exactly the same atmosphere as an English university, busy with students and it was just so easy to imagine we were wandering around some of the more recent colleges of Oxford, such as Keble or Linacre. Here the buildings blended well together, being all of brick construction though spanning a period of several hundred years.

Jagiellonian University, Krakow

Jagiellonian University, Krakow

The university's most notable alumni were Pope John Paul II and supposedly Coppernicus, with his controversial thesis proving that the Earth moved around the sun rather than the sun around the earth. During the Nazi occupation of the city nearly 200 lecturers at the university were summarily arrested and sent to concentration camps.

Jagiellonian University Library. Copernicus manuscript, Krakow

One of Europe's most acclaimed gothic altar pieces is to be seen in Krakow. It adorns the altar of St. Mary's Church and depicts scenes from the life of Christ and His mother. It was carved in oak and linden wood by the German Veit Stoss between 1477 and 1489. We joined the crouds to squash into the massive church to gaze in admiration at his brightly gilded masterpiece but were not allowed to take photos.

St. Mary's Church, Krakow

Exploring north of the old centre we discovered the mediaeval brick barbican originally guarding the entrance to the city and set in a deep moat. This above all else places Poland back in northern Europe. We've seen something very similar up in Lübeck.

Barbican, Krakow

The city is surrounded by green parkland ringing the city where the defences once ran. Here we found the impressive and attractive theatre with masks of comedy and tragedy set along the balustrades.

Theatre, Krakow

Near the river lies the new Jewish cemetery. Surprisingly it has survived being destroyed by the Nazis and is still in active use. Broken and damaged Jewish headstones have been used to build the walls surrounding the cemetery which is peacefully set beneath shady trees amidst long grass and wild flowers with the permanent sound of birdsong. In Greece and Turkey I had to cover up before entering the churches and mosques, here it was Ian who was asked to cover his head before going into the cemetery.

New Cemetery, Kazimierz, Krakow

Wall built from damaged Jewish headstones, new Cemetery, Kazimierz, Krakow

Walking across the city to cross the river Vistula we stopped for lunch at a Polish restaurant. Not knowing what to expect we ordered Polish dumplings with cabbage and mushrooms. This is what we got ...

Polish dumplings, Krakow

Outside the city, across the bridge, lies the ghetto where the Jewish people were forced to go when they were expelled from Krakow, their homes requisitioned for the Nazis controlling the city. Here they were incarcerated behind a high brick wall, unable to get in or out. They were forced to work without pay, many families living to a room with neither sanitation, fresh water nor cooking facilities. Eventually the ghetto was liquidated, the inhabitants being sent to Płaszow concentration camp if they were capable of working, or murdered if they were of no use – mainly the sick, elderly, women and children. Here we found in the large cobbled square where the victims were herded together for annihilation, many sculptured metal chairs scattered across the area, symbolic of emptiness.

Podgorze. Bohaterow Getta Square, Krakow

We eventually found our way to Schindler's factory building. This opened a year ago today as a museum and memorial to the Polish and Jewish population of Krakow. Entitled Krakow under Nazi occupation 1939-1945 the exhibition uses the publicity of the Steven Spielberg acclaimed film "Schindler's List" to illustrate in photos, film archive and soundtracks what the people suffered during the war - not just the Jews but the Poles as well. It also explained how the Nazi Schindler, an entrepreneur who originally used the Jews as a cheap source of labour, came to see them not an expendable resource but as human beings. Interviews with survivors who worked for him, producing enamelled kitchen ware and cooking utensils, explained how he helped them, demanding ever more labourers from the concentration camp for his expanding factory and paying heavy bribes to secure the safety of "his Jews".

Tin plate made into kitchen utensils, Schindler's factory, Krakow

It was an absorbing, harrowing, draining experience with far more information than we could cope with. Eventually we left, stopping for Ian's daily cake treat in the museum cafe. Somehow the chocolate concoction he was served seemed inappropriate in such a place.

Entrance to the factory and Schindler's office, Krakow

During Nazi occupation, Krakow

Ian's special treat, Krakow

Saturday 11th June 2011, Krakow, Poland
We've just about cracked Krakow now! This morning we took a long tram ride out to Nowa Huta to investigate an experiment in post-war living accommodation for the masses introduced under Stalin and still occupied today by over 200,000 people.

After the war, when Poland came under Russian control, the Lenin Steel Works, at that time the largest in Europe, was established near Krakow. Workers and their families were moved out from the city and surrounding areas to live in huge blocks of concrete flats constructed near the steel works. Blocks were surrounded by open spaces and shops were built into the ground floor of the flats. Churches were not catered for though there was a massive, typically Communist style theatre and cultural centre and presumably provision was made for schools and hospitals. We found no obvious focal point such as a community centre where residents could meet.

Stalinist theatre and cultural centre, Nowa Huta

Very soon the smoke and pollution from the steel works had not only begrimed the blocks of flats turning them dark grey, it was also polluting the city of Krakow, causing the historic buildings to crumble and deteriorate.

During the 1990s, in post Socialist times, the area was cleaned up, pollution levels reduced and restoration work undertaken on the damaged buildings in Krakow. Gradually too, improvements have been made in Nowa Huta. Trees have had more than half a century now to mature and what must once have been exposed, bare ground is now grassy parkland with shady trees. Windows have been replaced in the flats and many have had balconies attached. Many too have been repainted in light, pastel colours. Churches have been built, cafes have appeared and on the surface it looks quite reasonable. However, the backs of the buildings are still neglected, people are still living in isolation boxed into their flats. They go downstairs and out to the nearest vegetable stall or little supermarket on the corner and then back to their flat. There seems no focal point to the massive development. It looks a very lonely existence for a population twice the size of Exeter!

Typical residential street, Nowa Huta

Flats in process of renovation, Nowa Huta

Really, as with the shipyard in Gdansk, it does not make economic sense to keep the steelworks open, but it gives employment to so many families living in Nowa Huta that it would be political suicide for the government to close it down, so it continues with loans and subsidies, still employing some 10,000 people.

The Lenin Steelworks has of course since been renamed. As have all the roads. Where once they were named after Stalin, Marx or Lenin, they are now named Solidarity Street, John Paul II Ave and even Ronald Regan Way! It takes a long time to walk from one block of functional flats along a wide empty street to the next block. Even further to cross the straight avenue and follow the cycle track through the trees to get to the post office. When you arrive it looks exactly like the area you just left. The development has no soul, though it is clean enough and perfectly functional.

We found somewhere for lunch and the food was very good. Then however, we'd had enough so caught the tram back to Krakow. Here the tourists had been joined by the local people out with families to enjoy a sunny Saturday afternoon on the city's beautiful old squares. There were wedding parties everywhere with guests in their finery and brides posing in front of shops and buildings.

After stopping for Ian's usual cake and cappuccino we made our way back to the campsite. Waiting for the bus we were greeted enthusiastically by a French couple. It took a moment to remember where we'd met. Back in Eger in Hungary, Ian had helped them attach their caravan to their vehicle. They'd moved on a day before us. Now our paths have crossed once more as their travels have brought them to Krakow this afternoon and they recognised us in the town. They say they are here to find the village where Monsieur's Jewish grandparents were living before the Germans arrived.

We have become quite fascinated with the Polish language. It is almost completely incomprehensible. Obviously when God was randomly handing out the letters for linguistic scrabble to the nations of the world after he had cast down the Tower of Babel, poor old Poland ended up with very few vowels and more than its fair share of triple score consonants. Thus most words have abominably unpronounceable combinations full of Z's, C's,W's, T's,Y's, L's and S's, frequently all together in the same word! For good measure the language also has a liberal scattering of diacriticals such as ł, ą, ę, ć, ś, ź, ó and á which must greatly increase the nation's chances of producing more high scoring Scrabble words than all the other countries put together!

Related links:
Introduction to Poland, Copernicus