Munchausen Adventures

for fellow travellers

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Wieliczka salt mine

We started from Birkenau at about 12noon for the Wieliczka salt mine. We reached there around 1pm. Philip our driver parked the car in the parking and we walked up to the ticket office to buy our ticket for the English tour which started at 2pm. Its not possible to tour the salt mine unguided. The family ticket for the tour cost us 222zl (1 polish zloty =Rs.20/-).

Our driver suggested that we buy the tour tickets before having lunch, which was a good suggestion. He showed us a cozy place to have lunch in, Karczma Halit Restaurant
We had goulash soup, Herring fish with cream and cheese. Chicken breast with cranberry sauce. As rice was separately available as a side dish, we ordered for two plates and shocked the waitresses by having soup with rice.
10 minutes before 2pm Philip came to remind us that we should proceed for the tour. We reached the place from where the tour was to start. We were all given receivers with earphones and we tuned to channel 44. 
We went down 53flights of 6-7 wooden steps each. It was a long way down.
The salt mine tour was interesting with a lot of exhibits, multimedia presentations, we visited three chapels inside the mines. We walked around 2 km inside the mines. And our guide told us that there were around 200km of walking trail in the mines. Several rooms of which we visited only a few. The miners had carved a lot of statues from the salt, and since the place got air conditioned they were now preserved in good condition. The humidity was detrimental to the statues. 
Everything is made of salt. The floor, ceiling, walls, carving, chandeliers.

This huge Unesco heritàge site has almost 6000 to 7000 visitors everyday. There were many school groups. The exit is the most time taking part in the tour. The exit is through two narrow lifts.
It took us an hour to reach Krakow. 
Mercedes Benz vito with Philip. We had a comfortable journey.

We were in our aparthotel Stare Miasto, at about 5pm.
After a shower and tea and some snacks, from home, in our apartment which had a functioning kitchen also. We had some Maggi (also got from India, because it tastes different in different countries). Then we just walked down to the main market square, Rynek Glowny.

The square was huge, much bigger than that of Prague. And not so crowded also.

We sat under the umbrella of The Vintage. Few musicians came over and played. 
A couple got up and started dancing. We sat till late in the night.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Auschwitz - Birkenau

We reached Auschwitz 15mins before opening time which was 8am. The place was deserted, I had expected it to be very crowded. I guess with some help from the train schedule we had managed to 'beat the crowd' here. There were two more groups other than ours, which were mainly student groups. The entry to both Auschwitz and Birkenau is without any fees and there is a free shuttle from one camp to another, every 15mins. The English tours start at 9:30am, which are paid. We had purchased a guide book from there, to see the camp ourselves as there was no tour available at that time. There was no audio guide tour either. But as we started to go about we realized that we would miss half the things without guidance. Shaleen had read on the website that they arranged for guides for private tours, so he went to find out if we could get one. The lady at the desk had to ring up a few people to see if any one was available, and to our luck we did find one. We found a guide by the name of Sussana. Arranging for a private tour put us back by 25minutes.
Above the main gate at Auschwitz, ironically written in German "Arbeit macht frei" (work brings freedom), while the work was designed to kill in the concentration camps.
For five long years the name of Auschwitz aroused fear among the Nazi -occupied territories. After the defeat of the September Campaign of 1939, the Polish town of Oswiecim and the surrounding areas were incorporated within the Third Reich. At the same time it's name was changed to Auschwitz. 
Auschwitz was a sombre place and most of the exhibits were quite shocking, the brutality with which the concentration camps had functioned was unbelievable. In the initial phase it functioned as a concentration camp where in, not only Jews, but many Polish politicians, intelligentsia, academicians etc were rounded up and made to do hard labour here. Many times summarily executed also, for frivolous crimes such as 'listening to BBC' or 'possessing a radio'. The life expectancy in the camp was 3-6 months from the time of entry for the inmates. 
In the second phase, since 1942 it became the biggest centre for the mass extermination of European Jews. Majority of the Jews deported there were led to the gas chambers as soon as they arrived, and those who escaped initially met there death due to starvation, unhygienic conditions, cold and hard labour. We were so shocked on seeing the exhibits that we even forgot to take snaps, or maybe we did not, out of respect for those killed so mercilessly. There were individual rooms filled with human hair, (which had been shaved off before herding them into gas chambers), a room full of spectacles, another one with shoes, then one with household utensils.  The worst were exhibits such as a cigarette case made of human skin, cloth made of human hair. The Jews had been told that they were going to be relocated and hence were asked to gather their most valuable stuff and board the train, instead of relocation they met with death. There was a crematorium and gas chamber also, which had been preserved, parts of it were also reconstructed. 
Around 10am we had finished the tour of Auschwitz. The parking was full of buses, when we left. Around six to seven thousand tourists visit this place every day during the summers.
We took some sandwiches from the cafe in the parking and proceeded in our car to Birkenau. Our guide came in the shuttle bus and met us at the gate.
Inhuman conditions of living, designed to kill. The inmates got only one piece of bread a day, other than a bowl of soup, despite doing rigorous labour. Just a set of blue striped shirt and pajamas, no other cloth, even in winters. No bathing facilities and no toilet facilities.
As the number of inmates increased in Auschwitz, the area covered by the camp also grew, until it was transformed into a gigantic and horrific factory of death. The monstrosity in Oswiecim - KL Auschwitz I - became the parent to a whole new generation of camps. In 1941 the construction of a second camp, later called Auschwitz II - Birkenau, was commenced 3 km away. 
Birkenau was a much bigger place and is the place where there were four huge gas chambers in the past, whose remnants can still be seen, they had been destroyed by the fleeing Germans.This camp was built by inmates from Auschwitz. The buildings were built on the design of horse stables. The gas chambers and crematoria have all been destroyed here, but we saw the one in Auschwitz. 
Birkenau was the concentration camp where the train entered through the central gate and sealed rail goods wagons full of Jews were offloaded here, already half dead from the journey. Here they were cursorily sorted out and their fate decided at the whims and fancies of the Nazis in charge there.
The parking in Birkenau was a little way away, we had to walk to and fro to it, and quite a bit of walking in the camp, we must have walked around 3-4 km during the full tour.
While we were planning this trip. I tried to prepare the children for a visit to this camp. We watched the movie 'Life is beautiful' (trailer) together, that's the only movie I could think of, to introduce my younger one to this gory past in human history.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Prague to Krakow - by overnight sleeper train

We reached the station well before time. The hotel had called for a taxi. Just a little distance away, outside the pedestrian area. This leg of our journey had been the most difficult to organize and the most costly as well. We had decided to visit Krakow in Poland, instead of Warsaw, because Krakow is the historical centre and it is near the border. Kraków remained relatively undamaged at the end of World War II, sparing most of the city's historical and architectural legacy.

The train tickets for this journey, could not be bought from Internet, the official rail sites were showing the train schedules but not selling the tickets. After trying several times Shaleen was able to get reservations through the Internet for sleeper berths from the official railway site of the Czech republic, but we could not purchase the tickets. So we had to buy them on reaching the station. While Shaleen was buying them, we were waiting and doing people watching. I discovered that almost every 4th person was accompanied by a dog.

Numerous cyclists going down the escalator with their cycles.

We reaches the platform and the train was standing there. We boarded it comfortably half an hour before time.

We had two sleeper cabins of two berths each. It was an air-conditioned coach. The cabins had wash basins inside them. But toilets were outside the cabins. (In contrast to the train we had taken in Spain, last year which had a bathroom with shower, basin, and WC.) It was equivalent to A/c first in India.
They had shower facility in the train, but the coach attendant said that it was not in use. So our planning of having a shower early before leaving the train was foiled. We had a full day of excursion planned directly from the train.
We were to reach Krakow early in the morning at 6:30 am.

We reached the Krakow on time. We got a cup of coffee and a croissant complimentary, from the coach attendant.
As the train reached the platform and we took out our luggage. I got a call, from the driver who had come to receive us, on my international number. He said he would meet us at the platform. His name was Phillip and sure enough he met us with a placard. We had arranged the car, for pick up from the station and then proceed straight away to Auschwitz & Birkenau and then to the Wieliczka Saltmine, and then back to Krakow. This was through KRK Krakow tours. As I had badly wanted to visit both the places and we calculated that it would be impossible to cover both of them through public transport in one day. The idea of hiring a car for the trip, came from Trip Advisor.  I liked the railway station, Krakow Glowny as we just had to take the elevator up from the railway platform to reach the parking. It was very convenient.

Monday, July 14, 2014

2nd day in Prague

We had breakfast at the hotel. The only hotel where we had breakfast included with stay.

We checked out of the hotel kept our luggage with the concierge. And then asked the receptionist as to how we could reach the Prague castle. She suggested the metro. We walked down to the Mustek metro station and bought tickets from the machine 3adultsx24Kr, 1childx12Kr (1Kr equals Rs.3/-), for half an hour for three regions. The Mustek station itself was nothing great, though its listed on trip advisor as one of the places to visit. The escalator was steep, like the King’s Cross station in London, even more so.

We caught the green line and got down at Malostranska metro station.

The same ticket was valid in the tram. Taking the tram 22, we got down at Prazsky hrad,  and walked to the castle with the rest of the people, who had got down, all were heading for the castle (dashing all our hopes of beating the crowd). Just inside the castle entrance, towards the left was a small ticket room. We got the family ticket for circuit A for 700kr. We took an audio guide from the office inside for 450kr for the whole day.

As it was Sunday. The St. Vitius Cathedral was open to tourists at 12noon. We saw the other exhibitions till that time. The Royal Palace (exhibition I) , was just ok.

The story of Prague castle was a detailed Exhibition II, and required more time, though we rushed through it. Just outside the exhibition there was a courtyard which was of particular interest for children. There were people dressed in medieval times clothes with different stalls.

The St. George's Basilica was exhibition III. That did not require a lot of time. Soumya and I were sharing the audio guide.

St. Vitius cathedral which was exhibition number V, was a lovely cathedral and requires more time. If you go through with the audio guide it will take around 2-3 hours. It is a grand cathedral.

After that we were feeling hungry so we ate just outside the cathedral at a nice cafe. They were quick at serving.

After that we walked to the Golden Lane. But we should have given back our audio guide before that as we had to get back a deposit of 250 kr also from the same place where we had rented it, and not just drop it off like we usually do at other places. So we walked downhill.

We returned the same way we had reached. The tickets were bought from a machine at the tram stop. But as it accepted coins only and we were short we lost around 45 mins arranging the change.
And because of that we missed the free walking tour we were supposed to join at 3pm from old town square.
On reaching old town square, we met a man who asked Nalin if he wanted a free Segway ride. Nalin was more than happy to try it. As it is, he had been after us to take a Segway tour.

After the free ride, we decided to take a Segway tour of Prague from the stranger. He gave us a discount and it cost us 55€ per person for 2hrs. His office was near our hotel, so we walked till there.
The Segway tour was fun and adventure, though I felt quite out of my league with the Segway, would have been more comfortable on a bicycle, but the children were comfortable. I fell down once , and Shaleen too fell off once. I was so scared I did not try to take any pictures.

In the square, after the segway tour. We went to see the Jewish quarter but there was not much to see.

After buying some souvenirs, we ate a nice meal from an Italian restaurant, in the old town area, we were sitting outside, another table was occupied by two girls. We saw the danger of sitting outside on road side cafes. The shopping bag of one of the girls was kept on the floor. A pet dog, very cute,  almost peed on it, though she saved her "Mango" shopping just in time.
We took our luggage from the hotel concierge, and called a taxi there, a little way off as it was a pedestrian only zone.


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