Thursday, August 03, 2006

Krakow and surrounds

Well, seeing as Krakow has the largest old town square in Europe, was probably the only major city in Poland not to get completely demolished in WW2 and has lots of "touristic sites" nearby, it's no surprise that it is by far the most touristy place in Poland. I suppose that is supposed to add to the atmosphere and make it more fun but it never turned out to be anything more than an average place for us. Yeah, the square is big and the castle are nice but too busy and way overpriced. That's the problem with joining the EU recently though, they feel the need to double or triple the price of all the tourist sites to catch up to the "west". Maybe the buildings are just too old and rebuilt old towns are better but I prefer the brighter colours and squishier buildings in the squares of Wroclaw and Gdansk.
Just outside of Krakow is the huge Wieliczka salt mine. 300 km of tunnels and 2000 chambers have been carved out over 700 years of mining. Today you can take tours down to see about 1% of it, going down to about 130m below the surface. The coolest part were the salt carvings made by various miners and the huge underground cathedral, complete with some awesome carved out decor. It wasn't all white like you imagine a salt cave would be. Rock salt is dark with lots of impurities. But if you lick the walls of the mine (I didn't, but certain strange members of my group might have...) they are definately salty dark rocks.
60 km west of Krakow is also the site of the infamous Auschwitz concentration camps. It was set up as a huge area and collection of camps in addition to the original Auschwitz one. Birkenau (aka Auschwitz II) was the largest of all the concentration camps and it is estimated that up to 1.5 million people were murdered in the whole Auschwitz area. I could give you tons and tons of statistics and examples of what went on out there, but then, you've probably heard it all before. When you just look at statistics and hear stories it's easy to dissociate yourself or not really understand. It's when you go to the site itself with so many origianal buildings, etc. still there and see all the photos of people and families that suffered, live video from the liberation, or the piles of belongings that were left behind. It was the stacks of suitcases with individual names and addresses that got mom and me. But seeing 40000 pairs of shoes left by the victims or over 1000 kg of hair shaved off their heads, that kind of stuff really drives it home and makes it real. It's so sad. Even with the place full of bus load after bus load of tourists, you can't help but be affected. Everyone should see it once. The sooner the better.
We are off to Warsaw again tomorrow to go pick up Terri at the airport and get Savannah's new passport. We'll finally be able to move on.


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