Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Chris Trost's Polska Przygoda / Poland Adventure - October 16-25, 2008

Introduction to Poland from Frommer's

Poland is coming into its own as a vacation destination. During the first years after the 1989 democratic revolutions in Eastern Europe, it seemed Prague and Budapest grabbed all the headlines. Now, travelers are looking for something farther afield and travel to countries like Poland.

For some, a trip to Poland is an opportunity to reconnect with their Polish roots, a chance, perhaps, to sample some of their grandmother's pierogies in their natural setting. Others are attracted to the unique beauty of Krakow, which has rightfully joined Prague and Budapest as part of the trinity of must-sees in central Europe. Still others are drawn by Poland's dramatic and often tragic history. The absolute horrors of World War II, followed by the decades of Communist rule, have etched painful and moving monuments in the landscape. No country, with the possible exception of Russia, suffered as much as Poland during World War II. Millions of Poles, and nearly the entire prewar Jewish population of 1.2 million, were killed in fighting or in concentration camps. The deeply affecting and sobering thoughts on seeing the camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau, near Krakow, will last a lifetime. Nearly equally moving are the stories of the Lódz and Warsaw Jewish ghettos, or the story of the Warsaw uprising of 1944, when the city's residents rose up courageously and futilely against their Nazi oppressors.

There are many uplifting moments of history, too. In Warsaw, the entire Old Town has been rebuilt brick by brick in an emotional show of a city reclaiming its history. In Gdansk, you can visit the shipyards where Lech Walesa and his Solidarity trade union first rose to power to oppose Poland's Communist government in 1980. It was the rise of Solidarity that helped to bring down Communism in Poland, and arguably sparked the revolutions that swept the region in 1989.

And Poland is not only history. To the south, below Krakow, rise the majestic High Tatras, one of Europe's most starkly beautiful ranges. To the north, the Baltic seacoast, with its pristine beaches, stretches for miles. The northeast is covered with lakes that run to the borderlands with Lithuania and Belarus. In the east of the country, you'll find patches of some Europe's last-remaining primeval forest, and a small existing herd of indigenous bison that once covered large parts of the Continent.

Table of Contents

Post-Trip Summary
Day 0 - October 15, 2008 - Getting Ready for the Trip to Poland
Day 1 - October 16, 2008 - US to Warsaw Poland
Day 2 - October 17, 2008 - Warsaw: Jewish Ghetto
Day 3 - October 18, 2008 - Warsaw: Grand Tour of the City
Day 4 - October 19, 2008 - Warsaw: Russian Market & Wilanow
Day 5 - October 20, 2008 - Warsaw to Czestochowa and Krakow
Day 6 - October 21, 2008 - Krakow: Grand Tour of the City
Day 7 - October 22, 2008 - Krakow: Auschwitz-Birkenau
Day 8 - October 23, 2008 - Krakow: Wieliczka Salt Mine & Nowa Huta
Day 9 - October 24, 2008 - Zakopane
Day 10 - October 25, 2008 - Krakow to the US

Post-Trip Summary
I am really on an emotional high. I spent 10 days traveling in Poland. It's a friendly country with a rich history and a dark past. Despite the devastation of World War II and 50 years of Communist rule, the grandeur of Poland's past has been meticulously preserved and lovingly restored. The trip was all the better because I traveled with people whose friendship I truly cherish.

Where in the %^&* is Poland Anyway? Poland lies in the heart of Central Europe. It is bordered by the Baltic Sea on the north, Germany on the west, the Czech Republic and Slovakia on the south and Russia, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine on the east. Poland is in the central European time zone some 7 hours ahead of Milwaukee, Little Rock and Houston. Poland went off daylight savings the day Joe and I left. But Vicky and Vicki stayed one day later, so were able to get an extra hour to pack their suitcases to come home :-)

How Long Was Your Trip? Where Did You Go in Poland?
Our trip lasted 10 days and we covered a lot of ground: 2 days getting back and forth to Poland from the US, 3 days in Warsaw, 1 day in Czestochowa on our way to Krakow, and 4 days in Krakow. While in Krakow, we made day trips including Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp, the Wieliczka Salt Mine and the "Aspen" of Poland, Zakopane, down on the Poland-Slovakia border south of Krakow.
  • In Warsaw, we had a private guide take us around Old Town, the Royal Route and a part of the Jewish Ghetto. We visited most of the Jewish Ghetto on our own, as well as New Town and the Diplomatic Quarter.
  • On the way to Krakow, we stopped in Czestochowa to visit the Jansa Gora Monastery and see the famous "Black Madonna" painting before continuing later in the day to Krakow.
  • In Krakow, we had a private guide show us the Old Town, Wawel Hill and Kazimierz areas. We then visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Wieliczka Salt Mines, the Nowa Huta section of Krakow, and Zakopane on our own.

Did You Do This on Your Own or with a Tour Company? This time around, we did not travel with a tour company. Instead, we handled booking our own air and hotel accommodations and the occasional private guide. We largely ventured out on our own and lived like the locals, navigating our way around the country and cities by train, bus, subway, tram and foot. The 5-hour train ride from Warsaw to Krakow via Czestochowa was a nice way to see the countryside but booking the tickets at the Warsaw train station was a nightmare because nobody there spoke English.

With Whom Did You Travel? I was joined on the trip by my friend Joe from Texas and my frequent travel companions Vicki and Vicky from Arkansas.

Vicki, Vicky and I met in November 2003 during a guided tour of Egypt. We were assigned to the same group and became fast friends. Since the Egypt trip, we have traveled five other times: India/Nepal (2004), Australia, New Zealand & Fiji (2005), Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria & Romania (2006), Thailand & Cambodia (2007) and Turkey (2007).

Joe is a friend of mine from Houston whom I met at the Berlin tourist office back in 1995 when my high school friend Doug Tieman came over to visit me in Brussels for a two-week vacation in Germany. Joe, Doug and I stayed at the same hotel and ended up sightseeing together around Berlin and then by my car to Dresden and Nuremberg before parting company. I've kept in touch with Joe over the last 13-1/2 years. It was a true pleasure having him join Vicki, Vicky and me on this trip. I knew we would all get along. When you find positive, like-minded, adventuresome travelers like these three, you're certain to have a good time. We laughed a lot throughout the trip and it will go down as one I will never forget.

How Did You Get There? To get to Poland, I flew in and out of Chicago O’Hare to Munich. On the way to Poland, I flew into Warsaw. On the way home, I flew out of Krakow. The round trip air mileage was about 10,250 miles and 18 hours of flight time. Fortunately, my layovers were short. My friends Vicki and Vicky used frequent flyer miles so had really crazy flights. They flew Little Rock to Denver to Washington DC to Munich to Warsaw. My friend Joe flew from Houston to Amsterdam to Warsaw.

On the way home, Joe flew Krakow to Prague to Paris to Houston. Vicki and Vicky flew from Krakow to Washington DC to Chicago to Memphis, but missed their flight to Chicago due to luggage delays and ended up coming home a day later than planned. They had to take a bus from Memphis back to Little Rock. Vicki and Vicky also left a day later than Joe and me. All in all, I had the easiest time getting over and back. It's nice being 100 miles from Chicago.

Where Did You Stay? We stayed in two 3-star hotels, one in Warsaw and one in Krakow. They were both situated right in the heart of town close to the major sites and transportation.

We stayed at the Metropol Hotel, which was centrally located in the heart of Warsaw across from the Central Train Station. They had comfortable rooms and a great breakfast buffet. But the rooms faced the street and were pretty noisy, particularly when the bar across the street closed and when traffic got heavy. There was a bar fight out on the street our first night. I slept through it but Joe, Vicki and Vicky heard it loud and clear.

In Krakow, we stayed at the Golden Lion Apartments located in the heart of Krakow only 1-1/2 blocks west of Old Town Square. The breakfast was really nothing to write home about, but the rooms were comfortable. It was pretty noisy at all hours of the day since it was on a pedestrian mall close to shops and restaurants. It was also on the main thoroughfare between the tram stops and Old Town Square. It really only got quiet between 3 am and 6 am.

What Was the Food Like? Pretty much any type of food you want can be found in Poland. We particularly enjoyed various Polish and regional dishes. Vicki really liked the zurek soup and our dinner at the Hungarian restaurant in Krakow was to die for. We also had dinner one night at one of the famous Milk Bars where a decent meal can be had at a really decent price. And since beer in one of the basic food groups in Wisconsin, I must add that I consumed my share of Polish beers like Zywiec, Lech and Tyskie.

Although I ate well, I actually lost 5 pounds of weight on this trip. It's probably a testimonial to the benefits of a diet free of processed food, high fructose corn syrup, mono and diglycerides, polysorbate 80, hydrogenated coconut and palm kernel oil, sodium caseinate and guar gums.

How Were the People? We met a lot of friendly people but the language barrier was a huge problem everywhere we went. It seemed only our local guides knew any English, plus one or two clerks at the train stations. My advice is to get a Polish phrase book before you leave because you'll need it. Most people did not smile a lot, except for the younger generation who seemed a bit happier and carefree. Like in China, where you could tell who lived through the Cultural Revolution and who did not, you could tell in Poland who lived through Communism and who did not.

Was It Easy Navigating Your Way Around? This is a topic I don't often write about. I found the lack of English-language tourist information to be very frustrating. Except for the most heavily touristed sites (Wawel Cathedral, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Wieliczka Salt Mines), there were few signs, maps or information in English. This was the case on the roads, at train and bus stations, on buses and tram, the various tourist sites, etc. It made it hard to appreciate what we were seeing and to navigate our way around. Personally, I thought Krakow was the worst because we could not even find a decent street map or a map providing a comprehensive view of the public transportation options. Fortunately, I brought all the transportation details and maps with me from the US. Had I not done that, we would have had more problems than we did.

We joked often about the "free" public transportation in Warsaw and Krakow. It seemed every time we tried to pay, the driver or conductor was not interested in dealing with someone who spoke English. So we grew accustomed to riding without paying. So whenever you see "free" bus or "free" tram below, this is what I'm talking about.

What Was the Currency? What Were Prices Like? This time around, we only had to deal with Polish currency—know as the zloty (pronounced "zwoty" and abbreviated "zl"). The best thing is that that the exchange rate spiked dramatically during our stay such that the trip became a better value as time went on. When I started planning the trip, the exchange rate was at 2.4 zl per dollar. It dropped a lot in between but fortunately was up to 2.4 zl by the time we arrived in Poland. And while we were there, the exchange rate shot up to 3.00 zl per dollar, so the trip got cheaper and cheaper for us. Prices were lower than the US for most things, which is why this trip was so cheap once we arrived in Poland.

So Net-Net, What Did This Whole Trip Cost You? I spent about $1,700 on this 10-day trip. I used frequent flyer miles so got a $605 credit on the price of my airplane ticket. Otherwise the trip would have cost $2,300, which is still cheap by today's standards. The largest costs of course were air, hotels and ground transportation, which comprised roughly three-fourths of my budget. The remaining one-third was spent on meals and sightseeing and miscellaneous expenses.

How was the Weather? The weather in Poland reminded me a lot of Wisconsin--unpredictable with cool days in mid-50F range and cool nights around freezing--not exactly shorts and T-shirt weather. It rained two days: the afternoon on the first day when we arrived in Warsaw and our third full day in Krakow when we visited the Wieliczka Salt Mines and Nowa Huta. On the other hand, we had two beautiful, warm sunny days: the day we had our Grand Tour of Krakow with our local guide and the following day when we visited Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp. I should also note that it was 42F the last day of our trip when we visited Zakopane up in the Tatra mountains along the southern border of Poland. There had even been snow the night before. Of course, one could have predicted this kind of weather since Warsaw, Czestochowa and Krakow are roughly at 51N Latitude, roughly the same as Calgary, Alberta Canada, which is 140 miles north of the US-Canadian border.

Any Parting Comments? Yes. Travel is an adventure. It’s an opportunity to experience, learn and appreciate how people around the world live. While I’m always happy to come home at the end, I never come back the same person. And for that, I have a lot to be thankful for.

Following is a day-by-day account of our trip. Each day starts with an overview of what we did, followed by my daily journal. You can just read on or go back to the Table of Contents above and jump to a specific day or topic of interest. You can also click on the pictures below for a larger version. Enjoy!

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Day 0 - October 15, 2008 - Getting Ready for the Trip to Poland
Well, the big trip to Poland is finally here after 8 months of waiting! I'm looking forward to 10 days of rest and relaxation in Warsaw, Czestochowa, Krakow, and several points of interest in between. We're doing this trip on our own, so I've spent several hours finding hotels, researching the sites, booking local tour guides, and investigating ground transportation options.

Trip Overview:

Detailed Itinerary:

I'm meeting Vicky, Vicki and Joe in Warsaw on Friday morning. Vicky and Vicki are coming from Little Rock on a crazy route that takes them to Denver, Washington DC, Munich and Warsaw. Joe is coming out of Houston and traveling to Amsterdam then Warsaw. If all goes according to plan, I'll arrive a few hours ahead of them. I have a tight connection in Munich, so the plane has to be on time or else.

I got out of work early enough to go run, fix dinner and settle into watching the last Presidential debate while packing my bags. I overpacked for sure for this 10-day trip. I brought enough underwear for each day, 3 pairs of pants, two pairs of shoes, 6 shirts, a couple of jackets, and a cap. I'm also bringing my laptop so I can keep up with my trip journal and blog each day. It's easier to do this along the way rather than after I get home while everything is fresh in my mind.

I need to get a good night's sleep so I'm ready to go sightseeing on Friday afternoon in Warsaw.

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Day 1 - October 16, 2008 - US to Warsaw Poland

Itinerary: Depart the US Thursday on an overnight flight to Poland. Arrive in Warsaw Friday morning.

Daily Journal

Well, I didn't get enough sleep the night before I left for Warsaw and had to rely on Valium to knock myself out en route to Warsaw. I had so much on my mind, along with the anticipation of seeing Vicky, Vicki and Joe.

It was a long travel day: Bus to Chicago O'Hare, long overseas flight to Munich, a short hop to Warsaw. 5,120 miles and almost 24 hours en route. I managed to catch the 9:20 am bus from Milwaukee to Chicago O'Hare for my 2:00 pm flight to Munich. It was a good thing I did. Otherwise I would have missed my flight. The traffic was awful due to expressway construction north of Chicago that resulted in 2 of 3 lanes being closed. Vicki and Vicky called while I was on the bus. Both of them have so much going on, especially Vicki, who was debating whether it was even a good time to travel with all the recent economic upheaval and an ailing mother. And going to a depressed place like Poland could make things worse. But if the Poles can find joy in life after all they've been through, so can we. Otherwise we'll be joining them for shots of Vodka. Sadly, Vicki's mom passed away the day she arrived home from Poland.

My CoachUSA bus arrived at O'Hare an hour behind schedule. Fortunately, Lufthansa's check-in was quick and the security line short. I had an hour to sit before boarding. The flight was the same one I took to Munich in 2006 on my way to Budapest. The plane was the same too--a huge Airbus 340-600.

I sat in the first class waiting area because all the seats in the other areas were full. Eventually we got kicked out. When I got up to go find another seat, I forgot my Blackberry on the seat. A minute later I realized it was gone. By then, the man who had been sitting across from me caught up and gave it back to me. Whoo... that was close.

The inbound flight from Munich arrived half an hour late. I was worried because my layover in Munich was a mere 45 minutes. Fortunately, my flight arrived in Munich a half hour ahead of schedule, so I had plenty of time to clear customs and make it over to my Warsaw flight. I popped two Valium right after take off, so fell asleep almost from the start and slept most of the way over.

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Day 2 - October 17, 2008 - Warsaw: Jewish Ghetto

Itinerary: Arrive in Warsaw in the morning. Take the #175 bus from the airport to our hotel. Afternoon of sightseeing in the former Jewish Ghetto of Warsaw. Dinner in Old Town.

Overview of Warsaw:

About Warsaw From Fodor's

The geographical core and political center of Poland since 1611, Warsaw will doubtless shock the first-time visitor with its bleak postwar architecture. Yet amid the drabness you will find architectural attractions, such as historic Old Town, rebuilt brick by brick after the war according to old prints, photographs, and paintings. Also impressive is the wedding cake-like Palace of Culture and Science, Stalin's early 1950s gift to the city. Warsaw also has lovely churches and monasteries and interesting monuments and museums, and it bustles with activity during the summer -- with theater, book, jazz, and classical music festivals.

Daily Journal
My day started on the airplane. I woke up after 6 hours of a Valium-induced coma lying in a fetal position across two seats of the plane. We were somewhere off the west coast of Ireland with less than 2 hours to go before arriving in Munich, Germany. Sleeping for 6 out of 8 hours of the flight was excellent since it allowed me to hit the ground running in Warsaw. Besides, check-in at the hotel was 2 pm, so I wouldn't have had a chance to take a nap before the rest of the group arrived.

I had breakfast and chatted with two women sitting next to me on the plane who were going on a mission in Antalya, Turkey. I told them I had traveled to Turkey exactly a year ago. They were interested in seeing pictures so I pulled out my computer and showed them pictures of Antalya and gave them some travel tips and ideas on how to spend their free time. The girl across the aisle from me next to the window was from Transylvania in central Romania. I told her I had been there 2-1/2 years ago, so we chatted about my visit to her home town of Brasov. Small world. The lady sitting next to her on the aisle was going to Munich to visit her grandson, who was working for an American company there. She said he needed some of grandma's love. Awwwww.

We arrived in Munich 30 minutes ahead of schedule at 5:25 am despite leaving Chicago 30 minutes behind schedule. Upon arrival, I cleared customs and headed to the waiting area for my next flight. I sipped free coffee in the waiting area courtesy of Lufthansa. It is very nice of them to provide coffee to early morning travelers.

My flight to Warsaw took off on time at 6:40 am and I arrived on schedule at 8:10 am. We had a little CRJ regional jet.
I collected my bag and headed out the door to find the #175 bus to the center of town. I got some Euros out of the ATM in the terminal but the bus driver didn't want such big bills and just waved me by without paying. I offered him $1, which was about the price of the bus ticket at the current exchange rate and he took it. The bus took me 6 miles from the airport to my hotel in the very center of town in about 20 minutes. The sun had just come up, so it was still a little dark. It was cool and cloudy too, just like an autumn day in Milwaukee. As the bus wound its way north 6 miles to town, it picked up a lot of commuters headed to work. I couldn't help but notice how stylishly everyone dressed and how slender they were. I also noticed that nobody smiled. So much for the fall of Communism.

I kept a sharp eye on the skyline so I wouldn't miss my stop at Centrum where our hotel was located. My stop would be easy to spot since Warsaw's most recognizable landmark is located there: The Palace of Culture and Science (Polish: Palac Kultury i Nauki). The palace is this massive, brooding and inescapable structure towering over the heart of Warsaw. It is the tallest building in Poland and Warsaw's most prominent landmark. It was built in the early 1950s as Stalin’s "gift of friendship" from the Soviet Union to the Polish nation. It was built entirely with Soviet labor and material as a symbol of Soviet dominance over Poland.

The bus left me off right in front of the hotel, but there was no sign on top of the hotel so I wandered around trying to find it. A minute or so later, I spotted "Hotel Metropol." It looked as nice as the brochure I read online, so I was relieved.

It was too early to check in so I left my bags at the desk and went walking around town. I wandered around in the underground Centrum subway station in front of the hotel and shopped at some department stores (C&A, H&M, EmPick) nearby that I recognized from living in Brussels back in 1993-1997. After a few hours, I went back to the hotel and planned out our afternoon walking tour of the Jewish Ghetto of Warsaw.

Around noon, I was wondering where Vicky, Vicki and Joe were. I got on the Internet in the hotel lobby and saw their flights had arrived 1-1/2 hours earlier. Not more than two minutes later, I heard them come in the front door of the hotel. Vicky and Vicki had waited for Joe's flight and they traveled together to the hotel on the #175 bus. Vicky had a blown up picture of Joe that he had sent us and was waving it at passengers in the baggage area until he saw it. It was still too early to check in, so they left their bags with the porter.

Vicky had a friend from the US living in Warsaw. His name was John Smith (really), so we called him up and he came over from his office to meet us at our hotel and go sightseeing. Before sightseeing, we walked a few blocks down the street to see John's really large apartment. We then went to a kiosk on the street to buy some subway tickets and took the subway from Centrum up to the Gdansk stop a mile or so north. We got off there and started trekking the Jewish Ghetto looking for the sights on my walking tour map. It was raining when we emerged from the Metro station so it wasn't much fun. Eventually it stopped though.

So why is this Ghetto so important? The Warsaw Ghetto was the largest of the Jewish ghettos in Europe during World War II. It was established on November 16, 1940 when the Nazis closed off the Warsaw Ghetto from the outside world, building a wall with armed guards. Over the next few years, the number of people in the Ghetto grew and the wall expanded to confine the masses. Between 1941 and 1943, starvation, disease and mass deportations to concentration camps and extermination camps reduced the population of the Ghetto from an estimated 450,000--38% of the Warsaw population--to approximately 71,000. In 1943 the Warsaw Ghetto was the scene of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the first urban rebellion against the Nazi occupation of Europe. Despite the large population of the Ghetto, it occupied only 4.5% of the size of Warsaw, forcing up to 20 people to live in single-room dwellings.

Our first stop was the Ghetto Heroes Monument (Pomnik Bohaterow Getta), which lies in a peaceful park in the northern part of the former Ghetto. The monument is a memorial to the thousands who lost their lives in the ill-fated Ghetto Uprising of 1943. One side of the monument depicts a crush of doomed but defiant insurgents. The other a scene of martyrdom. In the northwest corner of the park is Willy Brandt Square with another memorial marking the visit of German Chancellor Willy Brandt to this spot on December 7, 1970, when he famously fell to his knees in a gesture of contrition for Germany's crimes against Poland.

Our next stop was Umschlagplatz Monument. The Umschlagplatz Monument marks the site of the umschlagplatz (literally, "taking-away place"), the railway station from which Warsaw's Jews were transported to Treblinka. The monument's marble walls are carved with more than 3,000 Jewish forenames, from Aba to Zygmunt, and the stark message: "Along this path of suffering and death over 300,000 Jews were driven in 1942-43 from the Warsaw Ghetto to the gas chambers of the Nazi extermination camps." Its shape is symbolic of the cattle trucks into which prisoners were herded.

After the Umschlagplatz Monument, we ventured in the rain towards the Jewish Cemetery. However, I misread the map and we headed in the wrong direction. We learned from Ewa Bratosiewicz, our tour guide the following day, that the cemetery was closed so I guess it didn't matter. The cemetery was founded in 1806 and has 150,000 tombstones, the largest collection of its kind in Europe.

We continued south down Jana Pawla II (John Paul II) Street and came upon the Pawiak Prison, a site where Nazi resistance fighters were once imprisoned. We toured the museum and adjacent prison cells. The Pawiak was built in 1829-1835. It was first used as a transfer camp back in 1863 for Poles sentenced to deportation to Siberia. After Poland regained independence in 1918, the Pawiak became Warsaw's main prison for male criminals. Following the German invasion of Poland in 1939 it was turned into a German Gestapo prison and then part of the Warsaw concentration camp. Approximately 100,000 men and 20,000 women passed through the prison, mostly members of the resistance movement, political prisoners and civilians taken as hostages in street round-ups. Approximately 37,000 of them were executed while another 60,000 were sent to German death and concentration camps. During the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943, Pawiak became an assault base for the Nazis. The building was not rebuilt after the war. The site is now occupied by the Mausoleum of Memory to Martyrdom and the Pawiak Museum. Until a few years ago, the only surviving tree from inside the Warsaw Ghetto stood in front of the prison. The tree died and was replaced by a metal replica which continues to bear memorials to some of the victims of the Pawiak.

After the Pawiak Museum, we walked south down Jana Pawla II Street and turned east on Solidarnosci (Solidarity Ave) towards Old Town. Before the war, this street was the heart of Warsaw's Jewish Quarter, which was walled off by the Nazis in November 1940 to isolate the Jewish community from "Aryan" Warsaw. We looked for Femina Cinema, one of the few buildings in the district that survived the war and where the Ghetto orchestra organized concerts in 1941 and 1942.

It was hard to imagine what the Ghetto looked like before the war because the entire Ghetto was leveled during the war and rebuilt afterwards.

Eventually, we ran into New Town and the Monument to the 1944 Uprising, commemorating the popular Polish rebellion against the occupying Germans. The monument shows resistance fighters emerging from the sewers of Warsaw to combat the Nazis. The resistance was ultimately crushed and suffered tremendous losses. We also admired some photo boards next to it celebrating the life of Pope John Paul II. Yesterday, October 16, was the anniversary of John Paul II becoming the Pope in 1978. Having a Polish Pope from a 95% Catholic country was a major coup for the West in the Cold War against Russia and the Eastern Bloc throughout the late 1970s and 1980s.

New Town Photos:

Monument to the 1944 Uprising:

After the monument, John said goodbye and we wandered into Old Town and found a restaurant called Honorakta, which had great food and drink. I loved their menu, which was a cutting board with pages attached. The waitress said I could have one the next day if I came back. We didn't go back and I didn't get one. We particularly enjoyed the bread spread they served, which we learned later was pure lard. I think I had one too many beers, and coupled with jet lag, I cratered pretty early.

We eventually grabbed a cab back to our hotel. By then, our rooms were ready. When we checked in, they told us they didn't have the type of room we wanted, so Joe and I ended up with single rooms for three nights. I got to my room and fell asleep right away and slept straight through the night. It was much needed and welcome.

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Day 3 - October 18, 2008 - Warsaw: Grand Tour of the City with our private local guide, Ewa Bratosiewicz.

Itinerary: We had a 5+ hour tour of Warsaw's Old Town and the Royal Route with our private, local guide Ewa Bratosiewicz.

Daily Journal

Weather: Cool (50s F), cloudy and windy, not ideal for sightseeing but OK.

I slept really well but fell asleep after my alarm went off. I didn't wake again until 7 am when Joe and I had agreed to meet for breakfast. I managed to take a shower before Joe knocked on the door. 10 minutes later we were down in the hotel restaurant having breakfast. The hotel offered American and European breakfast, which was excellent as far as I was concerned. Joe and I talked for a while. Eventually Vicki and Vicky came down for breakfast. Nobody noticed I shaved off my mustache and goatee. Guess I won't be growing that back.

After breakfast, Vicki and Vicky checked their e-mail while Joe and I waited outside the smoky lobby of the hotel for our local guide Ewa to show up. She arrived in her minivan right on schedule at 9 am and we headed directly over to Old Town to start the tour. Parking was scarce but she found a tight spot on the sidewalk across from the restaurant we had eaten at the night before.

I was looking forward to the tour since Warsaw was 95% destroyed during World War II. Although many of the buildings in central Warsaw were subsequently built in an austere, quasi-Gothic, Stalinist style, a large number of prewar buildings were carefully restored or, in many cases, completely reconstructed following clues in old prints and paintings. A case in point is the beautiful Rynek Starego Miasta (Old Town Square) and the Zamek Królewski (Royal Castle). Apart from the embankment carved out by the Vistula River, which runs through the city south to north, Warsaw is entirely flat. Most sights, attractions, and hotels lie to the west of the river.

The first stop on our tour was Royal Castle Square. En route to the Square we walked past the Barbakan, which is located on the north end of Old Town and divides Old Town from New Town. It's a redbrick, semicircular defensive tower topped with a decorative Renaissance parapet. It was partially dismantled in the 19th century, but reconstructed after WWII, and is now a popular spot for art sellers.

A little further down the road we passed a statue of a boy wearing a helmet too big for him and holding a machine gun. It is called the "The Little Insurgent.” When Warsaw was attacked by German troops during World War II, the Polish children, both boys and girls aged 8 to 16, took it upon themselves to become little soldiers and help defend the city. Many say the statue is very important because it shows that even children were willing to risk their lives to defend their country.

Upon reaching Royal Castle Square (Plac Zamkowy), we stopped to admire the scenery. The square is dominated by the red brick Royal Palace and a number of interesting buildings.
Video of Castle Square:

What Remained of the Castle following WWII:

The Royal Palace is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This massive brick edifice, now a fantastic copy of the original that was blown up by the Nazis towards the end of the war, began life as a wooden stronghold of the dukes of Mazovia in the 14th century. Its heyday came in the mid-17th century, when it became one of Europe's most splendid royal residences, and during the reign of Stanislaw August Poniatowski (1764-95) when its grand Baroque apartments were created. It then served the tsars, and in 1918, after Poland had regained its independence, it became the residence of the president. Today it is filled with period furniture, works of art, and an army of old ladies watching your every move.

In the middle of Plac Zamkowy stands the Sigismund III Vasa Column. This 72-foot- high monument to the king who moved the capital from Krakow to Warsaw was erected by the king's son in 1644 and is Poland's second-oldest secular monument. It was knocked down during WWII, but the statue survived and was placed on a new column four years after the war. The original, shrapnel-scarred granite column now lies along the south wall of the Royal Castle.

We walked across the square to a nearby church where there was a shrine set up to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s rise to the papacy. We went inside to admire the baroque style architecture.

The Eagle is the Symbol of Poland:

We then walked back through Castle Square and up a busy street where we saw St. John’s Cathedral and the narrowest building in Warsaw.

St. John's Cathedral - Notice What It Looked Like Before WWII

See the Narrowest Building in Warsaw in the Middle?

We then headed back to the Royal Palace to take the English Tour. There are two routes through the castle. Route I takes in the Court Apartments, the Parliament Chambers and the Crown Prince's Apartment, split between the ground and 1st floor, while Route II covers the Great Apartment and the King's Apartment on the 1st floor. Arguably the most impressive rooms are included in Route II, which we took. Dominating the Great Apartment is the magnificent Great Assembly Hall. The neighboring National Hall was conceived by the king as a national pantheon; the six huge canvases (surviving originals) depict pivotal scenes from Polish history. A door leads off the hall into the smaller Marble Room, decorated in 16th-century style with colored marble and trompe l'œil painting. The room houses 22 portraits of Polish kings, from Boleslaw Chrobry to a large gilt-framed image of Stanislaw August Poniatowski himself. Further on from the National Hall is the lavishly decorated Throne Room. The dominant color here is Regal Red, but there's also plenty of gold trimming, and 86 Polish eagles worked from silver wire. Connected to the Throne Room by a short corridor is the King's Apartment, the highlight of which is the Canaletto Room at the far end. An impressive array of 23 paintings by Bernardo Bellotto (1721-80), better known in Poland as Canaletto, captures Warsaw in great detail from its heyday in the mid-1700s. The works were of immense help in reconstructing the city's historic monuments. At one point, we were shown a piece of molding that had been removed from the Palace during the war. The molding was used as a template to recreated that molding when the palace was reconstructed after the war. You could see the difference in detail with the original piece being more ornate.

Video of Royal Palace (Zamek Krolewski):

After the palace tour we rushed over to the Historical Museum of Warsaw to watch a 20-minute film covering the reconstruction of the city following WWII, which was fascinating.

After the movie, we headed down the street to Old Town Square (Rynek Stare Miasto). The Old Town was rebuilt from the foundations up because after the war it was nothing but a heap of rubble. The monumental reconstruction, which took place between 1949 and 1963, aimed to restore the appearance of the town in its best times, the 17th and 18th centuries. Every authentic architectural fragment found among the ruins was incorporated in the restoration. In 1945, the Old Town Square was just the walls of two houses sticking out of the rubble, today it is a harmonious blend of Renaissance, baroque and Gothic elements.

It was quite a busy place with all the shops and café’s and people running about. In the middle is Warszawska Syrenka, the freshwater mermaid that is the symbol on the crest of the city of Warsaw. This particular stone statue had been traveling around the city for more than 70 years before finding itself back home in 2000. It had originally been installed in 1855, in the center of a fountain in the Old Town Square.

Following Old Town Square, we walked back to Ewa's car, walking through the old city wall on our way out.

We drove Ewa's car south to a spot close to the Royal Route and parked across from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The Royal Route is a stretch of road south of Old Town lined with a large number of churches, the University, and other landmarks.

Our first stop was the Carmelite Church (Kosciól Karmelitow). It escaped the ravages of war and, like nearby St Anne's Church, has 18th-century fittings, including the high altar designed by Tylman van Gameren.

Our next stop was Kosciól Wizytek. In front of this late-baroque church stands a statue of Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, primate of Poland from 1948 to 1981. Wyszynski was imprisoned during the 1950s but lived to see a Polish pope and the birth of Solidarity. The fresh flowers always lying at the foot of the statue are evidence of the warmth with which he is remembered.

We then passed the gates of Warsaw University topped with the Polish eagle marking the center of studentdom. The central campus was founded in 1816, although its oldest building, the Kazimierz Palace (Palac Kazimierzowski), dates from 1634. With its leafy avenues and smiling students, it appears a peaceful place, but like any good university it has been a breeding ground for independent thought and the site of many student protests.

At the end of the Royal Route, we passed the Monument to Nicolaus Copernicus, the great Polish astronomer who was the first to propose that the earth and planets revolved around the sun.

We then turned back up the street and stopped by Kosciól swietego Krzyza. Because it's so close to Warsaw University, the Holy Cross Church has witnessed more student demonstrations and tear gas than any other church in Poland. During the 1944 Warsaw Rising, it was the site of heavy fighting between the insurgents and the Nazis. It was seriously damaged, but some original Baroque altarpieces have survived and adorn its interior.

Inside one pillar of the church is the heart of Fryderyk Chopin, the great Polish composer. The pillar covers an urn containing the composer's heart, brought from Paris in 1849 after Chopin's death and placed here in accordance with his will. The rest of Chopin's body is buried at the Pére-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

Towards the end of the tour, we went back to the Jewish Ghetto to see some sights we missed yesterday. We went past several of the sites we saw yesterday before stopping at Mila 18 and the Remnants of the Ghetto Wall.

The Memorial at Mila 18 commemorates the Jewish heroes who died in the Warsaw Ghetto in a house at Mila Street #18 during the resistance against the Nazi SS in April-May 1943. The memorial sits on top of a mound of rubble where the house once stood. The last hold-outs in the Warsaw Ghetto resistance were 120 Jewish fighters who were hiding in a bunker in the house. On May 8, 1943 after the fighting between SS soldiers and the Jews had been going on for almost three weeks, the Mila 18 bunker was attacked by the SS. For 2 hours, the SS bombarded the entrance to the house, and then threw tear gas into the bunker to force the occupants out. Unwilling to surrender, 100 or so of the resistance fighters took their own lives.

We then drove over to the southern part of the former Ghetto, parked the car and walked to a couple of sites containing the only remnants of the wall build by the Nazis to wall off the Ghetto in November 1940. Warsaw's was the largest Jewish ghetto established by the Germans during World War II and the wall was expanded to accommodate the growing population, which reach approximately 400,000 people at its peak. The wall contained a combination of red brick structures and any buildings that stood in its way. The walls we visited also had several bricks removed. The missing bricks were donated to Holocaust museums and memorials around the world, including The Holocaust Museum in Houston, TX.

At the end of our tour, we had Ewa drop us off by the Hard Rock Cafe near the Central Train station. We had a few pitchers of beer and some appetizers. I bought a T-shirt to add to my growing collection of HRC T-shirts. We decided to skip the observation tower at the Palace of Culture and ended up browsing the shopping mall next to the Hard Rock.

We then went back to the hotel to drop off our stuff. Along the way we walked by the Centrum Metro stop and saw this group of Bolivian Indians performing.

Palace of Culture at Night:

Video of Bolivian Indians Performing at Centrum Subway Station:

We then hiked over to the Sheraton Hotel where a friend of Vicky's had left a pair of shoes some months ago while visiting Warsaw. The front desk couldn't find them and told us to come back tomorrow.

We then wandered down the street to a Mexican restaurant called La Fiesta for dinner. It was fine.

We then walked back to the hotel, passing John Smith's apartment along the way.

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Day 4 - October 19, 2008 - Warsaw: Russian Market & Wilanow

Itinerary: We visited the famous Russian Market across the Vistula River to the east of downtown Warsaw over by the stadium. Then we caught the #180 Tourist Bus to the Diplomatic Quarter and Wilanow Palace.

Daily Journal

Weather: It was cool (50s F) and mostly sunny, fine for sightseeing.

Joe and I met again at 7 am for breakfast. It was delicious as usual. Afterwards, we decided to go for a walk around town since the sun was shining and we didn't have to meet Vicki and Vicky until 10 am. Our walked retraced most of the ground we covered yesterday on our tour except we got to see Madame Curie's Birthplace, New Town Square and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier up close.

Our walk began on the famous Al Jerozolimskie, the main east-west drag through town that our hotel is on. It's considered a big, ugly thoroughfare. The area to its south was ear-marked by the communists for post-WWII development, and some of the city's boldest socialist-realist architecture can be found here. The street running south off the Al Jerozolimskie from our hotel, ul Marszalkowska, contains the most impressive examples. We walked this way yesterday when we went to John Smith's apartment.

Not everything along the Al Jerozolimskie has been bent to communist ideals. A few side streets close to Al Jerozolimskie still retain a semblance of pre-WWII charm, and are home to 19th-century houses, traditional workshops and cafés. One such street is Nowy Swiat, up which Joe and I walked on our way up to New Town. It's the busiest street in Warsaw outside the Old Town. It's long been the city's fashionable shopping street, and is lined with restaurants, shops and cafés. Most of the buildings date from post-WWII, but the restoration here was so complete that the predominant architecture style is 19th-century neoclassical. Aside from shopping, eating and drinking, the best thing to do here is watch people.

On our way up Nowy Swiat, we stopped saw a nice church (St. Joseph), the complex where Chopin and his family lived, the Presidential Palace, another nice church (Carmelite Church) and some interesting artwork.

Church of St. Joseph of the Visitationists:

Complex where Chopin and his family lived:

Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and of St. Joseph (Carmelite Church):

Thanks to Joe's brisk walking pace, our path up Nowy Swiat brought us quickly back to Castle Square where yesterday's tour started. We stopped to take some decent pictures with the sun shining.

After Castle Square, we headed up the main street off the square towards Old Town. We eventually reached Old Town Square. It looked a lot better under sunshine.

We continued north off of Old Town Square, continuing to admire the architecture.

At the start of New Town, we passed the Madame Curie's birthplace where she was born in 1867. As you can see, she was really Polish, not French. Her former home now houses a museum chronicling the life and work of this distinguished scientist.

We continued to walk towards New Town Square.

Our next stop was the Church of the Nuns of the Holy Sacrament (Kosciól Sakramentek). Even by Polish standards, there are a lot of churches in the New Town area. Of the six, the Church of the Nuns of the Holy Sacrament is the most intriguing; the work of prominent architect Tylman van Gameren, it has a fine Baroque exterior and clean white interior. Built as a thanksgiving offering by King Jan III Sobieski's queen, Marysienka, after his victory against the Turks at Vienna in 1683, this cool, white church stands on the east side of Rynek Nowago Miasta (New Town).

Next was New Town Square (Nowa Miasto). The New Town is a bit of a misnomer considering it was founded at the end of the 14th century and since 1408 has commanded its own jurisdiction and administration. It exudes similar architectural styles to those found in the Old Town, but lacks any defensive walls, probably due to the fact that historically it was inhabited by poor folk. It is smaller in scale than Old Town Square but worth a visit.

Our next stop was Kosciól Nawiedzenia Najswietszej Marii Panny. It is a picturesque redbrick Gothic church, the oldest in the New Town. St. Mary's was built as a parish church by the princes of Mazovia in the early 15th century. It has been destroyed and rebuilt many times throughout its history.

Finally we turned west and headed back towards our hotel. Along the way we saw this interesting piece of art featuring three tall slender women who appeared to be pillars holding up the building. We also saw a nice street and a cat up in the window staring down at us. A few steps later we were back at the Memorial to the 1944 Uprising, which we saw two days earlier.

A little further on, we came to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (Grób Nieznanego Zolnierza) located in the Saxon Gardens inside the remnants of the Saxon Palace (Palac Saski), which was destroyed during WWII. The guard is changed every hour. We stopped to admire the setting and the beautiful fountain behind it.

We walked west to the far end of the park and turned south down ul Marszalkowska towards our hotel several blocks away.

After meeting Vicki and Vicky back at the hotel, we got on the "free" #8 tram and headed east across the river to the stadium area (Stadion Dziesieciolecia) to see a giant market referred to as the Russian Market. We were told that this was a very dangerous place and not to wear jewelry or anything valuable. It wasn't as bad as we were led to believe, but it was crowded and there were some rough looking characters there. There was a lot of junk for sale and Vicki and Vicky were disappointed that they could not find any fake high-end handbags. But Vicki did indulge herself with a new scarf and a funky pair of sneakers.

After the Russian Market, we got back on the "free" tram and headed west back towards our hotel.

Instead of going to our hotel, we got off a few stops earlier and walked south back to the Sheraton to pick up the pair of shoes that a friend of Vicky's forgot there. I never thought the hotel would have them, but they did. There was a big wedding or Sunday brunch going on in the hotel and several food tables were set up in the corridors. On the way out, we took some bags of popcorn that were sitting on a table by the exit.

Across the street from the Sheraton was St Alexander's Church (Kosciól swietego Aleksandra), a 19th century church modeled on the Roman Pantheon.

With a whole afternoon ahead of us, we decided to jump on "free" #180 Tourist Bus and head south towards the Diplomatic Quarter where several foreign embassies are located as well at Wilanow Palace. After several minutes, we reached Wilanow. We got off the bus and headed to the nearby McDonald's for lunch. Due to the language barrier, ordering was a little tough even though most of the menu was a Mc-this or Mc-that. The place was pretty crowded too so I wasn't interested in holding up the line with a complicated order.

After lunch we wandered across the street to Wilanow Palace. Its highlights include the two-story palace and adjacent gardens. We gave an apple from Vicky's Happy Meal to a gypsy woman begging in front of the church, then cut through the garden on our way to the palace. The fall colors made for a pleasant visit. Palace tours were free that day but all the tickets had been given out already, so we just admired the palace and grounds from the outside. The exterior of the palace is adorned with impressive murals, including a 17th-century sundial with a bas-relief of Chronos, god of time.

After walking around the grounds, Vicki and Vicky decided to tour the garden. The central part of the garden comprises a manicured, two-level Baroque Italian garden, which extends from the palace down to the lake, the south is Anglo-Chinese in design, and the northern section is an English landscape park. While Vicki and Vicky toured the Garden, Joe and I went to a nearby coffee shop for cappuccino and a waffle snack. Mmmm.

We then met Vicki and Vicky at our meeting spot and wandered back towards McDonald's and the bus stop. Along the way we came upon this amazing cemetery. The Poles really respect their dead. It was a sea of granite tombs with a lot of recognizable Polish names (my hometown of Milwaukee is 50% Polish). Virtually every tomb was decorated with beautiful flowers and funerary candles. With the sun hanging low in the sky, it was a wondrous site.

We then caught the "free" #180 bus back to our hotel. At 6 pm, we took the "free" tram out to the West Train Station to buy tickets for our journey tomorrow to Krakow with a stop in Czestochowa along the way. Buying tickets was a %^&* nightmare. I passed the train information to the clerk behind the window with the train numbers and times I wanted and she spent 1/2 an hour generating 4 tickets. Instead of leaving from the West Train Station, we asked to leave from the Central Station, which was closer to our hotel. While the lady clerk worked on our tickets, the line behind us grew really long. Every time I turned around to look, people gave us angry stares. A girl who spoke some English behind us came to our aid but some guy came up and thanked us for making him miss his train.

When it was done, we still were not sure we got the tickets we wanted. The tickets were devoid of train numbers, departure times or platform information. But I swear the clerk said they were the tickets I wanted. We then took the "free" bus back to the Central Station. We sat in the back of the bus. A man sitting next to me had his dog and after petting it for a minute or two, it snapped at me and nearly got my fingers. Once we got to the Central Train Station, we asked a ticket clerk to confirm the tickets we bought. No such luck. She didn't speak English. I was not happy. Joe went and asked the other clerk for help and she directed us to the other information center on the other side of the station.

We took a number and sat down with a clerk who said we didn't have direct tickets from Czestochowa to Krakow and that we'd have to transfer in Katowice. She printed off new train info and sent us on our way. I was having trouble believing we got the wrong tickets to begin with. However, the tickets we had from Warsaw to Czestochowa were fine.

On our way back to the hotel for dinner, we stopped at the Palace of Culture to look for a place to eat.

There was nothing to be had at the Palace of Culture so we had a nice dinner at the Metropol Jazz Club restaurant and then went to bed since we had to get up early to catch our 6:45 am train to Krakow.

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Day 5 - October 20, 2008 - Warsaw to Czestochowa and Krakow

Itinerary: We left Warsaw by train in the early morning and traveled by train 2 hours south to Czestochowa. We ditched our stuff in storage lockers at the Czestochowa train station, then went to the Jasna Gora Monastery to see the famous Black Madonna. Later on we caught a 1:30 pm train to Krakow and arrived at 4 pm. We settled into our hotel and then took a stroll though Krakow's beautiful Old Town.

About the Monastery of Jasna Gora and the Black Madonna

The Monastery of Jasna Gora in Czestochowa, Poland, is the third-largest Catholic pilgrimage site in the world. Home to the beloved miraculous icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa, the monastery is also the national shrine of Poland and the center of Polish Catholicism. Impressive though it is, the exterior of Monastery of Jasna Gora gives little indication of the grandeur layered behind its walls. Exploring this functioning monastery gives a fascinating insight into its history, and a deep appreciation for its present day relevance.

In the oldest part of the complex, the Chapel of Our Lady (Kaplica Cudownego Obrazu) contains the revered Black Madonna. The picture is ceremoniously unveiled at 6 am and 1:30 pm and veiled at noon and 9:30 pm. Adjoining the chapel is the impressive basilica. Its present shape dates to the 17th century and the interior has opulent Baroque furnishings. On the northern side of the chapel, paintings in the Knights' Hall depict key events from the monastery's history.

The 350' bell tower, the tallest historic church tower in Poland, offers views over the monastery complex. After falling many times over history, the current tower dates to 1906.

The 600th Anniversary Museum contains fascinating artifacts, including the founding documents of Jasna Gora from 1382 and a cross made from the steel of the World Trade center, destroyed in New York on 11 September 2001. Particularly moving are rosaries made from bread crumbs by concentration camp prisoners. Lech Walesa's 1983 Nobel Peace Prize, donated by its recipient, can be found beyond the Father Kordecki Conference Room.

The arsenal contains military mementos including spoils of battle, offerings from soldiers and an impressive collection of Turkish weapons from the 1683 Battle of Vienna.

The 17th-century treasury contains votive offerings dating back to the 15th century. Since the 17th century, records have been kept of gifts given to the Madonna.

Daily Journal

Weather: Nice warm fall day (mid 60s F). Mostly sunny. Nice day for travel and sightseeing.

Today was a big travel day. Everyone got an early wake up call around 5 am or 5:15 am. I made mine for 5:45 am but managed to get up much earlier, shower and get downstairs to the hotel lobby before my call ever came. I was sitting at the Internet terminal at 5:45 am when I saw the desk clerk pick up the phone and dial a room. I asked if she was calling my room, #408. She said she was and I told her not to bother since I was already sitting in the lobby.

The rest of the group filtered down around 6 am. We picked up our box breakfasts that the hotel was kind enough to prepare for us and headed out the door to our cab which was waiting outside. We loaded up and drove down the street a 1/4 mile to the Warsaw Central Train Station. We checked the departure board and then headed down to platform 4, track 8 to wait for our train. It arrived on schedule a little before 6:45 am. We got on board and found a compartment for the 4 of us and settled in for the 2-1/2 hour ride to Czestochowa, about 180 miles south of Warsaw. Along the way we talked and slept. Vicki mentioned that she couldn't find the jewelry she had been wearing the day before. She had taken it off and wrapped it up in some tissue and put it in her suitcase prior to going to the Russian Market yesterday. She had left word with the hotel in Warsaw to call her at our Krakow hotel if they found it.

We arrived in Czestochowa around 9:30 am. We found lockers right away and ditched our stuff, then took a cab to the Jasna Gora Monastery. Before leaving the station we used the toilet. I shot past the lady bathroom attendant on the way out and never paid the 2 zloty fee. Vicki tried the same thing but got caught. The lady attendant yelled at her and the other Vicky came up with 2 zlotys to shut her up.

Our cab drove us a few miles over to the Jasna Gora Monastery. The Monastery sits on a hill high above the city. We got let off at the front gate of the monastery. We entered the wall surrounding the complex, took a few pictures along the way and then headed into the church to see the famous Black Madonna painting. The painting is revered and features the image of the Virgin Mary and Christ child with black faces. The painting is mounted above an altar in a chapel within the monastery. There were a lot of people inside on their knees praying. There was also a railing running along the outer perimeter of the chapel and past the Black Madonna. People were expected to walk along the railing on their knees past the Black Madonna and out the other side of the chapel. I've seen this at the pilgrimage churches in Rome and Fatima, Portugal. But this seemed a little more extreme to me.

The Famous Black Madonna:

Outside the chapel on the wall were hung a variety of objects like crutches, prosthetic devices and jewelry in the shape of body parts (hearts, arms, legs, etc.). I presumed that these were tokens of appreciation to the Black Madonna for having healed whatever ailment a particular person was afflicted with.

We then toured other parts of the monastery and then left to visit the other museums on the site.

When we were done touring Jasna Gora, we headed down the hill towards the major thoroughfare leading up to the monastery and found a nice coffee shop. While there, I consulted the train info I had downloaded at home and was convinced that we could still get on the 1:25 pm direct train to Krakow. I noticed that the interim stops listed on our ticket were the same as those on the information I brought. It dawned on me that the lady who issued our tickets in Warsaw got it right and that the helpful English-speaking at the information office was wrong. There would be no travel or transfers in Katowice today like she told us.

We had some time to kill so headed over to train station where we shopped in a nearby mall. We walked through an ugly furniture shop and a clothing store. Vicki and Vicky were disappointed that there were no fake handbags to be found there.

We then walked over to the train station, got our luggage out of the lockers and sat on the platform until our train arrived. We managed to find a compartment but had to share it some guy who got there before we did. We mostly slept along the way. It was very peaceful.

While on the way to Krakow, I noticed my steno pad was missing. I had been keeping my journal in it so had lost 2 days worth of notes from Warsaw. I had it in my hand as I was getting off the train in Czestochowa. But I got jostled around by people trying to get on the train as I was trying to get off and probably lost it then because I had checked our compartment to make sure we had left nothing behind.

We arrived in Krakow on schedule around 4 pm. Joe, Vicky and Vicki dragged their wheeled luggage down the steps at the train station. It made a lot of noise. I think the sight of Joe coming down the steps first got me laughing.

We cut through a shopping mall and out to a waiting cab that took us to our hotel in the heart of Krakow's old town. The rooms were very nice and overlooked a pedestrian street which we would discover over the next several days to be very noisy well into the wee hours of the morning.
Arrival in Krakow, Finally

The Cab Ride to Our Hotel from the Krakow Train Station:

Our Home in Krakow - The Golden Lion Apartments:

One of our rooms:

Another one of our rooms:

View from our rooms:

The Queen Has Arrived in Krakow:

We checked in then went to Old Town Square to admire the sites and have a beer/coffee and just watch people go by. A man dressed in a beer mug costume came by but would not pose for a picture with Vicky. A little demonstration also filed past carrying tents and chanting something I couldn't understand.
Old Town Square Video

After our beer and coffee, we wandered down a nearby side street for dinner at a place called The Rooster. Then it was back to the hotel for the evening.

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Day 6 - October 21, 2008 - Krakow: Grand City Tour

Itinerary: We had a 5-hour tour of Krakow with our private local guide, Agnes, from Krakow-Tours.com. Our tour included Old Town, Wawel Hill and Kazimierz (Jewish Quarter).

About Krakow from Lonely Planet

Poland's most historic and captivating city is no place to rush through.

Krakow came through WWII unscathed; the 20th century's impact having been confined to acid rain. It has retained a wealth of old architecture from different periods; the tallest structures dominating Krakow's skyline are the spires of old churches. It's a city alive with character and soul.

Ringed by parkland, the Old Town is both charming and compact. The Main Market Square is flanked by historic buildings, museums and churches. St Adalbert's Church is one of the oldest, dating back to the 10th century. And the museum of museums, Czartoryski Museum, exhibits a fascinating and impressive collection of European art.

Daily Journal

Weather: It was a beautiful, warm (60sF) and sunny day. Perfect for sightseeing.

I slept really well last night. I woke up a few times and noticed a lot of commotion out on the street beneath our window until at least 3 am. Our hotel is on a busy pedestrian mall in the heart of Krakow Old Town, so I guess I could have anticipated a little noise. We could hear snoring all night through the wall. Joe thought it was me but it turned out to be Vicky. I thought it sounded like a grizzly bear growling.

Fortunately, I fell back to sleep and didn't wake up till my alarm went off at 6:30 am. Joe and I had breakfast in the hotel around 7:15 am. It was not much to write home about. The hotel offered just a variety of breads, cheese spreads, tomatoes and cucumber slices, cereal, juice, coffee and tea. Pretty simple. As a joke, the Dutch lady at the next table asked her friend how he liked his pancakes. I got to practice my Dutch a little too.

After breakfast, we had a few hours to kill before Agnes from Krakow-Tours.com showed up for our 10 am tour. So Joe and I went for a long walk. Thanks once again to Joe's brisk walking pace, we covered a lot of ground and made it back before 10 am. We made it as far as the Church on the Rock (Kosciól na Skalce), which is several miles away from our hotel on the eastern bank of the Vistula River in the southwest corner of the city on the west side of the Kazimierz section of town. The Vistula River also flows through Warsaw.

Our walk included Old Town Square. It then turned south down busy Grodzka Street toward Wawel Hill and Kanonicza Street. There was a banner across the street marking #19 Kanonicza Street where Pope John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla) once lived. My guide book said Kanonicza Street is considered one of the most beautiful streets in Europe. Neither Joe nor I thought it was. It was nice, but I've seen better. The house at #19 includes a museum and a room where the late pope lived from 1958 to 1967.

At the bottom of Kanonicza Street, we stopped to admire Wawel Hill and the mammoth cathedral and fortress on top overlooking the city and the river.

We walked south along the east side of Wawel Hill and turned west along the southern perimeter and started hiking up the hill until we realized it wasn't going to take us where we wanted to go. So we walked down and hiked along a parallel road until we came to the Vistula River. We then turned south and walked along the river. We saw a fire-breathing dragon statue marking the Dragon's Den exit from Wawel Hill, which you reach by walking down 135 steps through a cave from the top of Wawel Hill. According to local legend, Wawel Hill was once terrorized by a dragon. The king offered his daughter's hand to anyone who vanquished it. One young man left a sheepskin filled with sulfur for the dragon. The dragon's stomach burned so much when he ate it that he rushed to the river and drank until he exploded. So much for legend.

We then walked along a bike path along the river. We saw the beginning of Krakow's Walk of Fame. It included a plaque with Celine Dion's name on it, followed by a bunch of Polish people I never heard of.

We then walked past this hot air balloon and through the back gate of the Church on the Rock. We wound our way through the courtyard and through some gates and into the church. The church is the center of the cult of Saint Stanislaw. The bishop and martyr was beheaded and dismembered by order of the king in the church that stood on this spot in 1079. The story goes that the saint's body was miraculously reassembled, as a symbol of the restoration of Poland's unity after its years of fragmentation. Beginning in the 19th century, the church also became the last resting place for well-known Polish writers and artists. Next to the church was an interesting square containing statues of famous Polish religious dignitaries, including Pope John Paul II.

After the church we headed back to the hotel. Along the way, we saw this poor dog sitting outside by herself.

When we got back to the hotel, we met Vicki and Vicky. We told them they slept too late and missed the eggs and pancakes. Vicki still can't find her jewelry. She had our hotel call the Metropol in Warsaw to see if they found it, but they hadn't.

Around 10 am, we went downstairs and found our guide Agnes waiting for us in the entry way of the hotel. The first five minutes of the tour were spent explaining the lavish gravesites that Poles maintain for the deceased. It really is amazing with the granite vaults, flowers and candles.

We then headed a block over to Old Town Square to start our tour. Our tour included Old Town, the University, visits to several important churches, Wawel Hill, lunch, and Kazimierz, the former Jewish Quarter of Krakow before WWII.

Krakow's Old Town has been a UNESCO World Heritage List since 1978. During WWII, the Nazis occupied Krakow as a base of operations, so it was largely untouched by the war. The layout of the Old Town was drawn up in the mid-13th century after devastation caused by the Tatar invasions. It has survived through the centuries in more or less its original form. The construction of the fortifications began in the 13th century, and it took almost two centuries to envelope the town with a powerful, 2 mile-long chain of double defensive walls complete with 47 towers and eight main entrance gates as well as a wide moat. When this defense system became obsolete at the beginning of the 19th century it was demolished, except for a small section to the north. The moat was filled up and a ring-shaped park called Planty was laid out on the site, surrounding the footprint-shaped Old Town with parkland. Old Town has scores of historical monuments, dozens of museums, 20 of the city's 120 churches, and many other important sites.

The first stop on our tour was Old Town Square (Rynek Glówny). It is 751 years old and amazing. It is ringed by churches and old buildings. In the center stands the famous Cloth Hall, a market building we shopped in last night, a clock tower, a church and a statue of a famous Polish poet. During the day, there is a flower market. The flower stalls have been trading on this site since medieval times. At night, there are lots of people strolling about, as well as street performers, and horse-drawn carriage rides. We found one of its many outdoor terraces to be a good place to just sit with a beer or coffee and watch people. Old Town Square (218 yards by 218 yards) is the largest medieval town square in Europe and one of the finest urban designs of its kind. Its layout, based on that of a castrum (Roman military camp), was drawn up in 1257 and has been retained to this day, though the buildings have changed substantially over the centuries. Most of them now look neoclassical, but the basic structures are much older, as can be seen by their doorways, architectural details and interiors.

The most famous landmark on Old Town Square is the towering St Mary's Church (Kosciol Mariacki, Basilica of the Assumption of Our Lady). St Mary's is Krakow's most important church, after Wawel Cathedral. The original church, built in the 1220s, was destroyed during the Tatar raids, and the edifice seen today is a 15th-century creation. From the outside, the most striking feature of the church is its two towers, of unequal height. The altar is a must see and contains panels depicting the life of the Virgin Mary. Every hour, a bugler appears at the top of one of the towers and plays Hymn to Our Lady, which is known to Poles as the henjal. Because the tune is connected to a legend, the melody ends abruptly.

We hadn't heard the bugler the night before or during our tour, but did hear it a few nights later while coming back from dinner. According to the story about the Krakow bugler, this tune was played in the times of danger – such as fire or invasion. The person watching the city and its walls from the tower would play this tune with his trumpet to inform the citizens of Krakow about the upcoming danger. One day, when he spotted the Tatars approaching the city, the bugler decided to warn the people in Krakow and wake them up by playing his bugle. The citizens were thrilled to hear this sound, especially when they realized what it meant. As the trumpeter was playing on the tower of St Mary’s Church, the Tatars noticed him and realized that he was warning the city. In the middle of the tune, the arrow pierced his throat and the melody was ceased abruptly. In honor of the trumpeter, the hejnal is till now played in Krakow and it has been always broken off at the very same note. Many historians checked how possible it is that the story about Krakow trumpeter is true. The city indeed was many times invaded by the Tatars – and some people try to connect the legend with the most important invasion that took place in 1241. However, there are no mentions about the bugle call in historical records until the end of 14th century. We also know that the melody was forgotten in 17th century and revived again in 1810. In 1927 it was adopted by Polish radio and is now played live every day at noon.

The second most famous feature on Old Town Square is the Cloth Hall (Sukiennice), which dominates the center of the Square. It was once the center of Krakow's medieval rag trade. It was formed in the early 14th century when a roof was put over two rows of stalls and extended into a 350-foot long Gothic structure in the second half of the 14th century. The hall was rebuilt in Renaissance style after a fire in 1555; the arcades were added in the late 19th century. The ground floor is still a trading center but now for crafts and souvenirs. We noted a number of shops selling amber there the night before.

In the middle of Old Town Square is the Adam Mickiewicz statue surrounded by four allegorical figures representing the Motherland, Learning, Poetry and Valor. Mickiewicz was a famous Polish poet. We learned that he actually wrote in Paris and never came to Krakow until 50 years after his death. During WWII, the women who ran the flower market took the head of the statue and hid it from the Nazis, who renamed the square Adolf Hitler Square during the Nazi occupation.

A few steps away is the small, domed Church of St Adalbert, one of the oldest churches in the Old Town, with its origins dating from the 11th century and an old bell tower.

After Old Town Square, we walked south down to the Collegium Maius University, one of the oldest in Europe, founded in 1364. It is the largest university in Poland with 180,000 students. If you are lucky enough to get into this university, it is free. Over the centuries it has undergone many renovations, and was much damaged during the Nazi occupation in the 1940s. However, since then it has been restored to something approaching its former glory. We went over to the arcaded courtyard to watch the clock chime at 11 am. It chimed an old student song, Gaudeamus Igitur ("Therefore Let Us Rejoice"), as little figurines trooped past. Copernicus also went to school here. He was never persecuted for his theory that the earth revolves around the sun because he died a year after he published it. Pope John Paul II also attended the university to study literature and theater before finding his calling in the priesthood.

After the clock spectacle, we headed south across the campus to Grodzka Street, where Joe and I had walked this morning and where we found most of the restaurants we ate at during our stay in Krakow.

Our first stop was Basilica of St Francis (Kosciol Franciszkanow). It's famous because Pope John Paul II stayed in a house across the street whenever he came to Krakow. He would appear in the window to the joy and adoration of the throngs who massed on the street and square next to the church.

The Basilica of St Francis was erected in the second half of the 13th century but was repeatedly rebuilt and refurnished after at least four fires, the last and the most destructive being in 1850 when almost all the interior was destroyed. Of the present decorations, the most interesting are the Art Nouveau stained-glass windows. The one above the organ loft is called Father the God and regarded as among the greatest in Poland.

We then continued down Grodzka Street where we saw one of three Milk Bars. We found our way to one of them on our second to last night in Krakow.

Then we admired two churches that stood side by side, the Church of SS Peter & Paul and the Church of St. Andrew. We stood and counted all the churches on the street--5 in all. The site on which we stood was also once a church.

The Church of SS Peter & Paul (Kosciol swietego Piotra i Pawla) was the first Baroque building in Krakow and erected by the Jesuits, who had been brought to the city in 1583 to do battle with supporters of the Reformation. The figures of the 12 Apostles standing on columns in front of the church are copies of the statues from 1723.

The neighboring Church of St Andrew (Kosciol swietego Andrzeja) is one of Krakow's oldest, and has preserved much of its austere Romanesque stone exterior.

We then wandered down Kanonicza Street again to admire "the most beautiful street in Europe" and see the house at #19 where Pope John Paul II lived. I also got some more killer pictures of Wawel Hill before we made the long climb up the Hill.

Wawel Hill is the very symbol of the nation and more steeped in Polish history than any other place in the country. It was the seat of the kings for over 500 years from the early days of the Polish state, and even after the center of power moved to Warsaw in the late 16th century it retained much of its symbolic power. Today it is a guardian of 1,000 years of Polish history and the most visited site in the country. Past the equestrian statue of Tadeusz Kosciuszko at the main gate, it turns to the left into a vast open central square surrounded by several buildings, of which the cathedral and the castle are the major attractions. Kosciuszko was a general who fought on our side during the Revolutionary War. Just before entering the complex, we looked down upon the street on which scenes from Schindler's List were filmed. After lunch, we would go to the Kazimierz section to see several more.

Street on which Schindler's List was Filmed:

Wawel Cathedral (Katedra Wawelska) has witnessed most of the coronations, funerals and entombments of Poland's monarchs and strongmen over the centuries, and wandering around the grandiose funerary monuments and royal sarcophagi is like a fast-forward tour through Polish history. Many outstanding artists have left behind a wealth of magnificent works of art. The cathedral is both an extraordinary artistic achievement and Poland's spiritual sanctuary. The building seen today is the third church on this site, consecrated in 1364. The original cathedral was founded sometime after the turn of the first millennium by King Boleslaw Chrobry and was replaced with a larger Romanesque construction around 1140. When it burned down in 1305, only the Crypt of St Leonard survived. The present-day cathedral is basically a Gothic structure but chapels in different styles were built around it later.

When entering the massive iron door of the Cathedral, you see hanging on a chain some huge prehistoric animal bones. They are believed to have magical powers. As long as they are here, the cathedral will remain too. The bones were excavated on the grounds at the beginning of the 20th century.

The inside of the Cathedral is quite beautiful. Pictures were not allowed :-( The Cathedral contains a maze of sarcophagi, tombstones and altarpieces. Among a score of chapels, a highlight is the Holy Cross Chapel (Kaplica Swietokrzyska) in the southwestern corner of the church. It is distinguished by the unique 15th-century Byzantine frescoes and the red marble sarcophagus (1492) in the corner by Veit Stoss. The showpiece chapel, however, is the Sigismund Chapel (Kaplica Zygmuntowska) up the aisle and on the southern wall. It is often referred to as 'the most beautiful Renaissance chapel north of the Alps' and recognized by its gilded dome from the outside. Diagonally opposite is the Tomb of St. Queen Hedwig (Sarkofag Sw Królowej Jadwigi), a much beloved and humble 14th-century monarch whose unpretentious wooden coronation regalia are on display nearby. In the center of the cathedral stands the Baroque Shrine of St. Stanislaus (Konfesja Sw Stanislawa), dedicated to the bishop of Krakow, who was canonized in 1253 and is now the patron saint of Poland.

After the visit to the Cathedral, we stopped for lunch. It took much longer than the half hour we thought it would take. But we were in no hurry.

After lunch we walked down the Wawel Hill to neighboring Kazimierz, which used to be a separate town but now one of Krakow's inner suburbs. Its colorful history was determined by its mixed Jewish-Polish population, and though the ethnic structure is now wholly different, the architecture gives a good picture of its past, with clearly distinguishable sectors of what were Christian and Jewish quarters. The suburb is home to many important tourist sights, including churches, synagogues and museums. The western part of Kazimierz was traditionally Catholic, and although many Jews settled here from the early 19th century until WWII, the quarter preserves much of its original character.

Kazimierz was founded by King Kazimierz in 1335. It became the Jewish Quarter in the 15th century when the King ordered the Jews out of Krakow, who at that time lived near the university. Back then, the Jewish merchants were not required to join a trade guild and thus did not have to pay taxes on their goods, which they sold for lower prices than non-Jewish traders. Although there was already anti-Jewish sentiment in Europe, the King felt that ordering the Jews to Kazimierz would relieve religious tensions. Prior to WWII, 70,000 Jews lived in Kazimierz. With the mass deportation and extermination of the Jewish people of Krakow by the Nazis during WWII, all traces of the folklore, life and atmosphere of the quarter disappeared. Today only the architecture reveals that this was once a Jewish town. Miraculously, seven synagogues survived the war, but only one of them continues to function as a regular place of worship. Today, fewer than 100 Jews live in Kazimierz. Three out of 6 million Jews who died during the Holocaust were from Poland. After the war, the Communists were not sympathetic to the Jews, so the number living in Kazimierz continued to dwindle over the next 50 years.

We started our tour on the streets that formed the dividing line between the Catholic and Jewish sections of Kazimierz. The Christian street was Bozego Ciala (Corpus Dei Street). The Jewish street was Meiselsa Street. We wandered up the streets and came to a sight where a scene from Schindler's List was filmed. It was a long, white building with a balcony from which luggage was tossed when Kazimierz was being liquidated by the Nazis.

We then came to Slaughter House Square where, as the name suggests, animals were slaughtered for sale back in the old days. Today it has shops and restaurants.

Next we came to Isaac's Synagogue, Krakow's largest synagogue, completed in 1644, it was returned to the Jewish community in 1989.

We then came to an alley way where another scene from Schindler's List was filmed:

Our last stop was the main square, which is where another scene from Schindler's List was filmed. This was the scene in the movie where a German officer assigned people to Ghetto A (Fit for Work) or Ghetto B (Not Fit for Work). On one end is the Old Synagogue (Stara Synagoga), which dates back to the end of the 15th century, the oldest Jewish house of worship in the country. Damaged by fire in 1557, it was reconstructed in Renaissance style by the Italian architect Matteo Gucci. It was plundered and partly destroyed by the Nazis but later restored.

Also on the square is the house in which cosmetics mogul Helena Rubinstein (December 25, 1870 – April 1, 1965) was born. She always said, there are no ugly women, just lazy women. She learned to make cosmetics in her family's business.

On the way out of the square, we admired a Jewish Memorial, some interesting buildings and the Remuh Synagogue, the Jewish quarter's smallest synagogue and the only one regularly used for religious services. It was established in 1558 by a rich merchant, Israel Isserles. This street is the heart of the quarter and usually crowded with tourists.

Around 4 pm our tour was over. We said good bye to Agnes and ventured back to the hotel on our own. Along the way we stopped at a local antique store and a coffee shop.

We took the scenic route back to the hotel since it was such a nice day.

We eventually found our way back to Grodzka Street and the Dominican Church of the Holy Trinity, which we had passed several times already. The church was built in the 13th century and badly damaged in the 1850 fire, though its side chapels, dating mainly from the 16th and 17th centuries, have been preserved in reasonably good shape.

After that we came back to Old Town Square and went back to the hotel.

After dropping off our stuff at the hotel, we caught up on email and then walked back down Grodzka Street and ate at the most amazing Hungarian restaurant. The place was full so we had to go shop for a half hour. It was 8:30 pm by the time we sat down to eat. We overindulged ourselves on the delicious soup, goulash pancakes and a really nice desert before calling it a night. It was a great way to end a great day.

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Day 7 - October 22, 2008 – Krakow: Auschwitz-Birkenau

Itinerary: We traveled on our own by bus 38 miles west from Krakow to Oswiecim to visit the famous Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau.

About Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration

Located 38 miles west of Krakow, it was established within disguised army barracks in 1940 and was initially designed to hold Polish prisoners, but was expanded into the largest center for the extermination of European Jews. Two more camps were subsequently established: Birkenau and Monowitz. In the course of their operation, 1.5 million people were killed. Auschwitz was only partially destroyed by the fleeing Nazis, so many of the original buildings remain as a bleak document of the camp's history. A dozen of the 30 surviving prison blocks house sections of the State Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau. A movie at the visitor center shows a short documentary film about the liberation of the camp by Soviet troops on January 27, 1945.

Daily Journal

Weather: In the low 60F range and sunny, perfect for sightseeing.

I slept well so was ready for the day. I had the alarm set for 6:30 am so Joe and I had breakfast around 7 am. Vicky and Vicki once again missed the infamous pancake and scrambled egg breakfast because they slept in too late again.

The good news is that Vicki found the jewelry she thought she had lost in Warsaw. It was wrapped up in tissue inside the top she put on that morning. She felt something strange and when she reached down to see what it was, she discovered her ring and earrings. Now she had one less thing to worry about.

We left the hotel around 8 am and caught the "free" #4 tram to the central bus station, which is located right behind the train station.

We rode several blocks towards the station, but didn't get off soon enough so missed our stop. We backtracked a few blocks and eventually got where we needed to be. We did not see the buses to Oswiecim (Polish for the Germanized Auschwitz) on the upper level of the station, so Joe ran inside to the information desk and found out they were on the lower level. Joe is so much better at asking for help than I am. We went down one level and found an 8:55 am mini-bus headed to our destination. Along the way, Vicky had a nice conversation with an old lady with no teeth. Vicky just nodded along as the lady babbled on in Polish. The scenery in the countryside was beautiful with all the fall colors.

Although Oswiecim is 38 miles west of Krakow, the bus made several stops so took an hour and a half to reach. Upon arrival around 10:30 am, the bus let us off at the Auschwitz Museum stop. We walked down a long driveway to the visitor center where we eventually figured out where to buy tickets for the 11 am English tour. Things were a bit confusing and we didn't realize that the tour started with a short movie about the site. We sat through part of the Polish version of the film and were then told we should see the English version, then come back for a pair of headsets to use during the tour.

The film was quite graphic. It showed the selection process where new arrivals to the camp were separated between those capable of working and those who were not. Those who were not, went to the gas chambers. The film also showed the vast amounts of personal items that were collected and recycled for the Nazi war effort--shoes, clothes, all sorts of brushes, false teeth, human hair, luggage, prosthetic devices. It also showed the crematoriums and how twin children were used for life-threatening experiments. At the end, it showed how the camp was liberated by the Russians and how the Nazi's tried to destroy the camp to keep the world from discovering what happened there. After the film, groups of 15 were formed outside and our guide Anna led us on a 2-hour tour of the Auschwitz camp, followed by an hour-long tour of the neighboring Birkenau camp.

I found this 4-minute YouTube video I felt conveyed the experience quite well:

The Auschwitz site was quite interesting. It was still surrounded by barbed wire fencing and sentry towers. We passed through the infamous front gate with the haunting Nazi slogan overhead: "ARBEIT MACHT FREI," which in German literally means "Work Makes (You) Free." This was part of the Nazi deception. The only way anybody left this camp prior to the Russian liberation was through the crematorium chimney.

We toured several buildings on the premises where the prisoners were kept and where the Nazi's tortured them. We saw one area where 4 prisoners at a time were forced to stand for hours on end. Other buildings contained huge display cases filled with a variety of personal belonging confiscated from the prisoners. I think the cases with all the human hair, shoes and brushes (toothbrushes, shaving brushes, hair brushes) were the most disturbing. One building also has a display showing where people were forced to disrobe and go into what they thought was a shower. They were told to remember where they left their clothes so they could retrieve them after their shower. In reality, they were led to the gas chambers where canisters of toxic gas were dropped through tubes in the ceiling, eventually suffocating everyone. To stand in a place where 1.5 million Jews, gypsies, political prisoners and other undesirable members of society perished was a truly humbling experience.

Gas Chamber:

Execution Wall

At the end, we saw the ruins of a crematorium. One member of our group, a man from Boston who was attending the Frankfurt Book Fair, got all broken up when he asked whether the Nazi officers who decided which prisoners would live or die were ever prosecuted. Sadly, most of the officers and soldiers who carried out these acts of inhumanity were never prosecuted. Many fled to South America--Brazil and Argentina.

Although we were not allowed to take pictures inside, I found these YouTube videos showing the display cases filled with the personal belongings of the victims. Warning: May be disturbing to some individuals.

Auschwitz Display Case Full of Shoes:

Auschwitz Display Case Full of Hairbrushes, Toothbrushes and Shaving Brushes:

Auschwitz Display Case Full of Human Hair and Braids Used to Make Military Uniforms:

Auschwitz Display Case Full of Empty Cyclon B Canisters: Cyclon B was the trade name of a cyanide-based insecticide used in the gas chambers. It was stored in airtight containers. When exposed to air, the material released gaseous hydrogen cyanide.

After Auschwitz, we boarded a bus and headed over to neighboring Birkenau camp. This is where the worst of the Nazi atrocities occurred. It too was surround by barbed wire fencing and sentry towers. Train tracks leading from neighboring Auschwitz ran ominously through the front gates at Birkenau and all the way to the back of the encampment to the crematoriums. We walked through many of the uninsulated, drafty barracks where prisoners were packed like sardines. The hardships they must have endured in the winter must have been unbearable. Many died of starvation, typhus and overwork. Death was probably preferable to the conditions at the camp. At the end of the tour, we visited the ruins of the crematoriums, which the Nazis bombed and burned when the Russians liberated the camp, and a memorial to those who suffered in the camp.

Ruins of the Crematorium:

After the tour, we decided to take a cab back to Auschwitz rather than the shuttle. This gave us some time to shop and use the WC. We eventually went to the bus stop and caught a bus back to Krakow. As usual, we took over the back of the bus. A few stops later, a bunch of 16-year-old school boys got on and joined us in the back. Two of them sat with Vicky and Vicki in the back and three sat across from Joe and me. Vicky started a conversation with the boys sitting next to them while the three across from us got all giddy about it. The whole thing ended with a photo of Vicky and Vicki and their two new friends, which I emailed to them when we got back to Krakow. The names Lukas and Christopher come to mind. Vicky gave them a $1 souvenir, which prompted another young lad named Tomas to come back and strike up a conversation with Vicky.

Upon return to Krakow, we walked back to our hotel then out to dinner.

Afterwards we all went back to our room to watch Polish TV and catch up on emails and other stuff. Joe and I stayed up late talking and watching Poland's version of "Dancing with the Stars." I don't watch it at home and not likely to start.

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Day 8 - October 23, 2008 – Krakow: Wieliczka Salt Mine & Nowa Huta

Itinerary: We took a cab to the Wieliczka Salt Mines 7 miles south of Krakow in the suburb of Wieliczka. In the afternoon, we took a train back to Krakow and visited the communist-built Nowa Huta suburb east of Krakow Old Town.

About Wieliczka Salt Mine

The Salt Mine in Wieliczka is one of the most famous sites in Poland. It became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978, but its history goes back to Middle Ages when it was founded. In the 16th century Wieliczka Salt Mine was one of the biggest business enterprises in Europe. Not only did it employ miners and staff connected with production, but also carpenters, smiths, wagon drivers and stable boys. The mine had even its own kitchens and physician, as well as specific “welfare systems” and a “pension fund.”

In the beginning the transportation and underground transport were manual. Afterwards more developments were introduced and the salt was taken out to the surface by horses. In the late 1770s, new automated methods for mining were introduced. In the 1820s, brine baths in Wieliczka were used as a form of treatment. In 1958, the unique climate in the mine was used to cure asthma, inflammation of upper and lower respiratory tracts, and some allergies. The clinic is still operating. Mining operations ceased in the 1970s.

In total, the mine stretches for about 186 miles and reaches a depth of 1,100 feet. Its nine levels, 26 shafts and more than 2,000 chambers illustrate all stages of mining technology.

Today the Salt Mine is a popular attraction, visited by 1,000,000 people each year. A guided tour covers less than 1% of the mine. Famous visitors include Nicolaus Copernicus, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Karol Wojtyla (the later Pope John Paul II), crowned heads, as well as hosts of ordinary people.

The salt mine forms an "underground town" with churches, lakes and passages and visiting the 700-year-old mines is a good way to spend half a day. The underground itinerary takes you to several chapels that have been carved from the salt; huge, fantastically shaped multilevel chambers; and salty subterranean lakes.

About Nowa Huta

Nowa Huta means "new steel mill." Nowa Huta is the youngest and largest of Krakow's suburbs. It was the result of the postwar rush towards industrialization. In the early 1950s a gigantic steelworks, and a new town to serve as a bedroom community for its workforce, were built about 6 miles east of the center of Krakow. The steel mill accounted for nearly half the national iron and steel output, and the suburb has become a vast urban sprawl, populated by over 200,000 people. Because of increasing awareness of environmental issues, the industrial management was forced to cut production and reduce the workforce, yet the mammoth plant is still working despite the fact that it's unprofitable. Nowa Huta is a shock after the Old Town's medieval streets. It doesn't matter where you start your sightseeing as the landscape varies little throughout the district. Most of it is a gray concrete sea of Stalinist-style architecture, but fortunately, there are a few interesting sights in that sea.

Daily Journal

Weather: It was cool (50s F) and rainy all day, so we stuck with our original plan to go to Wieliczka Salt Mine instead of Zakopane.

We left our hotel around 8:00 am figuring that we could make our way to the mine in time for the 10 am English tour. We walked towards the tram line and eventually found a cabbie who agreed to drive us to the Salt Mine for 70 zl, or about $24 for four people. He was somewhat reluctant however to take us only one way since he probably figured he wouldn't be able to find someone to bring back.

The cab ride started out OK but then got worse and worse. The traffic was horrible so it was taking longer than I ever expected. We started talking amongst ourselves about trying to find a bus back from the Salt Mine to save money. The cabbie pointed to the next bus stop for buses going to the Salt Mine and asked if we wanted to be let off. We told him "no" and that's when things got bad. A mile or so later, the taxi developed "engine problems" and stalled out in traffic. I swear it was intentional because the cabbie was driving very slowly in third gear, which would stall out any car with a manual transmission. All the while the cabbie kept muttering to himself. Eventually he pulled up beside a number of taxis waiting in a cue along the roadside. He got out and convinced the driver of the cab in front of us to take us the rest of the way to the Salt Mine. So we got into the other cab and continued on our way. The first cabbie charged us nothing even though he had taken us more than half way to our destination. So we ended up paying the entire 70 zl fare to the second cabbie. I think the two were a team and that the first cabbie didn't think it was worth his while to take us all the way to the Salt Mine with the possibility of having to drive an empty cab back. The rest of my travel group thought otherwise. But I was sitting next to the first cabbie in the front seat and I could see all that transpired.

We arrived at the Wieliczka Salt Mine around 9:30 am. It was raining. So we ran inside and bought our tickets, then waited around for the English tour to start. The mine is a series of underground caverns connected by tunnels and staircases. It goes deep underground. Down in the mine there are a number of dioramas made out of salt depicting the history and life in the mine. The mine is no longer in operation. The 2-hour tour only covered about 1% of the mine, which was more than enough.

The tour started with a long walk down a winding staircase comprised of 380 steps that take you 184 feet straight down. We then walked through several tunnels and down several more flights of stairs visiting one cavern after the other.

The first major chamber was the Janowice Chamber, illustrating the legend of the discovery of rock salt. The salt sculptures depict the 700-year-old legend about St. Kinga and the founding of the Salt Mine in Wieliczka. The legend says that when Hungarian princess Kinga left Hungary on her way to Krakow to marry into the Polish Royal Family, she tossed her ring into what was to become the mine and asked her servants to dig a well there. Instead of water, salt was discovered and in the first lump of salt Kinga’s ring was found. In those days, salt was the economic foundation of the state. In Poland it was used as a mean of payment. In the 14th century, salt mines brought over 30% of all the state’s income.

We then walked through several tunnels and down several more flights of stairs visiting one cavern after the other.

The most interesting cavern was this massive church about two-thirds of the way down. Everything from the altar to the murals on the walls and the chandeliers were made of salt. The chapel of St. Kinga is one of the wonders of Poland. Hand-carved one hundred years ago by a group of highly gifted miners.

Another interesting cavern was the one filled with water where Chopin music was played while synchronized lights illuminated the walls.
Video of Chopin Music Playing in Cavern Deep Inside Wieliczka Salt Mine Near Krakow:

And finally, another interesting cavern one with a chapel that could only be reached by boat. It has been closed for several years since a boat capsized and 7 people drowned.

Eventually we got to the bottom of the mine where there were shops and restaurants. Vicki, Vicky and Joe bought colorful candleholders made of salt. We then waited our turn to ride the very small, fast, two-story elevator back to the surface.

We then asked for directions to main station and found a train back to Krakow. At 2.50 zl ($0.80), it was a better deal than a cab.

After catching the train back to the Krakow, we ventured into the adjacent shopping mall for lunch. Vicky went to McDonalds while Vicki, Joe and I went next door to this bakery that offered sandwiches and pastries. We got in a long line to order. When our turn came, we used a lot of finger pointing and gestures to order. We all got what we thought was a chocolate filled pastry that ended up being a mushroom pizza roll. It wasn't until we went back to McDonalds to join Vicky that I bit into the chocolate roll only to discover what it really was. I waited for Vicki to bite into hers until I said anything. That was funny. Eventually we all went back and got some cookies and other sweet snacks to munch on.

After lunch, we headed out of the shopping mall to get on the "free" #4 tram to Nowa Huta. It was raining so I put my hood up. The rest of the group pulled out their umbrellas. That's when Joe and Vicky noticed that both of their $1 umbrellas were broken. Vicki said her $1 umbrella was broken too and when she pulled it out and opened it, I nearly died laughing. Actually, we all nearly died laughing, so I took a picture. Joe's was the worst since one side had completely collapsed. Vicky and Vicki's umbrellas had fewer broken spokes.

We also got a laugh out of Vicky in her jacket with all her things stuffed inside.

We caught the "free" #4 tram and 15 minutes later we got off at Plac Centralny in the heart of the Nowa Huta. When we arrived at our stop at Plac Centralny, it was still raining, so it added life to the drab, concrete block buildings that lined both sides of the street leading from the square. Soviet-style architecture is so ugly. At the recommendation of Agnes, yesterday's tour guide in Krakow, we decided to go see the Arka Pana (Ark Church), a church shaped like Noah's Ark. The church was built in the 1970s. No machinery was used (or allowed) so people brought small pebbles to the construction site and used them to construct the church.

Along the way to Arka Pana, we saw a Milk Bar, which is a type of restaurant serving basic meals at cheap prices. They are popular amongst pensioners and students. It had rainbow flags in the window so I thought it was a gay milk bar. But it wasn't. We ventured inside and saw a lot of old people sitting around, others carrying trays containing servings of meat and mashed potatoes, and a line up of people waiting at a pick-up window to get their food. The food actually looked quite appetizing.

We then continued our journey to Arka Pana, but got lost. I tried to find someone on the street to ask for directions. The first lady brushed me off. She didn't speak English. Then I asked this nice elderly man. I said Arka Pana and pointed to the name in my guide book. "Oooohhh, Arrrrrrrrka Paaaah-naaaah," he said. In his best Polish, he pointed me back down the street to where Joe, Vicki and Vicky were waiting on the corner, then told me to turn left and go three blocks, then turn left and keep going till I saw it. At least that's what I thought he said. Along the way, we saw another nice church and thought it was Arka Pana. But the church didn't seem to match the description in my guide book. At that moment, a bunch of kids were walking by on their way home from school. Vicky told me to ask one of them for directions. Two boys named Matthew and Simon came walking by. I asked the shorter boy (Matthew) if he knew where Arka Pana was. In perfect English, he said, "Yes, follow me. I live across the street from it." So we walked several blocks with Matthew and Simon, giving them a chance to practice their English. Both were 12 and on the volleyball team at their local school. One was obviously the setter and the other the spiker. We posed for a picture and then went into the church. It was pretty cool. On the outside, you could see the small stones used to construct the church and the ark that sat on top to form the roof.

Inside of Arka Pana Church in Nowa Huta Section of Krakow, Poland:

After visiting the church, it was toilet time. We wandered into an outdoor market looking for bathroom facilities. We found one at a local bar, but like a US gas station, you had to get the key from the attendant and go around the outside of the building to the bathroom. Vicki used the bathroom first. It had no light, so Vicky had to stand guard while Vicki used the toilet with the door slightly ajar. The smell was atrocious. Joe used it next, and I'm sure he held his breath. Vicky and I were content to wait till we got back to the hotel.

We then started walking back towards Plac Centralny. It was confusing, but eventually we found the "free" #5 tram headed in that direction and took it to where we could catch the "free" #4 back to Old Town. We got all mixed up at the station and had to go back underground and come up another set of steps to get to where we needed to be. While underground, I could hear a bunch of drunk men screaming as they came toward us. It was a bit startling but they didn't do anything to us.

We took the "free" tram back to town, dumped off our stuff and went to a high class milk bar in Old Town for dinner. There was way too much food, but it was very good and the price extremely reasonable.

After dinner, we went back to the hotel and watched some TV and talked till late.

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Day 9 - October 24, 2008 - Zakopane

Itinerary: We traveled by bus on our own 2 hours each way to visit Zakopane, the "Aspen" of Poland located on the southern border with Slovakia.

About Zakopane From Zakopane Life

Although the first settlements in the region began in the middle of the 12th century, not much is known about the early times of Zakopane. Its history dates back to the year 1578 when Zakopane obtained its village rights from Stefan Batory, King of Poland. Legend has it that the origin of Zakopane goes back as far as the 16th and 17th centuries when the man named Gasienica and his two sons came here to build a mill at the confluence of the Biala and Cicha Woda streams. The town's growth was further spurred on over the ensuing years thanks to the establishment of iron ore mining in the nearby Tatras mountains and the building of steelworks in nearby Kuznice in the 18th century. By that time, tourists had already started to visit the area to hike the mountains for pleasure. Over the years, more visitors came to Zakopane and the locals started to build special houses for tourists to rent. The building of a railroad connection to Zakopane contributed to the further development of Zakopane as a tourist resort. In addition to tourism, the town's popularity as a health resort drew more people to the area after the healing properties of Zakopane were verified by doctors. Today, Zakopane is considered Poland's premier mountain resort and one of the country's most popular holiday destinations, both in the winter for skiing, and in the summer, for hiking and camping. Until recently, Zakopane was enjoyed primarily by Poles and travelers from Eastern Europe. But its splendid natural scenery, world-class ski slopes, and great value-for-money have begun drawing visitors from further afield.

Daily Journal

Weather: 42F and Cloudy in Zakopane.

I awoke at 6 am. Joe found the watch he thought he lost in the cab going to the Wieliczka Salt Mines yesterday. We settled our hotel bill and arranged for a 3:15 am taxi to the airport tomorrow. We then caught the "free" tram to the bus station and caught the 8:55 am bus to Zakopane, the highest town in Poland, in the Tatra Mountains 62 miles south of Krakow along the Slovakia border. The bus ride took 2 hours, but was very scenic.

We arrived in Zakopane around 11 am. It was very foggy and overcast, so we delayed getting on the funicular to go up the mountain and toured the busy town for about an hour. Before our walk around town, we went over to the train station to see if we could find our way to nearby Wadowice so that we could take the Pope John Paul II tour on our way back to Krakow. It didn't work out.

Our tour of Zakopane started on the busy Krupowla Street. We shopped at the different booths and sampled the delicious, smoky flavored local cheese known as Oscypkti. When we first saw this famous ewe's milk cheese at a roadside stand, we thought it was bread because it had a golden brown outer crust on it.

We then took the funicular up Gubaloka Hill. Due to snow and white out conditions, there was nothing to see at the top, including the famous Sleeping Giant mountain formation. We posed for pictures at the top of the mountain, then got back on the funicular and headed back down the mountain. They had these characters dressed up in silly costumes that you could have your picture taken with. They got a little risqué with some of their photos as you can see below. The guy in the bear costume came up behind Vicki and growled in her ear.

This is the famous Sleeping Giant we didn't see:

We then broke out the guide books and went on a hunt for St. Clement Church. I asked a nun on the street for directions to church but she was no help. We eventually found it and the adjacent cemetery where the famous Polish painter, architect, writer and art theoretician Stanislaw Witkiewicz (1851-1915) was buried. We admired the interesting birch headstones before going into the church. While in the church, Vicky took an opportunity to have Vicki hear her confession.

After the church, we hiked up Kasprusie street to Villa Atma, a home where Poland's second greatest composer behind Chopin (Karla Szymanowskiego) stayed when he came to Zakopane for treatment of tuberculosis. It wasn't worth the 6 zl admission.

After Villa Atma, we had lunch and then headed back down the hill to the bus station to go back to Krakow. The highlight of the trip back was that a very stinky old man sat in the back of the bus next to Vicky and Vicki and cleared out the entire section. I personally could not smell him but Vicky made an awful face and Joe moved three seats up. The man eventually took the seat Joe was sitting in right in front of Vicki. I guess as long as he didn't lift up his arm, the smell was OK.

The ride back to Krakow seemed an eternity due to construction tie-ups and rush hour traffic. We also waited a long time for the "free" tram back to the hotel. We even missed our tram stop and had to get on another tram going the opposite direction. I think everyone was tired.

We dropped our stuff off at the hotel and went out to dinner at this pizza and kebab restaurant off Old Town Square. Before dinner, we stopped at a local bar for a vodka shot known as a "Polish Flag." The shot is red on bottom and white on the top like the Polish flag.

After dinner, we went back to the hotel to pack and talk.

Joe and I stayed up really late talking despite the fact that we had a 2:45 am wake up call to get ready to go to the airport in the morning.

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Day 10 - October 25, 2008 – Krakow to the US

Itinerary: Joe and Chris left Krakow really early in the morning and flew back to the US. Vicki and Vicky had a Saturday to shop or play or whatever. They left Sunday. Poland went off daylight savings Sunday, so they got an extra hour to sleep or pack.

Daily Journal

Weather: Cloudy, foggy, freezing.

Like most trips, this was the day I dreaded the most--saying goodbye to my friends and making the long trek home. Yesterday never really ended because I didn't sleep at all last night. Joe and I stayed up talking till after midnight. He fell asleep and I just lay there listening to the commotion of the Friday night bar crowd on the busy pedestrian mall beneath our hotel window. It was like that every night here in Krakow. The nice young man at the hotel desk said the streets are busy with late night revelers 365 days a year. And with good reason since Krakow has so much to offer.

We had a wake up knock at 2:45 am, but Joe's alarm clock went off at 2:37am and my watch at 2:45 am, so I was awake before the young man at the front desk had a chance to knock. I took a quick shower, brushed my teeth and zipped up my suitcase. I looked out the window at 3 am and our cab was already waiting outside.

I made coffee in the kitchen out in the common area and talked to the guy at the reception while Joe got ready. By 3:15 am we were all set to go. There was no traffic so we got to the airport at 3:35 am. The cab ride seemed like a rip-off at 100 zl ($33), but how else were we to get to the airport at that hour? Joe kindly paid for the cab.

When we arrived at the Krakow airport, none of the check-in counters were open so we just sat around and waited. Eventually the CzechAir counter opened and Joe went off to check in. He came back a few minutes later and we said our goodbyes. Minutes later at 4:45 am, the Lufthansa counter opened and I checked in. I got through security and went to the waiting area where I met up with Joe again. We spent the last of our Polish zlotys on soda and candy. A few minutes later around 5:15 am, we said goodbye again and Joe disappeared down the steps to get on a bus to go out to his plane. It was dark and foggy so I couldn't see where the bus went.

I then went off to find an outlet to plug in my computer. I finished organizing all my photos so I could burn some CDs to send to Vicki, Vicky and Joe when I get home.

Finishing my journal will be another story. I didn't keep up to date with it at all. I felt it was more important to max out the time with my friends than to sit in the hotel room typing up notes. When I get home, I'll type up my journal and post it to my blog with pictures. The journal will be a challenge since I lost my note pad on the train to Czestochowa on day three so am missing two days of notes from Warsaw. I think the pictures I took will help me recollect what happened. I'll also be busy catching up at work and won't have a lot of time to type up my journal. I'll get a start on that tomorrow, Sunday.

My flight home from Krakow to Munich to Chicago was uneventful. My flight left Krakow on time at 6:40 am and arrived in Munich at 8:10 am. My flight to Chicago left Munich 20 minutes late at 9:20 am and arrived 20 minutes late in Chicago at noon. I slept part of the way to Munich and almost all the way home to Chicago after popping a sleeping pill shortly after takeoff. The plane was full so I sat in a upright position for almost 10 hours. I missed all the meals and in-flight entertainment, but now I am rested and ready to go out with friends tonight in Milwaukee. Despite the plane being a little late out of Munich and a little late into Chicago, I cleared customs and was waiting outside Terminal 5 for the 1:20 pm CoachUSA bus to Milwaukee with ample time to spare. I texted Joe, Vicki and Vicky that I had arrived safely and that I was sitting in the back of the bus as usual.

I got back to Milwaukee around 3:20 pm and walked a few blocks home from the downtown bus/train station. It sure felt good to be home.

A lot of Warsaw and Krakow look like Milwaukee, and the weather is the same, so the memories of the trip are likely to linger on strongly for several days. What a great feeling.

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History of Warsaw from Warsaw Tourist Office

The beginnings of settlement in the Valley of Warsaw are dated to the tenth century. At the end of the thirteenth century, in the area where the Royal Castle stands, a new princely town was founded, that is, today’s Warsaw. The earliest note about Warsaw appears in written records from 1313. After Mazovian Princes had died heirless, Mazovia was incorporated into the Polish Crown. Since 1569, it had been a place where sessions of the Sejm of the Joint Polish Lithuanian Republic were held. After the fire of the Wawel Castle, King Sigismunt Waza III transferred permanent royal residence, courts and the Crown’s offices from Krakow to the extended Warsaw’s Royal Castle.

In the 13th century, wars, disturbances and plagues brought on a slump in the economic growth of the town. In years 1655 – 1658 alone was Warsaw besieged, conquered and occupied three times by the Swedes and Transylvanian troops. In the Sas dynasty reign, after the political situation had settled down, Warsaw regained its status of an important cultural center. The next golden age of the capital city spins the years of the reign of the last King of Poland, that is, Stanislaw August Poniatowski. After the third partition of Poland, in 1795, the country disappeared from the map of Europe for 123. Through this period Warsaw was downgraded to the rank of the Russian province.

Despite a disadvantageous political atmosphere, the town and its industry kept developing. In the years 1840 – 1848, the first railway connecting Warsaw with Vienna was founded. In 1864, the first permanent bridge across the river Vistula came into use, and in 1875, a railway bridge was constructed. Between 1851 and 1855, the first waterworks were built; in years 1881 – 1886 – the first sewer system appeared. In 1856, citizens of the capital city could use gas, and in 1881, the first telephone exchange was built. In 1882, a regular public horse-tram transport was introduced and replaced by electrical one in 1907.

In 1918, Warsaw became the capital city of reborn Poland. The process of tidying it up became especially intense during the presidency of Stefan Starzynski. It was however brutally interrupted by the outbreak of World War II and the German occupation. Warsaw was defended till 28 September 1939. Again, the city became the main center of Resistance, conspiracy and cultural and academic life. The April of 1943 witnessed the outbreak of an uprising in the walled off Jewish Ghetto. After it had come to an and, the Jewish quarters with half a million people ceased to exist.
On 1 August 1944, the Warsaw uprising organized by the Home Army broke out. The Honorary Capitulation Act was signed on the 2 October. After the uprising had been quashed, Warsaw was condemned to annihilation. Its citizens were exiled and transported to concentration camps. The Germans started to destroy the city through systematic bombardments. As a result, 650 000 people were killed and 84 per cent of buildings were destroyed. The process of rebuilding Warsaw started immediately in 1945.

Today the capital city of Poland, which was to be erased from the map of Europe, is reborn and throbbing with life.

About the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Many Jews in ghettos across eastern Europe tried to organize resistance against the Germans and to arm themselves with smuggled and homemade weapons. Between 1941 and 1943, underground resistance movements formed in about 100 Jewish groups. The most famous attempt by Jews to resist the Germans in armed fighting occurred in the Warsaw ghetto.

In the summer of 1942, about 300,000 Jews were deported from Warsaw to Treblinka. When reports of mass murder in the killing center leaked back to the Warsaw ghetto, a surviving group of mostly young people formed an organization called the Z.O.B. (for the Polish name, Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa, which means Jewish Fighting Organization). The Z.O.B., led by 23-year-old Mordecai Anielewicz, issued a proclamation calling for the Jewish people to resist going to the railroad cars. In January 1943, Warsaw ghetto fighters fired upon German troops as they tried to round up another group of ghetto inhabitants for deportation. Fighters used a small supply of weapons that had been smuggled into the ghetto. After a few days, the troops retreated. This small victory inspired the ghetto fighters to prepare for future resistance.

On April 19, 1943, the Warsaw ghetto uprising began after German troops and police entered the ghetto to deport its surviving inhabitants. Seven hundred and fifty fighters fought the heavily armed and well-trained Germans. The ghetto fighters were able to hold out for nearly a month, but on May 16, 1943, the revolt ended. The Germans had slowly crushed the resistance. Of the more than 56,000 Jews captured, about 7,000 were shot, and the remainder were deported to killing centers or concentration camps.

About the Warsaw Rising of 1944

Although the Warsaw Rising of 1944 is one of the key events to understanding modern Polish history, for a long time it received insufficient attention, particularly from the Western world. It was a common misconception to confuse the event with the 1943 Ghetto Uprising, a mistake (in)famously committed by both German Chancellor Herzog and the French newspaper Le Figaro.

The Warsaw Rising was an armed struggle by the Home Army (Armia Krajowa), the Polish resistance group, in an attempt to liberate Warsaw from German occupation and Nazi rule. It started on August 1, 1944. The date was not chosen at random: at the time, Allied troops were breaking through the Normandy defenses and the Red Army was approaching Warsaw.

Although the Rising failed, the Polish troops resisted the German-led forces for 63 days, until October 2. Losses on the Polish side amounted to 18,000 soldiers killed and 25,000 wounded; in addition, approximately 200,000 civilians were killed, mostly in mass executions conducted by advancing German troops. The German orders were to kill all the inhabitants of Warsaw and take no prisoners. More than 17,000 German soldiers were killed and 9,000 wounded.

During and after the Warsaw Rising -- on Hitler's orders -- the city was systematically bombed with as many as 123 sorties daily. The bombings were followed by a massive and organized looting campaign. Block after block, Poland's capital was burned to ruins, until 85% of it was destroyed. The fate of Warsaw was to be a grim "example" for Europe.

It all could have turned out differently. Warsaw could have been one of the first European capitals liberated but, as many argue, political miscalculations by its leaders -- and even more so by global leaders Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill, and Franklin D. Roosevelt -- turned the tide against the Polish capital. Airdrops from the Allies were too little and too late, and the Soviet army stood before the city only a few hundred meters away, watching Warsaw burning from the other bank of the Vistula River.

Stalin did not want the Polish Home Army to have a victory over the German occupiers. His plans for Poland were different: he wanted to liberate it himself and make it into a Communist state. Although a tragic irony, it is perhaps not surprising that 1944 insurgents faced persecution from the Communists in postwar Poland.

About Fryderyk Chopin: He Left His Heart in Warsaw

When the first notes of Chopin sound through the concert hall, there is a happy sigh of recognition. All over the world men and women know his music. They love it; they are moved by it," said Arthur Rubinstein, the famed Polish pianist. While the music belongs to everyone in the world, Chopin's heart always belonged to Warsaw.

It is in Warsaw that Fryderyk Chopin spent his youth, certainly most of the first 20 years of his life. He was born in Zelazowa Wola in the region of Masovia in 1810, where his father Nicolas Chopin, a Frenchman of distant Polish ancestry, had moved from in 1787; Nicolas then married a Pole, Justyna Krzyzanowska.

The family moved to Warsaw in October 1810. A child prodigy of great musical talent, Fryderyk Chopin soon gained a reputation as a "second Mozart" who composed his first two polonaises by the age of 7; he performed his first piano concert at the age of 8. It was in Warsaw that he got his education, including music lessons from Wojciech Zywny and then Wilhelm Würfel. He attended the Warsaw Lyceum, where his father was a professor, and then the Warsaw Conservatory, where he was taught by composer Jozef Elsner. In Warsaw, Chopin first heard Paganini play; the city is also where he met his first love, a singing student Konstancja Gladkowska.

While giving concerts in Vienna in late 1830, Fryderyk learned about trouble at home: the November Uprising had begun. He decided not to return to Warsaw immediately but went on to Munich and Stuttgart (where news reached him of Poland's occupation by the Russian army), finally arriving in Paris -- where most of the Polish political refugees had relocated -- in 1831.

He never returned home. Chopin died in Paris in 1849 and is buried at Père-Lachaise Cemetery, where, according to legend, there has never been a day when flowers were not placed on his grave. At his own request, his heart was removed upon his death and sent in an urn to Warsaw, where it rests in the Church of the Holy Cross at Krakowskie Przedmiescie.

History of Krakow from Lonely Planet

Pre-20th-Century History: The first traces of the town's existence date from around the 7th century. In the 8th and 9th centuries Krakow was one of the main settlements of the Vistulans (Wislanie), the tribe that several centuries earlier had spread around the region known as Little Poland or Malopolska. The earliest written record of Krakow dates from 965, when an Arabian traveler and merchant of Jewish descent, Ibrahim ibn Yaqub from Cordova, visited the town and referred to it in his account as a trade center called Krakwa.

In 1000 the bishopric of Krakow was established, and in 1038 Krakow became the capital of the Piast Kingdom. Wawel Castle and several churches were built in the 11th century and the town, initially gathered around Wawel Hill, grew in size and power.

In 1241 the Tatars overran Krakow and burned down the largely timber-built town. In 1257 the new town's center was designed on a grid pattern, with a market square in the middle, and brick and stone largely replacing wood; Gothic became the dominant architectural style. Good times came with the reign of King Kazimierz Wielki, a generous patron of art and scholarship. In 1364 he founded the Krakow Academy (later renamed the Jagiellonian University), the second university in central Europe after Prague's. Nicolaus Copernicus, who would later develop his heliocentric view of the universe, studied here during the 1490s.

Krakow's economic and cultural expansion reached a peak in the 16th century. The medieval Wawel Castle gave way to a mighty palace, learning and science prospered, and the population passed the 30,000 mark. It was not to last, however. The capital was moved to Warsaw in 1596, and although Krakow remained the place of coronations and burials, the king and the court resided in Warsaw, and political and cultural life was centered there. The Swedish invasion of 1655 did a lot of damage, and the 18th century, with its numerous invasions, accelerated the decline. By the end of the century the city's population had dropped to a mere 10,000.

Following the final Third Partition of Poland, Krakow fell under Austrian rule. Austria proved to be the least oppressive of the three occupants, and the city enjoyed a reasonable and steadily increasing cultural and political freedom.
Modern History: By the closing decades of the 19th century Krakow had become a major center for Polish culture and the spiritual capital of the formally nonexistent country - a focus for intellectual life and theatre. The avant-garde artistic and literary movement known as Mloda Polska (Young Poland) was born here in the 1890s. It was also here that a national independence movement originated, which later produced the Polish Legions under the command of Józef Pilsudski.

By the outbreak of WWII the city had 260,000 inhabitants, 65,000 of whom were Jews. During the war, Krakow, like all other Polish cities, witnessed the silent departures of Jews who were never to be seen again. The city was thoroughly looted by Nazis but didn't experience major combat or bombing. As such, Krakow is virtually the only large Polish city that has its old architecture almost intact.

After liberation, the communist government was quick to present the city with a huge steelworks at Nowa Huta, just a few miles away from the historic quarter, in an attempt to break the traditional intellectual and religious framework of the city. The social engineering proved less successful than its unanticipated by-product - ecological disaster. Monuments that had somehow survived Tatars, Swedes and Nazis plus numerous natural misfortunes have been gradually and methodically eaten away by acid rain and toxic gas.

With the creation of Nowa Huta and other new suburbs after the war, Krakow trebled in size to become the country's third-largest city, after Warsaw and Lódz.
Recent History: Throughout the centuries of upheaval, the city's historic core has changed little and continues to be a political, administrative and cultural center. Since the fall of the Communist regime, Krakow has benefited from an influx of travelers from the other side of what used to be known as the Iron Curtain and has been Westernized to an extent greater than any other Polish city.

About Auschwitz and Birkenau Concentration Camps

Auschwitz-Birkenau is the site of the most infamous mass-murder in the history of the humanity. All over the world, Auschwitz has become a symbol of terror, genocide, and the Holocaust.

Between 1940 and 1945 more than 1.5 million people died here in the Nazis' largest death-camp complex as a result of starvation, labor that exceeded their physical capacity, the terror that raged in the camp, executions, the inhuman living conditions, disease and epidemics, punishment, torture, and criminal medical experiments.

Auschwitz has come to be seen as the epicenter of the moral collapse of the West, and that's certainly the impression most people walk away with. The site was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1979.

The concentration camp was established by the Nazis in the suburbs of the town of Oswiecim which, like other parts of Poland, was occupied by the Germans during the Second World War.

Beginning in 1942, the camp became the site of the gravest mass murder in the history of humanity committed against the European Jews as part of Hitler's plan for the complete destruction of that people. At first, Poles were imprisoned and died in the camp. Afterwards, Soviet prisoners of war, Gypsies, and prisoners of other nationalities were also incarcerated there. The majority of the Jewish men, women and children deported to Auschwitz were sent to their deaths in the Birkenau gas chambers immediately after arrival.

At the end of the war, in an effort to remove the traces of the crimes they had committed, the SS began dismantling and razing the gas chambers, crematoria, and other buildings, as well as burning documents.

The most provocative exhibits are the huge piles of belongings confiscated from victims, as well as the two tons of human hair intended for use in the German textile industry. Equally grim are the gas chambers at nearby Brzezinka (Birkenau), where thousands of Poles, Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals lost their lives. The execution wall, the prison block, and the reconstructed crematorium at the end of the tour are a sobering reminder of man's inhumanity to man.

About His Holiness John Paul II (1920-2005) from A&E

Born Karol Józef Wojtyla on May 18, 1920, in Wadowice, Poland. John Paul's early life was marked by great loss. His mother died when he was nine and his older brother Edmund died when he was twelve.

Growing up, John Paul was athletic and enjoyed skiing and swimming. He went to Krakow's Jagiellonian University in 1938 where he showed an interest in theater and poetry. The school was closed the next year by Nazi troops during the German occupation of Poland. Wanting to become a priest, John Paul began studying at a secret seminary run by the archbishop of Krakow. After World War II ended, he finished his religious studies at a Krakow seminary and was ordained in 1946.

John Paul spent two years in Rome where he finished his doctorate in theology. He returned to his native Poland in 1948 and served in several parishes in and around Krakow. John Paul became the bishop of Ombi in 1958 and then the archbishop of Krakow six years later. Considered one of the Catholic Church's leading thinkers, he participated in the Second Vatican Council—sometimes called Vatican II. The council began reviewing church doctrine in 1962 and held several sessions over the course of the next few years. As a member of the council, John Paul helped the church to examine its position in the world. Well regarded for his contributions to the church, John Paul was made a cardinal in 1967 by Pope Paul VI.

In 1978, John Paul made history by becoming the first non-Italian pope in more than four hundred years. As the leader of the Catholic Church, he traveled the world, visiting more than 100 countries to spread his message of faith and peace. But he was close to home when he faced the greatest threat to his life. In 1981, an assassin shot John Paul twice in St. Peter's Square in Vatican City. Fortunately, he was able to recover from his injuries and later forgave his attacker.

A vocal advocate for human rights, John Paul often spoke out about suffering in the world. He held strong positions on many topics, including his opposition to capital punishment. A charismatic figure, John Paul used his influence to bring about political change and is credited with the fall of communism in his native Poland. He was not without critics, however. Some have stated that he could be harsh with those who disagreed with him and that he would not compromise his hard-line stance on certain issues, such as contraception.

In his later years, John Paul's health appeared to be failing. At public appearances, moved slowly and seemed unsteady on his feet. He also visibly trembled at times. While one of his doctors disclosed that John Paul had Parkinson's disease, a brain disorder often characterized by shaking, in 2001. But there was never any official announcement about his illness from the Vatican.

John Paul II died on April 2, 2005, at his Vatican City residence. More than three million people waited in line to say good-bye to their beloved religious leader at St. Peter's Basilica before his funeral on April 8. Church officials began the process of making John Paul II a saint soon after his death, waving the usual five-year waiting period.

About Oskar Schindler (1908-1974)

In December 1939, as occupied Poland was being torn apart by the savagery of the Holocaust, Oskar Schindler, the unlikeliest of role models, took his first faltering steps from the darkness of Nazism towards the light of heroism. “If you saw a dog going to be crushed under a car,” he said later of his wartime actions, “wouldn't you help him?”

Before the outbreak of war, Poland had been a relative haven for European Jews—Krakow's Jewish population numbered over 50,000. But when Germany invaded, destruction began immediately and it was merciless. Jews were herded into crowded ghettos, randomly beaten and humiliated, capriciously killed. Jewish property and businesses were summarily destroyed, or appropriated by the SS and 'sold' to Nazi 'investors', one of whom was the fast talking, womanizing, money hungry Oskar Schindler.

An ethnic German, Schindler was born April 28, 1908, in Zwittau, Austria-Hungary, what is now Moravia in the Czech Republic. Schindler grew up with all the privileges money could buy. He was born Catholic, but from an early age he inhabited a world of sin. His exploits with women are the stuff of barroom legend.

He married Emilie Schindler at nineteen, but was never without a mistress or two. Hard drinking and feckless, he had the soul of a gambler, winning big and losing bigger. He had presided over the demise of his family business and become a salesman when opportunity came knocking in the guise of the war.

Never one to miss a chance to make money, he marched into Poland on the heels of the SS. He dived headfirst into the black-market and the underworld and soon made friends with the local Gestapo bigwigs, softening them up with women, money and illicit booze. His newfound connections helped him acquire a factory which he ran with the cheapest labor around: Jewish.

At first he seemed like every other usurping German industrialist, driven by profit and unmoved by the means of his profiteering. But somewhere along the line, something changed. He succeeded in his quest for riches, but by the end of the war he had spent everything he made on keeping 1,300 Jewish men and women alive. “He negotiated the salvation of his 1,300 Jews by operating right at the heart of the system using all the tools of the devil—bribery, black marketeering and lies,” said Thomas Keneally, whose book about this paradoxical man was the basis of the movie Schindler's List.

Not long after acquiring his “Emalia” factory—which produced enamel goods and munitions to supply the German front—the removal of Jews to death camps began in earnest. Schindler's Jewish accountant put him in touch with the few Jews with any remaining wealth. They invested in his factory, and in return they would be able to work there and perhaps be spared. He was persuaded to hire more Jewish workers, designating their skills as “essential,” paying off the Nazis so they would allow them to stay in Krakow. Schindler was making money, but everyone in his factory was fed, no-one was beaten, no-one was killed. It became an oasis of humanity in a desert of moral torpor.

As the brutality of the holocaust escalated, Schindler's protection of his Jewish workers became increasingly active. In the summer of 1942, he witnessed a German raid on the Jewish ghetto. Watching innocent people being packed onto trains bound for certain death, something awakened in him. “Beyond this day, no thinking person could fail to see what would happen,” he said later. “I was now resolved to do everything in my power to defeat the system.”

By the autumn of 1944, Germany's hold on Poland had weakened. As the Russian army approached, the Nazi's tried desperately to complete their program of liquidation and sent all remaining Jews to die. But Schindler remained true to the “Schindlerjuden,” the workers he referred to as “my children.”

After the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto and the transfer of many Jews to the Plaszow concentration camp, Schindler used his influence to set up a branch of the camp for 900 Jewish workers in his factory compound in Zablocie and made his now famous list of the workers he would need for its operation.

The factory operated in its new location a year, making defective bullets for German guns. Conditions were grim, for the Schindlers as well as the workers. But Schindler saved most of these workers when he transferred his factory to Brunnlitz (Sudetenland) in October 1944.

When the war ended, Schindler fled to Argentina with his wife and a handful of his workers and bought a farm. In 1958, he abandoned his land, his wife and his mistress to return to Germany. He spent the remaining years of his life dividing his time between Germany and Israel, where he was honored and taken care of by his “Schindlerjuden.”

He died in Hildesheim in 1974. His extraordinary story might have died with him but for their gratitude. In trying to answer the inevitable question, why did he do it, one of the survivors said: “I don't know what his motives were... But I don't give a damn. What's important is that he saved our lives.”

Perhaps the question is not why he did it, but rather how could he not. And perhaps the answer is unimportant. It is his actions that matter now, testimony that even in the worst of circumstances, the most ordinary of us can act courageously. If Oskar Schindler, flawed as he was, did it, then so might we, and that is reason enough to hope.

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