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The last day

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The last day

I can’t believe it’s the last day! After so many months of talking about and planning this trip, all of a sudden it’s over. Bags packed and safely stored we headed out to explore old town Bratislava and the castle which towers over the city before embarking on our last free walking tour at 11am. The castle is a huge square white building which looks like a real life version of a kids sandcastle complete with mound underneath.
When we arrived it was closed, so after pausing briefly to admire the view we meandered back down in search of caffeine and the meeting point.
May 1st is a national holiday in Slovakia, and the centre was filled with men and women in war time clothing…men in smart green uniforms with pressed berets, and elegant women in tailored jackets, skirts and hats sashaying across the cobbles in impressive heels. There were even wartime vehicles and a band of baton twirlers performing in front of the opera. A giant orange sign signalled the start of our tour, and we were soon introduced to Lucia, who really showed us how a walking tour should be done! Lucia is a Bratislavan born and bred, she runs tours on a freelance basis and free tours during her spare time – a real pro. She took us through the old city sharing an eclectic mix of history, politics and personal stories which kept our crowd captivated for the entire 2.5 hours.

The journey started with a quick talk through the differences between Slovaks (people from Slovakia), Slovenes (people from Slovenia) and Slavs (the people who first travelled over from the east to settle in Europe. We learned that Bratislava was previously the Capital city of Austria-Hungary, before Slovakia became its own country, and was the coronation city for the Austria-Hungarian monarchy. When the Ottoman Empire (modern day turkey) invaded, the monarchy were evacuated from Budapest to Bratislava which was viewed as something of a stronghold, and well placed at the boarder of 3 countries. When the Ottomans fell in 1918 Czechoslovakia was created. Feeling educated? We were! 
Facts and figures flew at us from all angles… Bratislava was renamed when communism fell as a way of regaining a feel of control over the city, Brat = brother and slava = glory. Most inhabitants here work in Vienna where the salaries are around 3x higher…and you can fly there in just 9 minutes! 

Nowadays Bratislava is carved in two by a giant interstate highway, which was installed during the communist regime, destroying most of the old town and Jewish quarter. We learned that one square was previously home to a synagogue, which is now marked out through a series of reddish pink stones in the floor and both an image and memorial in the square where it once stood. This is all in the shadow of the ceremonial church, topped with a replica of the crown of Hungary. There are lots of stories about this crown, including that it’s the same size as a VW beatle, and large enough for a horse to turn full circle inside it. 

Our next stop was a series of squares surrounded by embassy’s and further statues to celebrate life, art and freedom which were installed after the fall of communism. My favourite was the Friendly Nazi…who was not a nazi, but a well dressed homeless man who for a time personified Bratislava. He would sing and dance in the street dressed in fine clothes with a top hat which had been gifted to him, and was so loved that when he died they erected this statue in his memory. Isn’t that lovely? 

There are also several statues in memory of the soldiers who died during the liberation of Slovakia, despite any celebration of communists being very illegal nowadays. Lucia explained there were no statues to the leaders, only to the regular men who gave their lives to save the country from the nazis. Slovakia was the first country to cease deporting Jews to the concentration camps, with the last leaving in 1941, years before the final solution even reached neighbouring countries. But this fact was not due to uprising, strength or revolution, but because there were none left to deport. The cities thriving Jewish quarter was home to some 90,000 inhabitants before the war. The population now is closer to 4000. It’s unthinkable. 

Another favourite statue was this little fellow, again the subject of many different urban myths and legends. Some say he is the cleaner of Bratislavas underground, others believe it to be a representation of the Slovak attitude to work…and the favourite explanation is that he was placed there in the 60’s around the same time women started to wear mini skirts. Perve. 

The thing which made Lucias tour really special was her mix of personal stories interspersed with all the city and history parts. She paused at St Michaels church to explain about religion in Slovakia, as around 80% of the population would class themselves as religious, and most of those are Roman Catholic. They have their own traditions, which differ greatly from ours. For example, at Easter boys make birch whips and whip their female cousins and friends, in addition to dousing them with cold water. The power of the tree is meant to be transferred to the girl through the whip, and the water is meant to be for health and beauty… So it’s all done in good fun, though of course the boys like it a lot more than the girls, probably even more so as they are given chocolate eggs as a reward for being so generous. In recent years equality has called for girls as well as boys to do the whipping, but for most part it’s traditional. The more gentlemenly men will spray perfume on their ladies instead, and only mime the whipping…but our guides father and brother were not gentlemen, so her and her mother invented their own tradition of booking a cheap flight away for the weekend. My kind of girl! 

Christmas traditions are also fun – they visit the river to catch a carp which then lives in the bathtub for 3 days. This clears the fish of the mud and silt it has been living on at the bottom of the river, making it tastey for Christmas dinner. However it usually means the family has not showered for 3 days before Christmas! Presents are exchanged on the 21st December, marked by the ringing of a small bell (usually hidden below the table) which have been delivered by baby Jesus (there’s no Father Christmas here). Father Frost or St Nicolas visits on 6th December leaving sweets (or garlic if you’re naughty) in children’s shoes. 

This blog is getting far too epic now so I promise to wrap up soon. Our final few stops were at the base of the castle hill (we weren’t climbing again thank goodness!) where we learned the reason for its boxy design. The original castle was far more castle like, and built as a fort against the Mongols in the 13th century…since then it survived the siege of Napoleon and the rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire, only to be used eventually as a base for Italian soldiers during the war. The soldiers decided to hold a lavish supper with good food and excellent Slovakian wine…and managed to burn down the castle. All those wars and empires survived only to be destroyed by an Italian supper. Oopla!

A few stops later (we saw a very blue church and the square which was the face of the iconic communist invasion) and it was time to bid goodbye to Lucia. She definitely made our time in Bratislava something to remember, and has been one of the best walking tour guides I’ve been lucky enough to meet. We made sure she was well tipped and headed to enjoy some of this famous Slovakian wine we had just learned about. If you haven’t heard of it then I’m afraid you’re showing your ignorance; it isn’t exported out of the country, so is only known by those who attend wine competitions, as it is often featured in the winners list. Delicious!

Ah Bratislava, it was a short but sweet relaxing and fitting end to our little European tour. If you’re in this part of the country I’d recommend it for a day and dinner, but you wouldn’t need more than that to see all the highlights. 

For now though London and home is calling. It’s been such a whirlwind tour, filled with history, beauty, laughter and tears. I think it’s definitely given Luci the bug for future travel, and satisfied my backpacking itch for a few more months. Thank goodness there’s one more day of freedom before normality returns! What will Bank Holiday Monday hold? 

My 29th country!

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My 29th country!

I’m definitely getting too old for hostels. I swear I either used to be able to sleep through more, or function on less sleep, but either way something has definitely changed. Last night we had two girls in our dorm who were on their way to Bosnia with school. They were chatting at the top of their lungs as they prepared for bed at around midnight, which was ok because…at least they were going to bed. But nope, showered, pj’d and teeth brushed they grabbed a bottle of vodka, two cartons of juice and headed out the door. Some hours later they returned – cue more door slamming and loud chatter, then they were up and about at 6 preparing for the next leg of their journey! Luci is far more cool, calm and collected than me, so when she snapped at them to please be quiet you know they were annoying!!
Having learned that Vienna is a mere hop skip and jump from Bratislava, Luci and I made our way to the station and were soon whizzing our way along the Danube towards the Austrian boarder. Hello country 29! I’m on track, woop!! Feeling incredibly cosmopolitan, and incredibly hungry, our first port of call was lunch, soaking up the sun on a bustling city street for a couple of huge pizzas and pressès. 

Central Vienna is far more akin to what I’d expect from a western capital, and markedly different to what we had become accustomed to since leaving Berlin almost two weeks ago. Familiar shops and brand names surrounded us, and I began to switch out of tourist mode and into city – aka, it was shopping time! Anyone who has been to Europe with me will know I have a soft spot for Bijou Brigette. For 4 cities now Luci has calmly put up with me gazing wistfully through shop windows as we walked by to see historical sites and catch tourist groups. But today, finally, we got to go in, yay!! 20 minutes later I came out with a lovely new pair of earrings costing €5…Lucinda came out with 3 necklaces and 3 bracelets at a total of €120. This is why we’re friends😛

The hours sped by in the sunshine and it was soon time to meet our 3.45 free walking tour of Vienna by the miniature of St Stephens church. The first port of call was the guides collecting a €1 euro registration fee…on a free walking tour? I call shenanigans. No sooner had the last euro been pocketed and last hand stamped the guy who had been collecting disappeared. Really weird. 

The tour was underwhelming to be honest. The group was far too big for one guide (around 60 people) and the woman leading us struggled to make herself heard over the various city noises in the background. To start with I rushed to try and get to the front of the crowd to hear her stories and tales of what we were looking at, but there was little to no personality behind her patter so I soon lost interest. Perhaps with a smaller group this would have travelled better, but with 60 it just didn’t work. 

However, she did lead us around the centre showing us monuments and areas we were unlikely to have found alone, especially without a map as we were, and we saw some stunning architecture. Any stories we did catch focused on Sisi, and Marie Teresa, who we sort of feel like were stalking as they spent most of their time in Budapest, Vienna and Bratislava!! 

Around 2/3rds of the way around the tour we gave up. Too full of energy to be traipsing around standing in the shade and straining to hear we instead elected to treat ourselves to wine and radlers and sit in the sun. 

The tour finished at 6, and we wanted to be on a train by 7. However, rather than coming back the way we came (where’s the fun in that?) we utilised the handy trip advisor app to cross the city back to the main train station. Easy! Problem was, it wasn’t our train station. Ah. Time for a new chapter in the life of Katy and Tig, where we learn that Luci does not like to be a. Wrong or b. Lost and Katy is quite used to both. At 8.20 we completed the ‘should only take 30 minutes’ walk and to our relief there was a train to Bratislava leaving in 20 minutes. Excellent, that’s even time to pop into a shop for snacks! Feeling very pleased with ourselves and munching on salads and falafels we settled in for the journey. Around 10 minutes in Luci wondered out loud what the word which appeared after ‘Bratislava’ on the destination screen could mean…hmm. I tell you what it means Luci, we’re going to the wrong station! Oops! Cue wide eyed panic from Tig, and giggles from me.

 This is more like the travelling I’ve been used to, everything up until now on this trip has been far too smooth and easy. Trying to reassure Luci that it was fine, and we would get home and this really wasn’t that bad we soon worked out that the station we were heading to was in the residential south of the city, some 11km away from our hostel. However, there was a bus and that would only cost €0.70 euro – easy peasy! 

By 10.30 we were back safe, showered, packed and in bed, yet from the thanks and praise I’ve received from Tig you’d think I’d single handedly negotiated a peace treaty between warring nations. All in a days backpacking!

Tomorrow is our final day, so we’re up early to explore Bratislava! 

On top of the Hungarian world…

On top of the Hungarian world…

The last day in Hungary had to be spent doing some touristy shiz, so we left our bags in the luggage store, hopped on a metro (our feet were walked out!) and headed towards the central market hall. One recurring theme on this trip has to be Luci exclaiming at how easy everything is, and navigating the Hungarian underground was no exception. Within 10 minutes we emerged into brilliant sunshine by the Danube and were soon meandering the many fruit, veg and ‘tourist tat’ stalls of the citys main market.
Having been strongly recommended the street food style vendors of the upper floors, breakfast was our first port of call. “We can see how much we have left to spend on souvenirs, after breakfast’ says Tig, as we strolled by delicious looking dishes of all shapes and sizes. Around halfway through the stalls my eyes focused on a huge glass of fruit filled lemonade, just as Luci’s honed in on a stuffed cabbage…we’d found ‘the one’! Not really sure of the system, but seeing some huge portions around, we decided to share a single plate….stuffed cabbage, sourkraut, mixed salad, a sprinkle of olives…then time for the bill. That little lot came to £16, making it by far and beyond the most expensive meal of the trip so far…most others haven’t reached £15 for both of us!

Stomachs full and souvenirs purchased we had a decision to make…trains to Bratislava left at 1.25, 3.25 and 5.25…which one to choose? Enjoying the stunning sunshine and generally atmosphere of the city too much to rush we settled on the middle option, with the later as a backup in case of calamity. Across the river from our sunspot Tig spied a fairytale castle carved into the cliff edge, worth a look. It turned out to be a church carved into the caves, which shares a name with one of the saddest Welsh legends; Gellért…but is apparently a Hungarian form of Gerard, named after someone who was thrown to their death from the hill above. Great bedtime story huh? It is thought the spring within these caves was the source of the nearby Gellért Baths. We overheard a tour guide telling their group that the Red Army had closed off the church in the 1950’s with a huge wall of concrete, and it had only reopened in 1991 after the fall of the wall. It’s amazing how recently all these things happened, and how different life was here just a short while ago.

A leafy green park surrounded the cave, so off we set in the general direction of up, up, and more up! 235m of up (I felt like I was back on the inca trail) until we reached the Liberty Statue, built to commemorate those who sacrificed their lives for the independence, freedom, and prosperity of Hungary. She’s a pretty impressive lady, touring over the Danube and visible from most spots on both the Buda and Pest sides. 

Having walked, shopped, gazed and sightseen it was most definitely time for coffee…which may have accidentally become cocktails, and lunch. Well, Hungarian Florint wasn’t going to get us far in Slovakia now was it! Watching further preparations for the Palinka Festival whilst catching some rays and sipping on Budapests versions of Tom Collins and Espresso Martini we weren’t sure we’d ever be ready to leave…but the next country was calling, to Bratislava! 
We arrived at the international station around 10 to 5 and located the ticket office, which operated a cheese counter esque system where you take a ticket and wait. Our number was 318…the current number 303…time till we’ve missed the train…29 minutes. This was going to be fun! The agonising seconds stretched out even more by the fact that everything here was done by hand…where was no computer, no ticket printing; our lovely helpful ticket lady wrote them all manually, stopping for a chat with her friend midway through to really add to the drama of running for a train. But we made it, phew! 

And what a view :) 

Enjoying the sunset, the last of our polish snacks, and for me writing blogs, the 2 and a half hour journey was over in no time. Country and city number 4 was beneath our feet! Our hostel is located around 2 minutes walk from the station, so within 10 minutes we were safely encamped in the Italy room of Hostel Possonium, enjoying the wonderful graffiti left behind by some truly charming previous travellers. Just to give you a brief snapshot…from my bed I can see 4 penis’s and multiple 4 letter words including the C-bomb. Also, Rob and Joe would like you to know that together they are ‘prankenstein’…I could go on. But the beds are comfy, and the garden bar outside offered a free welcome drink and some great stories from the bartender, a local guy called Lucas. Lucas has worked in/around this hostel for 9 years, but tonight was his last shift…which may explain why instead of 1 free shot we had 4, and he let us go behind the bar to make our own waffles. What a dude! 

Having ascertained that most of what there is to see in Bratislava can be done in just over an hour we’ve decided to add an extra city (country 29 baby!!) to our list and pop over to Vienna for the day tomorrow. Why not hey? 

Mmm massages!

Mmm massages!

Blue skies and sunshine, huzzah huzzah!!! Costumes packed, towels rolled we hit the road once again on our way through Heroes square to the City Park and on to Budapests largest baths. More stunning architecture and beautiful painted ceilings greeted us as we worked out ticket prices and booked massages with one of the helpful gurus who waited by the door.
‘Do you prefer a male or female masseuse?’ we were asked…I’m not sure which was faster, my response or Luci’s eyebrows when I said ‘male please!’. Booked in for 1pm we were free to explore the rest of the baths. Wow. Were we glad about the swimsuit rule! People of all shapes, sizes and nationalities surrounded us in a vast array of swimwear which ranged from the roomie to the ‘leaving little to the imagination’.Ah the prudish Brits, forever fascinated by the human form and the many types it comes in. Luci and I looked at eachother for reassurance, and receiving none, steeled ourselves to see a LOT more than we’d bargained for. But still, yay swimsuits!

There are multiple baths of different temperatures inside Szechenyi, each one tinged with green and emitting the aroma of stale feet. The people here sat awkwardly in pairs or small groups, with high ceilings and central pools not lending itself to the usual cosy feel of a spa. We pressed on, wandering from cavern to cavern until eventually a door to our left offered the promise of daylight…making a break for it we breathed in fresh air, freedom!!
The three pools outside ranged from ‘it’s cold…do lengths’ to ‘what am I, a lobster?!’ so of course we made ourselves right at home in the latter. Jets of hard water jutted out at regular intervals, strong enough to plant you in place as it massaged aching shoulders. At this point anyway. After my beating *ahem* I mean massage from Stephos I wasn’t able to stand underneath it again as my poor shoulders were too tender! Though this was most definitely my favourite part of the experience, heated floors, sedate hammocks, cups of herbal tea and fresh fruit platters all under a glass roof which made the place feel like an orangery. Luci fell asleep during her massage, no chance of that on my side of the curtain as I was manipulated, clicked, pushed, pulled and generally beaten into submission. It was magic, although now I do sort of feel like I’ve gone three rounds with Mike Tyson!
All the relaxing got too much for Tig, who’s obviously not used to such luxury and needed to lie down for a while on our return to the hostel. Just as I was attempting to sneak out to eat she woke up, and decided to try a little jaunt outside to see if it made her feel better. It did! And 20 minutes later we were munching Langos, a traditional Hungarian food, which is sort of like a deep fried pancake with toppings. Scrumptious! 

Today also saw the beginning of the Palinka festival, but having already learned that lesson we meandered down to enjoy the lights on the Danube by night, and visit the famous shoe memorial which sits on the waters edge in front of the Parliament building. It seems impossible to escape stories of the Holocaust here, and Hungary was no exception. These metal replica of traditional shoes stand as a poignant reminder of the Hungarian Jews shot by Nazis on this river bank. Of course, ever efficient, not all those condemned were shot; instead they were asked to remove their shoes (they were in short supply during the war), bound together in threes and only the tallest one shot. There were men’s boots, ladies court shoes and even a pair of children’s boots, all in clusters along the bank, with flowers and candles amongst them. 

Pausing to admire the huge parliament building, and the various museums, embassy’s and halls around it we were soon on our way back to Visegradi and bed! 
Tomorrow we’re off to country number 4…Slovakia and Bratislava! 

Sleeper trains, rain and a whole new country!

What is it about sleeping on a train which makes it so exciting?
Having spent the last of our zloty on sampling various local tipples Luci and I were more than ready to get our heads down for a night of undisturbed sleep. Having travelled on sleeper trains before in Asia I was really excited by the prospect of bunk beds and whizzing across an entire country as I slept. Lesson 1. Europe is not Asia! Our trains in Thailand were so spacious, with two bunks (a high and a low) per side, so that you were head to toe with other passengers facing the direction of travel. Here bunks were in cabins, 3 to a side with a tiny walkway in between. Very luckily Luci and I had an entire cabin to ourselves…can you imagine fitting 6 people in here? Squashed!
Pj’s on, beds made, we spent some time watching the lights outside flyby before settling down to books and sleep. I really thought I’d wake up every time the train stopped, or at least be up and about when the sun rose to take photos of the countryside we’d originally planned to drive though but in truth I was out cold until just before we arrived!

In the morning, again remembering Asia, we folded our sheets and tucked the upper bunks away to create a 6 seat cabin…bad move. When the conductor came along he was most unimpressed that we had had a cabin to ourselves, and not at all happy that the beds were not as we had found them. At least, that’s what we think he said…either way there was a lot of Hungarian and gesticulating…and the last 10 minutes of the journey were spent sheepishly and speedily trying to return everything to the way we found it. Before long we ground to a final halt and disembarked onto a very soggy platform. Welcome to Hungary! 

wet wet wet feet!

Oh man the rain. So much rain. Not having our full senses having just woken up, we started the 30 minute plod to Aventura Hostel, which was located on the other side of the city. About 10 minutes into the journey my brand new ‘cabin friendly’ roller suitcase decided it was no longer for this world and started to fall apart in my hands. Yay. Luckily Luci ‘map reader extraordinaire’ Lay got is to the hostel in double quick time and we were soon drying off in our home for the next two nights.

If you’re ever coming to Budapest, I really recommend the Aventura Hostel. Each room is dedicated to a different country, with some really cool results. For example the Africa room, which offers hammocks, rope ladders and beautiful Saharan colours…or the India room where we were, which was a stunning array of metallic paints, dark woods and embroidered fabrics. We had a mezzanine level to ourselves, with two cosy beds and two big travelling trunks surrounding a central coffee table. Very cosy! 

Phones charged, selves dried and stomachs filled we headed out on our first adventure, to find Lotz Hall, and it’s stunning top floor book cafe, Parizsi Nagyaruhaz. Built to be a casino, but never used for this purpose it ended up as a book storage unit during the communist period before eventually opening to the public in the 90’s as a book shop and cafe…Have you ever supped an orange hot chocolate you could stand a spoon up in in such a grand setting as this? Wow! 

From there (via an umbrella shop) we hurried to meet the Budapest walking tour at its meeting point near Elizabet Square, where we were greeted by Norbet, a super friendly Hungarian guy who spends most of his week teaching English and French, and the rest running tours. One thing I’ll say for Norbet, he knows all the dry places to stand! I feel like I was on a tour of Budapest’s overhangs. He maintained a really chirpy and warm attitude throughout though, and managed a really interesting mix of history, architecture, art, places to eat, and things to do. All along the river there are various statues installed at the end of the communist regime purely to celebrate everyday life and art, things which had no previously been celebrated. One of the favourites was this, A Little Princess…a statue of the artists daughter who would often like to dress up in various outfits just for fun. Well, who doesn’t?! With Norbet we heard the history of St Stephens Basilica (he converted the pagans to Christianity), had a food quiz (there were photos – excellent to know what to look out for!!) visited both the Pest (pronounced Pesht) and Buda sides of the city, crossing the chain bridge to one of the Buda sides ‘mountains’ (not a mountain) to visit the castle (not a castle!) on the top. All in all it was a really interesting way to spend a soggy 3 hours, and for extra bonus points the tour ended right next to Ruszwurm which was another place we’d been recommended to try! Stopping in for coffees and cake (and getting the last seats, phew!!) we rested tired feet and warmed cold limbs. When we came out the rain had stopped (yippee!! Proof that coffee is always a good idea), so we jumped on the opportunity to expel some of our new found energy by running around the Royal Palace and taking photos. Fun! 

It was almost 8pm by the time we made it down from the mountains of Buda and back into the heart of the Jewish quarter to Norbets favourite restaurant, Blue Rose. A full plate of traditional goulash and a drink for £4! Yum! Honestly at this point we were both so tried, it was super tempting to be rock and roll losers and head back to bed. But, that is NOT what backpacking is about…so we compromised, we would head back in the general direction of bed, but stop at any interesting points along the way. As it was we ended up meandering via Budapests three most famous ruin bars, the best of which by far was Szimpla! The first time I’ve ever been given a map to a pub! A maze of graffiti’d walls, mismatched seats, snug hide aways and hipster decor which switched between outdoors and indoors with regular ease. They hold markets on Sunday’s, regular music nights, meetings and of course your normal night out. Signs everywhere offered the traditional Hungarian Palinka, a shot of something we’d been told was like vodka. Ha! Vodka is milkshake compared to this stuff!! Talk about hairs on your chest, woah. 

So ended day 1 of Budapest…a wet, windy day of walking, eating and drinking! Not bad! Tomorrow is meant to be beautifully sunny so we’re making the most of it with a trip to Szchenyi baths. Rest, relaxation and massages! Yes please :) 

‘Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’

‘Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’

5am greeted us with a glorious sunrise, the promise of blue skies and a lovely day of fine weather ahead. We made the trip to the bus station, stopping to buy delicious poppyseed pastries and water along the way before settling in to our seats for the 90 minute journey. Neither Luci nor I had slept much the night before, so most of the ride was spent slumbering or watching the countryside whizz by in silence. I love early mornings, especially on days like this when the morning mists lie low over fields and rivers. Beautiful. 
When we arrived, turning left off the main road under a red and white striped rail barrier into the car park, my first thought was how normal this all seemed. Having spent a lot of time in army barracks I could see a lot of similarities with places I’d spent as a kid, it didn’t seem fitting with the horror stories I’d heard and facts I had studied. Auschwitz is free to enter, but you must book in advance. Individuals can enter from 8am, or guided tours (which carry a fee) begin at 10. Entering Auschwitz is done without ceremony, bags are checked (Top tip: they must be smaller than a piece of A4 paper), you walk through a turnstile and then you’re in. There’s no map, no handout with information, you’re just there. 

Pausing to take in the famous ‘ARBEIT MACHT FREI’ (work will set you free) the first sign informed us that is is where the camp band stood, instructed to play to help prisoners keep time during the marches in and out of the camp. The marches back would see work parties carrying the bodies of those who hadn’t made it. All to a nice backdrop of music. How lovely. We were savouring the opportunity to meander at our own pace before the hoards of groups and tourists arrived in 2 hours. However, I think this was an error. For me it is the stories and facts which bring these places to life. It was not enough to read plaque after plaque of black and white facts which depicted what happened here, and it wasn’t until later when we tagged along on a tour or two when it really began to hit home. 

The camp is made from individual two story brick blocks, each one used for a separate purpose. Some were accommodation for men, some women, some kept for those prisoners who had special duties, others for the hospital where women were sterilised and twins tested upon. These windows were blocked out even during the time the camp was active, to try and keep the horrors there secret. Being the first to arrive most of the doors were closed and it wasn’t until we saw cleaners going in and out that we realised that nowadays each one holds a different exhibition…one for each affected nationality, one displaying how the prisoners lived, how they existed; each one with rows and rows of photos lining the hallways. In the early years each inmate was photographed and categorised, that is, those who made it though the initial selection. It is estimated more than 80% of those who arrived here were sent instantly to the gas chambers. We saw one photograph of a woman and her 7 children, all tripping along to be gassed. What went though the minds of the people who stopped to take these photos? What on earth were they thinking?

The rooms which hit me particularly hard were those which showed videos of survivors telling stories about life before, during and after the holocaust. One lady spoke of an inspection in the ghetto, and the lengths she went to to make up her mother so she looked young and healthy and would not be viewed as someone unfit for work. There was an exhibition of children’s drawings found in the barracks, each one true to size and sketched onto a white wall…tucked into a windowsill, or hidden round a corner. This room was one of the worst for me, every child I know takes pleasure in drawing, it’s such a real thing, so normal, and yet these were children who must have been terrified. What had their parents told them? Was the drawing a way to distract from what was going on around them? It’s too awful to contemplate.

Just around the corner from here we entered the room holding the book of names, a massive list containing the name, date of birth, place of birth and place of death of each of the victims of the holocaust. The type was so small, and the exhibit so large, it really struck home exactly how many lives, families and communities were wiped out. A regime of terror doesn’t even seem to do it justice. 

Auschwitz began as a concentration camp, meant for enemies to the Reich and prisoners of war, but it soon became a death camp. As Luci put it ‘this is basically what would happen if we started to farm humans’. The Nazis wasted nothing. Hair was shaved and woven into cloth, ashes used for fertiliser, gold teeth melted and each possession categorised and most sold. There are rooms containing just pots and ceramics, the prized possessions people could not leave behind, another dedicated to the shaving brushes, toothbrushes and hair brushes, one just to shoes. So many hundreds of shoes…mainly brown, but the odd red sandal, blue heel, or black boot. The display was beyond comprehension, a long corridor with great mounds of shoes behind glass on either side…yet this was just 5% of the collection. Five percent.

The majority of the gas chambers were destroyed in the days before liberation, so there’s not much left in the way of evidence, but what is there is enough to chill your blood. We entered a concrete room, with scratched walls, adjacent to one which housed a number of giant furnaces. This was the first gas chamber, where they experimented with the chemicals and formulas to get the most efficient dose. It was nothing compared to the one we saw in model form, which could hold up to 2000 people at any one time. The completely crazy thing is that these people (at the start at least) believed they were safe. They believed they were being relocated, rehoused, and that this was part of the process. A shower and medical inspection to check they were healthy. Although even by the firing wall there were bathrooms where prisoners were forced to strip before being taken outside. Everything was so efficient, so calculated. So cold.

A free shuttle bus takes you from Auschwitz 1 to Auschwitz 2, where over 200,000 people would have lived at any one time. Each and every building was constructed by the prisoners themselves, and in fact construction in the camp ceased only one month before the liberation. 

Imagining how cold, dirty and rat infested these places must have been it is impossible to imagine how people survived. The fact that there are drawings on the walls…these people must have had an incredible spirit and willpower to go on. Each extra day of life was a mini revolution against those who wanted them dead. 

Halfway up the tracks an abandoned carriage offers some context to the conditions most people arrived here in, with each carriage apparently holding up to 70 people. The first stage of selection was to segregate the men from the women and children, before they were then split into those who could work, and those who could not. The latter…anyone elderly or infirm, anyone young or mothers with young children, were sent away instantly, the others were sent to be registered…their belongings taken and a number tattooed on their bodies. 

On liberation day it is said the guards disappeared by 11am, but none of the prisoners moved. Would you? When you had seen so many shot and killed? Perhaps this was another trick. It wasn’t until 3pm, when the first Americans and Red Army soldiers arrived that they allowed themselves to believe it was over. We saw photos of survivors who weighed around 25kilos when liberated. Those too weak to make the march to freedom. 

I’m glad I came, that I can now at least comprehend the size and brutality of this place. It was so cold, even on a sunny day in spring, with heaters on…what must it have been like in midwinter? How bleak. I would like to come back again and visit with a guide who could offer more context to the exhibits and stories behind the photos and faces we saw. 

Even after the bus journey home we were in need of quiet contemplation time that evening, before our night train to Budapest. We decided to visit the Jewish quarter, and soon found ourselves in a funky bar enjoying a vodka (or two…ok, maybe four). 

The incredible stories of survival, revolution and strength I have seen and read today will stay with me for a long long time to come. So to each and every one who died, lived, lost or remembers…I say nastrovia. Bottoms up.

‘The cure for anything is salt water…sweat, tears or the sea’

After days of early starts and Czocha madness we decided to spend a leisurely morning in Kraków, meandering our way across the city comparing prices on salt mine tours and generally taking in the daytime atmosphere. We visited the historic cloth hall by day, enjoyed a stroll in the ‘planty garden’ and met a random American guy who was working for a bike rental place down a tiny backalley. I would seriously love to know how many people he actually speaks to each day!
Eventually we found ourselves at the station where a train to the mining town of Wieliczka was leaving in 10 minutes. One thing striking us about Poland so far, almost everyone we speak to seems deeply sad. There are no easy smiles or friendly customer service. When we’re seen to be making an effort with poor pigeon Polish the smiles come more readily, and usually by the time we’re saying goodbye we’ve managed to extract at least one or two, but it does make me wonder why they’re so sad. Full of adventure to be doing this solo rather than through an organised bus tour, the 20 minute journey sped by and we had tickets for the 12.30 entry to the mine. The mines have been open since the 13th century and on the tourist route you visit depths of around 440ft, beginning with a 378 step wooden stairway which left me feeling quite dizzy! 
Well, the things I now know about salt! For starters, everything in the mine which was not wood was salt, seriously! Even the walls, ceilings and walkways, of course we had to taste it to make sure. There are huge structures of criss crossed trees used to support the mine, as the salt penetrates and petrifies the wood lending it strength and making it virtually indestructible. When the nazis took over the mine in the 1930’s they laid metal tracks for the underground carts and trains, only for these tracks to last mere months before cracking and disintegrating from the sodium levels in the air. Amazing.

Along the route there were also several statues and scenes also carved from salt, which takes on a granite grey colour in its raw form. When chipped away and ground it is almost 100% pure white table salt, with very little more needing to be done to it to make it fit for sale. One of these scenes showed Princess Kinga, a Hungarian noble woman who married the prince of Kraków. As part of her dowry she was given salt, which was worth a lot in those days, and legend has it she through her engagement ring into a salt mine at home before leaving for Poland. On her arrival here she instructed miners to dig for salt, and when the first lump was found and cracked open they found her engagement ring inside. That’s how Kinga became the patron saint of salt miners. Clever trick!

The complexity and detail of the spaces we saw underground were incredible. Salt mining, as with all types of mining, is dangerous work, so miners were deeply religious. We saw several small chapels were miners would pray before and after their shifts, but nothing prepared me for the cathedral. A huge cavern with intricate and ornate carvings along each side, and stunning chandeliers made from (you guessed it!) salt crystals. What was truly mind boggling though is that this place was the work of just three men…one after the other. Imagine being down here in the dark, alone, spending each day carving this incredible room. It’s just astounding.

The next stop on our tour was a series of underground lakes and rivers, where the water is so buoyant it is impossible to dive in it. The water was such an eerie shade of green, I really wonder what it was like to swim in! Historically they would offer boat rides through the caverns, until 7 German soldiers capsized their boat trapping them underneath. Being unable to lift the boat and unable to dive underneath they eventually suffocated. This was the last time boat rides were offered at Wieliczka. 

Our tour ended soon after, something we were both glad of as the cornflakes at the hostel was beginning to feel like years ago. Luckily right there 125m underground there was an option to try some traditional polish food, which of course we did.

Heading back to Kraków, with night train tickets to Budapest and bus tickets to Auschwitz purchased, we had time for a spot of shopping and a chilli coffee (highly recommended) before our dinner reservations in the Russian restaurant just off the square. To our disappointment our waitress (dressed like Heidi) led us away from the fur lined benches overlooking the bustling streets and down a wooden staircase to a cavernous room reminiscent of an alpine chalet. Our table was in the corridor between the secluded spots for two to our right which were backed by a water feature consisting of a pool and huge water wheel, and the main eaterie to our left where the walls were adorned with old style skis and musical instruments. However, before long it became apparent we had the best seats in the house, as a musical trio sat themselves right opposite us and began playing a lyrical concophony of Russian and Polish folk tunes. Apparently they were from the mountains, and this music is traditional amongst those that lived up there. We were in heaven, sipping honey and ginger vodkas with a delicious stew of beef (I know), vegetables and potato pancakes. 

With a 5am start and day Auschwitz ahead of us our evening here had to come to an end all to soon, but needless to say it’s definitely been one of the most memorable and fun days of the trip so far. Hopefully it’s warmed the cockles of our hearts enough to get us through tomorrow.