Europe Travel Itinerary, 1999-2000:


June 2000

This itinerary is intended to capture the day-to-day activities and impressions of our trip.

Click on the asterisks * next to the day to go to that entry.

Tuesday June 6, 2000; First drive in Poland: *

Wednesday June 7, 2000; Auschwitz and Birkenau: *

Thursday June 8, 2000; Birkenau and driving to Krakow: *

Friday June 9, 2000; Krakow and seeing the old sites: *

Saturday June 10, 2000; Krakow, an Un-day: *

Sunday June 11, 2000; Krakow and the Jewish Cemetery: *

Monday June 12, 2000; Drive to Prague: *


Tuesday June 6, 2000; First drive in Poland:

At once when we crossed the border from Slovakia we began to feel better. There was a small stone shrine next to the road. It looked like a tiny church had been cut in half. When we stopped to take it’s picture, the peasants we waved to smiled and waved back. The weather turned cool immediately, and the roads were good. The scenery was a picture of America in the 1950s: rolling countryside with well spaced houses populating the hillsides along with sparse tree cover. The only real indication we were elsewhere, beyond foreign signage, was the presence of so many unfinished houses. Just like the peasants in Maramures, they build till they run out of money, then wait until they can continue.

We met a Polish American couple living in New Jersey who was in the town of Gorlice where we stopped. He gave us a map and helped us find a money machine and the way out of town. Unfortunately, that way was blocked and we couldn’t use it, but his warm friendly manner immediately warmed us up to all things Polish.

We ended up that evening by a riverbank behind a small bar. The weather had turned to rain and gray clouds. Apparently a low pressure cold front was passing through. We thanked our luck and planned to head straight to Auschwitz, having dreamed of getting pictures of it on a gray and rainy day.

Wednesday June 7, 2000; Auschwitz and Birkenau:

The signage for the "Museum Auschwitz" was quite bad from the south. We got directed down a small side street by one sign and stopped to ask how to get out. The lady at the newsstand kiosk had a hand made map copied by carbon paper already prepared. It was an excellent map and got us there in under five minutes. Clearly she has a lot of comers.

Though the grounds of Auschwitz themselves are free, they find other ways to make money from your visit. For us, the principle one was a fee for parking: 12 Zlotys, or $3.50. We saw the propaganda film made by the Russians when they liberated the camp, making much mention of the Fact that some inmates and survivors were Piles, and hardly mentioning the real purpose of the place.

Auschwitz itself seemed too small and almost friendly to feel awful, as our cultural expectations demanded. There were trees along the roads between the barracks.

We realized as we walked around that the Soviets had staged the walk out of children from the camp, walking them along between the rows of barbed wire, where the real road just leads straight out through the fence at a right angle. They did make much show of the cynical inscription above that gate: "Work Makes Free."

It was strange seeing first hand the sights we’ve seen in so many newsreels. The human size of the barb wire fences; the drawings made by survivors; the cynical drawings of children bathing on the toilet room walls. All served to take away the horror, making it all the more horrible.

Quickly wee realized that anyone who had survived Auschwitz must have done so by getting a choice job assignment, such as being in the orchestra that played as the laborers left the camp for their 12 hour work assignments, then returned in the evening carrying their dead friends. Or perhaps an assignment in the kitchen, where tasting the food might mean sneaking in a few additional calories. Or else a prisoner might survive by braving the risk of punishment by group starvation to steal food. Or perhaps a survivor might have been lucky enough to arrive late, and see liberation during their normally one month life span. We came to feel that being gassed upon arrival might have been the better fate. The tortures the Nazi’s used reminded us of tales from the dungeons at Warwick castle.

After lunch, we went to Birkenau. There the scale of construction took our senses by storm. The electrified barb wire stretched off, becoming gray with distance. The constructions spread out over 300 acres in a ghastly efficient layout that worked like a giant conveyor belt to move living bodies into the gas chambers as they arrived or slowly starved under burden of their slavish labor. Spread around the complex were photos taken by the Nazis, displayed where they were taken, so that one could see the horror unfolding in front of still existing structures. The ones which were the most moving were those of the faces of families smiling, relieved to be out of their two to ten day rides in box cars, waiting happily in line for the gas chambers.

After walking all around the complex, we retreated to our van just as a massive storm caught up with us. We were exhausted and decided to stay in the parking lot through the night, as ghoulish as that seemed.

Thursday June 8, 2000; Birkenau and driving to Krakow:

Woke to a sunny day, but still cool. Walked to see some of the wooden bunkhouses we’d missed the day before, then headed for Krakow.

The traffic there was terrible, and we were both edgy by the time we got there since we were still unable to find camping gas and the hoped for showers at gas stations along the way hadn’t materialized. After arguing over our course of action, we decided to stay in a campground for two nights. Our first in Europe.

The first night we went into town and discovered that the bus ride took two busses and therefore cost us $4 round trip. Ouch. Got to see the lovely old city square, reminiscent of the best western European cities have to offer. The whole town seemed decked out for tourists. We found a a terminal at a packed internet café. There were spacious outdoor restaurants, and to top of the evening, we watched a troop of fire dancers twirling flames for tips.

Friday June 9, 2000; Krakow and seeing the old sites:

Woke early and got to the castle by 10 am. There the remnants of communist methods had collided with the demands of western tourism causing a half hour pile up at the ticket booth. Sprinkled in the line were locals who would stand and argue for discounts with the lone ticket agent, holding the whole line up five and ten minutes at a time. Then when customers weren’t slowing things down, the ticket agent’s phone would ring and a personal crisis would play itself out in a foreign language behind a shaded pane of glass.

We ended up only visiting one site in the castle, and two in the cathedral. They had an exhibit of items excavated from Wawel castle, and models of how the complex looked at different points in history. The highlights were the models and the old chapel dedicated to Mary, which had been made into part of the castle wall by some king.

Inside the cathedral we visited the giant Sigmund’s bell, and the extensive labyrinth of royal coffins in the cathedral’s underworld. Once the tombs were reached only by tourchlight, and a timid soul could easily imagine the ghosts of former rulers lurking in the shadows. This spooky atmosphere led to sensationalism when in 1973 (well after crown shaped lights were installed above the crypts) conservationists opened a 15th century tomb and sixteen of the seventeen scientists promptly died. There was a book called "Curses, Microbes and Scholars" about this which apparently did very well.

Traffic inside the cathedral was strictly chaos, with tour groups parked right at the critical doorways waiting for some secret signal to prod into motion.

We had pastries, coffee and our morning toilet break in the café, then walked down the south side of the castle toward the old Jewish Ghetto. Today it’s a sleepy Christian neighborhood, with a lot of commerce being brought in because of it’s history. But the day we were there all the Jewish exhibits were closed for a Jewish holiday, including the Synagogue Isaac which advertised a documentary film about the deportation of the Jews, and the Jewish cemetery. We visited the only site that was open: the Old Synagogue, which had been turned into a museum. They had wonderfully explanative exhibits on Jewish customs.

We made the forced march back to the city center and managed to find the U Stasi restaurant, where locals dine alongside savvy tourists. They sever until the food is gone, and we had all we could eat of three different flavors of polenta and a great beet soup for $3. I’d reached my limit, and we searched for a cool place to rest. We discovered that Krakow is the only place we’ve seen so far that actually charges to enter the cathedral. So while Kathleen visited the attractive shops inside the vendors mart in the center of Rynek Glóney (Gloney Square), I rested on a curb outside.

After a brief respite, we wandered around admiring a flea market and other items for sale. The military forces began a show of marching bands and we relived the joy of simple marching tunes from a large brass band. Through the help of a local artist, we found an art case to send home the artwork we’d been given in Cluj.

By the time we made it to the Czartoryski Museum, we only had an hour to view their collection of paintings, which was plenty of time, we thought, to see the Leonardo Da Vinci painting of a lady with a Hermine. But unfortunately, they had a great exhibit of Etruscan, Greek and Egyptian antiquities, including translations of the Egyptian Book of the Dead. We wanted to spend all our time with the these well displayed exhibits, but managed to spare twenty minutes for Leonardo. But when we found his painting, we found ourselves more drawn to the numerous portraits by lesser artist’s lining the rooms of their museum. I found the Rembrandt painting of "Landscape with The Good Samaritan" to be an amazing work. After searching the landscape, finding every character but (and many windmills beside) you finally find the Good Samaritan’s face in the shadow of the man being being helped. Masterful.

By this time, we were both exhausted. Either out of shape from village life, or unused to the pace of standing and walking, we fell into the bus seats, and collapsed back at the campground.

Saturday June 10, 2000; Krakow, an Un-day:

Woke late and used the whole day to hang around our camp. I read "Story" and Kathleen organized her slides. After lunch she organized and I worked on text to accompany her slides. In the evening we met a Scottish Jewish couple whose been coming to Eastern Europe looking for information on her parents lost during the war. She told us about a bunker we’d missed at Birkenau, the children’s bunker, where they’d had the children draw on the wall slogans, including "Tomorrow will be better." The next day they took them to the gas chambers. Perhaps the next day was better.

To close the day we drove to the Jewish Ghetto area and camped on a shady street. Went out for a beer and settled into bed at 11pm.

Sunday June 11, 2000; Krakow and the Jewish Cemetery:

Got to Synagogue Isaac at 10am. It was open, and we got to see the films they had. Just one of them (the one in English) would have been sufficient, because it had almost all the footage from the other films. But to get to it, we had to watch other documentary films put together out of surviving SS and Gestapo footage. We thought they should have worked with the Auschwitz museum to make the film available there, but they seem to each have their own turf. After Synagogue Isaac, we went to the Jewish Cemetery. They charged even to see the graves. Afterwards, we were filled up on the Holocaust.

The day had become quite hot, so we decided to hang low in the shade until the late afternoon, then head out and use the expressways. The plan worked great except for the roads around Kastowice, which were a snake of small roads with minimal signage. But we finally made to about midway between Krakow and Wroclaw, where we stopped for the night.

Monday June 12, 2000; Drive to Prague:

We woke up stiff and tired, but began working to fix our cabinets. The day before we noticed that the horizontal cabinet in the back was falling down. We dug around for some screws and drove a couple into the wood and strung up the cabinet with some left over wire from the winter chains. It made a pretty good repair. We packed up and made it onto the rode by 9:30. Another cold front seemed to be on it’s way through: the sky was overcast and the air was comfortably chilly.

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