Friday, August 13, 2010

Krakow, Poland and the Wieliczka Salt Mine

Oh where oh where have the regular blog entries gone? The short answer is that I have been living instead of writing about living. Right now, I am back in the states for my dad's memorial and a friend's wedding so I should have time to catch up.

Wawel Royal Castle

Krakow, Poland. I didn't know why I was there beyond needing a destination as I biked into Poland for pierogies. Knowing so little and therefore having no expectations made it easy to enjoy. I rolled in after my huge ride at sunset. It was the best view of Krakow I had. I didn't know quite where I was going, but my route happened to take me across the river from the castle which was breathtaking in the golden hour sunlight. After soaking up the views, I drug my tired body to a couple full hostels in the old city before I finally found one that had room and passed out. I don't think I even went out for dinner.

Skalka Sanctuary and St. Norbert's Convent.

I used my first day to go see Auschwitz. I did not realize how close it was to Krakow and, when I found out, did not want to let the chance pass to see it. The day started out sunny and hot but clouded over as the day progressed, eventually ending in a down pour. That downpour happened when I was in Main Market square, the largest square in Europe that contains over 600 cafes and restaurants. The rain sent me running for a place to wait it out. That place happened to be where I finally had the ruskie piergoies that I know so well from Pittsburgh. They also had twenty other varieties. Who knew you could jam so many different things into fried bread and make it taste delicious? My photo of their twenty pierogie menu was the last time my big camera was used on this leg of the trip. It died and getting it fixed will probably be a saga for another post at some point, if it ever ends. For now, let's just say my camera does not work and it isn't in my possession.

Twenty different pierogie varieties

After inhaling my pierogies, I spent the evening strolling around the old city. It was the usual quaint buildings and cobblestone streets. However, at some point, they tore down the old city walls and replaced them with green space. It had to be a long time ago because the trees in that area are big and beautiful. That green space is a great compass to make sure you don't get lost because if you ever hit that green belt, you know it is time to turn around. The old city never quieted down while I was there. It seemed to always be a hub of activity. At one point, I found a couple hundred people being taught local songs by a small group in the main square. Hearing them all sing might be my favorite memory of Krakow. A close second was the internet cafe with Dire Straits paraphernalia all over the wall and playing their music.

Main Market Square in Krakow.

The morning market in the Jewish quarter.

The next day, I visited the Jewish quarter and watched the city wake up while eating some breakfast from the morning market. Afterward, I made my way out to the Wieliczka Salt Mines. I wanted to bike out, but I thought having a day off my bike would be good so I got to know their public transit. It is always a fun different look at a city. Krakow's was easy enough to use, but some of that did rely on luck.

The 378 steps down to the start of the salt mine tour.

This might be a gnome, but I kept thinking of being underground with the mining dwarfs imagined by T.S. Eliot

Gnomes showing what working in the mines was like.

The largest chapel in the mines.

A video tour of the largest chapel in the Wieliczka Salt Mines.

The salt mines had been operated continuously from the 13th century until 1996. Now, they are just used for tours. I don't have any serious interest in how salt is mined, but I heard great things about the what the miners had created out of salt while they worked there. I expected big white, table salt looking, statues, but was pleasantly given much more. The rock salt was black and the statues were huge. They even carved entire chapels in the mines. Unfortunately, the pictures are not going to do the experience justice because my fancy camera was broken, but luckily I had the video camera my brothers got me to use as a back up and something is better than nothing.

A recent carving of the last Pope, John Paul II.

A new room for the tour inside the salt mines

A carving of Jozef Pilsudski, a past Polish leader.

A banquet hall in the mines.

I can't rave about specific things to do in Krakow. It just felt right. Another fun, becoming city perhaps. It is definitely a tourist town at this point though. There were more hostels there than anywhere else I have been so far, so something is sucking our tourist dollars in. Just like in Budapest, I found that I ended up having trouble leaving, but not quite for the same reasons.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Auschwitz concentration camp

The one way tracks for prisoners that entered Auschwitz.

Auschwitz will be a name that lives in infamy. It invokes so many ideas, so much turmoil, so much distrust, so much terror, so much death. However, visiting the actual site did not convey those same feelings, which surprised me. Whether you believe in energy left behind or just associations with a place, something was missing for me.

A view of the larger camp, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, from the guard tower.

The Nazis were so efficient that almost nothing was left behind. The Soviets tore down most of the larger camp after the war, and understandably so. No one needs such a large scale reminder (when there was a smaller one). Also, I have no idea what the camps looked like in color when they were in use, but they seem to have been sterilized and cleaned up for tourist consumption. They have beautiful trees and grass between the buildings. This is probably going to sound terrible, but with a quick glance out the window, you could mistake the place as an adult summer camp with barracks instead of an ex-concentration camp. The noise of all the tour groups talking over each other as they were herded around did not help either.

The gas chamber where up to two thousand people could be killed at once.

An incinerator. I believe only 400 people could be 'processed' per day and that is what slowed down the Nazis.

Officially, Auschwitz was three camps. We visited two. The areas that affected me the most were the remnants of the largest camp. Most of it is gone, but the railroad tracks that you can imagine prisoners being rolled in on as the gates closed are still there. The ruins are still there to show the sheer size of the camp. The silence, if you could get away from the groups, was immense. That same silence was powerful in the gassing and incineration chambers at the smaller complex.

A member of the Israeli military at the entrance to Auschwitz I.

Half way through our tour, I spotted military uniforms. For some reason, they seemed out of place. I eventually figured out that they were representatives of the Israel military. I did not get a chance to talk to them so I am not sure if their visit was a more profound experience than the usual tourist has or whether they are so far removed from it, since most of them were not alive when it happened, that is was the same visit for them as it was for us. There was probably a little of both. However, when they reached the larger complex, they carried out what I am, probably incorrectly, going to call an honor guard. They had a moment of silence and then marched into the camp led by two very old men, who I believe were survivors of the camp liberated by the Soviets on January 27, 1945.

Thousands, maybe millions, of shoes from prisoners.

Some of the prisoner quarters at Auschwitz I.

A map showing how centrally located Auschwitz for the delivery of prisoners.

By the time the Soviets arrived, it is believed 1,100,000 people died there. Ninety percent of these were Jews, but the camp also held Poles, Roma (Gypsies), Sinti, Soviet prisoners of War, homosexuals, and any other group or individual considered undesirable. Almost none of the prisoners of war survived. 420,000 of the Jews were from Hungary which helps to explain why the second largest synagogue in the world, that I visited in Budapest, is not well used anymore.

The human side of Auschwitz.

A photo of children at Auschwitz.

One of the images that I hold on to is the Soviets original liberation video. Later, they remade the video for propaganda purposes, but with healthy prisoners who returned. The prisoners were all cheering in the second video. However, the original was so drastically different, the second one was never used. In the original, no one was cheering. They did not know who these new solders were and were afraid. They were mentally beaten down, some never to recover. Hope had been extinguished.

The facilities at Auschwitz II-Birkenau which were not even built until the last few years of the camp.

A picture of what the housing at Auschwitz II-Birkenau looked like when in use.

Stories and images like this invoke the human element for me. When I hear the individual stories, see photos of the misery, or think about the sheer size of it is when I am effected by Auschwitz the most. I did not need to visit the camp for these. In fact, the only thing I was able to do well at the camp was envision the size better when I saw just how much ground the camp covered, saw thousands of pounds of human hair, envisioned four hundred people sharing a small building, or saw thousands of shoes meant to be recycled. I think the Holocaust museum in Washington, DC does a slightly better job of delivering the human element for me. Each of us is different and experiences things in their own way. I have some friends who have been to Auschwitz and will never visit another concentration camp again. Make no mistake though, learning about Auschwitz via books, photographs, or an actual visit will be a powerful experience.

The entrance to the smaller camp, Auschwitz I.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Rural poland

Welcome to Poland!

Rural Poland was a blur. First, it was a blur of beauty and then it was a blur of suffering. 140km in one day is fine for many riders, but not for me, at least not yet. I am still working up to those longer distances. The northern side of the High Tatras was great. However, they do not extend very far into Poland.

River rock at the base of this house was used in almost every house in the north.

As those beautiful mountains disappeared over my left shoulder, I was left with three thoughts pierogies, why are the bases of the houses all the same, and PIEROGIES!!! I stopped at two restaurants just over the border, but neither one was open. It made getting pierogies a little tough. I was left to just wonder why almost every house had the same river(?) rock base, no matter how different the top was.

I am not sure how, but this bird is keeping the cows in check, or they are tied in place (no fence).

When I finally got to a large town, Nowy Targ, in southern Poland it was near lunch time. However, pierogies were still not to be found! I went to two places that did not have them on the menu. I was pretty star struck. I did not realize any other foods were eaten in Poland, I mean, why would you? The third restaurant, I finally hit pay dirt. They were not the standard pierogies we find in the states and they were delicious. They had a few varieties and I wrote down all the ones that did not have meat for future reference. I can only imagine the meat ones are equally delicious.

They weigh your ice cream cone!

After getting my pierogie fix, I wanted to get some fuel for the road in the form of my daily ice cream. I chose the place with a line out the door. That is always a good sign. The ice cream was good. The flavors were fun, if not super creative. However, the best part was that you ordered your ice cream by weight. After they had piled on your flavors, they weighed it. They never took off, they only added. Brilliant.

The green goodness of rural Poland.

Some days it is good to be on the bike.

Somewhere in the blur of grassy hills, I found a terrible traffic jam. It went on for over an hour of riding. I quietly passed all the cars until I got to a bridge. There, I was going to wait with everyone else. One of the constructor workers saw this and flagged me over and around everyone. It was wonderful. I kept trucking passed all the cars that had been waiting long enough to just turn their cars off. A lot of me felt guilty, but a whole lot more of me was loving it. I need to find a way to have my bike be part of my commute back in the states.

This beautiful butterfly almost became roadkill.

Another wonderful Polish valley.

When I figured I could make Krakow in a day, I had a slight tail wind and figured I would have mostly a descent with a few hills to Krakow. I was wrong. I was only left with rolling hills. Those lovely rolling hills were beautiful, but, combined with the distance, they worked my legs over. I think I was moving slower than an old man as I rolled into Krakow at sunset. I think my best thought of the day is how much the rolling hills reminded me of Pennsylvania . . . which might be why so many Polish people chose to settle there. Duh.

I do not think I have ever seen Fred Flintstone so effectively reused.

Monday, August 09, 2010

High Tatras

A lake in the national park. I love the climbing wall with a backdrop against what is probably some great climbing.

When I was trying to choose pictures for this blog entry, I struggled and believe I have given you too many. Not much focus. I don't know if that is because there are that many great ones or just none of them stand out. I don't think I captured just how beautiful the High Tatras are so it might be the latter. Such is life. This area, though wet, might be the best stuff I have seen yet on this trip.

The castle at Liptovsk√Ĺ Hradok.

I cannot recommend the High Tatras enough. They are beautiful mountains. They are not as high as the Rockies. They are not even as high as the Alps, but they are still wonderful. I am curious what they'd be like in winter. They have a number of ski resorts, but they don't seem to be the world class type of places I know in Colorado or expect the Alps to have. All I know is that it was beautiful.

Strbske Pleso. Check out their footwear!!!

I started on the west end in Liptovsk√Ĺ Hradok. I stopped in for a bite to eat, but received the unexpected treat of some live Slovak music. They had a concert right next to the castle which was brilliant. I heard two bands, one rock and one bluegrass. It was such a treat. Unfortunately, I wanted to get on the road because I thought I had farther to go. I didn't. I biked on, found my spot, and was then a little bored. I should have stayed put enjoying the music instead of heading off by myself to my campsite. Oh well. It was kind of nice to be camp well before dark so I could tidy up my gear. If I was smart, I would have looked at my notes in advance and seen that I had a friend's friend in that town and I might have been able to meet them at the show!

Mt. Rysy hike.

Rysy is 2499m

Mt. Rysy hike.

Mt. Rysy hike, check out the rig the guy has to haul propane(?) up the mountain.

After a great night's sleep through another thunderstorm, I was off to main part of the High Tatras. I rolled into Strbske Pleso. My hope was to do a two day hike with an overnight in a hut. Unfortunately, I wasn't quite sure what to do with my non-hiking gear and there wasn't a great hike available from there. I had read online about the great views from Mt. Rysy and when the information guide told me it was the highest point in Poland, I was sold. The whole point of crossing the Tatras was to get to Poland for pierogies, why not walk in and work up an appetite?

Mt. Rysy hike.

Mt. Rysy hike.

Mt. Rysy hike.

Me on top of Mt. Rysy.

The hike was supposed to take eight hours which would have me finished up at 7pm. I was super excited to be out hiking instead of biking. You just get to see a little more when you are off the road. My legs didn't even seem like they had biked that morning. Unfortunately, some of that excitement got dampered down when the drizzle started. Then, rain. Then, harder rain. Then drizzle, then harder rain. When I crossed the Polish border, I found a hut. They did not have pierogies. I was not pleased. However, there was a party there since everyone was trying to hide from the rain. I thought of turning back but the clouds were only over the Tatras so I hoped it would blow over. There was no thunder or lightning. I hadn't even gotten out my cold weather gear or dry shirt yet.

Mt. Rysy hike.

Mt. Rysy hike.

Mt. Rysy hike.

Mt. Rysy hike.

After another hour, I reached the summit with three other people. I sat down to soak up the views of Slovakia where I had come from and Poland where I was going. Big jagged rocks. Small patches of snow. They remined me a lot of the Rockies, but they were packed a lot closer together. As I was about to leave the summit, the sun started to come out. I retook a few photos with better light and then started down. Then, the sun really came out brightly so I climbed back up to have another look around. It was spectacular. The view just kept getting better and better. I felt super fortunate to have kept going in the rain when I had thought of turning back. It ended up stayed clear the entire way down. I even dried out before I got back to my bike.

The welcome sign to Poland where there are no pierogies.

Mt. Rysy hike.

Mt. Rysy hike.

Mt. Rysy hike.

After my hike, I was ready to find a place to stay. My legs were not happy to get back on the bike. I headed east towards a town I wanted to visit in the morning. The ski resorts were interesting. Some of them looked fancy, but some looked run down right next door. It seems like certain towns have prospered and others used to. I am used to ski towns in Colorado which, if not new, certainly don't look run down. Anyway, I eventually found a cheap hotel. It was full. Then, I found a closed one. Then, an expensive one. It was getting dark so I eventually just said forget it and decided to camp. I woke up to a brilliant sunrise on a carpet of purple flowers.

Finding a campsite dramatization.

Sunrise at Horny Smokovec in the High Tatras.

High Tatras National Park monument at Tatranska Lomnica.

Rice Krispie Treats with caramel and rice cake instead.

The next day, none of my plans worked out. I wanted a rest day with hot springs. All of the hot springs, but one were back west where I had been. There was one to the south that was the opposite direction than I was going. Boo. Then, I was going to take a gondola to the second highest peak in the Tatras. After waiting ninety minutes for the gondola to open, I found out it was broken. They got it working by 1pm the day before, but I didn't want to risk the wait. I left and headed for some caves. They were also closed. Ugh. There was a castle I wanted to see, but it was out of the way. So everything I wanted to do was not going to happen and I didn't have anything planned between the Tatras and Krakow so I just biked the whole thing in one day. Not the best decision. I realized later I could have gone south to the castle and that one hot springs. Oh well. A 140km day was good for me. I remembered what suffering was like. Life is suffering, right Buddhists?

House in Zdiar, Slovakia

The High Tatras backdrop to Zdiar.

Curious to see crumbling hotels next to big ones.