Sunday, May 9, 2010

4th Stop-Krakow: Salt Mine Tour and Auschwitz

Thursday-April 1st, Day 1-Getting there + Salt Mine tour
First off: Getting to Poland...
The first train brought us to a platform in Germany still, where we had to wait 40 big deal. (Except that of course the bathrooms cost money everywhere to use: .40, .80,it varies)
We found the platform just fine.
However....with our second stop we got off on this dark, deserted area where a main train station was supposed to be. It definitely was not there. There was an old, small, falling apart, wooden building there. There was a middle age man and an old man that had also gotten off on that stop. Luckily they spoke English (which is hard to come across in Poland). Turned out we had gotten off one stop too soon. The middle-age man said the station was not within walking distance. There were no cars, no taxi's or buses, or basically civilization in sight. He offered to drive us, he seemed normal, and we had flat out, no other options. We would miss our connecting train. Since the older man was his dad we felt a little bit better about the situation. His car was parked off to the side behind the old building. Luckily it fit all of our luggage. Chrissy and I got our keys out just in case-the only potential protection we had. He was a type of doctor who worked in Germany and lived in Poland. We told him we were staying in Madrid (lie) and going back there after our stay in Krakow (lie)-just to be safe.
But it all worked out-and we finally arrived at the main train station, which was indeed very, very far away. We thanked them and Chrissy tried to hand him gas money but he wouldn't take it. We were so lucky they were so nice. There would have been no way we would have made it to the station otherwise.
We went in and Grace and Chrissy went down the steps while Emily and I looked for an elevator. I was trying to carry my suitcase as least as possible because it was packed with Grace and I sharing. We didn't find one, but while we waited for Grace and Chrissy to come back, 2 security guards or something approached us and tried to talk to us in Polish... finally the word documents came out of one of them and we knew they wanted to see our passports. They spent a LOT of time looking at them, along with our visa-and then scanned them through one of the machines they were holding. When Chrissy and Grace came back they did the same. They then checked the people next to us-so at least it wasn't just us.
I had taken out some zloty's from the ATM, but of course it only gave me huge bills. And to use the bathroom it only cost a very small portion of that. I really needed to use the bathroom-the actual exchange place would not break my large bills. (She didn't speak any English, and I, obviously, speak no polish). Chrissy's cousin had given her this tiny booklet that had pictures in it of a variety of situations for when there is a language barrier. It worked but the lady refused. The bathroom lady didn't have change but was at least nice and pointed to the counter across from the bathroom to try there. That woman also did not speak English, but with the picture cards she finally broke my 50 zloty so I could use 2.50 of it to use the bathroom. And then I ran to the bathroom. At that point I was so so so tired of having to constantly pay to use the bathroom in each city we had visited. (In Berlin we took advantage of using the Starbucks ones for free).
After that crazy, language barrier event, we sat in a small dining room for a bit. A couple people got something to drink. We stayed as in there for a while until we started getting looks from the lady working at the counter.
It was then time to board our train, and so we headed that way. It definitely reminded me of the train Harry Potter takes. We were able to get one of the rooms to ourselves--and then situated our stuff so people wouldn't want to come in even if they could.
I struggled a bit to sleep, and right when I was about to, someone came by to check and stamp our tickets. Then that occurred every couple hours on this night train--possibly after every stop we took. Annoying? You have no idea lol. I slept with my ticket under me so I could easily hand it to them each time. One time Grace couldn't find hers and the guy had to wait like 5 minutes and turn on the light for us. Somehow it had gotten on the ground under some of our luggage (which we had put in between the seats so we could each lay across from one side to the other).
Once we arrived in Krakow we found our hostel pretty easily. It was okay...the Internet didn't work on the 3rd floor like they claimed. The towels were free to use-so that was a nice change. We had a 4 suite-which was great compared to some of the 10 bedrooms we had stayed in. The showers were hot and had good water pressure (nice change). Our hostel was clean-but about 3-4 sets of stairs and no elevators = not fun with a lot of luggage.
We took off to see the town (old town) while we waited for our Salt Mine tour at 4:30 that afternoon. We first saw Wawel Palace which was a gigantic and pretty place. You had to pay to get in each individual part-so we just walked around the courtyard.

Afterward we headed to the Market Square which actually turned out to be a great thing. At first we only saw flowers and a couple carts emphasizing on dragons (after a statue somewhere in the Palace). We saw some sweet street performers that looked like NYSNC initially, but then they broke down individually. They were really good and had to be really strong for some of their dance moves.

Chrissy had seen another part of the market so we headed that way. We found great souvenirs there.
After the market we rushed back to the hostel for our Salt Mine tour--they pick you up from your hostel/hotel. Once there our guide walked us through fairly quickly. We walked down a TON of stairs to get below to the mine, and then there was an elevator at the end to lift everyone back up. To give you an idea of how far down we went:

Everything-literally-was made of salt. We got to try a piece of a wall at one point-I kid you not. The sculptures were all made of salt. The smooth parts on the wall were like marble because of all the people touching them over the years. The sculptures were 95% salt, 5% some other stuff.

They have to be careful and maintain the air down there carefully and consistently because otherwise the salt statues start to melt. They had reenactments down there as well.

We were shown a couple small churches-but the main one we saw was so big-and could be rented out for weddings.

Even the chandeliers were made of salt, it was pretty crazy.

The sculptures in the Salt Mine weren't even done by artists, but the miners after their long days at work. It was just incredible to be that far underground and to have everything be made of salt.

After the tour, like mentioned earlier, there was an elevator to take us back up. We rode the bus back and got off on the main square. There we searched until we finally found a restaurant to eat dinner at. I got vegetable pie, a water, and a coke. My dinner was 9 zlotys which equals to about 6 euros-for a meal, a water, and a coke (you have to pay for the water in Europe). But the price was not bad at all.
We then looked in the market again that had different things now for the evening like food, etc. Afterward we headed back to the hostel and called it a night. It had been a long night of traveling and a big day--and the next day we were going on a tour to Auschwitz.

Friday-April 2nd, Day 2-Auschwitz
***Before reading this part of my blog-please keep in mind the following will be going into detail about Auschwitz and my experience there***
Today we woke up and packed our things to put in their luggage storage (which was actually a shed) then we got picked up for our tour to Auschwitz.
On the bus there we watched a documentary. It was hard to stay awake on the hour bus drive, but I managed to because I figured when would I ever be going here again.
It was hard to see some of the pictures they showed and know we were about to see the concentration camp.
They dropped us off and we went on with a tour guide.
We were not allowed to take pictures inside any of the buildings-and given the history of where we were, it was important to respect this. So any photos will be of the outside and the barracks, and towards the very end when we were at the wooden barracks-we could take pictures.

The places I'm about to describe are inside the brick barracks where they have now turned them into the following.
We went into one or two places that had rooms full of people's belongings from when they were taken here and stripped of everything once they got off the train. It was absolutely terrible to see. There was a glass wall and you looked through it to see into another room. One room was completely full of shoes of all sizes, belonging to both men and women. One room was full of all the people's luggage/suitcases, again from when they got off the train and were separated and either forced to the camp or sent to the gas chambers-which they were told they were going to for a shower. About 75% of the people were sent to the gas chamber right away-mostly women and children and people not suited for working.

One room was full of combs and brushes. Another one-very difficult to see-was a case full of human hair. The Jews were completely shaved of all of their hair and then the hair was used to make other things. Our tour guide said they even used their bodies as fertilizer and that nothing went to waste. It was horrifying.

One room had baby clothes.

Another room had large photos of women and children and how thin they were and how much weight they had lost was underneath their picture. Starvation was one of the main causes of death. They only brought them to the camps to work and to die.

Another room and along the wall was full of photos of people who had died-picture upon picture upon picture.
They had large photos in a lot of the rooms and our tour guide would explain some of them.
One photo we saw at the end was a picture of women and children who were in line for the gas chamber. They had them stop and look at the camera for their documentation-as they were in line to die.
We walked within these brick barracks and saw the fence that imprisoned the Jewish people inside and the watch towers.
We saw the place where the Nazi's pretended to give trials - some only lasted a few minutes, and then the execution wall was right outside that building.

On the lower level of that same building we saw different rooms where people were murdered. There were starvation rooms and suffocation rooms-where there was not enough oxygen for the amount of people they forced into each room. They were mostly all small, cement rooms. But every place the Nazi's crammed as many people as possible in to kill them.
Our tour guide told us that people would throw themselves on the electric fences to stop their misery.
We saw the crematorium and gas chamber. The Nazi's didn't bomb it because they didn't think anyone would ever figure out what they had used it for.

We stood in the place where the Nazi's shoved people in and killed them with gas. One of the rooms we had seen was all of the cans of the chemicals they had poured in to gas them.
It was absolutely horrifying. I found myself unable to talk and just absorbing all the horrible things that these people had gone through not that long ago. Words could not describe any of this.
People knew what happened in the gas chambers. People knew what happened in the camps or figured it out once the war was over.
Our tour then took us back onto our bus and to a different section of the camp to where the train had dropped off the Jewish people and where the wooden (and worse) barracks were.
There was a memorial there, but otherwise I believe everything was the same.

In front of us was the train tracks where people got off. To our right and left were gas chambers that the Nazi's had bombed trying to cover up anything they had done-but it didn't work.

One other thing about the gas chambers at the end of the tracks: Our tour guide told us that they used to run trucks (along with bought the property surrounding the areas) so that any neighbors would not hear the screaming and either would the people just arriving at the camps. But after time the smell of the dead people was too much, and there was no hiding the terrible things they were doing.

We walked toward the one on the left. They were both identical. There was one long part where they shoved everyone in-as many people as possible-and then funneled them through. I believe our tour guide said about 2000 people the forced in. If they showed any resistance they would be shot right then and there. Absolutely terrible and horrifying.
We then walked along the railway track and to both sides were remains of the wooden barracks-mostly just the brick chimney left. Surrounded by electric fences and watch towers.

In the middle of the tracks we stopped and our tour guide talked some. We were standing right next to the spot that people had gotten off the train and been separated and many had been sent to their death. It was unbelievable and never in my life did I think I would be standing there thinking and learning about the people who had more then just suffered and lost their life.

At the end of the tracks we went into one of the remaining barracks. In one of them-the sanitary room-there was a cement block about 2 ft thick that ran down the length of the room. There were 2 rows of holes right next to each other all the way down it. There were three of these in one wooden barrack. This is where thousands of people were forced to use the bathroom, only allowed seconds I believe, to actually use it, as the Nazi's forced the line to move fast with absolutely no privacy. And at the end was basically a non-existent system for sanitation. It was terrible.

The next wooden barrack was where people would sleep. These barracks were originally made for horses. But they made so many people fit into just one barrack where wooden bunk beds lined the walls. At least 400 prisoners in one wooden barrack that was only supposed to hold 25 horses when it was designed.

At the very end of track left there, there was a tower we could go up to the top of and see a view of the camp. The camp went on for a long time, stretching out so far. It was terrible.

Our tour was then over and the ride home on the bus was quiet.

When we returned we got off at the central market in Krakow. We eventually found a place to eat. I ate a typical Polish dish that was like ravioli with cottage cheese and potatoes.
It had been really cold that day-we then headed back to the hostel, got our stuff, and headed to the train station. We didn't have to wait too long there. At the grocery store we spent our last bit of zloty's.
Grace ordered chips and salsa from a Mexican restaurant, from an English menu, and got fries and salt...very, very strange. And it wasn't a mistake, their chips and salsa for some reason, was fries and salt.
We were lucky again on our overnight train to get a cubby/room to ourselves. Luckily they only checked our ticket once that night so we weren't constantly woken up.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

3rd Stop-Berlin

Monday-March 29, Day 1
Arriving at nine am in Berlin put us there early. We were staying with Chrissy's family and they were sweet and picked us up. Her cousin Maria and her brother were so nice and so welcoming the entire time we were in Berlin. They drove us around the city pointing out some of the highlights. We started site seeing right away since we didn't have a lot of time in Berlin.
...But before we started hard-core, our first stop was Starbucks---we were starting off exhausted and felt a bit better after that. And it's just delicious. :)
One of the first things we saw was Brandenburg Gate (pic below)-a huge archway with a green statue on top of a woman in a carriage being pulled by horses. In front of it to the right was Hotel Adlon-which is where Presidents, Ambassadors and famous people stay. It's also the place where MJ held his baby off the balcony a few years back.

In the road in some areas-is a layer of brick, flat with the street, but running throughout them that shows where the Berlin Wall used to be.

We also saw the Parliament building that has a huge dome you can go up in and see, the line is crazy unless you go really early or just before they close.

Maria also took us to the Jewish Memorial for all the Jews that had been murdered. It's a large area with different heights of blocks of stone. It's not pretty - but the government or whoever keeps it because the artist designed it so that when you walk through it you feel lost-just like the Jews did.

We then went to Potsdamer Platz where the Sony Center is and took pictures. It lights up at night and is beautiful. One interesting thing is a lot of the fancier restaurants have blankets on their chairs on the tables outside-clever idea.
We then went to some of the restaurants inside the metro-it was like a mini-mall-that had a lot of small cafe type things. They have cheap, good pretzals-one of things Germany is know for in the food area I believe...
We also met Maria's other brother that worked in one of the offices there. He was also very nice. :)
Afterward, we headed off and saw Kaiser Wilhelm church. It was a church that was bombed and I'm not sure, but I think they are in the process of restoring it. The tower has a hole in it, but they've put a museum inside of it, and the floors and ceiling inside it are beautiful. They had small replicas of what the church looked like next to what it now looks like. They have built a new church next to it, it's very modern with tiny blue stain-glassed windows covering the walls.

We then headed off on the bus again. At the end of one of the streets was an angel at the top of a monument that you could also go up and view the city for about 2 euros. We passed this big white house where their President lives.
We then saw another memorial for the Jewish people. A statue of a woman and a child sitting in the center of a small building.

They had an area that was considered Museum Island, with I believe about 30 museums in it...and the Berlin Cathedral was next to it.
There's also the TV tower you can see from a lot of different places in the city. You can also go up it to view the city for about 10 euros. A story that goes along with it that was in our Rick Steve tour guide book was: (Not sure the year) Berlin was taking down all the crosses in the city and they build this TV tower to say they didn't need the churches, etc, but now during the day when the sun shines, there's a cross that reflects off the glass of it.

In another part of the downtown area, there's a glass plate in the ground, and when you look down into it you can see just a room with white empty bookcases, because at one point they burned all of the Jewish books, and now they have this glass plate to remember the spot where this terrible incident occurred at.

We then walked by the Berlin Cathedral again and took pictures (pic below). From a distance we could see a synagogue that had a beautiful gold dome.

Maria then shoes us this area in Berlin that is very popular to meet up in and people pay ridiculous amounts to live in the apartments around it. She didn't think it was anything too special and once there, we understood. The architecture was basic and not pretty at all.

We ended up in a little market that had odds and ends of jewelry, clothes, food, etc. Chrissy went with Maria to her family's house for her cousin's (Maria's brother) birthday. Beka, Grace, Emily and I headed off to see the East Side Gallery to see all the different paintings on the wall (pic below). One paintings was by someone in the U.S. so that was cool, and the wall was very interesting to walk down.

We then headed to Checkpoint Charlie. We read the description and stories of the Berlin Wall for about an hour and a half, there were stories on the ones that had died and the ones that had survived. The walls went on for quite a while. The picture below was on one of the walls we read:

After reading the information, we were starving and looked up a place in the Rick Steve book and found a Beer Garden with indoor seating. They had a huge dining area, and when they sat us, they gave us German menus....which we understood maybe 3 words of. We had absolutely no idea what anything was or what to get for some time. Luckily when the server came over and we asked her what thing were she offered an English menu lol :) Grace and Beka got meatballs and Emily and I got bread dumplings, spinach and salad that was delicious. It got late quick that night and we were further north of Berlin then we thought. And Chrissy's family that was south on the metro map, was pretty far from where we were. The Berlin metro was crazy and large and had sooo many line. Between Grace and Beka and help from Chrissy's family about a train change and then a stranger we got back to where we needed and Maria was there to pick us up. Their house was cute and again, they were so welcoming and so nice.

Tuesday-March 30, Day 2
After we woke up and got situated, Maria had set up a wonderful breakfast for us. There was fresh bread, Berliners (donuts filled with fruit), juice, etc. It was amazing. She then told us to make sandwiches out of the leftover rolls because otherwise they wouldn't use it. It was incredible after staying in hostels and eating PB & J constantly. :)
We were going to first try and go to the Parliament, but we didn't leave on time, and the line was already a couple hours long. We then found a tour at 11 in English we wanted to go to, we had already missed our stop by 4 stops and were heading back to where we intended on going, but the tour was one stop past where we had just been. So the 4 of us took off for that-unfortunately for us Beka had to take off for the airport because she was heading back to Bilbao. Her family was coming in and they were going on a cruise-which sounded amazing with nice sunny weather. But of course once we got to the tour it was at capacity. We weren't sure what to do and Chrissy and I had wanted to go into the Berlin Cathedral. We headed that way and Grace stayed outside looking at the tour books while Emily decided to go with us. It was beautiful with a massive organ. We were able to walk up to the dome and circle around it and see the city. Along the way there were a couple rooms, one of them had massive replicas of the cathedral they did before they built it to see exactly how it would look. It was pretty crazy. We had to race through the dome because the free walking tour we wanted to go on for the New Berlin tour started in a half hour. The dome's windows were pretty dirty anyway-so it was difficult to take pictures. We then rushed to the exit. We had seen the main part of the cathedral from a room looking down on it, but Chrissy and I quick stopped in to look at it from ground level.

The exit was downstairs and it was a crypt full of cement coffins and was a bit creepy.
The walking tour was sooo busy. We met outside the Gate near the Starbucks. The U.S. embassy is there along with the French embassy and Canadian embassy. Our tour guide proceeded to give us a history lesson for about 15 minutes on Berlin's time-line. Then he talked for about 15 minutes about the Parliament which we could see the back of from where we were standing. He just was not exciting-he was a guy in his 20's with a history degree. He also brought us to the Jewish Memorial (where Maria had also taken us the day before) for those who were murdered and we learned that the chemical company that made the chemicals that would make getting any graffiti of easier for the stone blocks in the memorial, was the same company that supplied a lot of the chemicals for killing the Jews....
We saw an original Nazi building-it had long dark windows to give it the illusion of being larger. We had also stopped to a spot where underneath the ground had been a Nazi bunker. They completely destroyed it now and there is nothing to see, they built on top of it. The picture below is of the Nazi building:

He also took us to see part of the Berlin Wall that was old and not part of the East Side Gallery (pic below). Afterward there was a break in the tour, and we took off. All though it was informative-he was not a great tour guide. And we had plans to meet up with Chrissy's cousin.

So we took off on a train to meet up with him, he lives in Potsdam and wanted to show us some of the area. It was a cute old town, across from his apartment was the place where the person who discovered South America had lived. We saw/walked through the outside of a church and then saw the Palace there. The Palace is now an area fore everyone to walk around in. There are fountains, etc.

In one area quite a ways from the Palace, is a cute, extravagant building that was used to drink tea--and that was its' purpose. It was a beautiful - large area.

After walking around a bit more, we ate some dinner and then headed back to the city. We walked through the Sony Center that was lit up, and was really cool to see at night.

We tried to make it to Parliament but they cut the line off right in front of us. We had some bad luck with seeing things on our trip quite a few times lol.
We headed back to Chrissy's family house and talked with Maria for quite a while. We then decided to try and go to Parliament and skip trying to go to the tour the next day that had been full today.

Wednesday-March 31, Day 3
Today we woke up and had another amazing breakfast with Maria. They were amazing and helped us with our luggage, and ended up bringing it to the train station and meeting us there that evening. We were able to tour our last day without having to worry about luggage-it was soo nice!
We were off to a late start and didn't end up going to Parliament-it was already a two and a half hour wait. We tried to go into this red building next to the Sony Center that was only 2.50 euros to go up and see a view of the city--but it was closed for the next two months--go figure.
We didn't want to pay 10 euros to go up the TV Tower-and didn't want to walk to this angel monument to find out if it was open or closed---since out luck was running out on seeing a view of this city lol. We came to the conclusion we weren't meant to see the city view. Instead we got a pretzal at Weiner Feinbacker where Beka and I had first eaten at the metro on the first day and had a pretzel. We then headed for the biggest chocolate store in Europe called-Chocolatiers. It ws really big and had the Brandenburg Gate made out of chocolate along with a big frog (with a gold crown on top), a volcano, etc. It all looked delicious.

We ended up eating lunch at Pergamon Bistro eating Doner Kebab's. Yes-I ate a pork one. Max, my friend from Germany had recommended them also, so I felt I should try one. Plus Germany has a huge Turkish population, and that is a Turkish food. It was a big sandwich and pretty good.
We again weren't sure what to do afterward, so we headed to the Olympic Stadium of 1936, it was renovated since then, but still really old looking. Still cool to see though.

We had to meet Chrissy's family at the train station so we took off since the stadium was quite a ways away.
Grace and I struggled to find souvenirs, but we were finally able to find a store in the train station.
Maria's mom came with her to say good-bye, and they bought us Berliners-which were amazing later that night on the train. They also helped us find the correct platform. They were great people to meet. :)