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Poland 1990 Trip Report

  • Submitted by: Paul Bakker
  • Website: None Available
  • Submission Date: 04th Feb 2005

(Here is the first part of a series of travelogues about our 10 week trip to Europe last year. Hope it is of interest to someone; if I get enough (any!) positive comments I will continue to post them as I write them. The next one will be about Moscow.)

Willkommen nach Polen. We entered Poland by car from East Germany, passing over the oft-contested natural border, the river Neisse. Red and white signs with eagles welcomed us to Poland in Polish and German. Some ways over the river were the customs booths, and the inevitable traffic jam. We fell in behind the tiny Polish Nikis and the East German Trabi's (which are cars...well, sort of. They run on 2-stroke fuel, of which more seems to be expelled through the exhaust than used for combustion.) The cheaply-dressed border guards did a double take on our Australian passports (as they always do) and pulled us over for some special treatment.

Guard (in bad German): What is in your car?
Me (in bad German): Er... clothes, food, drink, te..
Guard: Drink? What drink?
Me: Coca Cola.
Guard: (slyly) My friend, he like Coca Cola.
Me (surprised): You want some?
Guard: My friend......

I wasn't keen to give up our hard-currency coke, so I offered Kent cigarettes all 'round. I bought them especially for such occasions; they're like a second currency! Soon we were cruising through Silesia, the north west region of Poland. It still looked very much like Germany and apparently many of the people still consider themselves German. Sounds like a good reason for another war.

It was just like driving in East Germany, but looked even more backward. Horse and carts regularly slow the traffic and every now and then you see a farmer scything a field by hand. Our first stop was in Poznan, the capital of West Poland. I got lost looking for the hotel due to the impossible-to-remember street names (Is this Szrieciwicy Street?), so we asked a passerby. He shook my hand, patted me on the back, and jumped in the car to show us the way. He seemed even more lost than us, and finally we drove up a dead-end alley. He announced that we could walk to the hotel from here and he would show me the way. Bitte folgen. I'm a suspicious bastard, so I left my wallet in the car with Betty (not her real name) and followed him up the alley, careful not to walk too close.

Shame on me! The hotel was indeed there, and he arranged a room for us, and also showed me where to change money. I was overcome with gratitude and was about to invite him out to dinner, but then he just shook my hand and disappeared into the crowd.

The hotel was just US$30 a night, quite reasonable I thought. I found out later that foreigners are charged 5 to 10 times the local rate! Shows how cheap the place is. We went into the old town square and pigged out on spaghetti, pepsi (apparently a luxury item), ice cream, and coffee for a grand total of US$3.20. And it seemed to be a ritzy place we were eating in, as all the locals were dressed up and...was that a grand piano I saw in the corner? Such is the beauty of travelling in Eastern Europe. You can stay in good hotels and eat in the best places, for less than it costs to take a leak in Italy!

The 'mediaeval' town square is in fact only 40 years old, as those lovable nazi's had previously laid the whole city to waste. Nice anyway. We went for a stroll around the shops, boggling our minds at the prices: 35c for a LP record, $6 for a pair of shoes. Appliances had prices like "$99 + 550000 zloty". They must set different prices for foreigners.

The next day we looked around the markets, which were expensive but bountiful. Bananas, tomatoes, flowers, socks, even pirated cassettes (eg., "Tabular Bells"). Then we took off to the south, to Czestochowa. Czestochowa is a pilgrimage centre for the eccentrically catholic Poles. Its major drawcard is 'The Black Madonna', an ancient (ca. 1200 ad) madonna & child painting encrusted with jewels. We hung our proverbial hats in a pilgrim's hotel ($10 per room) near the centre of town. The girl at the counter was very helpful, pressing her body firmly up against mine as she explained the intricacies of hotel bill charging. Every tactical withdrawal on my part was met by a fully-frontal assault on her part. I paid the bill and bolted upstairs.

The hotels are cheap only because we were staying at Polish ones. The international hotels can cost up to $120 per night. We stopped off at one near the church to get a good western feed. The manager made a big show of 'doing us a favour' by sneaking us into the dining room. Alas, the menu was limited and the food was lousy. We then went in to see the Black Madonna. Hundred of Poles were on their knees in front of the icon, praying and weeping and singing. An amazing experience. We even saw some fair dinkum pilgrims grovelling on the ground with their filthy brown hooded robes and hobbled walking sticks. We took a taxi back to the hotel and I stayed up to watch TV in the lobby with some fellow pilgrims. There was a documentary on the destruction of the Berlin Wall. I thought it would be interesting to guage the feelings of the Poles at this major crossroads of European history...but they only spoke Polish and I didn't so I just went to bed.

Next day we wolfed down breakfast and headed south to Krakow, which to my great surprise was pronounced Krah-kov instead of Krack-auw. Getting petrol was a bit of a problem due to the massive queue at the local petrol station. Surprisingly, we, as foreigners with pockets bulging with yankee greenbacks, were not given any preferential treatment and just had to wait our turn. I admire that!

Driving in Poland is pleasurable between cities. The roads are wide and empty and in very good shape. Second only to Germany/Holland, I daresay. The Poles do have some strange driving habits though; they will happily overtake in the face of oncoming traffic, expecting the oncomer to flee into the emergency lane. And they don't pay much attention to traffic signals - I was beeped and abused for being so stupid as to stop at a red light(!)

Rolled into Krakow at 11:30. Krakow is pretty unique among Polish cities in that it hasn't been totally destroyed....lately. The old town square, one of the largest in Europe, was full of weird and exotic architecture. This is the Eastern Europe I wanted to see. Further on is the forbidding Wawel castle where Hans Frank used to hold court. While walking through it we discovered to our stupefaction Hieronymous Bosch's masterpiece "The Last Judgement". There it was, hanging on a nail on a bare wall unannounced, unguarded, and unprotected. Incroyable. International art thieves will no doubt be keen new visitors to the East.

Later that day we left for today's main destination: Oswiecim, site of the Auschwitz and Birkenau death camps. These are the only (to my knowledge) preserved concentration camps in Europe. I have read so much about them, and seen so many documentaries....I wasn't sure what to expect. I pictured a windswept, desolate hellhole in the middle of nowhere, quietly rusting to bits. But would it really be like that? What if it's a major tourist attraction, packed with fat Americans snapping up stripey pyjamas and souvenir lampshades? The carpark we pulled into was full of tourist coaches... from Russia. Not a westerner in sight. The camp is not in the middle of nowhere, but next to an ordinary small town and some farms. The reason that Oswiecim was chosen by the nazi's as a camp site is because it was the geographical center of (occupied) Europe, it was isolated, and it was on a train line.

Auschwitz itself is only a small compound of brick detention blocks, but it houses all the gruesome exhibits. They have separate mountains of shoes, suitcases, spectacles, and, worst of all, baby clothes. Each country which lost people here also has a national display. And one block is taken up purely by the names and photo's of all known people who died here: 4 million in all. There's still a gallows, an execution wall, barbed wire fences, and the famous "Arbeit Macht Frei" arch entrance. There is also a small gas chamber and crematorium. Inside them we met an old Jewish-American couple struggling with a Walkman. They had been on the last transport to Auschwitz in the war, but were never unloaded because the Russians were drawing near. They both lost their whole families. It was their first visit back here, and they brought the Walkman to play Jewish prayer songs in the gaschamber. I helped them figure out how to play the tape, and soon its wailing filled the chamber and swirled around the grimy concrete walls like a tormented ghost. Brrrrr. To top it all off, a thunderstorm brewed outside.

About 10 kilometers away is the Birkenau Camp, where the real dirty work went on. The train line goes right into the camp, right up to the huge gaschambers. There were row upon row of wooden cattle sheds to house the prisoners; 400,000 could be accommodated at a time. Only one row remains, but it gives you an idea as to the enormous size of the camp. We spent more than 2 hours walking around inside and only saw half of it. Awesome, and very sobering. Suddenly I didn't feel much like cracking jokes.

We went back to Auschwitz for the night. There is a hotel in Auschwitz, in one of the original (administration) buildings. It cost us only $US8 for the room, easily the cheapest in all of Europe. The rooms were clean and the hotel was practically empty. Betty was quite nervous about spending the night, so she pushed our beds together and kept a powerful torch at arm's reach. I proposed we go for a romantic midnight stroll through the compound, but she wouldn't be in it. Silly girl! I, on the other hand, was quite at ease.... but I didn't dare take a shower.

The next day we bade farewell to Poland and headed for Czechoslovakia. All in all Poland was cheap, somewhat harsh and desolate (but not as poor as expected) and verrrry interesting. Few Poles can speak English, but you can get by nicely with some rough German and lots of pointing. Knowing a bit of Russian helps too, as the two languages are very similar...but don't actually try speaking Russian to anyone or they'll hate you forever. As a holiday destination, I highly recommend it. Betty is not so sure.

[Next segment: Czechoslovakia]


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