Thursday, August 20, 2009

Meaningful Experiences and Sorrowful Expressions- My Journey to Poland

In August, I went for four short days to Poland; Krakow, Auschwitz and Warsaw. My journey started with a hot and long train ride from Berlin's biggest train station.

I got off the train in Krakow. Krakow had been founded in the 7th century and was the capital of Poland from 1038 to 1596. The city has many historical buildings of the middle ages, including a gigantic castle, various churches and basilicas of different catholic covens and Jewish buildings in the Kazimiers (the old Jewish quarter). The city still has its medieval presence and the buildings with strong characteristic traits still stand enjoying their royal magnificence.

After getting lost again and again, I found myself near an incredibly big castle; the Wawel. Luckily for me, my hostel was very near to the castle, which enabled me to check-in and get my bed, even thought it would be impossible for me to sleep with the noisy, party-loving hostel-mates.

Next morning would be my real morning in Krakow. I went directly to the Wawel this time. After getting a small promenade at its huge park near the Vistula river and seeing the legendary Dragon of Wawel (Smok Wawelski) who breaths fire and have a cliché story of an evil dragon who eats every young girl in the city except the princess and a brave knight who kills it to be able to marry the princess, I went inside it through the enormous gates, where a noble soldier saluted people with its metal grin. The Wawel has many royal quarters, public quarters, a big, shiny cathedral and many exhibitions of treasury and weaponry. Here I witnessed the magnificent weapons of Prussia, Germany, Poland and even the Ottoman Empire as the King Mustapha II sent gifts to the Prussian King for a treaty he signed.

'The Dragon's Den' is the other attraction in the Wawel. It's a limestone den where the legendary dragon supposed to rest. It leaded me one more time to the park which opens to 'The Royal Coronation Route'.

The Royal Coronation Route is one of the most interesting tourist roads in Krakow, with 'The University Road' and 'The Road of Jean Paul II'. The Royal Route has more than ten big churches and basilicas, the highlights being the Dominican Church of the Holy Trinity Order, Franciscan Church which currently had an exhibition in its garden of huge metal angels symbolizing the seven holy sacraments and Jean Paul II's service, the Peter and Paul Church which has 12 statues in its garden, St. Mary's Basilica and many more churches of different sides


The Route leads after half an hour's walk to the old town center; Glowny Square. The St. Mary's Basilica is the main building here, alongside with the

Cloth Hall (Sukiennice) - a large shopping center- The Town Hall Tower where I got a 360 degrees view of the city, many restaurants and bars and the Gallery of the National Museum. I spent a lot of time at this center, looking around, taking photographs of the buildings, statues and of people and visiting the exhibitions at the Tower.

Just when I decided to go for the Barbican (Barbakan) and the gate to the old city, I saw a tank with people dressing as soldiers on the square. I was of course very curious about it, and

before I could get a chance to ask someone, other old people dressed as soldiers came from the Basilica. I learned later that it was the celebration of one of two uprisings of Warsaw against the Nazi occupation. After taking photographs of the occasion, I went to the Barbican.

Barbican is a big round castle-like building, built as fortification to the defense of the city in the 15th century. This building and the gates creates the most medieval atmosphere alongside the Wawel and was a nice end to my walking tour of the Royal Road. I also saw a couple of universities, connecting the Royal Route to the University Route and got back to the hostel for a little night-life experience of Krakow.

Krakow has over 700 restaurants and bars and has a colorful night-life as well. Except for the Old City Square, the Jewish District also has a lot of bars which we decided to give it a try. We ended up (me and the other hostel-mates) in a bar which used to be a sewing factory, which has now sewing machines/tables as table and is very popular nowadays.

I left my second day to visit the Auschwitz concentration camp which is two hours away from Krakow. After finding out that Auschwitz doesn't called Auschwitz in Polish (it's Oswiecim) and a long car ride, I arrived to the awful camp with the nightmarish gate of 'Arbeit Macht Frei'. I cannot really state all the information I learned at the four hour- tour, but the camp of Auschwitz with the only gas chamber standing today, and the camp of Birkenau with a very depressive atmosphere, but I can share some impressions I got from the awful camps. The Auschwitz Camp has been founded as a work-camp for the political prisoners of Poland. After the Nazi invasion, it was transformed in a concentration camp, followed by the Birkenau camp and a third work-camp with a factory (Monowitz), because of the shortage of place. Most of the documents were destroyed by the SS Soldiers shortly before the liberation of the camps (as well as the destruction of the gas chambers to cover up the genocide), but the sources give a number between 2.5 and 4 millions of Jews, Slavs and Gypsies who where killed in the camp, either in gas chambers or because of the poor conditions and hard working schedules.

The films -like The Life is Beautiful- introduced everyone with a knowledge of the conditions, but seeing the places where the Jews lived, even the common toilets and the proofs of the medical experiments that the evil (I always though of him) Mengele and feeling the heavy presence of the camp is a very different and painful experience for me. The weather wanted to fortify my sorrowful experience and a heavy rain in the middle of the summer gave me a very appropriate atmosphere for my photographs to reflect the lost souls of the camp. Birkenau was more depressing than Auschwitz at it was totally empty now and the purpose of the camp was more obvious to the visitors at the first side. The new knowledge and details that I provided in the tour and the hunting image of Birkenau would hunt me for days, but to see a real milestone in the history of humans was a powerful experience for me.

The next day, I left the beautiful Krakow very early in the morning for my short trip in Warsaw. I arranged my train tickets so I can spend some hours in Warsaw, before returning to Berlin. After a three hour- trip, I got off the train in a very weird station which looked like it belonged to the Soviet years. I then realized that I knew nothing about Warsaw and didn't even have a map. But that was half of the backpacking experience and after a little questioning of the locals, I could find the central station and the center of the city. I immediately got myself a map, found the old city center and after a 20 minute walk arrived first to a beautiful park with an old weeping willow tree and an oracle building that I have no idea why it belonged to the park. I had four hours to spend at Warsaw and I cannot really cite a lot of history or even names of the various buildings. Again, I can just say my impressions of the city.

First of all, I observed that almost every building of the old city has some kind of ornament on itself -even the common apartments-, either small statues, beautiful, shiny paintings or some kind of borders on the buildings. I don't think I ever saw so many statues in such a short time and what impressed me enormously was that most of the statues have incredible, living and natural facial impressions and beautiful details. The old city center is, like Krakow, living in the old times which gave me a chance to live the atmosphere of the era-films that I liked so much. The buildings are more majestic then Krakow thought and the city is full of different statues, even more modern-ones for the memorial of the Nazi Occupation and the Second World War and the exceptional statues in a very shallow pool with reflective glass windows creating an interesting image as a whole. The memorial has soldier statues with powerful impressions and different, creative poses on a glass structure of the black and white photos of the Polish people who died during the war or the invasion. As it was still the celebration of the Warsaw Uprising, every statue was decorated with flowers and candles.

After the old city, I decided to go and visit the Chopin Museum for my love of Chopin. The museum was closed, but I could take some photos of the outside and returned to the main station where my journey to Poland ended, after a joyful 9 hour train trip, back to Berlin.

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