Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Behind the Iron Curtain - Poland


Destination: Czestochowa, Wieliczka & Auschwitz, Poland

Number of Days Spent: 2 days

Where we stayed: Czestochowa - Dom Pielgryma behind the Jasna Gora Monastery - 136 ZTL ($44 no breakfast or wifi)

Best restaurant: All meals came out of our but not all that inspiring.

Best of: The salt cathedral and its Last Supper was impressive, albeit expensive to get into.

Worst of: Poland is a country on the rise after years of Iron Curtain rule and neglect. As such, almost every major road is in some sort of construction; if driving, expect long delays as many roads narrow to one lane traffic.

Most Memorable: Hundreds of pilgrims on their way to see the Black Madonna, along with the "reverence police". Walking solemnly through the hallowed grounds of Auschwitz - sight of the most horrific crimes against humanity.

Useful Tip: Bring a tripod if you want to take photos in the salt mine . The mine is quite dark and it's difficult to get decent photographs.

Driving from Leann's house our first stop of the day for at Bolishivek for a bit of Polish pottery shopping. Unfortunately our time was limited and it being the weekend many shops closed early so no purchases were made but we do have some ideas for our next trip!

Poland is a deeply religious country, which is evident in the sheer number of pilgrims that come each and every day to Jasna Gora. Jasna Gora is Poland's most famous shrine to the Virgin Mary and our first official tourist stop in Poland. One would think that with the number of people visiting there was some kind of special event but it's apparently mobbed with pilgrims every day from sun up to sun down. Jasna Gora is known for its Black Madonna (pictured below but very far away as you could not get even remotely close to it). This Black Madonna is credited with several miracles which include saving the monastery during a siege by the Swedes. After the successful repelling of the Swedes here, the movement swept through the nation and the Black Madonna became the savior of the nation. Every day the entire church swells with people just aiming to get into the chapel to pray. More of a pilgrimage site than a tourist one, some of the worshipers were quick to remind us of proper behavior. If you have cold hands, tough it out - hands in your pockets are a sign of disrespect. Don't get too close to the open confessional booth! Some seemed more intent on correcting us than actually worshipping.

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Our next stop took us through a very dark era in history, the Holocaust. Few places are as moving and heart wrenching as Auschwitz. Originally set up as a labor camp and a place to hold POW's, dissenters, political prisoners and European Jews, the camp became a death camp after the "Final Solution" was declared by Hitler and the Nazis in 1942. It was here that they discovered a sanitizer, if used in high dosages, would kill. The cruel sign as you walk in reads "Work will set you free". So few people that walked under that sign were ever able to taste freedom ever again.

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Upon arrival by train, many were sent directly to the gas chambers while the ones that were fit to work, would continue to build the camp larger and larger until they too met their demise. Most displays are aimed to help you grasp the scale and number of deaths that occurred here. The most moving ones include a sea of children's shoes, mounds of human hair (everyone was shaved upon arrival and the hair was sold to make linens) and thousands of suitcases (they all thought they were being relocated so they packed as many belongings as they could carry). The power of seeing the atrocities committed here is, without a doubt, one of the most moving moments of our travels.

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After visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau we needed something a bit more light hearted so we settled on Wieslicka salt mine. Another Usesco site, Wieslicka is one of the largest salt mines and certainly the most beautiful in Europe. Workers there were miners by day and amateur sculpters by night. Their creations include a stunning salt cathedral, complete with a 3 dimensional Last Supper. The mine itself is over 14 levels deep but on the tour you only visit 3 of them. The tour by the way, is rather expensive, about $20. It is fully guided and in English though and lasts about 2 1/2 hours. Pope John Paul II, by the way, is from nearby Krakow (next posting) and considered a local hero. You cannot go anywhere without seeing his image.

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On our drive through Poland and down in the Czech Republic we ran across several old style wooden churches which are also collectively on the Unesco list. Oftentimes located in the middle of nowhere they are surprisingly elaborate on the inside!

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To see more photos click on the link below!

Wieslicka's Salt Mines

Auschwitz Birkenau

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