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The Light and Dark of Poland

Updated: Nov 12, 2020

We got to take an overnight train as we traveled from Berlin to Krakow in Poland. The distance by train takes at least 6 or 7 hours, and the best way to cover the distance is to sleep while doing it. The three of us shared a cabin on a train, with three beds stacked along one wall and a little wiggle room to move about on the other side. Once we ate the food we brought on board the train, we settled in and let the sound of the rails and the motion of the train lull us to sleep.

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I think everyone got a decent night’s sleep by the time the conductor informed us we were about 30 minutes out from Krakow. Our apartment was just across the street from the train station, and the station itself is also home to a three-story mall. With the old city just 5 minutes away walking, we had everything we needed at our fingertips.

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After some breakfast and showers, we headed into the Old City to see what we could see. The city was still waking up, and it was nice to stroll through the quiet streets and see the main square without many people. We decided to keep strolling south, past the castle (we’ll get back to that), and through the Old Jewish quarter of the city to take a peek at Oskar Schindler’s factory. If you don’t know the story behind Oskar Schindler, be sure to check it out! They even made a movie about it called Schindler’s List. Although the inside is now a museum and very little remains of the factory itself, it was really neat to see.

Old Town Krakow

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A not so great picture of Schindler's factory

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That wasn’t even the highlight of the day though! At noon we jumped on a bus to the small town of Wieliczka. Never heard of it? I don’t entirely blame you. However, this town is built on a massive salt mine dating from the 13th century. There’s no mining going on there now, so the site is open to tourists, with two types of tours available. Since I’ve been there once before, I opted to try out the Miner’s Route. Catherine will share her experience in the Tourist Route with Ethan.

A mining we will go

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The Miner’s Route is an opportunity to play dress up as a miner and descend into the mine to… Actually “work”. I hot suited up in full miner regalia sans shoes, with hard hat, light, battery pack, and ventilator, if needed. I then joined a group of 11 others and we headed down a total of 105 meters underground to learn about what miners did and get assigned jobs to do ourselves. Our foreman was a tough woman with a dry sense of humor. It was impossible to tell when she was being serious or not, but it all added to the fun.

Going down

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Once down in the mine, it was completely black, and eerily quiet. We only had the lights on our heads to help us find our way. We wandered through passages for a few hours, performing the tasks that the miners once did. Although they do a great job of making sure the mines are as safe as possible, there are still potential dangers, and one of those is methane. I was assigned to be the methane detector, and I had to use a tube I would hold to the top of the mine shaft (methane is lighter than air) and check for methane. I never found even a trace of it, which made my job a little boring but I guess that’s better than being dead!

Not creepy at all... So that's good...

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It was my (Catherine's) turn to have an adventure with Ethan exploring the salt mine on what they call the ‘tourist route'. At the start of our tour, we were warned to always stay with the group because one can easily get lost in the salty labryinth. As we wandered from tunnel to tunnel I soon realized that the guide was not joking! Fortunately, we did not get separated from the group but I did find it hard at times to move on from certain places because of how amazing the mine was. Believe it or not, some of the miners were also artists but only one was ever formally educated. Sculptures and friezes made entirely of salt decorated many of the chambers we visited.

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Salt sculpture of Pope John Paul II

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There is even a large cathedral in the mine, which was also the biggest highlight of the tour. When we reached the cathedral chamber, a choir was singing, demonstrating how great the acoustics were. That really was something to experience!

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Salt chapel... Even the chandeliers are made of salt!

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We learned a lot as we went deeper and deeper in the mine. Salt was a huge money maker for so many years and those that worked the mine did so because they wanted to. The pay was good but there were obvious risks working in such an environment. Before going to the salt mine, Noah told Ethan that the walls were made of salt that you can lick. After hearing this, I lost count of how many times Ethan asked me if he could lick the walls before we even arrived. Thinking about how many other people had already touched or licked the walls kinda grossed me out so I always responded with a ‘We'll see…’ Early on in the tour, our guide said salt has self-anti-bacterial properties and we could actually lick anything except the floor and the sculptures. So, in case you were wondering, I let him have a taste. I wasn’t quite ready myself then but shortly before we left the mine, I caved and licked a wall too. So far, we are both alive and well…

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The next day we had different planned itineraries yet again. Catherine really wanted to visit Auschwitz, and since I had been there already, and since we didn’t think it would be appropriate to take Ethan there, I got to spend the day with him. Catherine ended up having to make a very early start, which you can read all about in her section below. Our plan? Paint the town red!

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We unashamedly slept in a little bit before hitting the town. We wandered through the old city before reaching the playground that Google led us to. It turned out to be a really nice area, and Ethan loved the sand area (complete with toys), swings, and slides. We also visited a virtual reality pad at the mall, which changes depending on where you step. We’ve found those in a few places around the world and they are a lot of fun.

Play time!

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Virtual reality pad

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It was great just having a day where Ethan could decide what to do. We try to give him time at parks and time at “home” to unwind and although he is very good natured and makes the most of every place we go, I don’t think some of the museums we visit would be his first choice. So when we said park, we did the park. When he said pizza, he got pizza. Between that and all the adventures he comes up with as we walk around, I think we had a great day and a really nice bonding time.

Couple of cool dudes

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Catherine's Visit to Auschwitz...

The events of World War II have been of interest to me since I was in grade school. Even today, I find it hard to believe that such a dark time occurred within the last 100 years. When Noah and I put together the places we would journey to in Europe, I did not have a real grasp on how much of the continent was forever changed and on so many levels due to the war. Life has obviously continued on for these countries, but there are numerous traces from the war that make it hard to forget the dark past. The concentration camps of Auschwitz are such a reminder.

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Entering what they call Auschwitz 1, I immediately felt the heaviness. Moving from barrack to barrack, I was overwhelmed by the atrocities that happened there not that long ago. I walked through the exhibits and read every posted sign explaining who or what each barrack contained and their purpose. I walked right up to the Death Wall where so many people were shot and killed. Without realizing, I found my way to a reconstruction of a gas chamber and crematorium with no one else around to share the eeriness of the place. Even if I hadn't taken photos, the images would have stuck with me forever.

Recreated gas chamber and crematorium

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Once inside, you see the ovens

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Another sight that hit hard, and one that you could not take a picture of, was the collection of shoes from all the people that were brought to the concentration camp. So, so, so many shoes from men, women, and children. I knew very well before coming that this particular day would be rather tough, but seeing the personal belongings, the mounds of hair removed and kept for repurposing, and pictures of how sickly thin even the children were was no less than overwhelming. After a few hours, I moved on to the nearby Birkenau Camp (aka Auschwitz 2). Many more barracks were constructed here to house the prisoners, but most are no longer standing. This is also where the victims would face selection for labor or imminent extermination.

Train tracks that brought in the vicitims and also where 'selection' took place

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As the realization that the Nazis were losing the war settled in, they attempted to hide evidence of what the camp was really up to by blowing up the gas chambers and crematoria. Short on time, however, their attempts at a cover up failed.

Gas chamber / crematorium remains

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I could write much more on what I saw and felt throughout my time in Auschwitz. But if you ever have the opportunity to go to, you should. Movies, documentaries, and books on the events of WW2 are great references. Being inside the actual concentration camps brings awareness of those tragic events to a whole new level.

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On day three in Krakow, we wanted to visit more of the old city. We headed up the hill to Wawel Castle, the seat of many of Poland’s rulers before the monarchy moved to Warsaw. We got to tour the State and Private rooms, as well as the cathedral where kings were once coronated. Rumor has it that a dragon was felled here and its bones are still on display at the cathedral. It is said that if the bones ever fall, the world will end. So far so good… but I hope those chains are strong!

Wawel Castle

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Wawel Cathedral

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Dragon bones

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That evening we headed on a fast train north for a quick stay in Warsaw. We’d already spent a few weeks there in the past, but as we arrived we both wished we’d planned more time here. We were just using Warsaw to catch a bus further north, but we still wanted to make the most of our time there. Although we arrived after 8pm, our apartment was situated right above a restaurant, and with the nice discount they gave we had a nice Polish meal there before turning in for the night.

Dinner time

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Since our bus left late in the evening, we took a walking tour of Warsaw’s Old City. It’s still called the old city, but unfortunately about 90% of it was destroyed in World War 2 – some during the initial attack in 1939 and the rest in 1944 when the people of Warsaw tried to rise up against the Nazis. The city has been beautifully restored, but retains an interesting mix of old buildings, reconstructed old buildings, new buildings, and very obviously communist ones. I’m not sure there’s another city like it.

Warsaw's old city

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Warsaw Palace

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We spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the sunny, summer like weather as we wandered through the rest of the old city and along the Vistula River. Grabbing a dinner of pierogis, those deliciously stuffed noodles, we eventually found the location our bus was leaving from. It took off right on time with us on board, to destinations known. We’re headed to Lithuania, the first of our Baltic countries, and all the adventures that await us there. Stay tuned!

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