Sunday, 3 November 2013

A Book to Read in Krakow

Posted By Daisy

I went to Krakow last year on a city break. I loved the city, but couldn't sleep for a week after visiting the horrors at Auschwitz. When we got home, I donated the white painted vintage suitcase under my coffee table to a friend, and got rid of a picture of silver-hued trees in my bedroom, as it reminded me too much of the woods behind Birkenhau. I wrote this for a travel feature published last year.

A YOUNG man with a prosthetic leg and a walking cane drinks beer with his girlfriend in a café on the main square. Two tiny ladies study a city map on a pavement hoarding before taking their seats and ordering espressos and some water. A homeless woman in a raincoat does a moonwalk shuffle past the first layer of café chairs. She stops beside a girl in a Day-Glo green visor who swiftly extracts some coins from her purse.

Pigeons scatter as a long-haired man holding a ‘Free Walking Tour’ placard ambles about followed by a group of tourists. People point upwards outside St Mary’s Basilica, listening to the hourly trumpet call coming from the steeple. In the Cloth Hall, permanent stalls peddle carved chess sets, fridge magnets and wooden children’s toys. Horse-drawn carriages clip-clop through the square, following the Royal route towards the Wawel castle.

Mention a city-break in Krakow and people remember three things. The Square, Auschwitz and the Salt Mines.

Rows of travel agencies on Grodzka Street pedal day trips and before I have time to think, a day-trip to Auschwitz is booked with on-bus educational video and picnic lunch included. Outside the camp, the sign, ‘Work Sets You Free’ glints in the daytime sun as crowds of teenage school tours and middle-aged couples surge forward at the ticket barrier. A nearby shop sells flower garlands and candles in stained glass holders, which visitors lay at the Death Wall inside, or the iron hanging hooks situated on the side of one of the streets in side. The tour guide is solemn and rarely smiles during the three-hour tour.

We visit the site of Auschwitz 1 first where two-storey red bricked houses are laid out in neat rows surrounded by barbed-wire fences. Now a series of museums, this area once served as an administrative centre, medical experimentation centre and torture centre. The first exhibit shows huge photographs of prisoners arriving in Auschwitz, smiling and unaware of their fate. Deeper into the tour are the rooms full of the prisoners’ possessions taken by the Nazis and stored in huge warehouses which were known as ‘Canada, the Land of the Plenty.’ Everything was taken, from hair which was made into fabric, to gold-teeth which were extracted from the bodies by fellow inmates in a room next to the gas chambers.

The rooms of possessions are next. In one there are thousands of gravestone-like battered suitcases with names and addresses beautifully painted on them, some bearing the handwritten label ‘child’. Next is the Room of Hair where hundreds of chopped-off plaits sit casually atop mounds of hair. It may as well be bodies. Other rooms contain huge piles of shoes, baby clothes, prosthetic limbs, shaving brushes and eyeglasses. Walls of black-and-white photographs of men and women in striped pyjamas surround the prisoners living quarters. There is a flower atop one of these photographs, perhaps left by a relative.

We take a bus to the extermination camp at Birkenhau, ten minutes away. Its red-bricked train station is instantly recognisable. An original wooden train carriage still stands at the platform where exhausted people were divided into those who could work and those who could not. I had previously seen a photo on-line of a young dwarf-sized man sitting on a chair on this platform, looking bewildered at the crowds around him, totally unaware that his stature sealed his fate. Once chosen, women, children and the elderly and sick walked 1 ½ kilometres up the platform to the gas chambers, reassured by the soldiers that they would be having dinner after a shower. The four gas chambers are gone now, destroyed by the fleeing Germans, and never rebuilt, out of respect to the 8000 people per day who were murdered there. But pieces of wall remain in the rubble and plaques from every nation adorn a walkway.

After Auschwitz, I have no interest in visiting Oskar Schindler’s factory, or the Galicia Jewish Museum, or the Pharmacy Museum which details the plight of the Jewish ghetto victims. It’s simply too much suffering to bear. The Square of the Ghetto victims has a permanent installation of 70 large wooden chairs to remember the Jewish people who were moved into the walled ghetto after the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany.

We head to the beautiful Jewish quarter of Kazimiertz. At the Ariel café (frequented by Stephen Spielberg and his crew during the filming of Schindler’s List), there is a large family having a lively dinner served by elderly waiters. I drink hot chocolate at a polished tiled table filled with gold grout and study the paintings of Jewish elders lining the walls. ‘Once Upon A Time in Kazimiertz’ is an interesting. Consisting of a row of original shops amalgamated into one restaurant, the shop fronts still bear the Jewish names of the carpenter, the grocer, the tailor and the general store. The menu offers chopped chicken livers with eggs in truffle sauce, veal jelly with quail egg and green peas.

At the nearby Remuh Synagogue and cemetery, there is a wall of plaques dedicated to the victims of the holocaust. One is donated by Henry and Lola Tenenbaum, New York. Later, I discover that Krakovian expatriate, Lola, watched her mother being transported to Auschwitz on Mother’s Day, 1944. Another family plaque remembers the 88 members of the Ferber family who were killed during the Holocaust.

The Museum of Ethnography in the former Kazimiertz town hall, provides a welcome break from the all-pervasive sadness and I have an interesting ramble through Polish life past and present, with costumes, farming implements, childrens’ toys and a recreation of a rural classroom all on display.

My hotel recommends a trip to the ski-resort of  Zacopane and the Tatras National Park, a two-hour drive from Krakow. Lionel Richie and Roxette play on the radio as we zoom up the motorway, spying bleak countryside, and unattractive bungalows with dormer windows and smoking chimneys and piles of chopped firewood stacked against lean-tos.

Many Polish taxi drivers remain silent until you speak to them. Once encouraged, they love to chat. One man tells us all about his Scottish cousin who’s embroiled in a bitter family feud. This taxi driver guide speaks no English and deposits me at the ski lift at the ski resort of Zacopane, smiling and signalling that he will wait. With the ski season over, it’s deserted at the top, with piles of slush, and some empty cafes. An old woman sells the ubiquitous pierogis (dumplings stuffed with potato or cheese) on top of an upturned bucket. I speak no Polish and nobody can tell us how to get the entrance of the National Park.

We trudge through the slush in the deserted ski resort, and head down to check out the pretty log-cabin lined town of Zacopane. At €120, it’s an expensive and disappointing day trip.

My advice is to learn some Polish before you go. Plenty of Krakovians speak perfect English. But many do not. And buy a guidebook. And carry a pocketful of zloty coins wherever you go. Toilet-trips cost 1 zloty everywhere. Sometimes even in a café where you’ve already bought a beer.

A three-hour guided tour around the Wielicska Salt mines is interesting. On the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites (along with the site at Auschwitz and  Krakow’s Historic town centre), we walk hundreds of steps down to the mines, seeing chandeliers, statues and a church all made of salt, before whooshing up to ground level in a shaky metal lift.

Back in Krakow’s old town, we eat steak smothered in blue-cheese sauce in Scandale Royal, and  drink vodka in the uber-cool communist-like bar, Antycafe, with a silent movie projector showing grainy cartoons on a wall, with ‘What’s Next’ daubed in red paint beside it. The Jazz Rock club beneath the bar is cavernous, with scary black-clad, pierced and tattooed goths grunging to a surprisingly mainstream selection of Linkin Park and Nirvana classics.

Krakow fizzes with history, beautiful architecture, and a quiet sense of cool. The perfect spot for a winter city break.
Allen Carr's Easy Way to Stop Smoking
I first read this book during my J1 working summer in Seattle. In 2001. And managed to give up for a year. Since then, I’ve given up many, many times but always gave in eventually. Who knew it was simply a change of scenery that would finally persuade me to renounce the dirty things for once and for all?
Stephen King once said (before he gave up) that he thought smoking improved his writing as it helped the synapses in the brain. I’ve written a few features since giving up smoking, and they worked out fine. However, I did almost miss a deadline recently for the first time in 7 years – can I blame the lack of nicotine?
This time, I was surprised that I actually found it easy enough to give up. I was staying with my sister and her family - she hates smoking and usually wafts a hand in front of her nose whenever I came inside after having a cigarette. And it felt horrible hugging the babies after a cigarette. It was almost easier to give up than face the criticism on a daily basis. I also knew I didn't want to get into the habit of smoking in London, or to associate London with smoking at all.
I fully expect to gain at least half a stone, and I no longer wear my red or light blue skinny jeans, as they are simply too tight now. I eat cakes from the next-door deli every day for lunch, and they’ve christened me ‘The Feeder’ in the office as I try daily to press my calorific stash upon my workmates. Thank God for all the walking I do in London.
(Btw, my friends were visiting last weekend and I smoked outside a bar at 2 a.m.  - but I've allowed myself one little slip up....oops)



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