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Trip to Warsaw (Warszawa) and Kraków Poland

Sunday October 18 through Monday October 26, 2015

If you are primarily interested in the web page on Auschwitz and Berkenau, click here.

if you are primarily interested in the furniture from the Warsaw Castle, click here.


Jenny and I had heard that Poland was a wonderful place to visit, so we planned a trip to Warsaw. Then we heard that Kraków was even nicer than Warsaw. The rumors were right - Visit Poland, but if you only can visit one city, choose Kraków.

I was raised in Warsaw (New York), so knew the only proper spelling and pronunciation of the city was Warsaw, a two syllable word. To the locals in Poland, the city is "Warszawa," three syllables, "Var SA va." We should be used to unexpected names, after Köln (Cologne) Germany, Firenze (Florence) Italy, and others.

Trip Summary

We had already bought our tickets to Warsaw before deciding to add Kraków. Therefore we flew into Warsaw, as planned, took the subway/train from the airport (now directly connected to the air terminal) into the main Warszawa Centralna train station. From there we took the inter-city train to Kraków, a 2½ hour trip for $25.40 each.

Hotel Polonia in Kraków was perhaps the best tourist hotel ever for location, facilities, and price. Roughly a block from the main train station, and across the street from the entrance to the "old town."

On Thursday we returned to Warsaw - this time on the fancier train for just under $28 each.

For the return, we could not get from Warsaw to Texas without spending a night in London, New York, Chicago, Raleigh, or somewhere. We chose London for Sunday night and returned to Austin on Monday.

In Poland, summers are hot, and winters are cold. If I were planning a trip again, I would go closer to summer than mid-October. Temperature got close to freezing at night, and required a winter coat during most of the day (temperatures in the 40s). On the climate graphs April looks similar to October, so for a return trip I would shoot for May or September, skipping the mid-summer months with heat and school kids on holiday.

Getting There - October 18-19

A very routine American Airlines Sunday flight from Austin to Chicago to London Heathrow (terminal 3). Fortunately the British Airways flight from London to Warsaw also left from Terminal 3, rather than Terminal 5 (the primary BA terminal, a long bus ride away). Therefore we were able to make the one hour connection between AA and BA, allowing us to arrive in Warsaw before noon rather than at dinner time. Unfortunately our checked bag didn't run between gates as fast as we did. By the time we got to Warsaw, BA was able to tell us exactly where our bag was (still in London), and how it would be on the next flight to Warsaw Monday evening. They gladly arranged a Tuesday delivery to our hotel in Kraków. Lesson learned: If you have a tight connection, take toiletries and extra underwear in your carry-on. With the cold weather we didn't smell TOO bad wearing Sunday clothes on Tuesday.

(Sunday Evening and) Monday October 19 - Kraków

The Kraków Glówny central train station is well hidden - entirely underground. It is connected to a huge shopping center - that runs the length of the station. Go through the shopping center (the bus station is at the other side of the train station, so if you get there, you went the wrong way.) Go out the other side of the mall onto Pawia street, where you will turn left (South). (Once outside, look back for this view.) At the first major cross street turn right on Basztowa to the hotel (and old town).

Hotel Polonia is on the corner, but the entrance - a classical old building - is around the corner, not at the prominent doorway at the corner, as suggested by this picture. See the arrow for the entrance we used. Some reviewers complained about the old architecture (stay home if you don't want history), some complained about the noise (yes a busy tourist street, but we did not have a problem.)

Location between the old town and the train station - it doesn't get better than that. Nice room with breakfast for three days was only US$200. Doesn't get better than that either.

Once in our room, this is the view out the window of the old town. Just a park? No, the moat around the old town was filled in and planted with trees and grass - known as the planty (no kidding). Look beyond the trees for some of the old town buildings.

In our room we had the traditional push button hotel phone, but in the hallway was this classic. For the very young readers, "dial me up" refers to this type phone - put your finger in the hole that corresponds to each digit, and turn the dial to the right until it stops, then pull your finger out while the dial returns to normal. Although coil cords were invented in the late 1940s, I remember when they became common in the early 1950s. That makes this phone at least 65 years old. Charming.

When we arrived, I was put off by the antique elevator - swing the door open when you see the elevator car is there through the window in the door. There was no inside door on the car - just a very smooth wall and door for each floor. When it stops at your floor, push the door open. If you don't push within a few seconds, it assumes you were kidding, and it will go on to the next elevator call. It was so fast and efficient that we came to love it - better than most modern elevators.

Our room key was not a plastic card, but a metal key with teeth on it. Take it with you or leave it at the desk if you don't want to be burdened by a metal key.

Less than a block from our hotel was the Kraków Barbican, the historic fortified gateway connected to the city walls. It was built about 1498, and is one of only three such surviving fortifications in Europe. The trolley in front of the Barbican is on the same street as in front of our hotel, a half block away.

From the inside, the Barbican gate is more modest, with the beginning of the courtyard that ultimately becomes old town square.

Outside the gate was this war memorial. Somewhat more graphic than many, with a bronze dead body at the base. In front of this monument was a memorial with fresh flowers.

In fact we got to the square most often down a side street. By now the late afternoon light was fading, so the picture isn't as pretty as the buildings really were.

Along the way were numerous interesting buildings - not your usual city streets. This may have been part of a museum or theater in that general area - we just enjoyed the building.

It seems every tourist town has to offer horse carriage rides. Krakow does it with more glamour than most - note the horse decoration and the driver.

In the center of the square is a historical market building, known as the cloth hall based on historic use, but now functioning as a tourist junk market.

Jenny objected to characterizing the market as selling Tourist Junk. Many of the stalls were selling Amber, the yellow fossilized tree resin often found near the Baltic Sea. Poland and Lithuania were often combined, and Jenny's previous Amber came from Latvia, adjacent to Lithuania.

Dinner the first night was good, not great, but the dining room was interesting at Jama Michalika. Note the height of the chair back where Charlie is sitting.

A friend asked me if I had heard the Trumpeter of Kraków. From the tallest tower of St Mary's Church in the Square, a trumpeter plays a piece unique to each city, the "Hejnal Mariacki," every hour. (Hejnal means trumpet call, pronounced "hey now," and Mariacki relates to the St. Mary's tower.) Initially it was done morning and night to signal the opening and closing of he city gates, and to warn of fires or other dangers. Starting in the late 14th century it was played every hour for time keeping, played in the four directions of the tower. The trumpeter is a Fireman whose duty includes looking out over the city for fires. The song ends abruptly, by legend to recognize the trumpeter who was shot in the throat and killed as he was signaling the Mongol invasion of Poland in 1241. A YouTube video has a much better rendition than my recording on an iPhone from the Plaza.

We visited a tiny church in the corner of the square, near the market, left side of this picture, that turned out to be St. Adalbert Church. The small church was packed with people - all day Adoration. Since we went in the evening I had to borrow a 2005 picture by Pko on Wikimedia. It was built as a wooden church, consecrated in 997, rebuilt in stone in the next century, in the early 1600s rebuilt in the Baroque style with dome. At that time the walls were raised to accommodate the new plaza pavement level, which had been raised 6-8 feet to accommodate two other churches. It is merely 1,000 years old.

Tuesday October 20

We wandered back towards old town after a good night's sleep (but still wearing our Sunday travel clothes). One one side of the Barbican - city gate - they have constructed a bridge - what would have been a drawbridge over the moat.

You can also see the lower level entrances to the fortification.

Not far from the Barbican is the Florian Gate (dating from 1307). It is the beginning of the royal route walking through the city to the Wawel castle. I don't think the lady in the picture is frozen, but I am not sure.

This time through the plaza we did stop at St. Mary's (home of the bugler). Their high altar was "over the top"

And their pulpit rose to great heights. We thought about coming back for the tours that start at noon, but didn't make it. Perhaps another trip.

The sculptor, Igor Mitoraj, gave this "wrapped" hollow head to the City of Krakow. He wasn't satisfied where they wanted to put it, so it finally ended up in the main square. It has become a popular meeting point and photo backdrop.

Polish artist Jan Matejko was recognized with a sculpture of him, and a frame where visitors could pose as if they were in one of his pictures. It didn't work, even for a person as tall as me. Guess we will have to visualize his work as scenery with trees, even though he normally painted battle scenes.

Continuing along the Royal Route from the city gate through town we passed St. Peter and St. Paul Church, with sculpture of the 12 apostles at the fence.

In this area is the residence of the late Pope John Paul II. His home has become a museum (maybe next trip)

The Wawel Castle is on top of a hill at the south end of the Old Town, alongside the river. You can walk up the sloping road around the hill to easily reach the castle grounds. Poland is largely flat, so this hill is noteworthy.

As you go up the hill you can see the fortifications along the river.

The defensive tower is still prominent.

Despite countless churches in the city, the cathedral is on the castle grounds.

Some of the foundations of the previous buildings have been made into a garden, rather than just bare stones. It was quite attractive.

Surrounding the central court yard was this residence... Royalty on the first floor, servants on the second (or vice versa), and ballrooms for entertaining on the third floor.

Some of the very old, very fancy, decorations on the upper walls remain.

Why wasn't this destroyed by the Nazis when they occupied Kraków? Because they chose to live like royalty. The Nazi headquarters was in the room behind this ivy.

There are multiple museums in the Castle, with separate admission fees. As suggested by one of our guide books, you can see the most interesting part by wandering through the central areas without paying any fees. The guides recommend paying admission if you are going to spend the entire day. We were not.

Based on it's sequence in the camera, this interesting building is near the castle. Since we are looking down, it may be from the castle. But we have no idea what it is. Hints are welcome!

Oskar Schindler was an industrialist and not very loyal member of the Nazi party who saved hundreds of Jews from the gas chambers by using them as labor in his factory. Initially they were making enameled cooking pans, and later making ammunition (that, with sabotage by Schindler himself, was not effective). His factory on the outskirts of Krakow has become a Museum of the Nazi occupation, a short taxi ride from the castle.

Most people consider it a very good museum. It certainly has a large number of relevant exhibits. But each exhibit has a very detailed story in multiple languages. I felt like the teenagers who walked through the museum - too much to read so they didn't read any of it. Like the teenagers, I wished for the short version of the stories so I could enjoy more of the museum in the few hours we had available.

There were lots of exhibits in the Schindler Museum, but this German mini-tank was unique - it had a machine gun rather than a canon, and one or two person crew, reclining inside the tank.

It is hard to forget where you are. But the Museum Cafe had a more pleasant exhibit on the filming of the Movie "Schindler's List", much of it done at this factory.

Wednesday October 21 - Auschwitz

The Nazis had concentration camps, such as Sachsenhausen near Berlin, where there was a small chance of survival. After the meeting at the house of Wannsee to determine the "final solution" of the Jewish Question, high volume extermination camps were built. The few prisoners kept alive at the extermination camps were required to operate the crematoria and other horrific duties... until they themselves were killed and replaced by new arrivals.

Auschwitz was a concentration camp, that killed many Jews, political prisoners, gays, prisoners of war (Russians), Gypsies, and others, even though it's primary mission was a prison. The research on how to make killing an industrial process was done at Auschwitz: how much gas was required, how long it would take for people to die, the time to clear the gas and remove the bodies, and processing prior to cremation (e.g. removal of gold fillings), jewelry, hair, artificial limbs, etc., and the time to load the ovens.

Auschwitz I was close to the town of Oswiecim, so an annex camp was built a few miles away, Auschwitz II, also known at Birkenau. Gas chamber 1 and crematory 1 were at Auschwitz. Gas Chambers 2 through 5, and associated crematoria were at Birkenau. Each of the gas chambers held 2,000 people, and took two cans of Zyklon B insecticide, (Hydrogen Cyanide) dropped as pellets through holes in the ceiling, killing everyone in 20 minutes. After cremation their ashes were used as fertilizer or landfill, or dumped in the river.

Auschwitz III - Monowitz - was a labor camp 4.3 miles east of Auschwitz I, providing labor for a synthetic rubber (buna) plant. Life expectancy in Monowitz was about 3 months. There were 45 additional sub-camps, 28 serving companies in the armaments industry.

At the entrance to each concentration camp is the sign "Arbeit Macht Frei" or roughly "work sets you free." Prisoners thought they were coming to work camps, perhaps for a finite time, not for the rest of their lives.

The entrance to Birkenau had no pretense of working making you free. The trainloads of prisoners went directly in.

Inside the gate the track split into two, with a platform between the trains. Notice no guards, dogs, or guns - everyone still believed they were just being relocated.

Women and children were lined up on one side, men on the other. In the next step, older or frail men were selected to join the women. The women, children, and older men were marched directly to the delousing station and showers, otherwise known as the gas chamber. The younger healthy men were housed temporarily until they could be worked to death.

It is not simple to drive to Auschwitz, and at many times of the year you are apparently required to have a guide. Therefore we took (and highly recommend) the "See Kraków Local Tours" to Auschwitz, which can be booked through most hotels or information centers in Kraków. A small hotel-style Mercedes Sprinter bus picked us up at our hotel (one of several stops), drove to both camps, and brought us back. A very knowledgeable English speaking guide took us through the camps. The cost of the 6 hour trip was US$77.47 for both of us. As we got started, the couple in front of us asked "where are you from?" "Texas." "Where in Texas?" "Austin." "So are we." The next person on the bus was also from Austin. Small world.

Auschwitz and Birkenau are grim, so I made a separate web page. Hopefully you will honor the millions killed and keep the knowledge of the holocaust alive by spending some sad time there.

Thursday October 22 - Warsaw

On Thursday morning we took the train from Krakow back to Warsaw. Our hotel was the modern Novotel Centrum. From the window you can see the train station just over a block away - the low black building with a white sign on it's front, appearing just above the billboard in the picture.

Not far away, but impossible to get there if you consider the streets and traffic with few crosswalks. Secret - use the underground subways!

The hotel was close enough to old town that it was easier to walk than take taxi, bus, or subway, but it still took 20 minutes. Continue down Al Jerozolimskie (Jerusalem Street) a couple blocks past the hotel, as if you were continuing from the train station. When you find this fake palm tree, turn left and you are entering the area. We did not find a reasonable price place to stay what would have been better than the Novotel.

Downtown Warsaw has some interesting buildings.

You need to have at least one Polish joke. I thought if you were open all the time except 4 to 6 am, that would be 22 hours, not 24 hours

Walking to Old Town we saw this. McFit sounds a lot like McDonalds. And if you need a hint, it was at the back of a McDonalds Hamburger place. We checked, and yes McFit is a chain of Gyms affiliated with McDonalds here.

When they do gardens - where there is space for a garden - they do it very well.

Friday October 23 - Old Town Warsaw

In 1944 the Germans reduced Warsaw to ruins with the intention of obliterating the centuries old traditions of Polish Statehood. The rebuilding of the historic city, which was 85% destroyed, preserved it's historic urban and architectural form, including the Old Town Market, town houses, the Royal Castle, the circuit of the city walls, and important religious buildings. Thus practically everything that follows was reproduced after the war, using the historical crafts and styles

Warsaw is very proud that Chopin was originally from Poland, although he spent the latter part of his life in Paris. When he died at age 39 he wanted his heart to be buried in Poland, so it was brought to Holy Cross Church. The fascination with Chopin is so great that there are brief daily piano concerts featuring his work so that tourists can attend, no matter when their visit is scheduled. There are even recordings in some public benches that can play Chopin while you are waiting for the bus.

Inside the church the heart is in this column. It was exhumed briefly in April 2014 to be sure it was still safely floating in liquid, but scientists were not allowed to run tests to see if he died of Tuberculosis as assumed. A wax seal was added over the liquid, and the heart was returned that same night, with the schedule that it should not be disturbed again for 50 years.

Nicolaus Copernicus was born on 19 February 1473 in an area that was part of the Polish Kingdom, so the Poles can legitimately have bragging rights. He was the one who figured out the sun was the center of the solar system, rather than the earth. In addition to his math skills, he had a doctorate in canon law, practiced as a physician, classics scholar, translator, governor, diplomat, and economist. (In 1517 he derived the quantity theory of money - the key concept in economics.) He was fluent in Latin, German, Polish, Greek, and Italian.

In one area wealthy families were given land to rebuild in the appropriate style. When they were ready to move on, they were asked to donate their houses to the University or government. Now one could ask if columns of four robust men examining their abs is the appropriate style.

Approaching and within old town there are many Catholic churches, often touching each other (sharing a wall). Most are very active with many services, unlike Santiago where there were lots of churches but most were closed, except for possibly one mass per week.

The design inside many of the churches were more beautiful than traditional.

We got a kick out of the pills in this drugstore window.

The older buildings were rebuilt using the old plaster techniques with pictures and patterns in the surface, called sgraffiti or scraffito.

I believe the way they do this is to put on two layers, then cut the design in by removing the outer layer.

Lots of larger buildings, perhaps university

Some interesting but not as large

And many just in a business area

Leaving the castle (courtyard today, but full tour tomorrow)

Nothing boring here - this is not a simple downtown

but a well decorated market square

If it were tourist season rather than October, I bet this place would be jammed.

Remember everything is having to be rebuilt after World War II. Apparently it is still going on. I love the way the contractors decorate their protective covering with pictures of what they are building.

There are portions of the wall still around the city (or rebuilt around the old city).

One portion of the wall has a memorial to the children who had to act as soldiers.

Saturday October 24 - Royal Castle

We saw the courtyard of the castle on Friday, but returned on Saturday for a full tour. The furniture was so impressive that I have created a separate furniture page rather than just selecting a couple for the travelogue.

The castle keeps going around the courtyard

And around and around. That is a frozen lady in this picture.

There were several royalties living here, so there were several throne rooms, for when they had guests or official visitors.

The overall architecture was fancier than our home!

next throne

Some of the floors were amazing woodworks.

This green throne was in an alcove. The panels on either side appear to be doors; to the right was a fireplace.

Another amazing floor, but even more amazing is that they let us mortals walk on it.

And still another noteworthy floor.

The castle chapel. Hopefully this doesn't count against then maximum number of churches I am allowed in the travelogues.

Much of the area open to tourists is on the second floor. This blue staircase was quite stunning, even from the top.

Why this dumb picture of a flat wall? Because it was absolutely flat, outside the tourist rest rooms. No tile. No window. Painted so well that I had to look at it from the side to confirm that it really was just an illusion.

Finally another throne at the far end of the castle.

Saturday October 24 - National Museum of Warsaw

This is one of the most dramatic altar triptychs I have seen.

Unusual art, but it certainly makes Jesus trip to his crucifixion very real.

Residents of the Nile River valley converted to Christianity about 548 AD, and built a cathedral. A Polish archeologist was a key member of the international "Nubia Project" to preserve ancient artifacts threatened by flooding from the Aswan high dam in Egypt. They discovered the cathedral with many paintings on the plaster walls in the ancient city of Faras (hence the Faras gallery in the museum).

Since the paintings were on the plaster walls, to remove the painting they had to remove a thin layer of plaster. Some even had a hint of color - this was believed to be Mary.

A whole gallery was created in approximately the shape and size of the cathedral, so that the paintings could be displayed in the original relation to each other.

This was a contract to supply wine, written in Greek, in AD 619.

The paintings we saw in Poland were often stunning

Certainly as fine as we have seen anywhere,

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