Friday, October 31, 2014

Auschwitz-Birkenau (Oświęcim, Poland)

As we were planning our trip to Poland, we knew that we needed to include some historical sites related to WWII and the Holocaust, as these are significant aspects of Polish history.  Kraków itself escaped much of the bombing that flattened cities like Warsaw, allowing its medieval architecture to remain intact (as we saw in Old Town).  But it was just outside of Kraków, in Auschwitz-Birkenau, that the Nazis first experimented with the gas chambers that would become the "final solution."  The camps are now a memorial and museum; we put this on our must-see list of sights.  (We had hoped to see the Schindler Factory museum, as well, but didn't manage to find time to get there.)  We took a bus from Kraków to Oświęcim, a small town where former Polish army barracks became Auschwitz and where the Nazis built the Birkenau extermination camp, using the forced labor of those brought to the camps.

These birds greeted us as we arrived at Oświęcim to see the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial & Museum. I couldn't identify the species of bird, although they seemed vaguely pigeon-like. We had a quick bite to eat on the benches outside the museum, waving away bees, before we embarked on the four hour tour of the camps.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Wieliczka Salt Mine (Poland)

Sculpture in the Chapel of St. Kinga in the Wieliczka Salt Mine

After exploring Old Town in Kraków, we took a bus trip out to see the Wieliczka Salt Mine.  The Wieliczka Salt Mine has been in operation from the 13th century (although at this point there is no salt being mined; miners work to maintain the structures of the mine). Legend has it that the salt in the mine was the dowry of Princess Kinga, who became the patron saint of salt miners. The mine is enormous -- 300 km over 9 levels (but the tours only include the upper three levels). The tour includes displays of how salt was mined as well as the amazing sculptures created from salt by the miners.

The mine contains a number of chapels, but the St. Kinga chapel is the most impressive. It is a huge chamber, full of detailed sculptures and bas-reliefs made from rock salt (including a replica of The Last Supper and a statue of Pope John Paul II). The sculptures in this chapel were made over the course of 30 years by just a few of the miners in their spare time. The artistry is exquisite. You can see more of the sculptures here.  

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Old Town (Kraków, Poland)

Singing group in the Maly Rynek in Kraków

Generally, my schedule revolves around the academic year, so if we take a vacation, we do so during the summer.  But this year, I'm on sabbatical (my first sabbatical ever), so we were able to take a trip in the fall.  We spent two weeks visiting Kraków in Poland and Prague in the Czech Republic.  (Note that this travelogue will not be precisely sequential, but rather thematic or by area -- we visited some areas more than once, so I'll sometimes use photos from different days of our trip in the same post.  You can click on the photos to enlarge them, if desired.)

Our visit to
Kraków coincided with the Kraków Film and Music Festival, so there were various performances, films, and booths set up in the Maly Rynek (small town square) and the Rynek Główny (main town square) in Old Town. The town squares had a festive atmosphere, even at night, which was quite delightful -- lots of vendors and food stalls, as well as performers.  The photo above shows one of the performing groups in the Maly Rynek, presumably singing traditional Polish music.