Our Diary News from Poland

Although not classified as a Baltic state, Poland's northern coast is well and truly in the Baltic. This huge country is full of heritage and we planned to spend a little time here. An unexpected email from old cruising friends Cam and Arni off Jade provided us with the opportunity of a little diversion. We had last caught up with Jade in New Zealand seven years previously. They were planning to be in Puck - pronounced "push-ka" - Polish is such a unique language! - as Nancy, one of their daughters, was going to be competing in the Junior World Optimist Championships at the same time we were in Poland. Any excuse for a party - so we curtailed our planned stay in Warsaw and booked a train ticket to Puck. The Polish railway system is excellent; cheap and modern with high speed trains between major cities. However there is no rail connection between Lithuania and Poland - Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave, is in the way. This made the coach trip from Vilnius to Warsaw interesting - we skirted Kaliningrad along small country roads in our large coach and stopped at a border post in the middle of the forest for a passport check - all a bit John Le Carré-ish.

We arrived in Warsaw at lunch time and only had that afternoon and evening to explore the city. Warsaw had been completely destroyed in the war and has been gradually rebuilt - both the Nazi and Soviet occupations had left their toll. Today there are modern buildings replacing a number of the badly built Soviet ones. Christine had discovered an afternoon walking tour which covered the

old Jewish quarter; this was mainly a talk about the Holocaust - none of the buildings remain. There was a poignant reminder of Mila 18 where the last of the freedom fighters chose suicide over capture. The rest were shipped to Auschwitz, which was to be part of our Polish itinerary. The "old town" of Warsaw was rebuilt by the Soviets using modern bricks and layout - a bit Disney-ish in appearance.

An early morning train took us to Puck the next day. Unbeknownst to us this was a major holiday weekend and the venue for a large pop concert. We had struggled to find accommodation and ended up in a guesthouse in Wladyslawowo just up the train line from Puck. Both Puck and Wladyslawowo - close to a place called Hel! - are seaside towns protected by a 40 km spit jutting out into the Baltic Sea. It was easy to see why it is a popular dinghy sailing venue with flat waters, little tide and good winds. Arni, Cam and Nancy turned up at our guesthouse, complete with caravan in tow. We joined them in the search for a campsite - just like old times looking for a suitable anchorage. The area around Puck was crowded and they ended up staying quite close to our hotel. Like all cruisers we spent a lovely couple of days catching up, reminiscing, eating and drinking with a trip to Hel thrown in for good luck. After this lovely interlude we took another early morning train all the way south across Poland to Krakow.

The eight hour journey to Krakow was pleasant enough and a after a short taxi ride we found ourselves in a lovely apartment in the old Jewish Quarter close to the centre. Christine soon loaded up the washing machine; however the instructions were in Russian and a few mishaps with the controls resulted in a six-hour washing cycle, finishing at 3am! Still, it was good to eventually have some clean clothes again…
Krakow is in the south of Poland and is a medieval city that has maintained many of its original buildings and traditions. Its fortune lies in its close proximity to a huge salt deposit and being on the main trading route from Hungary to Italy. Krakow's other claim to fame is the Jagiellonian University where Nicolaus Copernicus studied. A tour of this historical site was full of interest. The rest of the city was equally consuming with many sites worth visiting. From the tall tower of the main cathedral, a fanfare is played by a trumpeter every hour. The fanfare is repeated from each of the four sides of the tower, but the last ends abruptly on a broken note - in recognition of when the original trumpeter was shot by an arrow from the invading Tartars centuries ago. All the trumpeters are active firemen!

Outside of Krakow are two worthwhile sites, the Salt Mines to the east, and Auschwitz to the west. Most tourists take excursions and split these visits over two days. We wanted to visit both sites in one day and were unable to get an excursion so we arranged a car and driver; relatively expensive but easy as the company arranged all tours and tickets. The four hour tour of the salt mine was impressive, despite only 5% of the mine being open to the public. Apart from the historical and geological aspects we were also impressed with the artistic caverns and statues- whole churches and chapels beautifully adorned, with everything carved out of salt.

In complete contrast, after an hour's drive, we arrived in Auschwitz/Birkenau Concentration Camp. This monument to man's inhumanity to man was very moving and poignant. The main impression that hits you is the sheer scale of the site; rows upon rows of austere low red brick and wooden buildings disappearing into the horizon, too many to count. Each one held around one thousand internees. Over 1.3 million innocents held in the camp were sent to the slaughter. A further 1-2 million - nobody knows the exact number - never reached the camp and went straight to the gas chambers, sorted on arrival at the railway siding. Although the largest, this was only one of many such camps across Nazi-occupied Europe. Walking around this place and listening to the guide evoked many different emotions - sadness, anger, pity and certainly a resolve to not see this happen again. But history keeps repeating itself even today and in recent history similar atrocities are/have happened.

After this we decided that we needed some cheering up and shared a bottle of wine and a traditional Polish meal followed by a classical music concert in one of the small concert halls.

The next morning found us at the train station again ready to board the train to Vienna.