As I begin this post, our tour coach is driving west from Krakow towards Auschwitz. I suspect that I won’t feel up to writing in the hours after this visit; our group is already quiet, travelling sotto voce. Fittingly, the weather is cool and damp, as it has been on and off so far; that’s Spring for you and we are a fair distance from the equator!
Our main day in Budapest was diminished by frequent showers, particularly the optional evening cruise on the Danube. There were some impressive sites in the older districts of the city but it was difficult to appreciate them fully. Even allowing for the dreary weather, it was clear that the economic and physical ecovery from the decades of Communist Party control is far from complete.
That said, our hotel, the Corinthian, was splendid, including a beautiful spa swimming pool. I was also glad to learn much about Hungary’s turbulent C20 history from our local guide, Anna. This included the fact that the anniversary of the 1956 uprising is now a national holiday. (School history texts on this event, as well as much else, had to be rewritten after the fall of Communism!)
A long drive and two days later, the weather was close to ideal for appreciating the beauty of the old town at the heart of Krakow. (Our itinerary is described briefly in a previous post.) Krakow was, for many centuries, the royal capital of Poland and the old heart of the city escaped the worst of WWII destruction. So, it is a visitor’s delight – cobbled streets, attractive residences, numerous churches and a magnificent central square giving form to an enchanting history.
Another Polish tradition which we enjoyed while we were in Krakow was a rich, tasty soup made with wild mushrooms. It is served with a purpose-baked loaf of bread that is hollowed out to make room for the soup.
Pope John Paul II served as Bishop of Krakow and his life is celebrated widely and reverently here. Krakow also boasts 18 universities. Small wonder that tourism experts now have Krakow in the world’s top 40 with a bullet!
By the time we boarded the coach to leave Krakow, the glow of our visit had paled as we contemplated the experience that awaited us. For now, I will be brief, partly due to the personal nature of any one person’s response to the horrors of Auschwitz. It was unrelentingly grim. That was not a surprise. What shook me was how comprehensively the Nazi SS planned the atrocities – psychologically, logistically and technically – and how far-reaching was the thoroughness with which they carried it out – think recycled human hair, children’s toys, shaving brushes and artificial limbs, and everything else.
We quietly resumed our journey and headed north towards Warsaw, genuinely uncertain of what this city would be like. Our apprehension was well-founded. The story of what happened to Warsaw and it’s residents under German occupation is also horrific; most of this was shockingly new to me, particularly the ruthless vindictiveness and wantonness with which the German armed forces destroyed at least 85 per cent of Warsaw.
The partial antidote to this appalling scorched-earth story is the sustained determination with which Warsaw has been rebuilt, much of it through the direct action of its citizens. The highlight of this effort is the precise, brick by brick reconstruction of the old heart of the city. This was rewarded with inclusion on UNESCO’s world heritage register in the 1980s. I can vouch for the fact that this area is worthy of a leisurely visit, including a break for lunch; as we did!
Our taste of Warsaw finished with an impressive, private concert of Chopin piano pieces. They were a mixed bunch for our tastes in classical music but the skills of the pianist, Anna Kubicz, were unfailingly remarkable.