My Travel Map

My Travel Map

26 December 2007

Prague, Czech Republic

The Czech Republic, our next stop on our trip. These are the gates going into the old royal palace complex. Interesting statues, eh? So at this point on the trip, we were 4 for 4 on countries royal palaces: Buckinham Palace in the London, the Royal Palace in Stockholm, Wawel in Krakow, and now Prague.

Storm rolling in over the Palace Cathedral that overlooks all of Prague.

The famous Charles Bridge. A pedestrian only, statue lined crossing that is immensely popular with the throngs of tourists in Prague. It was an amazingly beautiful city, but there were far too many tourists. Most of the locals seemed quite rude and uninviting as well, but I'm going to blame that one on too many tourists also!

One of the few white stone statues on the bridge. Most of the stone around Prague has turned black from oxidation effects, which really add to the creepy Gothic feel of the city.

View down over the city from the Palace Cathedral. The Charles Bridge is the one in the middle. You can see Prague's market square's main structures with the black roofs in the center left of the picture. Also, in the far distance stands the media tower covered with alien babies. I'm not joking, they have these creepy little baby statues crawling all over the tower. Really, really weird. Mattias first told us about these, and until we actually saw it, we just figured he had drank way too much absinthe (or just the right amount) the last time he was in Prague!

They light the buildings at night...absolutely beautiful.

The astronomical clock on the old city hall tower. This is one of the most popular tourist spots in the city...there is ALWAYS a crowd around this. I had to stand with this in frame for at least five minutes to reduce the number of people in the shot to 1.3 (seen here). Now, no trip to Prague is complete without seeing the clock show at the turning of each hour! Just watch out, the tourists flock here in droves, speaking what seems like an infinite amount of languages and being as rude as humanly possible to you since you are just as annoying to them as they are to you! Also, try to avoid getting stuck behind the tour guided groups. These are easily distinguishable by their tour guide who almost always walks around holding up a brightly colored umbrella, even if there isn't a cloud in the sky. These groups move at inhumanely slow rates and somehow, once they are in front of you, they always manage to stay that way (aided greatly by the small, narrow streets of Prague).

One of the many embassies on the way up the hill to the Palace. This one is Romania's. Note again the lovely statues framing the window. Interesting, these Czech architects...

A typical street in Prague. The buildings are beautiful EVERYWHERE in the central is unreal really to think about it while you are there. They have done an amazing job preserving everything the way they have. But I suppose with all of the tourist money pouring in to see block after block after block of beautiful old buildings, it is quite important to keep them beautiful.

Some of the houses and buildings have these little decorative signs on the second floor above the door. Each is different and supposedly they were used back in the day to signify what kind of business was operated within the building. This one was for the Red Lion Bar....hence the red lion holding a goblet and resting his arm on what appears to me to be a bar!

More beautiful buildings around the market square.

The old city hall tower. Notice how the right side of the structure looks as though it used to have more attached to it that was simply ripped off? It wasn't ripped off, it was blown an Allied bomber suffering from a bit of mistaken city identity in WWII. Sad, but cool story. At least he didn't take out the astronomical clock...I don't know what the world would do without it!

The Cathedral at the market square...AKA: Dracula's Castle. No seriously...look at the thing! It's especially terrifying at night when they light it with small orange lights in each of the towers' turrets. Unfortunately they were renovating while there...which took a little of the terror out of the structure, but not too much. Now, why the Czechs built those buildings directly in front of the cathedral, I do not know...perhaps as an additional barrier between them and the vampires.

Prague is a literal maze of small back streets, corridors, alleys, and buildings standing directly in the way in which you would like to go. We were there three days and I think the only one of us that had any idea how to get from point A to point B without a lot of time wandering aimlessly, trying to stick to one general direction while saying "We are in the approximate vicinity....aren't we?" was Mattias. It was his 3rd or 4th time to Prague.

View across the river at the Charles Bridge and the Palace Cathedral.

Light patterns from the stained glass inside the Palace Cathedral.

View looking back across the river (from the Palace side) at the Charles Bridge and riverside skyline.

Oswiecim, Poland

"Arbeit Macht Frei" translates from German to "Work makes (one) free". What ironic, Nazi bastard coined this slogan, I know not. These are the words on the entrance gates going into the camp known as Auschwitz I. Auschwitz is the German version of the name of the nearby Polish town, Oswiecim. We took a day trip to Oswiecim to see these camps, made so famous by the atrocities of the Nazi holocaust during World War II. This place shook me to my soul and brought me to tears several times. It also brought to mind a flood of questions. How could humans do this to other humans? How can one be so brainwashed to commit such horrors? How could one ever live with oneself after? How would it feel to be a prisoner here...

Fences surrounding the complex. They were electrified of course...and doubly reinforced with this death zone between.

The camp is set up as a series of blocks, with guard towers at either end of the straight streets. These towers had machine guns at the top to handle any form of trouble in the streets they overlooked.

One of the buildings at Auschwitz I. All of the buildings looked like this. We were not allowed to take pictures inside the few buildings we were allowed inside of...this is for good reason. There are some remarkably chilling and horrible things to witness inside. I will not talk about them here...they are better seen in person. However, if anyone I know reads this, and knows they will probably never make it to Oswiecim to see inside the buildings first hand, you can ask me about what is inside.

People gather around the shooting wall. Mostly women were lined up and executed here. There wasn't really a firing squad however, the prisoners, as well as the soldiers firing, were not given that "luxury". The SS soldiers obviously had no care for the life of the prisoners, so being responsible for their deaths must not have put much guilt on their souls, making a firing squad unnecessary, and grossly inefficient. The Nazi's actually came up with quite efficient forms of execution at these camps. For the shooting deaths, they learned exactly how many people lined up could be penetrated and killed by one shot from a Nazi rifle. This maximized the amount they could kill per bullet. These camps represented German efficiency at its utter worst.

Guard tower "D". These signs were seen all over the camp near the fences, warning the prisoners not to get close enough to the towers to start any problems. Auschwitz I became the administration camp after Auschwitz II went into operation. It was here that the Nazi's first learned to use lethal gas chambers and crematories to exterminate prisoners and dispose of the bodies. However, the gas chamber and crematorium at Auschwitz I is nothing compared to the complexes at camp II. It must have been utterly hopeless to be a prisoner here, even though most had no idea of the mass extermination conducted all around them. Most prisoners thought that those being sent away were being transfered to other camps. This must be one of the major reasons why there weren't more major uprisings. Prisoners did their jobs, or they were executed as a display. It was only those the Nazi's deemed useless that were "transfered" to the gas chambers. An interesting bit of information here: one of the best places a prisoner could be sent was to the sorting buildings, where peoples personal possessions were sorted and sent out for various, monetary and efficiency reasons. These sorting buildings were known throughout the camps as "Kanada" and were so called by the prisoners because they knew that working here was one of the safest jobs in the camp (the work was indoors and relatively easy to do). They related this to what they knew of working in Canada; it was safe. So the name stuck and was even used by the Nazis themselves!

This electric fence warning was on the outside of the fences...warning Nazis of the extra-lethal nature of those barbed wire lines. The prisoners were given no such signs inside...just the skull and cross-bone ones near the towers, which I must add are quite unnecessary. As a prisoner it would be quite obvious that the Nazi guard tower, equipped with SS soldiers wielding machine guns and no qualms about firing them, behind the barbed wire fences were quite deadly.

Auschwitz II: Birkenau. The execution camp. On either side of this railway are where the prisoners not yet ready for execution were kept. These prisoners were used for labor until they could no longer do so, then they were sent to the other end of the tracks. Those prisoners, mostly women, children, and the elderly, that were judged unfit for work were kept on board the death trains and sent directly to the end of the tracks upon arrival. At the time, they had no idea where they were being sent to, they probably thought that they were meant to be used at another camp. Those prisoners doomed to work behind the gates however knew that that track didn't go to far before it quite literally dead ended...

Most of the buildings in the complex are gone, with only their chimneys still standing. However, there are a lot of chimneys...this camp was massive.

A group of Polish school children walks so freely out of the once electrified gates...

The end of the train tracks...looking back at the camp and the "Death Gate" through which the trains would come. This was the end of the line, and the end of life for over a million people who were unfortunate enough to be doomed to Birkenau by the Nazis. It was here that the Nazis had built two massive execution complexes, consisting of a deadly dis-assembly line of sorts. This is where the gas showers and fiery cremation furnaces were. Even more disgusting, the Nazis didn't even kill these people themselves. The Nazi SS forced other prisoners to work the showers and crematories. These prisoners were made to eat and sleep above the death chambers so that they could not speak to any others of the atrocious jobs they were forced to work. I was not there as a prisoner, and I have not the slightest idea what it would have been like...but I hope to God that if I were ever put into that situation, I would take death over doing such a thing. I simply cannot understand how these people could have chosen to do such things over death by Nazi gunfire. Like I said though...I was not put into their situation, and i don't think any of us can say what we would have done if we were in their horrible place.

When the Nazis knew they would have to retreat from the advancing Red Army, they destroyed the gas chamber/crematory complexes of death to try and hide the evidence of the horrors committed there. They could not however hide the ashes of over a million cremated bodies that were mostly buried in a massive pit beside the buildings. Nor could they silence the truth spoken by those prisoners that were fortunate enough to have survived...

It is disgusting to think that many of the Nazis that worked at these camps and were responsible for the acts of attempted genocide committed here got away, totally unpunished for their roles at the Nazi death camps of World War II. Many of them escaped to South America where they lived out the remainder of their lives and even had families. Life is not fair; this is direct proof of this. I hope to God that some form of eternal damnation exists, if only so that these bastards can endure for all time the same horrors that they forced on so many others.

This plaque is replicated here in over a dozen different languages to remind all visitors of exactly where they are and why.

For a good account of the camp's history, check out:

Wieliczka Salt Mines, Poland

The Wieliczka Salt Mine in the town of Wieliczka, just a short, and cheap, mini-bus ride from Krakow. The miners here have done some amazing things with their time spent in the depths. Below are just a few things I snapped shots of while on the hour long tour that took me 365 meters (more than 1000 feet) underground along 3.5 kilometers of tunnels and chambers, which is just a fraction of the mine's more than 300 kilometers of tunnels.

Salt bust of King Kazimierz: the Polish monarch that allowed a community of Jews to settle on the outskirts of Krakow. This area of the city is now full of temples and Polish Jew heritage and takes the name of the king himself. Note that the entire statue here and in the rest of the pics is salt in raw form...even the gray parts! The guide takes a flashlight to the floor to demonstrate this; due to the crystalline structure of salt, the floor glows when a flashlight is held up to it. This feature of the salt is used in many places throughout the mine.

Gnomes, dwarfs, whatever. The miners love these little guys and they appear in several places throughout the mine.

Water would absolutely destroy the mine since it eats away at the salt as it flows over it. So miners have an intricate system of chutes to control and direct the flow away from their intricate carvings.

The mine's main cathedral. It is an absolutely massive chamber completely carved from salt. Even the chandeliers are mad from salt crystals! And those might look like tiles on the floor, but they are just carved from the salt to look like that! Many people actually get married down wild would that be! There is also a life sized statue of Pope John Paul II on the opposite end from the altar...completely carved out of salt of course!

The altar in the main cathedral.

One of the many murals in the main cathedral...check out that detail!

God, the father. It is unusual to see an image of God...even more to see one carved from salt.

One of the many statues carved from the salt.

You used to be able to take a boat through the tunnel, but after one of the visitors drowned, it was shut down.

The mine's shield with the hammer and pick. It reminded me so much of something made by dwarfs.

Dining hall in the mine. The tables and chairs are not carved from salt. The hall, chandeliers, and podium at the far end are, however!

After the mine tour, I wandered around the town of Wieliczka a bit. It was an interesting old town. Much different feel than Krakow... it was more run down, and felt very real. I got some interesting looks from some of the people, but when I wandered into the town market, I had no problem drawing smiles and greetings with a friendly smile and strong eye contact. According to Maciej, good eye contact and a strong, hearty hand shake are important for coming across trustworthy in Poland.

Just a little bit of beauty I found in a Wieliczka alley.

Old church in Wieliczka. I love when the stucco peels away from these old buildings revealing the stone and mortar underneath it.

Krakow, Poland

Poland, our third country on the trip. I absolutely loved it here! We stayed with Maciej's mother at their place in Krakow, so we had excellent tour guides (which is important since Krakow is chock full of amazing stories and history, some of which I will try to share with you here) and excellent food. I think I loved it here so much because it reminded me a lot of Welland...just much more old and beautiful. The food was so similar to the food I loved when I visited Welland, with pierogies, cabbage rolls, and lots of kielbasa. I spent 6 days here and would have loved much more time to explore this amazing country.

Krakow is famous for it's market square, the largest in Europe! It is huge the center is the Cloth (or Gypsy) Market, which is the large building in the center going off to the right in this picture. On either side of the Cloth Market are two massive open areas, one with the old city hall tower and the other with St. Mary's Basilica (seen here). I don't know why it is called "cloth" since it is obviously a huge stone building, but it is definitely a market. Inside you will find tons of stalls with various Polish goods and traditional works of Polish folk art. However, the buyer beware: the space inside is tight and packed with watch for pickpockets, and the Gypsy sellers are excellent hagglers. Most of the goods are overpriced in this market and can be purchased just as easily (and at much less cost) from sellers in shops dotted about the rest of the old city! Plus, finding these other shops requires a bit of exploring...never a bad thing! Oh yea, and you can see the lineup of horse drawn carriages here as well. Carriage drivers charge an arm and a leg for a carriage tour around old Krakow. I would highly recommend NOT taking this type of tour. The old city is so easy to walk around, which is much more rewarding for a slew of reasons, and a lot of the carriages are white, which may look pretty to tourists. However, these white ones are traditionally those used for funerals in Poland, and the use of these is highly controversial amongst some of Krakow's natives.

Old city hall tower and one side of the Cloth Market.

So Krakow's famous landmark seen here in the center background is St. Mary's Basilica. It has stood here in Krakow since the 1300's...that is a really, really, REALLY long time! And it still looks new! The church seen here in the foreground on the right is even older! So about the Basilica, legend has it that it was built by two brothers. Each brother was responsible for one of the towers on the basilica, but during construction one of the brothers killed the other, finishing his tower and ensuring that it was taller than that of his late brother! This is the explanation about the non-symmetric design (highly unusual for such structures)! Now, a trumpeter sounds out a song on the hour from the taller tower, however, the song is cut short to remember a trumpeter that sounded out the city alarm in the 1300's when the Mongols threatened Krakow. He was shot by a Mongol arrow in the throat part way through his alarm.

The old city hall tower. This is all that remains of Krakow's city hall, which was built (incl. tower) in the 1200's!!! 2007 is actually Krakow's 750th year as an established city!

Artists sell their goods on the inside of the old city wall.

Krakow's old city wall and tower gate. This was once the main entrance into the city. Now it lies well in the middle of the city. However, within the old city walls, which are denoted by a ring of gardens around their old boundary, is Krakow's old town...a beautifully well preserved section of city with old buildings, old streets, incredible little shops, tons of bars and restaurants, and of course, the Rynek!

A look down a street in Krakow's old town looking towards the Rynek.

Wawel castle, the old residence of the Polish monarchy when Poland was still run by a king. Now the castle and grounds are open for visitors to tour. Awesome place really...if there, don't forget to take the system of tunnels and caves down to the river to see the fire-breathing dragon! I kid you not...check out the dragon!

The front of the Cathedral at Wawel. Definitely worth buying a ticket to wander around inside.

The Cathedral at Wawel. Notice how only one of the domes is covered in gold. We can thank the Nazi's for this. When they invaded Poland, the people working here only had time to paint one of the domes green before the Nazi blitz arrived and took the city. The Nazi's, of course, took the gold from the remaining domes to melt down and add to their coffers back in Germany. However, they left the green dome untouched thinking it was made of Copper that had oxidized! Thanks to those crafty painters, we can now imagine how magnificent the cathedral must have looked when all of the domes were gold plated!

I touched the bell in the cathedral tower...that means I will return to Krakow sometime in my life. I certainly hope this is true!

View out over Krakow from the Wawel cathedral tower. Notice the basilica and town hall tower from the Rynek in the center and the ring of trees in the foreground (part of the gardens around the old city wall). Definitely gives you a sense for just how large the Rynek Glowny is!

An awesome tomb inside of the cathedral at Wawel. Note the black hand gripping a sword thrusting out of the tomb and the angels trying to force the lid back down on it! How crazy is that?!?! There are many, many important Krakowians entombed in the cathedral here...including some of Poland's most famous kings and generals. Definitely worth checking out...especially if you have a native or someone familiar with Polish history to enlighten you of each person's contribution to Poland. Fortunately, I was with Maciej, Matt, and Mrs. Stachura!

Part of Wawel and the Cathedral from within the main courtyard. You can see the stone foundations from one of the earlier editions of the castle in the grass. As with most old places in Europe, Wawel was continually rebuilt on the ruins of itself!

The courtyard in the interior of Wawel. From here one can access the Royal Armory, the Royal Apartments, and the Staterooms. The Apartments and Staterooms have been preserved and opened to the public. The Armory is like a museum of medieval and imperial weaponry! We went through the Armory, and it was well worth it. I have heard that the Apartments and Staterooms are equally awesome. Just get to Wawel early, as these attractions do sell out often! Cool part too is that the parts of Wawel that are open to the public are less than 1% of the entire complex...this place is massive!