So for about a week at the tail end of June, I joined a group tour travelling all the way from Prague to Split in Croatia. It was a hectic and excellent time, which also didn’t leave me much time to write notes down or write a post as I went, so this one will be more of a highlights reel (like my instagram, perhaps, but with more photos and less filters!) Alright, let’s begin!
Highlight 1. The Sedlec Ossuary in Kutna Hora
Selfies with a local coat of arms made in disturbing detail out of various bones
Highlight 2. A festival of etchings at this World Heritage palace in Litomyšl
All of that texture is carved from the stone
This guy is quite the badass
Highlight 3. Getting lost from the tour group in Olomouc along with half of the other people
The Olomouc Astronomical Clock, almost as cool as and even more disappointingly animated than its counterpart in Prague
Being fascinated by the underground torture instruments with half of the group while the other half left us along with the tour guide, so we all looked for a while, circumnavigated the church we thought we were meant to go to and then went to the pub
Tasty Czech pasta and potato pancakes
Highlight 4. Not taking any selfies in Auschwitz
“Work will set you free”
Places that people were brought from
A room full of suitcases – there was another of shoes, and another of hair removed from women, the latter believed to represent just one-twentieth of all taken and used for weaving cloth for German military uses. This is what strikes me as possibly the most chilling thing about this extermination – they weren’t content with just killing people, they looked at these people as commodities, so they were told to bring up to 50kg of stuff which was taken, they were stripped of clothes and shoes, and after death gold teeth and hair were taken from the corpses, and used. They went through a bunch of experiments here on killing methods for the same reasons – to kill people quickly and efficiently, and also to minimise the mental suffering for the SS soldiers (with gas, they didn’t have to watch the victims die).
This room is lined with the names of all the people that lived and died in this one prison block throughout the war. In this, the smaller camp that was converted from an existing military installation, had by the end of the war 28 such blocks, each holding up to 1,200 prisoners at a time. The larger, temporary camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau was perhaps three times the population, though each building had a capacity one-third the size.
The temporary camp, with the blocks in the foreground destroyed by SS explosives in the lead up to Soviet takeover, along with the extermination chambers
An attempt to capture the size of the camp. This was taken in the central road, and there is another half of the camp behind me. The central road ran alongside a train line, and seeing the size of a carriage I reckon a good fifty would have comfortable fit along it for unloading. This means that over 7000 people could be brought in at once, and this was needed, because in a single 14-hour work day, 20,000 people could be finished off in Birkenau’s gas chambers.
Well, have a look for yourself.
Highlight 5. Free tours in Krakow
Since the Jewish Ghetto had been abandoned after the two years it was used, and then bought up and developed, by the time Schlinder’s List was being made into a movie it was too nice to film, but the old Jewish Quarter – including this alley which now contains a restaurant, where we came as a group for dinner – was apparently just shitty enough to use as a wartime ghetto! Personally, I think it looks rather nice, but there’s no accounting for the taste of film-makers.
The dragon statue that breathes fire randomly – from the Legend of Krak and the founding of Krakow
The largest colonnaded courtyard in Europe, home of da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine, and the reason why Warsaw became the capital – apparently the king at the time was into alchemy and accidentally set the palace on fire during an experiment; he left for Warsaw during the repairs and found it much more central to his vast empire (several times the size that Poland is now, including the Lithuanian empire as well) so never came back
Eclectic chapels in the castle chapel – all different architectural styles, added over the centuries
Each of these plaques represents a donation for the rebuilding of parts of Wawel Castle after WWII – many from Poles but many more from the USA and other places. Currently there are 1.5 million Poles in Chicago, which makes it the third-largest Polish city (in other news, Melbourne is the second-largest Greek city. So you can see by this how immigration patterns are different). The tiny man on the horse in the distance there is General Kosciousko (pronounced like Koshshkushko) who in addition to having Australia’s highest mountain named after him was also a hero of the American War of Independence and the Polish fight to preserve their own independence against the Austro-Hungarian empire.
The University in Krakow was founded in 1364 by the supremely named Saint Hedwig, and attended by such luminaries as Nicholas Copernicus, Johann Faust, Marie Curie and Pope John Paul II. In the middle ages, you could study magic and the king would consult the astrology department for reports and the future (it was presented much like a standard academic journal is now). There are now 200,000 students here, and the University Quarter comprises something of a sovereign area within the city – the police need permission from the Dean to enter, and it alone of all places has legalised drinking in the street.
A café frequented for years by none other than Lenin and Stalin before the revolution
The ‘owski’ was added later. I kid you not.
The man that comes out and plays the trumpet every hour from the top of the taller tower, which was used as a lookout by the city throughout its history
No longer on the Jewish tour: Krakow’s actually asymmetric cathedral towers (in contrast to the Prague ones, which I couldn’t see more than the slightest difference in)
Schindler’s factory – Oskar Schindler saved 1200 Jewish men who worked in this factory that he was placed over at the start of the war.
The wall of the ghetto, one of the rare parts that is still standing. It wasn’t that physically hard to get out – most of it was simply bricked-up windows around the perimeter – but once out, to survive, one had to have people willing to hide them, to produce false documents, to swear to their Gentility, sometimes to teach them Polish and German and to speak it without an accent, to give them a job or else to feed them in perpetuity, and all at the risk of death. Do you have friends who would do that? Note also the tombstone-shaped capitals.
The house of the only non-Jewish person in the Ghetto – a pharmacist named Tadeusz Pankiewicz who used his shop to smuggle food, medicine and news. After the war, he was awarded Israel’s honour, ‘Righteous Among The Nations.’ This confers upon him, along with the current 25,000-odd others who have been recognised with this for their work in saving Jews from the Holocaust, honorary citizenship of Israel, and should he choose to move there, a pension equal to the average national wage, free health care and subsidised housing. Mind you, he died in 1993, so this might not be much of a comfort (the award was conferred in 1983 but as far as Wikipedia can inform me he didn’t do anything with it and was buried quietly in Krakow).
Memorial in the ghetto square: the chair represents the moving of the people from their homes in the Jewish Quarter (a chair was perhaps the smallest and lightest bit of furniture so sharing the load meant giving the chairs to the children), the loss, the absence of people that should be there (sitting in the chairs), and the fact that when the last Jews were sent to Auschwitz all the houses were emptied and the furniture thrown into the square. Each chair also represents 1,000 victims among Krakow’s Jewish population.
A bridge crossing the river to illustrate the separation between the Quarter and the Ghetto – the Quarter was overlooked by the house of the Nazi commander in Krakow, so naturally they couldn’t have the Jews stay there, so they moved them all – or rather, forced them to walk, carrying all their belongings, because by then they were banned from public transport – to a newly evacuated area. It had held 3000 Poles, and they replaced them with something like 15,000 Jews. There were in the district 30 streets, 320 residential buildings, and 3,167 rooms, meaning four families were assigned to each 4-room apartment.
Highlight 6. Ludicrous mountaintop commercialism in Zakopane, after an unusual hike up
Casual horse wandering across the track
Starting to get more logging-roady, until the road stops altogether and I end up on the grassy bald where the cable car runs and have to run across to get to safety. Should have gone left at the start to take a different road, but it just looked like a fairground ride! Though I am glad that I didn’t take the main route up, we took it down and it was super steep and not very pretty.
A tiny selection of the repeating collection of souvenir shops and other paraphernalia lining the ridge. At the end is an adventure park, ropes course, toboggan ride and paintball. There are also pony rides and many a pub
The view from the top
Highlight 7. Riding through an offroad course in a literal decommissioned Slovakian tank
It’s pretty hard to get a decent photo when you’re being jolted up and down and round around by a crazy Slovakian while standing holding a metal bar for dear life. This was awesome.
Some spare tanks?
Highlight 8. The surreal experience of eating lunch atop a ski resort in the off-season
Yup, that green hill has a chairlift
Highlight 9. Taking a cruise along the Danube in Budapest
The extremely pointy Parliament house at sunset
Something else fancy in the sunset?
The actual sunset
Bonus: One of Budapest’s famous ruin bars – built in post-Soviet abandoned apartment blocks, adorned with crazy lights and eclectic decorations, and just FILLED with tourists and 18-year-olds. The graffiti-ridden concrete bar we stopped in before this one because they had a free loo was much cooler for actual Budapedestrians
Highlight 10. Communist tour in Budapest
The only communist memorial remaining in Budapest, and it’s right next to the American Embassy on one side (they call it ‘Putin’s middle finger to Obama’) and on the other side…
This life-size statue of Reagan, considered the rebuff. This kind of statue (life-size, doing something that indicates their profession or character, in a random place at street level) is everywhere in Budapest, and usually doesn’t have any kind of explanation like this one does
Building damaged in the 1956 Revolution, which resulted in a brutal crackdown and then the institution of a system called ‘Happy Communism’ by which essentially everyone in Hungary got free social services and education, subsidised travel, zero unemployment, camps and activities for all the kids (one of the tour guides had been a Communist boy scout, and showed us his uniform and told us crazy stories – it’s so weird that all this stuff was going on just 25 years ago, and this made this tour amazing), and put Hungary into massive debt
Bonus: the fanciness of this man, on his note worth about $25.50
Bonus 2: a mummified hand from one of the great kings of Hungary, who when exhumed was found to have all rotted away except his miraculously mummified hand, which made him a saint apparently. You couldn’t really see it unless you paid €0.50 to have it lit up, but luckily after just 15 minutes of squinting a family arrived and paid to see it, which was great for all concerned!
Highlight 11. Communist memorial museum and Lake Balaton
The boots of Stalin, the rest of him having been pulled down and destroyed in 1956 after his death
Who needs to swim in a lake that looks like milk when you can have a greasy ham-and-cheese langos in this lovely beachside emporium collection instead?
Highlight 12. Visiting a star-shaped fort-town and an open-air museum of beat-up war machines
EDUCATIONAL BILLBOARDS ON THE HISTORY OF THE TOWN AND ITS ROLE IN THE 1992-95 HOMELAND WAR (AKA THE BREAKUP OF YUGOSLAVIA AND THE BALKAN WARS)
Highlight 13. Hiking and getting lost in Plitvice Lakes
My first hedgehog, at our campground!
Self-satisfied selfie after walking to the biggest waterfall in the park
A group photo spot? Plitvice really knows its patrons!
Best waterfall in my opinion, just slightly instagrammed
One of many ‘oh wow look at how amazingly clear this water is!’ shots
One of the many many lakes
Bonus: first sighting of the Adriatic out of a bus window
Highlight 14. Taking a tour through Diocletian’s Palace and getting a free dinner because our hostel was too hot
Diocletian’s mausoleum, which despite him being one of the most vociferous persecutors of Christianity is now a cathedral
The Barbican-style entrance to the palace district, surmounted by a giant hole – see my next post on Split for more!
The Split Riva, while many of the others get super excited about seeing the boats they’re doing Sail Croatia on
Highlight 15. All these guys!