Tag: Poland

Europe 2009: Mile 1811

22nd April 2009

A journey today short in distance but long in emotion. After a good breakfast we set the “Auschwitz” waypoint in the GPS, selected “shortest distance” and set off not really knowing what to expect. We arrived shortly afterwards at the camp/museum where a very helpful car park attendant showed us to park in a paved area. Not only that but the attendant also allowed us to stow our helmets, coats etc in their little hut. Great! We seemed to be the only bikers there although there were already a number of coaches disgorging their contents when we arrived.
We entered the museum (actually this was the original Auschwitz I camp) which, together with the nearby Birkenau (Auschwitz II) camp are free to enter. For once we decided to join one of the organised tours (we don’t usually do this – preferring to wander round on our own, but here we thought it might be a good idea – it was!) for 49 Zlotys each which included a set of headphone and radio thingy for listening to the guide (there was a 10 Zloty refundable deposit for each set). The tour was about 3 hours long and includes both Auschwitz and Birkenau and the shuttle bus between the two camps. The best time to visit seems to be early morning or latish afternoon when it isn’t so busy. But, to be honest, anytime is OK as long as you don’t mind lots of people.

Our tour group at Auschwitz

The tour group

Arbeit macht frei

A lie if ever there was one!

Anyway our group was about 10-15 people. We all gathered around our guide, David Kennedy and off we went. And thus started one of the most emotionally draining journeys I have ever been on. No ‘draining’ is the wrong word – to negative, ‘intense’ is probably better but still not 100% correct. Whatever the right word is it was a journey of the soul, a difficult journey but one that needed to be made. We went in under the famous sign that everyone has probably seen. Interesting to see it in real life though.

Barracks at Auschwitz I

Barracks at Auschwitz I

And then in and out of the barracks at Auschwitz I seeing various exhibits, photos etc. This was all harrowing enough but then we came to the exhibition of the inmates personal effects. Firstly we saw two tons of human hair which was sold to make textiles. This brought home, to me, the fact that the camps represented an industry of death. We then saw an exhibit of peoples glasses. Each represented a person. Then there were artificial limbs and looking at them made me realise that the people who owned them got off the trains bringing them to the camp and went straight to the gas chambers because they were useless for work.
We then came to two exhibits that really got to me. The first was the luggage of the people who were sent to the camp. The majority had the person’s name, date of birth or address on. This was, I think, where they became real people to me not just photographs or records. There was the suitcase of a person born in 1909 and the link to my father (born in the same year) sprang to my mind like a cold shock.

Then came, for me, the saddest, saddest exhibit – a large quantity of childrens shoes. I had read of the adult shoe exhibit which is terrible but this is far far worse. These children, like the limbless, like the old and infirm, like the diseased, were, in general, sent straight to the gas chambers from the incoming trains. How, how can you destroy your own humanity that completely so allow you to accept the deaths of children? There were shoes there that would fit my two year old grandson. How? Please someone answer this question for me because I don’t and can’t understand! Terrible, utterly utterly terrible.

Death wall at Barracks #11

Death wall at Barracks #11

From there we went to the “Death” barracks (Barrack #11) where summary courts were held by the Gestapo (Usual sentence? – death by shooting). Prisoners found guilty (most of them) were taken from the court to a room in the same building where they were bathed (one room for women and one for men) before being taken naked outside via a narrow corridor. They were then shot by the guard who escorted them. What sick, perverted mind thought that one up? Bathing the prisoners before shooting them – did it make for a cleaner corpse?  We also saw the starvation cells where prisoners were locked and allowed to starve to death (a ghastly long process and if they weren’t dead after that they were given a lethal injection to the heart), the cellars where gassing was originally trialled on 850 sick prisoners (they took about 20 hours to die – that is the stuff of nightmares made real.

They also used “standing cells” which are small (telephone box sized) cells that held 4-5 prisoners. They couldn’t do anything but stand. They were put in these cells at night and expected to work during the day just like the other prisoners. They could be put in these cells for anything from three days to weeks. Eventually the longer term inmates of these cells died of exhaustion.

Posts to hang prisoners by their arms

Posts to hang prisoners by their arms

The courtyard where the shooting took place also held two posts with a hook on each. Prisoners under punishment were placed on a chair with their arms tied behind them and also to the hook. The chair was then knocked out from under them. Their whole body weight would have been taken on their arms and shoulders which would have been wrecked. They would then have been unable to work and therefore sent to the gas chambers. This barracks also had a portable gallows. What mind could think of such a thing?

We also saw the commandants house (and gallows where he was executed by the Poles in 1947) and the single crematorium/gas chamber that they had in Auschwitz I. These are so close to each other. He (Rudolf Höss) and his family lived less than about 50m from the chamber. How could you? Just one of the horrors of Auschwitz – and there are so many:  From the sick joke at the front gate “Arbeit macht frei” to the idea of an orchestra playing every time the inmates left or returned exhausted from a days work.

Rail lines and main gate, Birkenau

Rail lines and main gate, Birkenau

After the emotional ride of Auschwitz I the short shuttle bus ride to Birkenau was a relief. Birkenau is, of course, the camp most people think of when the name ‘Auschwitz’ is mentioned. With the rail line, the main gate it is, if you will, somewhat iconic. The first thing that grabs you about Birkenau is its size. It is big! The second thing, strangely, is the organisation. There was a lot of thought and planning that went into it.

Gas chamber ruins, Birkenau

Gas chamber ruins, Birkenau

Then you look past all that and the human tragedy that it represents hits you. Between the three Auschwitz camps there were about 1,100,000 people killed in four years! Looking at the remains of the gas chambers/crematoria the sheer scale of the operation is evident. 2000 people at a time could have their lives extinguished. A process that too between 20 and 25 minutes. Think about that – unlike in Hollywood movies they did not die instantly – A terrible process in itself – but had to go through 20-25 minutes of slow choking asphyxiation. A death of such primordial horror for me personally (I had bad, almost fatal, asthma as a child). Looking into the ruins of the changing and “shower” rooms you can almost hear the souls scream out at you across the intervening years.

Ash pits, Birkenau

Ash pits, Birkenau

Then the ash pits where the cremated remains were thrown. Two are now ponds. These are the same ponds that entered my consciousness thanks to Jacob Bronowski all those years ago. Being here does not assuage that memory but rather enhances it and makes it so much more personal.

Bunk Beds, Birkenau

Bunk Beds, Birkenau

We saw the barracks for the inmates with their oh so familiar box bunk beds. I could just imagine people fighting for the top bed which represented better conditions and chances of survival. Even today, one of the hottest we have had so far, the barracks were cool. They must have been absolutely freezing in winter. no wonder people froze to death in them. Add to that the vermin and the sickness and the malnutrition (1500-1700 calories per day for hard labour work). Even the fuel for the stoves in the barracks was rationed.  Then the toilets – even here about 250 people at a time were forced to do their daily business using a hole in a concrete platform in 2-3 minutes. Then they were forced off and had 2-3 minutes (5 minutes for everything) at a communal sink to wash. Efficient but inhuman.

After that we had another short bus ride back to Auschwitz I and the tour was over. After a drink Isabel and I wandered through the camp on our own. We went into a building that we had not been to on the tour. It contained an exhibition about the German occupation of Poland and other eastern European countries. Among the historical exhibits were a number of shocking photographs. The first was a large one of a number of Polish citizens being executed by firing squad. Most of the people being executed were facing away from the firing squad and had black bags/sacks over their heads but one didn’t. He was half turned looking at the shooters. And at me. even though the photograph was fuzzy it was very powerful. In another photograph there are a row of people hanging from a gibbet. In front of them there are some soldiers (I presume SS) that are laughing and joking apparently – again shocking. In yet another photograph there were the corpses of three babies – terrible and inhumane.

But, for me, the most terrible symbol of the whole thing was of a woman holding a baby turned and running away from a soldier who had a rifle pointing at them. They seemed to be no more than five feet away. So very very sad.

After such an emotional day we found refuge and a place to sleep for the night the the very nearby Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oświęcim.They served a plain but good meal and we had a very interesting and thought provoking chat with a nun who works for the centre. The place is peaceful and a refuge where you can think through and process your feelings after such a day of discovery. We awarded it a very well deserved

Five sarges

In conclusion something that Isabel said comes to mind. When surveying the many visitors to Auschwitz I she said “How many people enter this place and can leave again” to which I can only add “how many people entered this place never to leave again”.

First a human being, then a Jew

First of all a human being then everything else!

© 2010 – 2016, fatman-overland. All rights reserved.

Europe 2009: Mile 1788

21st April 2009

A frustrating and knackering day in many respects. Firstly because we couldn’t find the Honda dealer since it was stuck away at the back of a shopping centre. When we did eventually arrive we found that they hadn’t  ordered the screen! I managed (just) not to say anything. eventually they phoned another dealer in Bielsko-Biala have ordered the screen and have it on the 23rd when we go through the town :(. By the time we got away from the dealership it was just before noon and we had a very long way to travel. We headed off on road 11 towards Katowice which was near our ultimate destination but the GPS had other ideas and indicated at Jarocin that we headed off on road 15 towards Wrocław. Foolishly I took its advice. I think I need to rethink how to navigate using the GPS as the current method isn’t working.

Anyway road 15 was much narrower than road 11 and seems to go through more towns and cities. In places it was quite a nice road and there is a wonderful stretch through a forest. Very nice but in the main it is the same type of worn out rutted road as we have seen in the rest of Poland. We stopped for a bit eto eat in a restaurant attached to a petrol station – as I have said before this seems like a very good idea to me!

Eventually we came to Wrocław – Unfortunately we seemed to hit it at rush hour – Ouch!! It took about an hour to get through – Terrible. At one stage we were riding between a set of tram lines – scary and not something you want your front wheel to get stuck in! When we managed to get through it was only a shortish ride to the motorway which took us all the way to Katowice (a ride of about 100 miles). For Isabel sans screen it was very very difficult but she persevered – Good on her!

We eventually got to Katowice just after 7pm and searched the GPS for the nearest hotel (at least it was useful for something today). This was the Senator Hotel which we found and booked in (luckily they had a room). Thi swas a nice clean hotel thankfully and is awarded

Three sarges

After taking all of our luggage to the 3rd floor (thankfully they had a lift – admittedly without an internal door which was interesting!) we changed and went in search of sustenance. Eventually we found a small restaurant in the middle of town which was busy (always, I think, a good sign). I had Borscht with Pierogi (dumplings filled with meat) followed by Silesian Roulade (meat in pastry – noticing the trend yet?) and Isabel had Pierogi. Again very nice. This was followed by a walk back to the hotel.   We moved the bikes to a less obvious location on the recommendation of the hotel receptionist. Then bed, exhausted.

Lessons Learnt:

  • Don’t follow the GPS slavishly – it pays to have some idea of where you want to go and think for yourself!
  • The best laid plans of mice and men go oft astray
  • Motorways are sometimes useful ways of riding long distances quickly
  • A restaurant busy with local custom is usually a good place to eat

Adrian & Isabel

& Mr Teddy

© 2010 – 2016, fatman-overland. All rights reserved.

Europe 2009: Mile 1531

19th April 2009

A low mileage day today.Since Isabel’s screen will be replaced in Poznań on Tuesday and we have been told that the old part of the city is pretty we decided not to go any further north but rather spend a couple of days in the city. So after a (very) hearty breakfast at the hotel (which we needed when we had to carry the panniers down the stairs!) and a chat to an Australian guy with an arm in a sling. Apparently he has two sons who are going to ride speedway for the local Leszno team. The breakfasts here seem to be buffet like affairs where you help yourself to as much as you can eat which is great because I do! 🙂

Breakfast (and chat) over had a bit of a problem putting one of my panniers on – it was the pannier on the side the bike landed during the crash of the other day. Took it off and saw that the lower locating plate (I use SW Motech Panniers and rack) had bent slightly and had difficult “locating”. Not anything that a little force couldn’t put right (I leave all the subtle stuff to Isabel). Luckily it doesn’t cause too may problems at the moment.

Off we went and when we got back to the main road the GPS said we needed to take a long detour to get back onto the same road – Why? Luckily I used what little intellect I possess and decided not to follow itand just headed towards Leszno. Later the GPS tried to fool us into taking a road that had been closed. Not its fault this time I will admit but still slightly annoying. Then I managed to miss a slight kink in the road and headed instead down a country lane which,pleasantly, proved to be a nice ride. I am, of course, going to take the praise for that and not admit it was a mistake – Oh bummer I’ve gone and written it down now – oops!

Eventually we got back onto the main road and once again we had to fight it. Basically the roads here are worn out and have two well defined grooves in them where the cars and lorries have ridden. The problem is that the “ridge” between these grooves is usually in a very bad state and cannot be ridden (it is full of potholes etc.). Therefore you have to ride inside one of the grooves (which can be up to about six inches deep). If you ride in the nearside groove there is a very big edge on the kerbside which could get really nasty if you hit it. The offside groove is usually OK but puts you too near oncoming traffic. This, coupled with the propensity of drivers here to overtake when there isn’t really an overtaking opportunity means you have to concentrate hard at all times which is exhausting. Luckily at Gostyń we turned off onto a much quieter road towards Dolsk.

Which brings me to the next time the GPS annoyed me: One of the roads it took us on was errr not a road as such but a country track along the edge of some fields! After the incident the other day this basically made me very nervous indeed. Anyway there was nowhere to turn round so onwards we went. The quality of the “road” went downhill even though it hadn’t started all that well but we made it in the end without falling off even though I did stop a few ties when I felt my nerves were getting the better of me and I needed to calm down. 🙂

From there it was tar the whole way. We rode through Śrem and on to Poznań. One strange site was more “Ladies of the night” in the middle of nowhere. Well in the middle of a forest actually – They were stationed at the junctions of forest tracks and the road but far away from any town or place where there was seemingly enough traffic for them to carry on their trade effectively. Very strange and with the amount of clothing they weren’t wearing very cold presumably.

Once in Poznań we negotiated the traffic and ended up at a very nice campsite at Malta which is part of a hotel. Very nice and we awarded this

Five sarges

The campsite/hotel is situated near a lake used for rowing regattas but which also has many other facilities. Since the weather was superb there were lots of people out. On bikes, rollerblades, feet. A brilliant place. We went on a ride built like a bobsleigh. I hate to admit it but I actually enjoyed it! Had a hamburger and a wander (Oh and a large waffle 🙂 ) and came back and did some washing in the campsite laundry. After that we had a walk around the lake (about 2km long) and came back to the campsite restaurant.

After some difficulty getting in we got a table. We were practically the ones there. I didn’t expect much from the restaurant but we needed something to eat. The waiter, a friend and the chefs were behind the bar having a chat and a cigarette when we arrived. I ordered Eisbein and Isabel ordered Pork Fillet. To be honest I was totally blown away by the food! Absolutely brilliant and a very very high quality and beautifully presented. That will teach me not to have preconceptions! After to that we went to bed very tired but very happy. A good day!

Lessons Learnt:

  • Be prepared to be flexible in your journey. If you take the wrong road enjoy it!
  • Do not prejudge other cultures and places – They might surprise you!
  • Adrian & Isabel

    & Mr Teddy

© 2010 – 2016, fatman-overland. All rights reserved.

Europe 2009: Mile 1531 (Day 2)

20th April 2009

OK, because of tomorrows screen replacement (hopefully) we didn’t actually ride anywhere today but decided instead to visit Poznań old town. After a hearty breakfast (well I do have certain standards to maintain 😉 ) and a shower we headed to the local tram stop to see if we could work out how to get a ticket and use it – the campsite/hotel reception had said we needed to get on the number 8 tram and go for 6 stops. Luckily the machines at the stop offered English as one of its alternative languages so the process was actually quite easy.

We got on the tram and started counting stops. Everyone else thought we were mad which, of course, we are 🙂 At the sixth stop we got off and walked towards a big church we could see (OK admittedly a street map would have been useful at this point but we had neglected to get one – typical!). We had been told by all the Polish people we know (OK all the Polish waitresses in the UK we could find) that old Poznań was very pretty. To be honest one of the churches we saw was alright but everything else? Well nothing to write home about it would appear.

Luckily Isabel and I share a love of visiting the side streets and back alleys of the cities we visit. We did this and low and behold the old city opened up in front of us! We came into a magnificent square full of beautiful painted buildings. So this was old Poznań! If we hadn’t been wandering I don’t think we would have found it. We walked around and around like proper tourists because sometimes you just have to! We had some coffee in one of the market square cafes and then did some more wandering. We entered a big pink church off the main square. The painted ceilings were amazing! It definitely had the wow factor. I didn’t take any photos because it was a working church and I had no wish to disturb the believer using it. People were coming and going all the time just stopping long enough for a prayer and to cross themselves which I found very moving I must say.

After that we decided that it was lunch time (we do that using an ancient magic ritual known as “hunger”) and though we should try Polish cuisine. I had Zurek (A thick and delicious soup with potatoes, carrots, meat, sausage and, strangely, half a hard boiled egg, followed by Bigos (sour cabbage with meat) – all very tasty and Isabel had Zapiekanka (I hope that I have spelled that correctly) which is a potato “casserole” with bacon – equally yummy – which, together with a beer (Beck) and a coke cost the princely sum of 47 Zloty or under £10!

Another wander (mainly to walk off the meal) and coffee followed. Then we decided to go and try and buy some meat and veggies for the evening meal at the campsite. We entered the butchery and managed to buy some stuff by pointing and smiling a lot which seemed to work. Of course we have no idea what we have bought so this might be the last blog entry for a while :). we did the same in a vegetable shop and in a bakery. All in all our method seemed to work out well. Everyone was very friendly at the very least.

We then tried to draw some money from a ATM (or “Bankomat” in Polish apparently) using our UK Maestro card. Nope it was definitely not going to allow us to do that! Tried four different ones with the same result – Bummer! Eventually we managed to get some money using the credit card which was better than nothing.

Then it was back on the tram counting stops again. when we got back to the campsite we phoned our bank in the UK and it turns out that, whilst we had informed all the credit cards (including one from our bank) that we were going overseas and to expect foreign transactions we had forgotten to do so for our normal account – whoops! Anyway we managed to sort it all out – apparently a previous ATM transaction in Poland had initiated the block in the first place.

After all that excitement we did a bit of laying in the sun then went for a beer/cold drink (well one of us has to stay sober 🙂 ) by the lake and then back to cook the food we had purchased in town. After a slight panic trying to find the knife we made a stew with various bits of meat (we hope) and then to bed.

Tomorrow we will hopefully get Isabel’s screen replaced and then head towards Oświęcim.

Lessons Learnt:

  • If you don’t speak the language then, when shopping, if you don’t point, you don’t get!
  • Make sure you tell all of your banks you are going touring and to expect foreign transactions
  • Carry alternative cards from different banks with you if possible
  • Don’t be afraid to explore the backstreets in a new city as long as you feel safe

© 2010 – 2016, fatman-overland. All rights reserved.

Europe 2009: Mile 1464

18th April 2009

Poland! At last! And the 3000th mile on the GS’s clock!

A bit of a strange day to be honest. It was cold for most of the day. Grey at times. From the overnight stop we headed towards Łeknice in Poland. Stopped at Bad Muskau at the border for something to eat at lunchtime. We ordered a started. Errr they have big starters here and I do mean BIG! After that we headed off across the bridge over the river that marks the border. Immediately after that there is a market which is very busy with cross border visitors which may be because Germany is in the Euro zone and Poland isn’t (It uses the Zloty – what a cool name for a currency!)

Once out of the market and the town there are “Ladies of the night” stationed about every 1/2 km (OK it’s in the middle of the day but I’m trying to be polite). There were even some stationed in one of the villages with normal people walking about! These stopped after about 5 km. From the state of the roads and houses you can see that this is a much poorer area – at least that is what it seems like.

Some of the roads are quite bad. No actual potholes but the surface is very uneven. With the roads in this state a lot of concentration is needed especially since the drivers here love overtaking! Also bikes seem rare here because we are stared at a lot but that may just be because of my magnificent physique! 🙂 Rode to Głogow filling up along the way. I am not sure the petrol station deals with a lot of foreigners as they didn’t seem to know how to work the card machine but they made up for that by being helpful in other ways and they filled the bike up. Once in Głogow we drew some money from an ATM.

After that we headed roughly North-East to look for a place to stay. Along the route we saw cranes on the nest. There were two of them – bigger than I thought they would be. Interestingly many other small birds (LBJs) were using the underside of the nest as well.

unfortunately the first accommodation we found had a wedding on and no rooms available. The second looked nice but was being renovated. Luckily we came across the Hotel Ach Tu To in Strzyźewice. This also had a wedding on but had some rooms available. Everyone was very friendly – even the wedding guests.The car park was large but we could easily park the bikes out of sight. In all we award this

4 sarges out of 5

After we took the panniers to the room we changed and went looking for somewhere to eat. Since the hotel restaurant was full of wedding guests we had a wander around the place and found nothing. Luckily the next door petrol station had a bar that served food. We had a light bite then went back to the hotel for planning, reading and an early night.

Lessons Learnt:

  • Start searching for accommodation early since the first you come to might not be available
  • Polish petrol stations sometimes serve food!

Adrian & Isabel

& Mr Teddy

© 2010 – 2016, fatman-overland. All rights reserved.