Welcome to my travel journal.

Scroll right down to the bottom of the page to begin with my first entry, Scotland - Nov. 4th, 2005.

Scroll up for each subsequent entry, in chronological order, culminating in the most recent and final entry, Ireland, Part 2: Wicklow Mountains - Jan. 26th, 2007.

Ireland, Part 2: Wicklow Mountains

The next day, Sunday, we were on the road early, headed for the Wicklow Mountains National Park, travelling south of Dublin then inland from the east coast of Ireland, the focus for our hike being the Glendalough area (Gleann Da Loch: the valley of two lakes).

We explored the ruins of the ancient monastic settlement (monastic city) of St. Kevin's, founded in the 6th Century by St. Kevin, a deeply religious Christian hermit who was attracted by the area's remoteness. Followers followed, as they do, and a monastic city eventually sprang up, in its heyday one of the greatest religious universities in Ireland. Among the interesting things to see here is St. Kevin's church, built of stone and still standing today at well over a thousand years old, its roof of overlapping stones intact. There is the Round Tower, one of many ancient round towers throughout Ireland, although the Round Tower of Glendalough is considered the most finely constructed of them all. It is still complete and stands just over 30 metres in height. There is some debate over what the towers were actually built for, although one theory is they were used as a place of sanctuary for the religious leaders in times of invasion, and a place to stash religious treasures and books (the doorway to the tower is high up and a ladder could have been used to enter, with the ladder then being pulled in). There is also a giant Celtic-style cross which, legend has it, will grant a wish for you if you are able to encircle it completely with your arms. And yes, we gave it a go.

Once on the ascent we passed the lovely Pollanass (Poulanass) Waterfall then up through trees to eventually join a boardwalk. Much of the hiking here is through beautiful forests, with a wide variety of trees. We saw Douglas-fir (pine), an import from the United States; old oak, like those originally in Ireland; firs from Norway which are used as Christmas trees in Ireland; and birch and holly. The boardwalk, as I recall, was made of railway sleepers, laid lengthways in pairs (side-by-side), and covered with netting that was stapled to the wood. Eventually we broke out into a clearing, having climbed to around a thousand feet above the lakes.

There are two lakes in the great valley here, the Upper and the Lower. The Upper Lake is the biggest and further to the west. From what I remember, there was only one huge lake way back when, till alluvial deposits from the river caused a division and created the two separate lakes that exist today.

It was really misty up where we were, and things in the distance seemed ghostly, like apparitions. The lake, which we could barely make out far below us, was no exception. On sunny clear days the view, we understood, was spectacular. Because of the conditions on this day, everything we saw had a different quality altogether. We were not going to get those views, but said conditions gave the ruggedness of the mountains another kind of appeal.

The walk flattened out for a while, and we were lucky to come across some feral goats. They had huge horns which grew out very long and curved. I don't remember them being scared of us at first, but once we got too close they disappeared into the misty forest. Along this trail we were very high up on the mountain, with dense forest to our left and quite a drop to the valley and its lakes below us to the right. There were a couple of points where I could carefully peer between the rocks and see quite a steep drop. If somebody slipped at these places, they would slide away and not stop till they hit the bottom.

We were headed west into the prevailing wind with mist rolling in. Here there were many things of interest, including: heather, a little drab at this time of year; bracken, tough ferns that had died back to a red colour for the winter; granite rocks and boulders, of which we were to see a lot more soon enough; and mica schist (mineral-laced rock) which is soft in comparison with the granite.

Due to the fog, there wasn't much to see of the valley when we reached the formal lookout, so we left the boardwalk and turned in to follow a creek bed in a steep climb that would take us much higher up the mountain. This creek bed, for want of a better term, cut through some rugged country which I think was made up of very tough grasses growing in peaty soil. The temperature dropped as we got higher until it was very cold and I started to see clumps of pure white snow on the ground.

At the side of the rocky creek bed we stopped to examine some peat, which is, as I have noted elsewhere in my journal, an important ingredient in the production of scotch. There was an awful lot of peat where we now were, the harsh countryside consisting of blanket bog, or peat that covers the land like a giant blanket. Well, actually, it IS the land, to a certain depth anyway. A few thousand years ago, Ireland's heavy rainfall caused the leaching of minerals from the soil which formed a layer that water could not penetrate. The soil above this layer became waterlogged, and peat as we now know it began to form. Apart from being mostly water, peat is the partially decomposed remains of plants which have been laid down and accumulated over the ages. A list of the plants would include grass, heather, and moss. The roots of trees and even partially-preserved animal remains can be found in the bogs due to the high acidity and lack of oxygen in the soil. Peat is always increasing in depth, albeit very slowly, because there are tough plants that can grow in the bogs, and when they die away, they, too, are laid down and become peat. I think the peat we looked at (where the creek bed had carved away part of the land giving a sort of cross-section or cutaway view) was a metre or so deep, but peat can be a lot deeper than that. In Ireland, as in Scotland, people would cut the peat (ie. dig it up), dry it, then use it as fuel. Once the peat is gone, it's gone, and in modern Ireland it is the focus of conservation efforts.

We kept climbing, the temperature continuing to drop, with more and more snow appearing on the ground. It became extremely cold and the ground levelled out, and I remember looking in awe at this mist-shrouded alien landscape. It was ethereal and timeless. In my terminology the ground beneath our boots was swamp, and we had to watch where we walked. A couple of intriguing things we saw up here, besides the peat, were sphagnum (beautiful light green bog mosses) and peat hags (sort of large, ugly pits in the bog). Eventually the ground underfoot became a little more solid, the grasses became longer, and we sat on some rocks to have hot soup and eat. It was too cold to sit around for long, though, and we were soon on our way again.

The land became a little more friendly, and we came to a very steep and grassy descent. The air was warming up as we got lower, and soon I was leading the way down through grasses littered with rocks and badger holes. We couldn't yet shake the mist. Part way down the giant slope, I thought I felt or heard the presence of something, then saw indistinct shapes in the distance. I had to look hard, but I realised I was looking at wild deer. As soon as they got wind of me they were off and literally disappeared. Apparently the deer are a hybrid of Irish Red Deer and Japanese Sika.

At some point while moving across the land we crossed an energetic river by footbridge, with water crashing over boulders and slabs of rock. I can't be sure, but I think this must have been the Glenealo River, and, certainly, after this point we were in the Glenealo Valley. We left the fog behind to breathtaking views of where we were now headed: down the Glenealo Valley towards Glendalough Valley and the Upper Lake. We walked along the valley whose steep sides were made of giant granite boulders, slopes that rose way up and disappeared into the fog layer at the top of the mountains. We were ants. A long way up, on the big rocks, and too far away for the camera, I picked out wild goats who must live amongst the rocks and no doubt eat the sparse vegetation.

Shortly before reaching the Upper Lake, we passed through a derelict miners' village. Lead was mined here till the late 1800s, and there are still the remains of some of the buildings. Working here was so hard, the view east down the valleys (where we walked) is nicknamed Van Diemen's Land after Tasmania, because the miners thought it was just as harsh as being exiled to Australia, as many Irish people were for punishment in those days.

On the flat again, and walking alongside the Upper Lake, we could see in the distance across the water a small cave set in a precarious position in the rock wall above the surface of the lake. The cave is called St. Kevin's Bed and legend has it St. Kevin slept here and used it for a retreat. By all accounts it isn't easy to get to, and many visitors to the area have run into difficulties on the rocky slope during the attempt and have had to be assisted by Mountain Rescue. This was the final part of our hike, along the northern edge of the lake through a beautiful plantation of Scots Pine.

Across the Creek to Deira

With the pitch blackness of the desert all around us, we sat on hard cushions at long, low tables in a Bedouin-style camp laid on for the tourists. It was fun and allowed us to experience a safe and sanitised version of an Arabian camp way out in the middle of nowhere under an amazingly clear starry sky. There were plenty of cold drinks, and we enjoyed a feast of grilled meats cooked right there in the camp, along with salads and desserts. To round off the night we were entertained by traditional music and a belly dancer.

It was a long drive through the black emptiness of the desert to the highway, then we were back in the city by about 10:30pm where the traffic was still heavy and congested, even at that hour. Jamahl made sure everyone remained wide awake with his aggressive, kamikaze driving.

The next morning V. and I went for a walk from the hotel, across the Al Maktoum bridge, then along the opposite side of the Creek to Deira. Our long hike that day took us through the international business centre of the city, and into the bustling streets and alleyways of the marketplaces.

That afternoon and evening, dictated by the company's timetable, we had booked ourselves on a formal city tour with a guide, but as it turned out the tour revisited many places we had already been to by ourselves, and the guide's diction was very poor. The tour was still well worth it as we went to a few new places like mosques, old merchant houses, a beautiful beach on the Persian Gulf, and the ancient Al Fahidi Fort which is now the Dubai Museum. After crossing the Creek by abra (water taxi) to the Deira side, we did a little exploring of the marketplaces, the main attractions being the gold souk and the spice souk. The spice markets were amazing, with spices in their raw states from all over the middle east, including big sticks of cinnamon, peppers, cloves, frankincense, dried flowers and mint, you name it, along with beautiful fruits like dates, figs and sultanas, plus much more.

I felt like a drink before dinner, but our hotel didn't serve alcohol, so I went exploring and checked out the Ramada Hotel a couple of blocks from where we were staying. I went back to collect V. then we chose one of the restaurants inside the Ramada. A cold beer never tasted so good. For dinner I had a perfectly cooked lightly-peppered steak, and our waiter Mustafa received a tip for his great service.

Flying out the following morning, we were headed for London.

The Desert

We joined the Creek then strolled along the bank on the Bur Dubai side, part of which is a sort of promenade that leads to a more congested, busier section of town where the street markets are, and where people catch the abras (water taxis) travelling to and fro across the water. We were headed in the direction of the Gulf and the Al Shindagha tunnel, but of course we were drawn into the bustling "old souk" area with its busy streets and labyrinthine markets, some of which are covered over and resemble tunnels.

At one shop I bought a shirt for 55 United Arab Emirates Dirhams, and I think at that time V. figured a Dirham to be worth about 40 New Zealand cents. In the streets and amongst the markets, though, we mainly just explored and looked and listened. Beginning at around midday, praying was broadcast across the city through powerful loudspeakers and every shop and stall closed up, reopening at 4:00pm.

Arriving at the tunnel we figured it was time to start heading back, and we also decided that the following day we would walk across the Al Maktoum bridge to see the city from the other side of the Creek and to explore Deira.

On the way back along the Creek, not far out from the street markets, I could see a middle-aged couple approaching who were obviously tourists as we were, and the lady came straight up to me and asked if I spoke English. This was the first of many times on our travels I was asked for directions by strangers; I suppose it became something of a running joke between me and V. It's a small world after all, as they say, because the lady and her partner were from Christchurch like us, and she owned a business in New Regent Street just around the corner from my old work. She was very nice and wanted to know the way to a money exchange.

By late afternoon we were in a Toyota 4WD headed out of the city, driven by Jamahl and shared with four other passengers: an Aussie girl in the front passenger seat; an unattractive couple in the middle seat, he from Singapore, she from Taiwan; and alongside them an attractive, petite woman. V. and I were in the small seat at the back.

We drove for a while along desert highway where the speed limit is 120km per hour. The highway was lined with pale green vegetation that certainly wouldn't flourish there naturally; irrigation piping is laid all the way along it, watering the plants regularly. Our destination was the desert, or, more specifically, the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, the outer edge of which lies 45km from the city. The reserve is essentially a 225 square kilometre national park with strict rules in place for its protection.

At a point along the highway, and well out into the desert by this stage, we stopped at a small gas station so everybody could make sure their bladders were empty. The attractive woman who had been in the middle seat alongside the couple offered to swap places with me as I was a bit cramped-up in the small rear seat, so when we drove on again she was beside V. in the back, and I had more leg room.

Eventually leaving the road behind, and after passing through a perimeter gate manned by a uniformed guard, our vehicle joined up with some other 4WDs at a place where we stopped to stretch our legs and have a look around. The late afternoon sun was shining and it was very warm. The Arabian climate really agreed with me; it was hot and dry and very pleasant. Looking around I saw beautiful golden sand for as far as the eye could see, dotted with scrub and the odd tall tree, but this was only the beginning.

As part of a convoy of similar vehicles we went on an extended 4WD journey deep into the desert, driving up and down and across the dunes. Jamahl was a good driver and took things to the limit, leaving our stomachs behind many times. Despite the crazy driving, the Taiwanese woman took several mobile phone calls and was blabbering away much of the time. We came over the top of one of the dunes and saw that another driver in the convoy had taken a spill. The vehicle was on its side, crunched up with the windscreen shattered into a spiderweb pattern. They had been a bit ahead of us, and another couple of 4WDs had already stopped to assist, helping the passengers out through the doors which were now facing directly skyward.

It might seem a destructive pastime, four-wheel-driving in a conservation reserve, but things are strictly controlled. The reserve is broken up into four conservation zones, number one being an exclusion zone, no people allowed, and number four being for limited tourist safaris like ours run by registered operators along certain routes. The fees charged for entering the zone are put into conservation.

One of our stops out in the desert was at a working camel farm which was comprised of very old corrals, some Arab farmers, and the camels themselves. The men were catching ahold of each camel in turn so an old man could rub them down with some unidentified substance.

We had several stops way out in the desert so we could walk through the sand and over the dunes, and watch the sun go down. In every direction there appeared to be sand and nothing but -- just rolling dunes, and occasionally a bit of sparse scrub. It looked simply endless and quite beautiful.

The desert seems barren, but in fact it's inhabited by many species of animals. In one of the museums I was amazed to discover that hedgehogs (not unlike our own) live in the desert. There is a large variety of lizards, different species of wild cat, Arabian red foxes, the Arabian hare, and gazelles. There are also more than half-a-dozen different types of birds of prey, including kestrels, falcons, and eagles.

All this, and a belly dancer too.

(More later...)

Bur Dubai

I left the hotel at 6:00am on Friday to go for a walk and to buy some coffee. The city was waking up and there were a few people around. On Mankhool Road I found a Choitram supermarket and bought a jar of coffee, a bottle of Almarai cow's milk, some Extra gum, and a box of New Zealand muesli bars.

V. and I were keen to go exploring on foot, so after breakfast we found our way back out to Mankhool Road intending to reach the Dubai Creek. Dubai is built around a natural inlet from the Gulf, artificially deepened and widened into the creek they have today. The Creek is about 10km long and divides the city in two: on one side is Bur Dubai where our hotel was, and which appears to be an older part of town; and on the other is Deira which, looking from the Bur Dubai side, seems more like the modern metropolitan business district.

Turning into Khalid Bin Al Waleed Road we headed in the general direction of the Al Maktoum Bridge, which links Bur Dubai with Deira. On the Gulf, where the Creek begins, the undersea Al Shindagha Tunnel also connects the two districts. We had something of a plan to walk through town to the vicinity of the bridge, then along the Creek to the tunnel.

Generally speaking, the men in the street were well-dressed, but we saw few women outdoors. There is no street crime in Dubai, and both men and women can walk unmolested at any time of the day or night. This emirate is very tolerant of the ways of tourists, but the advice is still given for women to dress modestly.

The natives only make up about 20 percent of the population, the rest being visitors with permission to live and work in Dubai, so there is a real mix of nationalities. Someone in Dubai told me all the city's cab drivers were from Pakistan and I thought he had rocks in his head, but after I learned more about the place it didn't seem so strange.

(More later...)

Lift-Off

There's still a bit to do here. The journal started with Scotland, but there were things we saw and did way before that which deserve an honourable mention, and I think I've yet to write concluding parts for Florence, Krakow, and Ireland. With Ireland, it wasn't the day we spent in Dublin I liked so much as the next day's hike in the Wicklow Mountains National Park.

More than a year ago we started out on a mid-afternoon Emirates flight from New Zealand to the United Arab Emirates, with transit stops in Melbourne and Singapore. The long-haul flight was made more bearable by the Emirates personal entertainment system, a little TV screen and headphones for each passenger, with a very big selection of movies, music, and TV shows under many different categories.

During the stretch between Melbourne and Singapore I watched Bad Day at Black Rock, an old Spencer Tracy film which I really enjoyed -- the best movie I'd seen for a very long time. The next stretch was from Singapore to Dubai, and during the lights-out, with everyone else in the cabin snoring, I watched another cracker of a movie, The Incredibles. I had such a good time watching it while trying not to wake the other passengers with my laughter.

We had flown out of New Zealand at 3:10pm on Wednesday and touched down in the United Arab Emirates at 4:55am, also on Wednesday. I can't recall anything we did after checking in to the Savoy Park Hotel in the city of Dubai, so we may have gone to bed early that morning and slept for some of the day.

Dubai is also the name of the emirate that encompasses the city, an emirate being a political territory (maybe we would use the loose term "state") within the Muslim country United Arab Emirates. In fact, there are seven emirates that make up the country, including Sharjah and Ajman which we visited. Dubai is right on the Persian Gulf, with the United Arab Emirates next to Saudi Arabia as part of the Arabian Peninsula.

On Thursday we had decided to join a proper tour, an excursion that took us through two of Dubai's neighbouring emirates for some sightseeing and visits to sites of cultural and historical interest. In Sharjah we stood and admired the King Faisal Mosque; from the outside only, unfortunately. We spent some time walking through the Blue Souk, a market of somewhere around 600 shops housed inside a beautiful building comprised of two long sections joined by raised tunnels that resemble covered bridges. The hundreds of shops showcase gold, jewels, lingerie (I'll come back to that), rugs, antiques, electronics, and clothing, plus much more, along with all manner of curiosities from various exotic countries.

One of the most incongruous things I saw that day were women fully clothed in burqa and black robes chatting merrily to each other in the lingerie shops while looking through the merchandise.

Crowded along the busy waterfront of Sharjah's Creek, which is quite a large stretch of water, were dhows (traditional wooden vessels), rough-and-ready trading boats that travel to and from the neighbouring countries bringing all sorts of goodies for locals and tourists to buy, with motley crews made up of no nationality in particular.

I noted that alcohol is entirely banned in Sharjah; you can't buy any there and you aren't even allowed to bring some in for personal consumption. On the positive side, Sharjah is a relatively inexpensive place to live, so a lot of people reside there and commute to their jobs in Dubai. From what we experienced, however, the road traffic can be chaotic, with much congestion and the constant tooting of horns, so I can imagine what it might be like during a typical rush-hour.

In Ajman, the smallest of the emirates, we visited the Ajman Museum, once a fortress but now home to displays showing the ancient heritage of the region, including the traditional professions and lifestyles of the people. Mannequins act out scenes from the past such as men relaxing in a coffee house smoking pipes, and men working their trades. I was drawn to an exhibit of weapons, including handguns, with the usual Arabic/English dual-language signs having some wayward translations such as "capable of shooting four ballots" (bullets) and "Smith-Waison" (Smith & Wesson).

(More later...)

Ireland, Part 1: Dublin

V. and I walked from Wood Street to Walthamstow Central where we took the Tube to Tottenham Hale, and from there caught the 05:37 Stansted Express train. At Stansted we looked around the shops a little and V. bought a very nice top at Ted Baker.

Seated in the aircraft cabin and waiting for takeoff I noticed the Ryanair jet had no seats numbered 13. The rows skipped directly from 12 to 14. Our flight attendant was a very attractive, dark-haired Latin woman called Manuela whose sultry voice was a pleasure to listen to over the PA system.

From the airport in Dublin we sat on the upper deck of the No. 747 bus and took a ride into town. Disruptive and unsightly street improvement works were in full swing along O'Connell Street, a major renovation project that apparently will result in new paving and wider footpaths, rows of trees, and a new central median, all with better street lighting.

After checking into our hotel we went for a walk around the town and I bought a neat little city guidebook from the visitor information shop. I was getting hungry so I had a coffee on Abbey Street and we looked through my book while I waited for a Govinda's across the road to open for an early lunch. Lasagne with broccoli and a Greek salad made me feel better then we walked along the River Liffey to visit the Guinness Storehouse.

The Storehouse experience is basically a giant marketing exercise for the brand, but it's also very informative and I enjoyed it. I liked the section devoted to the old Guinness promotional characters and cartoons, the work of the highly talented artist John Gilroy, although this part of the otherwise busy Storehouse was deserted except for V. and me. A favourite postcard of mine, drawn by Gilroy, shows the "Guinness for Strength" man carrying a girder. Guinness is a stout, a dark ale so-called because it is a stronger and darker (ie. stout) version of porter, also a variety of ale. It is actually dark red in colour, and was first brewed in 1759 by the revered Arthur Guinness.

At our hotel restaurant that evening, naturally I ordered a pint of Guinness; but in a town most proud of its native tipple, and with a proliferation of Guinness pint glasses in the local shops, why was I served my drink in a Bulmer Cider glass on a Budweiser coaster?

(More later...)

Florence, Part 4

Saturday brought us a beautiful sunny morning and we were out and about early. We went for a walk around the relatively quiet streets and stopped in the middle of the Ponte Vecchio to soak up the sunshine and admire the river. Here there is a bust of Benvenuto Cellini, the great sculptor and goldsmith, protected by a wrought metal fence. The fence is bristling with dozens of padlocks, the result of a romantic tradition whereby lovers will attach a padlock then throw the key into the Arno.

Around 8:30am we met up with our guide for the day and our itsy bitsy tour group which consisted of me and V., two female nurses from the Canadian military, and Miss L. from Singapore. Miss L. had slept late and hadn’t yet arrived so the five of us went to a cafe bar to wait for her. The guide did explain why we ought to wait for the tardy Miss L. although I would have been perfectly happy to leave her behind. She didn’t hold us up for too long however, and we were soon on a bus to the ancient town of Fiesole to begin our exploration of Tuscany.

Apart from the bus ride up to Fiesole we spent the day on foot, and we began by learning about the Etruscans, the ancient inhabitants of the country, and their settlement in Fiesole long before the arrival of the Romans and the establishment of the Roman colony Florentia (now Florence) in 59 B.C.

Our walk took us way into the hills of Tuscany, amongst the olive groves, with magnificent views of Florence down below in the distance, and through the beautiful woods of Monte Ceceri. This is a great forest, dominated by cypress, with rocks and cliffs and walking trails. Michelangelo spent time in these hills, and it is generally believed that Leonardo tried out his flying machine here.

Coming down out of the forest but still in the hills, we walked along some back roads to the Fattoria di Maiano (Maiano Farm) and more great views. On the way we passed olive trees right by the road that were hundreds of years old and still producing, planted on tiers cut into the slopes like the ones we had seen while hiking along the Cinque Terre. The Maiano Farm is around 330 hectares with a third of its land area devoted to growing completely organic olives. There are 18,000 trees producing the olives which are picked by hand in November and December and then pressed on the farm a few hours after being harvested to make high quality extra virgin olive oil.

We left our backpacks at the farm’s shop and, accompanied by a black and white dog from the farm, walked to the Villa di Maiano (owner’s residence). The diminutive Miss L. held us up again while she dithered about whether or not to take her gloves or some such nonsense, and I’m afraid I had a little growl at her. We went through the gates of the old villa and the black and white dog started a fight with a yellow dog, then a peasant came and belted the yellow dog before dragging it off somewhere. We had the place to ourselves and went on an interesting tour of the house and wandered around the garden, from which we had good views of Florence a few kilometres distant.

Back at the restaurant behind the shop, which is basically an upmarket delicatessen showcasing the farm’s products such as olive oil, wine, and meat (plus other foods like fruit, vegetables, and honey), we sat down to a delicious lunch that included meats, oils, breads, and olives. It was washed down with the local Chianti, and our guide took us through a proper wine-tasting lesson.

(More later…)

Krakow, Part 4

From Auschwitz I the bus took us the three kilometres to Auschwitz II – Birkenau, the largest part of the Auschwitz complex where most victims of Nazi extermination were murdered. This had been the village of Brzezinka till the Germans evicted the Polish people who lived here and destroyed their houses to make way for the death camp. We got off the bus and walked into the camp through the guardhouse building. The lower part of the main watchtower is the Gate, and despite a heavy snowfall we could still make out part of the railway spur which brought the trains in from the main railway lines outside. Prisoners of all nationalities were brought into the camp through the Gate. Those of Jewish extraction were immediately divided into two columns, one for men and one for women and children. After a selection process, around three quarters of the new arrivals would be sent to the gas chambers.

We were able to walk around the camp in the snow and go inside the barracks where the prisoners had been kept. The living quarters and communal latrines remain as they were back in the day. The brick barracks were built in haste and set onto the swampy ground without foundations or floors. The wooden barracks were originally stables designed to accommodate 52 horses; after scant modification, each building was used to house several hundred and sometimes up to a thousand prisoners. We also went up into the main watchtower above the Gate from where we could look out over much of the camp.

By the time we got back to Krakow it was late in the afternoon. At our hotel we freshened up then went downstairs for a drink or two before dinner. The service in the hotel restaurant was too slow so I made a formal complaint then left to find somewhere better. Looking around the town we decided on Wierzynek 1364 and it was a good choice. This is the most famous restaurant in the city, so-named because in 1364 the Polish king Kazimierz the Great invited monarchs from all over Europe to a gathering, ostensibly to celebrate his granddaughter’s wedding, but mainly for political purposes. The King asked a rich merchant, Wierzynek, to play host and take charge of the festivities, and the banquet Wierzynek laid on at his own house for the King and the guests has passed into legend. V. and I walked in off the street to be met by an elegant young lady in period dress. There are about half-a-dozen separately decorated dining rooms within the restaurant, and the girl led us upstairs to what I think was the Pompejanska room which has frescoes on the walls. She handed us off to a waiter and from then on he looked after us very well. Our table was right by the window looking down into the square. The food was superb and we really enjoyed our meal.

I gave our waiter a tip then we went for a late-night stroll around Krakow.

(More later…)

Krakow, Part 3: Oswiecim

Once on the bus we headed out of town and through the snow-bound countryside where people with snow shovels were clearing snow from the driveways of nice homes. The snow had stopped falling but the sky was overcast and the land was completely white for as far as the eye could see.

We got off the bus in the town of Oswiecim which was renamed Auschwitz by the Germans in late 1939. Around this time, mass arrests throughout occupied Poland had caused overcrowding in the existing prisons, and the Germans needed to create a concentration camp. Because of its relatively isolated location, its railway junction, and its deserted pre-War Polish barracks, they decided on Auschwitz in April 1940, with the first Polish political prisoners being brought to the camp in June 1940.

From the outside it looks pretty much as it did back then, but it’s now a state museum with exhibitions inside many of the buildings, each looking at a different aspect of the horrors that took place here. In the first room of the first block is the camp’s memorial, simply an urn containing a handful of human ashes. Going from room to room and building to building, it’s possible to gain some appreciation of the magnitude of the crimes committed.

In this first block we saw large photographs taken by the SS at Auschwitz II – Birkenau during the extermination of Hungarian Jews. There is a detailed model that would fit onto a large family dining table of a gas chamber and crematorium showing the stages people passed through, from undressing for a shower to having their bodies dragged out to be burned. We saw a huge pile of empty Cyclon B (chemical used to produce poison gas) containers behind a window and an open container with the deadly crystals on display under glass. When the Soviet Army liberated the camp in January 1945 they found approximately seven tons (7,000kg) of human hair packed into bags. Human hair, mainly women’s, was sent back to Germany to be used in their textile industry, and it turns up in parts of Nazi uniforms, among other things. The hair is on display along with bolts of cloth the Germans made from it.

I can only scratch the surface of what we saw in Auschwitz. There are many thousands of personal effects on display, usually in great piles behind protective glass. With the approach of the Russians, the Germans attempted to destroy the evidence of what they had been doing, and part of this involved burning down the warehouses which contained the belongings of the murder victims, but much of the personal property survived. The second block we went to contained toothbrushes, shaving brushes, shoes, and suitcases with the names and addresses of the rightful owners written on them. The room containing artificial limbs is staggering, yet it’s all only the tip of an iceberg.

We learned more about the extent of the prolonged tortures suffered by the prisoners, which included Poles (and other Slavic peoples), the Gypsies, people with mental or physical disabilities, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and many others the Nazis hated. The bizarre experiments conducted in this place by Mengele and various other Nazi doctors, without any form of anaesthetic, are especially horrifying, including: the gynaecological torture of hundreds of women; obsessive experimentation on twins, with such madness as trying to create Siamese twins from two normal twins; and all manner of terrible injuries and diseases deliberately inflicted on the victims.

The “Death Block” was also a place where the Germans carried out torture and murder to a highly efficient degree. Through the snow we walked along the courtyard between this block and Block 10 to the back wall where prisoners would be stood to face the firing squad. Thousands of people died against this wall, mostly Poles, and we were advised not to talk while in this courtyard. Where I stood in my boots thousands of others had stood in bare feet in terror. On the ground floor of the block we saw the room where the Gestapo court would be held, deciding the fate of prisoners. In any one session they might well issue over a hundred death sentences. I found it hard to grasp the need for a court because I got the impression an officer of the SS could shoot anyone he liked at any time on the merest of whims. Moving through the ground floor we saw the horrible place where the prisoners, both men and women, would have to strip naked, which was compulsory for anyone being led out to be shot. I suppose it was one last humiliation that could be imposed. After examining the ground floor we went down into the cold and dingy bowels of the building, to the concrete cellars where single and group torture was carried out, and also where experiments in killing en masse were conducted, leading to the development of the gas chambers and the use of Cyclon B. I really couldn’t imagine being down amongst those cells and chambers for any length of time, whether voluntarily or otherwise, and I was glad to get out into the open air.

We stood in the snow in Assembly Square where the camp’s emaciated prisoners were forced to stand for hours in bare feet and dressed in rags during roll-calls. Sometimes hangings would be carried out in front of the assembly. From here, walking directly down the street and outside the main fenceline of the camp, we saw the gas chamber and crematorium of Auschwitz I. To the right a small distance away was the commandant’s house where Commandant Rudolf Hoess (Hoss) lived with his wife and family. We didn’t approach the house but we learned a little about its former occupant. Hoess was a good commandant (camp commander) for the purposes of the Nazis, and he played an important role in developing the systems used for the mass murder of the Jews. After the War he was captured in 1946 and handed over to Poland. Between the crematorium and the house is the little gallows where they hanged him in 1947. After a look through the remains of the gas chamber and reconstructed crematorium we went into the museum’s movie theatre to watch a short film about the liberation.

(More later…)