A weekend in… Poland! Day One, Wrocław and Auschwitz-Birkenau

The brilliant thing about living in the UK is the ability to head to Europe for the weekend. This time we chose gorgeous Poland as our destination. It’s not a country that’s often on the top of travel lists but, after visiting for only two short days, it’s my opinion that it definitely should be. Great food, incredible history, beautiful architecture, warm people… it ticks all the boxes for me.

Beautiful and quaint… Wrocław, Poland 

This truly was a weekend adventure. We left after work on Friday (with a near-miss airport adventure – because of terrible M25 traffic it took us over 4 hours to get to Stansted from Winchester), landed late Friday night and flew back Sunday evening. We booked cheap Ryanair flights into Wrocław, a town in Western Poland that we had never heard of. In fact, the pronunciation of the town turned out to be one of the trickiest words to master – it’s more like ‘Vrots-lav’ than ‘Row-claw’. What we found was a colourful, vibrant town known as the ‘Venice of Poland’ and it took us completely by surprise.

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DSC_0336The main square in Wrocław is full of these beautiful, colourful facades, rebuilt in the original style following damage during World War II. We waited around for a free walking tour outside one of the statues in the square, but ended up doing our own tour from our guidebook. It worked well, as we were able to stroll around the city at our own pace.

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View from Cathedral of St John the Baptist

The reason why Wrocław is called the ‘Venice of Poland’ is because it is actually made up of all of these islands, connected by waterways. There are several stunning churches (two of which are visible in this photo, and we are standing in one of the towers of the third, Cathedral of St John the Baptist), vibrant markets and even its own romantic love lock bridge.

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For lunch, we visited a modern version of a traditional Polish ‘milk bar’ in the university district. Milk bars (or bar mleczny in Polish) were hugely popular under Communist rule, when workers needed to get a good honest meal at a cheap price. While most of them have faded from existence, there are still a few around. We found Bar Bazylia, which really just reminded me of my old university cafeterias! It was essentially a buffet featuring a mix of traditional Polish cuisine with international favourites like pasta, spring rolls and hamburgers. The idea is that you load up your plate with food and then pay by the weight – so either you end up with a ton of food (because you can’t help but want to try a bit of everything) or too little (because you think something is better around the corner). For a huge lunch it worked out at about £4/5 a person so definitely good value.

There was still plenty more to see in Wrocław, but we had a 3pm entry ticket to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum – a two-hour drive from Wrocław – so we needed to get a move on.

I have to say that I was full of apprehension at the thought of visiting Auschwitz. I knew it would be harrowing and distressing, and my closest experience travel-wise thus far had been a visit to the Cheung-Ek Killing Fields in Cambodia, which was terrifying enough. But ultimately, I’m very glad that we went. Lofty had visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, which made a huge impression on him and helped him to understand what I did not: that it’s almost impossible to truly comprehend the magnitude of the violence and horror that transpired unless you visit – and, while that’s extremely uncomfortable – it’s so important that it is all remembered.

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We arrived into Oświęcim in the late afternoon, worried that we wouldn’t have enough time to see everything (the museum hours stated that it closed at 5pm, and there are two halves to see: Auschwitz itself and then the Birkenau death camp. They recommend 90 minutes per site at a minimum). At any rate, we didn’t need to worry – although the closing times were accurate for entry, once you were inside we had until 7pm at Birkenau to take everything in. And we needed it.

Walking beneath the ‘iconic’ (feels wrong to say, but I can’t think of another way to describe them) gates into Auschwitz sent immediate shivers rushing down my spine. There are dozens of long, rectangular brick buildings, each one housing its own exhibit – each more devastating than the last. But the exhibitions are also informative, clear and unrepentant: they document the devastation without trying to soften the blows nor to aggrandize the atrocity. Nothing needs to be aggandized. Just the sheer statement of facts is enough.

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As we had our own car, once we left Auschwitz we drove the short distance to Birkenau (there’s also a shuttle bus that goes between the two places). One thing that strikes you immediately upon entering Birkenau is the sheer size of the place. It goes on and on, as far as the eye can see. We entered as the sun was beginning to set, and the contrast of the beautiful sunset against the hideous wreckage of workhouses and gas chambers was almost too much to bear. I wasn’t sure that I was properly comprehending the scale of it, but walking those train tracks – treading the same path of the men, women and children being led to the gas chambers – suddenly made it personal for me. Like the impact of everything I’d read walking through the Auschwitz museum finally hit home. Maybe it’s because walking through Birkenau, it’s impossible to detach yourself from the reality. I don’t know – it’s very hard to express the gamut of emotions that run through you when you walk through a place like this. I don’t ever want to believe that humans are capable of such evil, but when you’re staring it in the face, you can’t ignore it.

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Sobering indeed.

From the museum, it was a one hour drive to our next stop of Krakow, Poland – a place of great food, castles and dragons. More on that in the next blog.

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