The oppressive weight of history
Prague is Beautiful
Prague. Capital of the Czech Republic. City of Exceptional beauty. Everywhere you look there are scenes of outstanding, stunning beauty. It’s marvellous. And the city itself ain’t bad either.
Yes, Czech women do live up to their reputation for beauty. Maybe it was just the way the girls carried themselves; their carefree confidence; Or maybe it was their hair, their skin, and their tans. Or maybe it was just that they dressed better than the Germans. Whatever it was, there was a certain spring in everyone’s step in Prague. Mine especially.
It was an easy drive from Dresden and we arrived in the early afternoon. Of course we had no accommodation booked so it took us an hour or so weaving through the streets around the train station before we found a suitable (that means cheap!) pension. We booked in for two nights. It was only a short tram ride into the city. It was 11 years since we’d visited Prague but the city itself didn’t really seem any different; maybe a few more big name shops.
The Charles Bridge - where everyone promenades in the late afternoon - was being renovated and was covered in scaffolding. It was still packed however. Prague was popular with tourists 11 years ago, but it’s gone crazy now. Everywhere there were queues and congestion, and of course, wherever tourists congregate there are the beggars and scammer, like flies on a turd.
Highlights of the city are the market square, especially in the late afternoon light. The astrological clock is overrated in the same way as the Munich Glockenspiel, but is still draws thousands of tourists every hour. The Tyn Church in the corner of the square is a masterpiece of gothic architecture and provides a beautiful backdrop. Then there is Prague Castle, set high on a ridge across the river from the old city. It isn’t so much a castle in the traditional sense, but palace complex that house the presidential palace, parliament and other government buildings so it’s not really a museum piece. In 1998 you could enter all parts of the castle for free, except for special exhibitions. Although you can still enter the castle, there are entry fees for the various buildings, including St Vitus Cathedral and even the Golden Lane, a tiny medieval lane of shops. We’d seen them all before so we didn’t pay, but we did visit a toy museum and saw an exhibition of Barbie dolls. Did you know that Barbie was originally a German newspaper cartoon character, drawn for a very adult audience? Very interesting!
After two days in Prague we set off again, heading north over the Sudeten Mountains into Poland. In 1938 Adolf Hitler initiated an international crisis to have this ‘Sudetenland’ recognised as an integral part of Germany (Silesia, which is now part of Poland was then part of Germany). Hitler claimed the German speaking minority in this borderland were being oppressed by the Czechs and Britain and France conceded. Czechoslovakia, which was prepared to fight for the region, was not consulted. Less than six months later Adolf Hitler gave the Czech government an ultimatum - resign or be destroyed - and Czechoslovakia was no more. Driving though the winding forested slopes of the Sudeten it becomes clear what all this was about. Hitler of course didn’t care about the language rights of a few thousand German speakers; the Sudeten were a defensible bastion and if the Czechs could hold the mountain passes, the German Blitzkrieg - even if it struck across the Austrian border - would grind to a halt and with it the myth of German invincibility. Had Hitler been defeated in his first military battle it is likely he would shortly have been deposed by his own officers. However, once he’d seized control of the mountains, Czechoslovakia was doomed and the dominoes were set to fall.
It was a very long and slow driving day. Although the mountains themselves aren’t high, the roads are narrow (single lane) and their quality declines considerably once on the Polish side of the border. Poland has about two motorways - one linking Berlin and Warsaw and one linking Warsaw and the port city of Gdansk. The rest of the country is linked by single lane highways. Often deeply rutted from the weight of heavy truck traffic. Tractors, trucks and road works can hold up traffic for miles. Due to the road conditions our travels in Poland often involved extended time on the road, which meant we had ample opportunity to contemplate the torturous, tragic history of this interesting country - when not playing chicken with Polish drivers, that is.
Road conditions obviously make Polish drivers impatient, aggressive and reckless. They often had no compunction overtaking in the face of oncoming traffic and it was not uncommon for us to be forced onto the hard shoulder by approaching traffic. Such recklessness results in numerous head-ons. We saw four in our two days in Krakow. Maybe this explains the numerous roadside shrines along every road. Poland is a devoutly Catholic country and roadside shrines are distinctive feature of the landscape. They varied considerably; from elaborate statues of Mary and the crucifixion, to strange floral ornaments draped in brightly coloured ribbons. The most unusual shrines were especially prevalent along roads on the forest and at crossroads. Folk customs die hard and I’m pretty convinced these forest shrines reach back into a pre-Christian world of forest and animist spirits. I guess they also do their best to remind drivers of the dangers of the road.
Along the forest roads we regularly saw people sitting with a small bucket or tray of vegetables. Often these were no larger than an ice cream container and the money they would have made from selling them would have only been a few zloty. Sometimes there were many of them, sometimes they were along. Often they were very far from the nearest town so who knows how far they had come No one ever seemed to stop.
The same can’t be said for another kind of forest traffic. Clearly, women don’t drive as much in men in Poland because there always seemed to be an abundance of young ladies waiting for a lift. Fortunately there seemed no shortage of gallant drivers and truckers will to pick them up.
The drive from Prague to Wroclaw took 8 hours of solid driving. Until 1945 the city was in German Silesia and called Breslau, Some of its older residents still it call it that. The city has a nice central square but has definitely seen better days. Perhaps it was fitting that we stayed in an old Communist era hostel whose décor was distinctly 1973. From the state of the bathrooms it also seemed as if the cleaners had left when the wall came down in 1989. Wroclaw’s main tourist attraction is a 114 metre, 360 degree painting of the 1794 Battle of Raclowice. I know it doesn’t sound very exciting but we went to see it anyway and it was stunning. This epic (and huge) painting is housed in a very horrible 1960’s, circular, concrete building. You view the painting from a central viewing platform. There is a three dimensional diorama in the foreground which matches in with the landscape of the painting and it really does create an impressive 3-D effect. There are half hourly tours in Polish but also provide an audio translation in other languages which explain the how the painting was made, its restoration, and of course the battle itself. Here is a link to a website for the painting:
Poland’s history has been one of domination by other powers. A medieval Polish kingdom existed between the 12th and 16th centuries, but it was continuously at odds with its neighbours - the Russians, the Germans, the Austrians, the Hungarians, and the Tartars (Mongols). By the end of 17th century Germany, Russia and Austria had divided Poland between them and the country ceased to exist. In 1794 Taduez Kosciuszko (after whom Mt Kosciuszko is named), led a rebellion against the Russians. His army defeated the Russians at Raclowice, but the insurrection was ultimately defeated. Like Gallipoli to the Australians, the success of the battle is less important than its symbolic meaning.
The next day we did another 8 hour drive to Torun, birthplace of the astronomer Nicholas Copernicus, with a lunch stop in Poznan. Despite setting off early we didn’t reach Poznan until nearly 3pm. Poznan’s square was quite beautiful, but we didn’t stay long. We arrived in Torun about 6pm. Unlike other Polish cities, Torun was not destroyed in the Second World War so its great old, red brick gothic buildings are all original. We had a delicious meal of Polish dumplings and beer.
The next day we had another early start as it was a long days drive to Gdansk. Gdansk, on the Baltic Sea, is Poland’s main port city. It was only some 360 kms from Torun and there was a motorway for half that length, but it still took nearly a full day to get there. We stopped at the magnificent Malbork castle just outside Gdansk. We have seen a lot of impressive castles in our travels, but Malbork is astonishing for both its size and scale. It was swarming with package tourists and school groups, which made the experience a little bit frustrating.
Malbork was the fortress headquarters of the Teutonic Knights, a crusader order that conquered northern Poland and Lithuania. Originally the Poles had invited the Teutonic Knights to help defend against the pagan Lithuanians in the 12th century. The Knights set about slaughtering the Lithuanians with such unbridled ferocity that the Lithuanians quickly converted to Christianity in an effort to save themselves (literally and figuratively!). But the Knights weren’t about to a little technicality like that get in the way. They soon turned on the Poles, and then even the Russians. It would take an alliance of Poles, Lithuanians and Russians, under the Russian Prince Alexandr Nevesky to smash the power of the Knights in the 13th century (it’s subject of a famous film by Sergei Eisenstein). The Knights would later form the core of the Prussian nobility and their brutal attitude towards the Poles and Russians would infect German policy. Indeed, the Nazi’s policies of deportation and extermination of the Polish people was no historical aberration, but simply took Prussian anti-Polish policy to its ‘logical’ end point.
From Malbork we visited the small seaside town of Sopot. Now it is little more than a suburb in Gdansk‘s urban sprawl, but it was once a 19th century spa town complete with pier and promenade. The beach was positively packed as it was high summer and stinking hot. We quickly dipped our feet in the Baltic and then turned towards Gdansk. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the outskirts Gdansk were not very encouraging - run down train yards, urban neglect and the usual dodgy characters loitering in the street - but when we reached the old town we were pleasantly surprised. Although extensively damaged in the war, most of the old centre has been restored, including the Royal Processional Way and the 12the century Medieval crane. Gdansk has a good atmosphere and is a pleasant city to spend time in. But we almost didn’t get to enjoy it all. Accommodation in the city is expensive and difficult to find, especially on weekends. And it was Saturday. And packed. Every place we checked was either full or ridiculously expensive. By luck more than anything we found two beds in a dodgy hostel by the central station. It was horrible and noisy and there was no privacy or any security, but it was all there was available. Needless to say we were up and out at the crack of dawn for the long drive to Warsaw (the sun comes up at 5.37am - we know this because there were no blinds on the windows).
We took no detours this time but we still didn’t arrive in Warsaw until late afternoon due to roadworks and other delays. We visited the Warsaw Uprising Museum as soon as we arrived as it was one of the few museums that did not close at 6pm. On Sunday the museums are free so it was totally packed. The Uprising is one of the pivotal moments in Polish history and, like the Battle of Raclewice, commemoration of the event was long suppressed by the communist regime. In early 1945, the Polish Govt in Exile and the underground (mainly comprising officers who’s escaped capture and execution by both the Nazis and the Soviets) launched a massive attack on the occupying German army. For almost two weeks, the Poles regained control of Warsaw and other key cities. While the Germans were busy putting down the Uprising, the Soviets launched an attack from the east. The Soviets reached the east bank of the Vistula River and then did nothing. They watched on as the Germans slowly regained control and exterminated the Polish forces. Those Poles who managed to escape to the Soviets were arrested and imprisoned. I used to know an old Polish gentleman who had fought in Uprising. He once described to me how he and few of his compatriots escaped through the sewers. It was black and the sewers were full. There was only an inch or two of ‘breathing space.’ The stench was unbelievable, but they jumped in anyway and swam as best they could as to remain behind meant certain death as the Germans were not taking prisoners. They swam and crawled for several kilometres, uncertain where they were or whether they could even get out. Some of them drowned in the filth, but a few managed to reach the river and swim across to the Russians at night. Recalling that story still made him shudder, but he observed that it’s amazing what you can do when your life is on the line.
This wasn’t the first time in history that the Soviet army had reached the outskirts of Warsaw and that time the outcome had been significantly different. When the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia in 1917 they firmly believed that a universal workers revolution was about to break out. After Central Powers collapsed in 1918, communist governments were formed in Hungary and Germany, but both were quickly and savagely suppressed. Lenin realised that only armed intervention could ensure the success of his workers revolution, so in 1919 he launched a massive invasion of Poland. The Russians had never really accepted the idea of Polish independence and intended to wipe Poland off the map again, but they also intended to push on into Germany, sweep up Hungary and then drive into the heart of western Europe. Had the plan succeeded we might be living in quite a different world. A combined army of Poles, Ukrainians and Byelorussians opposed the Soviets but were quickly overwhelmed and in full retreat. They were forced to make a last stand at Warsaw. But the Russian success had been so absolute that their armies were strung out over hundreds of kilometres and at the limit of their endurance. The Poles launched a surprise attack that cut right through the Soviet lines and penetrated into their rear. The Soviet army broke in disorder and it was their turn to retreat. Both sides had behaved savagely towards the other and no quarter was given. Stalin had been a frontline commander of the southern army and he was not a man to forget and forgive. When the Germans and Russians partitioned Poland in 1939 he had all Polish army officers he could lay his hands on arrested an interned in camps in Byelorussia, where some 50,000, including many who fought at the Battle of Warsaw, were executed in the Katyn Forest.
We stayed in the excellent Hostel Helvetica, just off the four kilometre Royal Way, a street of while marble public buildings lining the promenade to the old Royal Palace and Old Town Square. The palace and the Old Town are beautiful and are the heart of the city. They have all been painstakingly restored to their original condition. This is especially amazing in the case of the Royal Palace as not a single stone was left standing. After the Uprising, Hitler ordered the city to levelled to the ground. All civilians were deported and a special SS commando bought in to demolish the city. Only 30% of the city survived.
From Warsaw it was another long drive to Krakow. Krakow had been the royal capital of Poland until the 17th century and it has a magnificent castle and cathedral. The main square of Krakow is also the largest in Europe apparently. Having visited Krakow some ten years ago we were pretty sure this was an exaggeration, but we were both shocked when we saw it again. It IS huge. Much larger than either of us remembered. In the centre of the square is the Cloth Hall, a former market building and a clock tower. The clock tower stands on its own, looking a little lost in this enormous space. I’m pretty sure there must have been a rathaus or town hall attached to it at one point, but it was destroyed or burnt down or something. Will have to look into that. On our second night we did an organised pub crawl. Our group was primarily a bunch of young Irish lads so Shelly was all right. The Irish sure had some interesting stories to tell. It was a good night but we were a little under the weather the next day.
Outside of Krakow there are a number of interesting day trips. The first was a trip to the Wielka Salt Mines. It was totally packed with tourists and, as the number of people who can descend the mine at any one time is limited, mob behaviour and rudeness dominated. I won’t say anymore. The huge underground cathedral carved out of salt is impressive, but at two hours it does go on a bit.
When we returned to the light it was raining. Hard. So opted to make an appropriate side trip to Auschwitz. Some 40 kilometres from lovely Krakow is one of the single most horrific places in human history. Auschwitz I was a Polish army barracks that the Nazis turned into a prison camp for Polish military, political agitators and intellectuals. Shortly thereafter it was expanded to hold Russian prisoners, then gypsies and later Jews. We had visited Auschwitz I before and saw no need to go back, so we went to Aushwitz II -Birkenau. While Auschwitz I was a concentration camp where prisoners were worked to death, Birkenau was a specialised death camp. At the end of the war the SS destroyed much of the camp including the gas chambers and incinerators, but there is still enough left, including the grim gateway through which the trains would pass. It’s a scene familiar from many films. The most striking thing about Birkenau is the sheer scale of the enterprise. The camp stretches as far as the eye can see. In row upon row of barracks prisoners must have waited for their turn to be killed, never knowing when there would be a ‘gap in the schedule’ that would mean their time had come. With every train the fit were separated from the ‘less fit’ - the young, the elderly, the women - who were immediately gassed and their bodies burnt. The fit were worked as slave labour until they either died or were themselves gassed. It was the industrialisation of mass murder.
Given the history of pain and torment inflicted on the Polish people by both the Germans and the Russians, it did strike us as odd that there is appears a very strong skin-head neo-Nazi movement in Poland. It seems incomprehensible. And to end our trip through Poland on an inappropriate note, Paul bought himself a German helmet in a Krakow souvenir stall!
Poland is blessed with a surplus of very beautiful women, who all speak excellent English (at least I think they did when I could be bothered listening)
Poland is no so blessed with a surplus of handsome men. Shelly says there were a few, but only a few.
The ratio of beautiful to not-so-beautiful being what it is means that many Polish men are punching way above their weight. And they know it. And they can be a bit surly about it.
Polish radio stations love the 1980s almost as much as the German radio stations.
Shelly does not like Polish or German radio stations.