Month: October 2008

Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic: No Shoes, No Problem

The bus ride to Cesky Krumlov was interesting, in a very good way. The company that ran the service was called the Student Agency and the guys at the front desk of Sir Toby’s in Prague highly recommended them. Once we got underway, the girl who checked everyone off as they got onto the bus, and then got on herself, turned on the tv monitors and walked down the aisle distributing headsets like an airline flight. Then she walked back through, offering coffee and tea. As she concluded the in-flight service, she popped in a DVD of a very, very strange Czech movie.

The bus stopped at the Spicak stop, just outside the old town walls of Cesky Krumlov. I remembered something in the Krumlov House hostel’s brochure about getting off at the second CK bus stop, and how directions were only given from that one. I also vaguely remember crumpling up the brochure and throwing it away. But thankfully, when I reached into my pocket I found it, crumpled, but the map was more than readable.

After turning around in circles and crossing the same street a couple times, I found my bearings and walked through the gates and into the border walls of the town.

As I walked down the coblestone streets and alleys it was easy to imagine the town in middle ages. Apart from the transition to souvenir shops and restaurants, with a few touches of paint here and there, the storefronts and buildings looked like they had survived for hundreds of years.

The walk through the town to the hostel aloud me to scope out the area, and an uncommon route up a long flight of stairs finally found me on the right street, standing in front of “the Dragon Door”, an intricately carved door of two entwined dragons.

I stepped inside the low door and was greeted by an Aussie and an American. The Aussie girl, Emma (incidentally, not sure if I’ve brought this up before, but all Aussie and Kiwi girls are either named Emma or Jess), told me that the room wasn’t ready, but I could drop my luggage off and roam around town until I could check-in.

I headed in the direction of the castle, and entered the grounds. A lookout point near a theatre and it’s bar, Antre, gave some great shots of the castle and Novo Mestro (New Town) area, across the river that snakes through the town.

The entrance to the castle started with a few cafes to the right, leading up to a moat bridge.

At the information and tourist map board just before the moat I scoped out the grounds and looked at the route to the gardens. And suddenly, along with the little icons for the toilets, dining facilities and museums, was a small “animal crossing” picture of a bear. That’s right, a bear. When I got to the moat, I found out it was really a bear moat, and piles of fruit and veggies were scattered around the enclosure. No bears though, it must’ve been too early for them.

I walked through the main courtyards and onto a bridge that extends across a natural gap in the rock that the castle was built on.

From there I walked up the slight hill to the King’s Gardens, which were saturated with beautiful tones of greens, oranges, yellows and browns.

I walked out of the back of the gardens and circled around the back of the town borders.

I crossed the river twice (it really snakes through the town), and headed up a short set of stone stairs which placed me right next to the hostel, completing my large loop around the town.

I finally checked in, unpacked and took a short nap. Emma gave me a tour of the place and explained the rules. Krumlov house was a true hippie’s paradise: it was “shoe free”, meaning no footwear past the entrance, they recycled like madmen and even asked everyone to compost all organic material. Above all, it was very friendly, homely hostel, but most importantly, it also had free wifi.

Earlier, I had talked to both Emma and a very unhelpful worker at the information center about short walks I could do in the area. One that came highly recommended was a short hike up to an old monastery south of CK. I figured it would be a good lookout point at sunset. I walked down to one of three supermarkets in town (and saying supermarket … two of them would be more like convenience stores) and bought some supplies, including a couple beers.

I left shortly before sunset, with my camera, a book and beers and started the hike up the hill. The map was reasonably accurate, but didn’t provide any fair warning on how steep the trail would be. I found myself frequently out of breath and taking breaks to squeegee the sweat off my head with my hands.

I finally reached the top, took some pictures, drank my beer and read, waiting for the sunset.

A hot air balloon even passed by …

And finally, the sun set and I got my usual castle pictures:

I realized only late that I waited a bit too long before heading back down the hill, and was quite worried that I would get lost on the way back. Fortunately, the moon was bright and the last bit of light in the sky was enough to guide me home.

When I got back to the hostel, it didn’t seem like any of the other guests wanted to go out, which was unfortunate, but instead we sat in the common room and watched a movie. I struck up a conversation with two Australian girls (the hostel was dominated by the Aussies during the few days I was there), who were headed to Budapest next, so I gave them advice on what to see and where to stay.

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Prague, Czech Republic: The Problem With Not Having A Plan

I had a decision to make. When I first checked in, I heard a lot of talk about another town near Prague that was supposed to be lots of fun, laid back and beautiful. The town was Cesky Krumlov (say Chess-key Kroom-lov), and it’s advertised as one of the last truly medieval towns in Europe. It’s even on UNESCO’s World Heritage list.

Later I met a Canadian couple who were also heading there, touting it as “Prague minus all the tourists.” I was intrigued.

That Friday morning I walked v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y to the tram stop near the hostel, trying to figure out if I want to detour and visit Cesky Krumlov, or stick to the original plan and head to Dresden and then Berlin. The problem in my mind was twofold: 1) Cesky Krumlov is almost 3 hours in he opposite direction; and 2) I was keen on getting to Amsterdam, so I could speak to an HR manager there about jobs.

With every step I argued for one side or the other. “It is supposed to be really laid back and nice.” “But it’s in the opposite direction, in fact, I’d have to come right back through Prague again!” “It would be much cheaper to go there, though, than pretty much anywhere in Germany.”

When I got to the tram stop I still hadn’t decided, and where I got off would determine where I go: the bus station for Cesky Krumlov, the train station for Dresden. In the end, what convinced me was a quick slap in the face of reality: What the hell am I doing this for?? To see the world, damnit, even if it means backtracking and going out of my way. Plus, what’s all this rushing for? That doesn’t sound like the unpredictable, meandering, nomad I seem to have become. I got off  at the bus station and bought a ticket to Cesky Krumlov for the next morning, returning on Tuesday. Then I went to the train station and bought an open ended train ticket to Berlin, which I could use at anytime within the next two months. Somewhere in all the confusion Dresden ended up on the cutting room floor.

After all that … thinking I had to do, I needed something to distract my mind. I went searching for the Gallery of the City of Prague, which was supposed to have have some photography exhibits. The Gallery was supposed to be somewhere in the main square, but exactly where, I had no idea. I first found an unlabelled museum and went upstairs to ask the receptionist if I had found the City Gallery. She didn’t speak much English, but I figured that I only stumbled on a branch of the National Gallery. I walked across the square and passed a sports photography exhibit and I thought I saw something about ‘city gallery’ written on the building. A very bored young man who was sitting at the front desk of the sports photography exhibit, in front of a ‘free admission’ sign, and when I asked him where the City Gallery of Prague was, he said that it was upstairs. Finally!

It wasn’t upstairs. Yet another receptionist told me that it was back across the square, pretty much right next to the first building I went into. I asked for very specific directions and walked into the building, only to be told by a very friendly old man that the gallery was closed.

Looking through some brochures at the entrance of the City Gallery, I found out that the Municipal Library houses a branch of the National Gallery that focuses on modern and contemporary art. I had a map with me this time and found the library without too much hassle.

I walked up the four flights of stairs … and was told by a rather rude young man that the exhibition was closed.

Disillusioned with the art world that day, I sulked and walked towards the Jewish District. The area is home to the Jewish Cultural museum and plenty of synagogues, but it was so packed with tourist groups and stalls selling tacky souvenirs that I immediately was turned off. I walked back across the bridge near the giant metronome and hopped on the tram back to the hostel.

Back at the hostel I picked up my laundry, took a nap and then hit up a bakery. I had heard that there were two must-try delicacies: vetrnik and medovnik. I had no idea what they were before walking into the shop, but I learned that vetrink was this english muffin-like thing with whipped cream in the middle and medovnik was a kind of cake. I couldn’t decide which one to get, so I got both! And both were delicious. The ‘sandwhich’ parts of vetrnik were soft like a really crumbly biscuit or english muffin and you could tell it had been sitting in some kind of syrup. The top sandwich layer had been covered with a glaze/icing that hard hardened, making the whole layer much crispier. The medovnik looked like it had many layers of marshmallow and nuts and chocolate, coated in cocoa and cinnamon.

I packed and made sure that I could make a quick and quiet exit early in the morning. That’s one of the downsides of living in hostels — you know, apart from always living in someone else’s house — that you have to anticipate how much noise you might have to make, and be mindful about causing too much commotion and disturbing your 8-10 roommates.

(Note: By the time I finished writing this the pictures had uploaded, so catch all the Prague photos here)

Prague, Czech Republic: Yet Another European Castle

First thing in the morning, I went to the embassy, but this time, the effort was flawless: I knew exactly where it was and how to get there. I was even early, and had a coffee at a cafe down the street before going in. As usual, the Embassy was run entirely, except for the Consul himself, by Czech citizens. I surrendered my weapons at the door — camera, non-functional mobile, ipod — and went inside. The women at the counter handed me the absentee write-in ballot forms and I proceeded to fill them out. I couldn’t figure what to put for my ‘current address’, since I didn’t really have one, but the receptionist said that I should just put my home address in Arlington. But the more I read through the instructions on the form, the more I realized that it wouldn’t make sense to put my Massachusetts address on a write-in absentee ballot. I looked through the terms on the forms and it clearly stated that the vote wouldn’t be counted unless the current and registered addresses were different.

I got another set of forms, much to the confusion of the two women at the counter and put down the address of the hostel. Hopefully, since I was sending in the absentee registration card along with the vote itself, there would be no further communication necessary. Several days later, after I had left the city, I would receive an email from one of the guys at the hostel asking what he wants me to do about some mail addressed to me that, “I believe is for some election!” Ugh …

After the embassy I walked up to Prague Castle. The castle grounds are one of the largest in Europe and there is certainly plenty to see there. Unfortunately, except for the main cathedral, it’s all quite overpriced and chock full o’ tourist groups, my archnemeses. I settled for walking around the grounds and just trying to get some shots of the city. The morning had turned out to be quite foggy and overcast, so the shots of the city sucked. But by noon, blue sky was starting to dominate over the clouds, so I sat on a bench in the gardens on the west side of the castle and waited for the sun to start shining. When it did, I walked around some more and took pictures of what turned out to be a beautiful day.

(this is about where you’d see several lovely shot of the castle grounds, but my pictures are turning out to be quite large in size, and it takes ages to upload them. Especially when you’re relying on free wifi networks in hostels, which understandably are not at the forefront of technology)

I walked away from the hostel, to the northwest neighbourhood of Hradcany (which I always called Hardcandy), in hopes of finding an easy way up Petrin Hill, home to the Petrin tower, or the ‘Eiffel Tower of Prague’. A short walk from the castle is a monastery, and right outside the monastery walls was a great little cafe that had magnificent views of the city. I was trying to stay off the beer that night, so I took some pictures and kept moving.

(ahem … again ….)

After a walk up several stairs and a steep hill, I reached the tower only to find out it was 3 euros to get to the top. I was debating paying, just to get some good panoramic shots, when a large group of schoolkids started lining up. I was glad that the decision was made for me, turned on my heels, and walked away, into the parkland area that the tower is situated in. There was a nice garden lined with white benches, so I found one that was dry and lay down, listening to music and taking a short nap.

After much deliberation, I decided to go ahead and buy that zoom lens, so I walked back to the camera shop and bought it. Then I walked back over the same bridge, near the National Museum, and tested out the lens, taking some close-ups of the castle.

I decided to treat myself and take the train back to the hostel. I couldn’t hold out any longer, so I went down to the bar at the hostel and had a few beers, played on the internet, and generally acted as anti-social as I could. I also kicked myself for not having a drink at that beer garden near Petrin Hill.

Prague, Czech Republic: The Lost Backpacker’s Walking Tour of Prague

I found out that first morning in Prague that the National Gallery’s main branch was free on Wednesday, from 8 AM to 3 PM. It would seem strange to you, that an entire day, or an entire itinerary could be planned around the fact that one museum had different hours … and a different price … on one different day … but that’s how it works sometimes. It’s simply what you do to make the most out of the situation you’re in.

The plan was to go to the National Gallery, then walk through Letenske Sady, a large park across the river from the north side of town. Then I’d stop at the US Embassy and ask about absentee ballots and top it all off with a visit to a camera shop downtown.

The museum was close enough to the hostel that I decided to walk. It wasn’t a particularly pretty neighbourhood, or a nice day for that matter, but it was still nice to get out. I got to the museum about 30 minutes early, so I had a coffee at a bakery across the street before heading in.

The museum was amazing. Definitely in the top 5 of best museums I’ve been to. I spent about 4 hours there, but could have easily spent 7 or 8. There were about 5 floors of exhibits, each floor an immense space. They had everything from Frank Gehry building models and furntire to contemporary and classic art. They devoted entire floors to Czech artists and another floor to classic art, much of it French. They had sketches by Rodin and Picasso, as well as rooms showcasing just their work, along side Degas, Cezanne and Monet. There were photography exhibits, installations that focused on clothing and set designs from operas and shows by famous designers, even a very cool looking motorcycle. I’ll spare you the rest of my gushing, but suffice it to say, I was impressed. They even let me take my camera in with me, at no extra charge. So I’ll let some of the pictures tell you the rest of the story.

I really wanted to use the one on the right, just to see the look on their faces

Bathroom Art in the lobby: I really wanted to use the one in the middle, just to see the look on their faces

Frank Gehry Chairs: Most interesting not for their design, but the fact that they’re made out of corrugated cardboard

Vaclav Vavra Custom Bike: Check out the fluid drips underneath the bike, the tire marks near the front tire and the foot prints to the right of the middle of the bike — so you know she runs

After the museum I walked through the park and came across a beer garden that sat right on the edge of the park, with a perfect view of the city across the river.

After my beer I walked on and came to one of Pragues attractions: the giant metronome. Now I know what you’re thinking, a novelty-sized metronome would’ve had me jumping up and down, but it wasn’t quite the same. It was kinda strange, actually, and I couldn’t find any placards telling me why there was a giant metronome on a hill in Prague. Though I guess if I did find one, it wouldn’t have been in English.

I took a few more shots of the city before moving on through a really nice part of the park with trees that were filling in with bright colors.

I went a bit further, looking for a way down to the street level, since I had to start making my way to the Embassy. The only thing I found was a large highway with no way of crossing it, separating the King’s Gardens from the castle. The Gardens themselves were very nice, well maintained and peaceful. I didn’t see much of them, as I was running around trying to figure out how to get out, but it would’ve made a great venue for an afternoon in the sun or a picnic.

I finally figured it out, the road that ran along the castle split off and came up right near the Gardens. And just alongside the road was a path that led down to Mala Strana, a rather trendy neighbourhood at the base of the castle. And then I got lost again trying to get my way to the street that the Embassy was on. I’m usually very good with following directions and using maps, but I just got turned around a bit and ended up walking in the wrong direction.

At long last, after walking for so long, I saw Old Glory up a slight hill, and was relieved. I had finally made. And the two Czech security guards who stood outside informed me that the Embassy was only open from 8:30 to 11:30. It broke my heart, but I found myself soon thinking that Embassy workers in Czech had a pretty relaxed workday.

I crossed the Charles Bridge (Karlova in Czech), which was packed with tourists, stalls selling tacky souvenirs, and buskers. I walked through the main square (more later), past the astronomical clock (more later) and all the shopping districts. I finally found the street that the shop was supposed to be on, and without much hassle, the shop itself. It was well stocked with exactly what I was looking for: a zoom lens. I found the one that I had researched and wanted to get, made a note of prices and then left.

I was scouting the area outside of the main tourist zones for a outdoor cafe where I could grab a beer. After all that walking I needed a break off my feet, and it was such a great day I wanted to sit outside. But street after street, I simply couldn’t find one. The only one I saw was more expensive than the beer halls at Oktoberfest! Which is why I was avoiding the tourist areas to begin with.

I ended up walking all the way back to Holesovice, which is quite a hike. Under overpasses and over bridges, along the river and next By the time I got there, I quickly sought out the closest bar, sat down and had a couple pints of Gambrinus. Even though I was inside (below street level, even) and surrounded by cigarette smoke, after such a long day I couldn’t care less. I had cold beer and that’s what mattered the most.

Prague, Czech Republic: If You Stop Sniffing Each Other’s Feet, I Promise Not to Throw Up In Your Jar Of Nutella, You Damn Hippies

The next morning I woke up early and walked to the train station, praying for an uneventful trip to Prague. Of course, Krakow was sending me off with another rain storm, but this time I had been to and from the train station so much I knew exactly where I was going and didn’t spend much time getting wet.

I bought some delicious baked goods at the train station and waited. I boarded around 6:45, found my seat quite quickly and settled in for the 7 hour ride. My car was almost full with four people in the car. One girl had got on with me in Krakow, and another couple at a later stop. The couple was a stereotypical hippie backpacker couple, donning bland synthetic blend windbreakers and pants, hiking socks and boots. They immediately took off their shoes when they sat down facing eachother, which I thought rather rude, and almost reading my thoughts … started sniffing the other’s feet as they stretched their legs out across the aisle. I rolled my eyes and sent them bad vibes.

As we got closer to Prague, it became harder and harder to figure out when my stop was going to arrive, as there were several stations close to and within the city limits at which we stopped. And the announcer wasn’t helping, immediately after leaving one station, she would spout out about 3 minutes worth of Czech (or Polish, couldn’t tell), and then follow it with, “Ladies and gentlemen, …“, and then some incoherent Czenglish (or Penglish, couldn’t tell), and then ‘the train is delayed 15 minutes, we apologize for the delay.

Fortunately, everyone else I was with got off at the main station, and I matched the name on my ticket with the one on the platform. I changed some money at the station and then tried to understand the directions given by the hostel. I looked at the network map for the trains and saw that the neighbourhood I thought I was heading to could be reached a different way. Feeling confident on my skills at arriving at, boarding and disembarking from a train between two cities with NO strange occurrences or missteps, I decided to improve a little.

About 30 minutes later I was knocking my head against the aluminum pole in one carriage of the Metro C train, backtracking all the way back to the main train station, so I could follow the hostel’s location word for word.

When I got off the train at the Vitavska stop, waiting to transfer at a tram stop, a girl approached me and asked if I speak English. She then asked if I was heading to Sir Toby’s hostel, and then let out a big sigh as she found out she was in fact going in the right direction. We arrived together, and much to my dismay, I had to stand there with my pack, waiting for the receptionist to give us the check-in spiel as if we were traveling together. “Damnit woman just give me the key and let me go!!”

I unloaded my things in the 10-share and immediately made use of the free wifi.

Something I’m noticing most places I go, is that there’s always hostels, usually the most popular or best ones, that have free wifi. Now, they may not always have free computers to use, but if you have your own laptop, they’ll provide the internet access. It’s quite amazing, I’ve managed to come all the way from Munich to the Czech Republic, with free internet access at every destination.

I headed out of the hostel and to the Prague markets, just down the road. The markets are home to stalls selling everything from fake Louis Vuitton bags to throwing stars and zippos to traditional Czech potato pancakes. There was even a guy running around asking me if I wanted a sony camera, and then pulling one out of his pocket while his eyes darted from side to side. I bought a zapiekanka, that french-bread pizza type thing that was popular in Poland, and then walked around the area.

The hostel’s neighbourhood, Holesovice, was across the river, just northeast of the city. Other than the markets, I don’t think it’s known for anything, but there was a collection of bars and cafes around the area. I found a guy selling fruit on the sidewalk and bought some food for the next day. Then I hit a supermarket to pick up some more stuff that guys on the sidewalk just can’t provide. That’s when I saw it. The thing I had been searching for since Munich. Peanut butter.

For some reason, I hadn’t been able to find any peanut butter in either Budapest or Krakow, but the Albert supermarket in Prague stocked Skippy. Excited, I picked it up, along with some honey and bread and feasted on my old favorite when I got back to the hostel.

There was a bar in the basement of the hostel so I went down there for a drink. The girl who came in with me was there too, and she had met up with her friend who was only 20 minutes behind her in getting into town. I sat down next to them and tried to catch her eye just to say hello. I did several times, but she simply didn’t acknowledge me at all. She and her friend were engrossed in some conversation which was engrossed in themselves, and both of them were completely ignoring me. Not that I cared, I had brought my journal so I just wrote and finished my beer, I just thought it was a bit rude.

Krakow, Poland: A Cry of Despair and a Warning to Humanity

Even though a couple of the exhibits at Wawel Castle were free on Monday, I decided to skip them. I figured it would be pretty much like any other castle or museum, just a collection of antiquities of the monarch.

Instead, I woke up early, went to the train station, and bought two tickets: one for the 7 AM train the next day going to Prague, my next destination, and one ticket for a shuttle bus that morning to a town 1 1/2 hours east of Krakow called Oswiecim. When the Germans took control of Poland during World War II, they gave it another name: Auchwitz.

By the time we left the station the mini-bus — almost identical to the one that brought me to Krakow — was packed. Still, the bus driver stopped a several more times, and by the time we left the city limits, there were people standing in the cramped aisle.

The driver dropped us off at the end of a long drive leading away from the museum. I walked to the main entrance and bypassed a host of large tour groups who were getting organized with tour guides and headsets. The museum and grounds were free of charge, but it seemed most people opted to hire a tour guide, or they came in groups so large, they were required to. I set off on my own, and first approached the iron gates that lead into the compound.

Like many other concentration camps set up by the Nazis, they are crowned with the phrase ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’, which literally translates to ‘work makes one free’.

The camp remains in much of the same state it was in when the Russians found it at the end of the war. Of course, mother nature has stuck with her own intentions and I imagine many of the trees and maintained lawns weren’t there 60 years ago. A map at the main center suggested a route around the buildings which first stop at the general exhibits and then curve around to some of the other areas.

I won’t go into too much detail of what the exhibits showed. Most of them were items and documents that were recovered, along with examples of the conditions in which prisoners were held, illustrated through restored rooms and cells.

Between the four general exhibit halls and building 11, or the ‘Death Block’, was a small courtyard, at the end of which was the execution wall. It’s quite chilling to step through the low arch into the the enclosure and follow in the last steps of so many people. The wall was separate from the wall of the compound itself, occupying about half of the length. It was black and looked almost like a mesh of several diffent kinds of material, like charred wood and stone mixed with tar. It was grotesque, and the feelings that went through you as you looked at it were just as frightening. I imagined being marched there, naked, beaten, starved and abused, past the bodies of those who had marched before you, for one last final and total act of pure hate.

The Death Block showed examples of the rooms prisoners were kept in, where their judgments were made, where they were tortured and where they stripped before being executed. I walked to another row of cell blocks and came to the memorials dedicated to the different nationalities of people who were brought to Auchwitz, such as the Polish, Italians, Russians and of course the Jews, each housed in its own block. I only visited the Jewish exhibit, but it alone was powerful enough to understand the implications for all those who suffered at the camp. Unfortunately, many of the placards and material were in Hungarian or Hebrew, but the photographs needed no translation. There was one that made my stomach tie up in a knot, a picture of a man kneeling in front of a grave, with a German SS officer standing behind him, holding a gun to his head. The man on his knees was staring into the camera with an expression of such pain and fear, I looked into his eyes for a long time, trying to understand how anyone could endure so much.

Further down the same row, on the west side of the camp was the crematorium and gas chamber. It was heartbreaking to step into that room and know that the people who were led in there were told that they were being given showers to clean and disinfect them. They even had dummy showerheads installed.

I walked back to the main iron gates and contemplated walking around the grounds some more, but eventually decided against it. Auchwitz is a powerful place, whether or not you see a single picture or read the information card near an exhibit. It’s sickening in its efficiency and hauntingly well preserved. It would have been nice if there was more information for English-speaking visitors, without paying for a tour guide, but at the same time, it made the camp seem that much more intimidating and incomprehensible.

I went across the road to a bistro and had a bite to eat before setting off on a 3km walk down the road to Brzezinka, or Auchwitz II – Birkenau. The day had become quite pleasant and I was even sweating by the time I reached.

While Auchwitz was primarily a receiving area, Birkenau was where most of the detainees were kept. It’s a massive compound that only truly reveals its size as you step through the entrance gates. The railroad tracks led right into the camp and down the center, so that the trains carrying prisoners could carry them directly into the camp.

And whereas Auchwitz tells you the story of persecution at the hands of the Nazis, Birkenau makes you feel it. It’s a very scary place, even at one in the afternoon on a sunny day. You’re surrounded by tour groups and other visitors, but it’s still deathly quiet and at the same time overwhelming. I walked around and through some of the barracks and saw where prisoners were made to sleep on wooden platforms, 4-5 at a time.

I walked to the end of the rail tracks and saw the international memorial dedicated to those who lost their lives at Auchwitz and Birkenau. Around the area were also marked areas where ashes or human remains had been dumped, and the remnants of the crematoria and gas chambers.

There were small plaques erected around the grounds which gave you some information about the lives of prisoners, or the significance of what you were looking at. Outside one of the crematoria, was a poster of women who had just arrived, clutching their children and waiting to be led into the gas chamber. It was another one of those photos that you couldn’t help look at, into the confused-yet-unsuspecting faces of children, their concerned mothers and the grandmothers who probably somehow knew.

The genius and efficiency of the crematoria were diabolical. The prisoners would be led to an underground anteroom, forced to undress and then taken into the gas chamber, where Cyclone B would be released and perform its job within minutes. Then the bodies would be moved along the assembly line, to the furnaces and then out the other end, the ashes to be strewn onto the ground. In one of the exhibits at Auchwitz, it talked about how because of the number of people who were put into the gas chambers and the amount of poison needed, it is likely that some of the prisoners weren’t even dead by the time they were cremated.

The wooded area beyond the memorial was almost beautiful and calm, serving only as a contrasting reminder of its location. Birkenau is big enough to walk around for hours, but I’d had enough. I walked back along the train tracks to the main building, saw a couple more barracks and latrines, and then left.

I made it just in time for the bus back to Krakow, which was thankfully a large coach bus, big enough to accomdate the 30 people who were waiting. It was a somber ride back as everyone considered what they saw and held their own moments of silence and remembrance. One of the first quotes you see as you walk into Auchwitz is the age-old one about those who do not understand history are doomed to repeat it. In many ways I think it’s true, a trip to one of these camps where so many people were brutalized and killed stirs a storm of emotions inside you, many which will invevitably stay with you forever. But at the same time, I can’t say that I understood everything that I saw at the two camps. In one of the exhibits, an article from a 1941 American newspaper was displayed: the story described the conditions at Auchwitz, based on smuggled reports from insiders and those belonging to the rebellion movement, in sickening and horrifying detail. More than 65 years later, reading the same article, it was inconceivable to me that such atrocities could have occurred, with the knowledge of the Western world. It felt like a bad dream that the world could still wake up from, but one of those dreams that would still haunt your waking hours as much as it did at night. And whether or not we have understood our past — and I’m sure there are many who would argue we haven’t — maybe those memories are enough to make sure we do don’t repeat it.