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“Krakow has a month of photography exhibitions ....... anyone fancy going?” This, or something to this effect, was the invitation given out by David McGirr (McGoo) at an ePHOTOzine meeting in Rowardennan.
David’s wife Joanna is Polish and prior to the groups departure she hosted a ‘Polish Day’ where we were introduced to some of the gastronomic delights of the country as well as ways to drink beer and vodka with raspberry syrup, which is actually much nicer than it sounds! We were also given handouts and maps that had been organised by David about the Photomonth in the city.
When the 14th May came around, the five of us met up at the airport, (but only just - Martin had a puncture on route with no spare!), and flew out to Katowice airport in Krakow. We caught the train from the airport to the centre of town, a short and cheap trip, and then walked to the main square (Rynek Glowny), again a short distance but it gave us a chance to see some of Poland's mixed architecture and our first outdoor exhibition.
Being a bit early to check into our apartment, we decided to sit in the sun outside one of the many bars around the square, drink beer and soak up the atmosphere.
People say “it's a small world” and it's true. While we were sitting sampling the local beers and watching the world go by, the McGirr family who had arrived a few days earlier strolled by, providing another excuse for a beer while me met Henry (David's father) and renewed our acquaintance with Joanna and Jan (David's son). After eventually dragging ourselves away from the bar we went to book in to our apartment.
Here is where we encountered a slight problem. The rooms weren’t quite as described and offered two double beds in one room with one single in another – hardly a suitable layout for three men and two girls. Further difficulties arose when the hotel requested payment in Zloty (Polish currency), not Euros (as we had previously agreed when booking). Protracted negotiations resulted with us converting our Euros to Zloty (meaning we had to fork out on commission) and being given a second apartment as well for the same price.
On our walk from the station Petra had been handed a business card offering ‘personal transport services’ whose rates appeared very good - so we gave them a call to arrange transport to Auschwitz and Birkenau the following day. We were even able to negotiate a better rate. With everything sorted, celebrations were called for so we headed off to get something food and to meet David and Henry for a beer.
It all seemed a bit surreal eating Polish food in an Italian cafe and then watching a Scottish football team whilst drinking in an Irish pub in the centre of Krakow...isn’t Europe wonderful?.
At the appointed hour the following morning our driver met us and we all headed off to Auschwitz. His name was Thomas and he proved to be a great guide giving useful information and answering all our questions on route.
When we arrived at Auschwitz we were pointed in the direction of the cafe while Thomas bought guide books and tickets for the introductory film. He waited very patiently with the minibus while we went off on our own for a very harrowing three to four hours.
Auschwitz is a very humbling place. To look at it from the outset it appears nothing more than brick buildings laid out in a very orderly manner. The entrance gate with its infamous motto “Arbeit Macht Frei” and the barbed wire fences are the only obvious giveaways as to what went on within. These are bad enough, but the ‘exhibits’ and endless photographs of those unfortunate enough to have ended up there can really begin to wear you down and make you realise just how bad things were. The display which pushed a couple of our members over the edge were those of the hair, shaved off the prisoners on arrival, and even worse...the piles of false limbs including those of young children. Nothing I write can get across the feeling of helplessness that you can feel standing in front of them even all these years later.
That feeling for me just got worse when we arrived at Birkenau and I stood in the watch tower above the gate through which that infamous railway line runs. Looking out over the vast acreage that was the death camp, the horrors that were perpetrated there were beyond my comprehension.
The trip to the death camps are not for the faint hearted but should not be missed by anyone visiting Krakow. Not only does it bring home the horrors that man can reign on man, but it also puts so much of Krakow's recent history, architectural state and “attitude” into context.
By walking a fairly short distance to the south end of the city centre you come to the district of Kazimierz which has the most tremendous character. Loads of cafe bars to sit in and watch the world go by in a much more relaxed manner than in Britain. Many of these bars are houses that have remained unaltered since the clearances during the war - just tables and chairs and a small bar area put in and they all have their own character. The area appears extremely run down and almost seedy at first glance but, at no time during day or night did we feel threatened in any way. In fact, the whole place comes alive at night as the locals come out to play.
Among the best bars that David took us to were on Plaz Nowy, (a small square in the heart of Kazimierz, Alchemia (where the artists hung out) and the other was Singers (where the crazies go). These descriptions were given to me by a local who, along with some friends, was dancing in the street outside Singers because there was no room inside. The whole place is lit only by candlelight, has a sewing machine on each table and places the most amazing mix of music which has to be heard to be believed. It also only closes when the last person leaves (often to go straight to work).
One day David and another part-time resident Simon Croft (croftsphoto) took us all on a walk round the Jewish quarter and showed us where the Ghetto had been constructed during the early days of the holocaust and Oskar Schindler had his enamelware factory, Emalia. This walk put so much of the geography and history into context and was a super ‘follow up’ to our visit to the death camps. It also helped having two super guides and Simon’s social history knowledge of the place was amazing.
It may sound as if we had a very depressing visit to Krakow, but this could not be further from the truth. The city is amazing and we had great fun finding out what lay behind large doors (don’t be afraid to push them open) and down ancient alleyways. This is a city with a thousand years of history and culture and begs to be explored. The church in the main square has been there virtually the whole time. It has been in its current condition, state, guise - call it what you will - for nearly 500 years and still looks modern...unbelievable.
We found the people wonderfully friendly and helpful, cultured and elegant. The food and drink is varied and tasty, and, aside from the drinks in the cafe in the square, very reasonably priced.
As for the photographic exhibitions?...there is something for everyone. There are open-air displays, some were held in bars and others were displayed in such diverse places as crypts and private houses. There are large and small exhibitions, (one had 20,000 images being shown as a slideshow – another had five), but be assured – there is something for you.
More information about Krakow's Photomonth is available here.