On my first morning in Poland, I woke up in Hitler’s personal security quarters - and yes, that made me feel just a touch uncomfortable (writes Amanda Kendle).
Fortunately, once I got outside what is now a very reasonably-priced hotel on the Wolfsschanze or Wolf’s Lair site in northern Poland, the green forest calmed me down, despite the presence of bombed out bits of concrete bunkers and other buildings which had made up one of Hitler’s main bases in the second half of World War Two.
I was backpacking through Poland from north to south, a journey that’s easy enough to do with a combination of trains and buses and not too much cash. Starting out at Wolf’s Lair near Ketrzyn was probably the trickiest connection, and after travelling in from Lithuania, I got a tip from a local and ended up taking a taxi out to the Wolf’s Lair site – public transport connections are relatively infrequent in this more remote country area.
There are bus loads of tourists being herded around Wolf’s Lair during the day, but stay the night and you’ll have the place to yourself first thing in the morning, when it seems more like a pleasant walk in the forest interrupted by stunning moments of history – like the plaque marking where history was almost changed when von Stauffenberg tried to assassinate Hitler.
The obligatory capital city stop
Heading down to the Polish capital, I spent a week trying to like Warsaw. Unseasonal summer rain and my cold cabin in a caravan park made it dreary, and I also sympathised with the locals’ dislike of the Soviet-built Palace of Science and Culture in the city centre. A highlight of Warsaw, though, was the carefully reconstructed Old Town, particularly the main square which had received so much damage from the war. The Poles took pride in restoring it quickly, restoring with it their own future, and today the fascinating Warsaw Historical Museum spans eight narrow buildings on one side of the square.
Krakow and surrounds: the good and the evil
Further south, Krakow was a city which was easy for me to fall in love with. The enormous square in the centre of its Old Town is split in half by the historic Cloth Hall; I still think of the middle of Krakow as two rectangles rather than a square. I was lucky to be standing in the square when the hourly bugler played his tune from a high tower window of St Mary’s Church. Curiously, the song ended on an odd note, and I later found out this was deliberate, to commemorate the death of a thirteenth century bugler who was killed by an arrow part way through a tune.
Krakow is the obvious base for a day trip out to the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps. These are not destinations for the faint-hearted, and I have to admit I suffered nightmares for several days after I toured the camps. Most eerie for me were the rooms full of belongings left by prisoners who were told to undress ready for the showers, and as we know, never returned. Piles of spectacles in one corner, suitcases in another room, even hairbrushes and other personal items, all of these form images that I will never shake from my head. Visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau is not at all fun, but I think travelling is not only about having fun, but learning something and challenging yourself too - and that makes these camps an extremely worthwhile destination.
Hiking on the Slovak border
On a lighter note, my final stop as I travelled straight down the spine of Poland was the resort town of Zakopane on the Slovak border. Most famous as a winter holiday destination, I also found it gorgeous in summer, with cheap deals on spare rooms rented out by locals and great hiking to be had in the mountains. In fact, I’ve heard that it’s almost too touristy in winter, so I think a summer stay is ideal. I found Zakopane a happy place and an enduring memory is a scene at the bus station: two nuns, fully dressed in habits, lined up at the ticket counter in front of me with rucksacks on their backs, ready to buy tickets for their own holiday - a scene that made me smile.
Poland is a diverse country with so much to see, and any journey through it is bound to miss out on some fantastic spots. In the time I had, I did my best to trace a north to south route that gave me a taste of many aspects of Polish life and culture: from the important impacts of the Second World War right through to the pleasure of a ski resort. Whichever way you approach Poland, you’re also bound to find plenty to impress you.
About the author
Amanda Kendle is an Australian travel writer who has lived in Japan, Slovakia and Germany. She dreams of continuing to travel the world and to publish a novel before she turns forty. You can follow her travel writing life at Not A Ballerina (www.notaballerina.blogspot.com).