January 1st 2015 - Travel from Krakow to Prague - Day 137

The New Years Eve party at the Sheraton continued late in to the morning and it was really hard to sleep with the band cranking right outside our door.  As a result we slept late and got a very slow start on the day.  We knew this would be a long day, not only because of the lack of sleep, but because we were taking an overnight train from Krakow to Prague and it did not leave until 10:00 that night.  We had arranged for a late checkout at 4:00, but would need to kill 6 hours on New Years day, which apparently the Polish take very seriously because EVERYTHING was closed.  

We got a nice workout in and attacked the free breakfast again before heading back to the room to study and try to get some more rest.  

At 4:00 we checked out and gave the bellman our bags.  Fortunately we were able to hang out in the club lounge for as long as we wanted so we settled in there for the wait.  

At about 9:00 we headed to the train station and got ready for the overnight.  We booked this specifically so the kids could have the experience of traveling by overnight train.  I had done this so much when traveling around Europe as a 22 year old and loved it.  However, train travel in Europe has become more expensive and less convenient as compared to the inexpensive flights that are generally available, so we have not really had the opportunity or need to do it much on this trip.  I had done a little research back in Burford on what type of car to book for us, but forgot to refresh my memory before heading to the train station a few days before our departure.  While I did make sure we had a private compartment, I booked a couchette rather than a sleeper car and knew it when I saw the car.  

Tight quarters

Tight quarters

We still had "beds" with clean sheets, pillows and blankets, but the "bed" was just a really hard seat turned sideways.  In a sleeper car you get a real mattress and there are only 2 beds per car, here we had 6 "beds".  The kids were psyched and climbed straight up to the top bunk.  Stacie and I were not so psyched as we pictured 8 hours of sleeping on a rock hard bench.  None the less we made our beds and tried to get as much sleep as possible.  It was not the quite experience I was hoping for and my back is still letting me know about my mistake, but at least the kids had fun.  

p.s. Thanks to Peter we actually have pictures, I was too busy kicking myself for messing up the booking to worry about the photos.  

Having fun on the top bunk

Having fun on the top bunk

December 31st 2014 - Auschwitz, Poland - Day 136

This is one of those posts I dread writing.  It is so hard to convey in words the emotions of visiting a place like Auschwitz, and I am not a great writer, so I am not really going to try.  

Our visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau was one that we had been talking about for a long time.  Everyone had read several books related to the topic over the past few months and Peter had studied the holocaust extensively in school, so we all had awareness of the atrocities which occurred in these places, but nothing prepares you for visiting them.  I had been to Auschwitz when I was 16 and Dachau when I was 22, so I had some sense of what to expect and I knew it would be a tough day for everyone.  

We took a bus out as part of a tour we booked through the hotel.  Our transport and arrival was a bit chaotic as the tour operator was dealing with multiple busses and languages.  When we arrived I was shocked to see the infrastructure that had been built up since my last visit along with the number of people visiting.  We figured New Years Eve would be a slow day, but quite the contrary the place was packed.  We received some headphones so we could easily hear our guide and all met just outside the main gates.  

Work will set you free - main gates at Auschwitz

Our guide was very nice and informative, but spoke very quickly and had a THICK polish accent which made listening a real chore.  In addition the absolute throngs of people made it difficult to make your way through each barrack where the exhibits are.  

Typical barrack entrance

We all agreed later that the tour and the amount of people detracted from the experience rather than adding to it.  That being said, the experience was still massively powerful.  Adding weight to the visit was the weather.  It was a nice winter day, the sun was shining through broken clouds, but it was cold with a slight breeze.  Hearing about daily roll calls, rain or shine, cold or hot, where prisoners would stand outside for upwards of 19 hours until every last soul was accounted for, was more poignent when we were shivering in our down jackets.  

The exhibits had not changed much since my last visit and are still haunting. 

Haunting exhibits of personal items

Haunting exhibits of personal items

The visit to Auschwitz took almost two hours and then we were given a break before heading to the massive complex at Birkenau.  

The death train ended here

Stepping off the bus in Birkenau we were hit with dropping temperatures and a cold wind.  This area is much larger and was built when the Nazis ran out of space at Auschwitz.  It is only about 10 mins away, but it is out of town and completely exposed to the elements.  It was built to be the largest and most efficient death camp possible and the scale is hard to imagine.  800 acres of barracks, gas chambers and crematorium.  As we were guided around the weather kept deteriorating and we were freezing.  The last stops were in a barrack and the sanitation house.  Picturing someone trying to live in these conditions was unimaginable, we all agreed we would not last long.

In the end we thanked our guide, who clearly cared a great deal about what he did and reminded us all never to look away from these events, because they are still happening in places like Syria and headed back to the warmth of the bus.  The ride home was silent as expected.  

We did not really choose to visit Auschwitz on New Years Eve, it was just the only day that we could make work.  So we had the unenviable task of trying to celebrate a new year in the face of a visit like this.  We made it home and rested for a while and then started planning our evening.  We have never been huge New Years participants, so we decided to continue the tradition with a night a home.  That was made easier by the fact that the Sheraton was throwing a huge party in their open atrium so we could hang out on the balcony, hear the band and participate in our own way.  Stacie and I ran up to the market to get some dinner, sausage of course, and we watched a movie to help eat time before midnight.  

The band was loud and we would head out onto the balcony to watch and dance every once in a while to the complete embarrassment of the kids, and then the big moment came.  We welcomed the new year in from the balcony of the Sheraton with about 300 of our closest Polish friends down below us.  I think we can safely say this will be a New Years Eve we will never forget.

December 30th 2014 - Krakow, Poland - Day 135

The town wall

We had a nice easy day today.  We were all still pretty tired from the travel and lack of sleep, so we decided to have a nice long morning including a big breakfast and a long workout before heading outside.  

It is a blessing on a trip like this when you find wonderful lodging.  I know it might sound ridiculous, but the more you travel the more you know about what you need/like and what you don't.  We have had some incredible lodging on this trip and some not so incredible lodging.  This was a hotel stay for us, which can be a real treat or can be a complete hassle, like the Sheraton in Rome, in this case it was a dream.  The Sheraton Krakow is an extremely well run hotel with great amenities.  It did not hurt that my Platinum SPG status got us access to an amazing club lounge and free breakfast (huge buffet and omelette station).  So when we get into a situation like this we like to take advantage of it and linger a bit.  

Lea and I had some homework to do, so we bucked down and started preparing for her last module of math test and when we were done we all headed out to explore the old town.  Krakow really is a wonderful city and we had a great time just exploring, shopping and people watching.

Exploring Krakow on foot - slippery

After our time out we headed back to the hotel for some down time before dinner.  We had another great dinner out.  On a side note I would look like a polish sausage if I lived here - the food is great, but eating sausage and pierogis with every meal seems like a requirement.  

Sausage, sausage everywhere - food stand in the Christmas Market

Overall a really nice mellow day on the trip.  Tomorrow is Auschwitz and everyone is a bit dreading the emotion that is sure to come along with a visit like this.  

I think I will pass on this place

I think I will pass on this place

December 29th 2014 - Travel from Rome to Krakow, Poland - Day 134

The morning came way to early, especially for me.  I had a rough nights sleep and was groggy as we quickly packed up and were out the door by 4:20 AM.  We hurried to the airport, I dropped the rental car and then we waited in line to check in.  

Our flight took off on time and before we knew it we were in Poland.  We made the decision to take the bus into Krakow instead of a cab, more for the experience than anything (although it happened to be quite a bit cheaper and was really easy).

We arrived at the hotel a while later and fortunately they had a room available for us.  We dropped our bags off in the room and were off to explore Krakow.  The main goal for the day was to get some warm coats for the girls.  We could not pack our big coats so we knew we would have to buy something along the way.  Poland is pretty inexpensive so we thought this would be a good place to stock up on warmth.  

We walked through the quaint old town area and made it to the mall near the train station.  A couple of hours later we were done and the girls had secured some great coats at great prices.  

After the shopping we went into the train station and bought our tickets to Prague for New Years Day and then grabbed a few Obwarzanek (kind of a big bagel) from one of a thousand vendors they have here in Krakow and wandered back to the hotel.  We freshened up quickly and then went out for a dinner at a very traditional polish restaurant about a 15 min walk from the hotel.  The food was amazing, but more than that the conversation was exceptional.  We talked about WWII because we would be visiting Auschwitz while we were here.  I was blown away with what they knew and their perspectives on what had happened.  It was a deep conversation that just rolled on and on - it was truly amazing to have that kind of discussion with the kids - Stacie and I loved it and talked about it all the way home.  

We all remarked how wonderful Krakow was.  I was here in 1988 on a high school trip and loved it, but that was almost 30 years ago, so I had no idea what to expect.  Based on this first day I am so happy we decided to come back.