Writing about Auschwitz-Birkenau is hard, visiting the death camp is even harder.
Barbed wire fence in Auschwitz I
While in Warsaw I have decided to spend a week-end in Krakow. A beautiful city in Southern Poland. I have been to Krakow in December 2010, when the city was cold and full of snow. The warm days of late spring promised a lot more. So off we went. After getting in touch with Michał on BlaBlaCar and arranging a ride to Krakow I had to figure out some activities for the week-end… besides going to bars.
Most people who visit Krakow will do 2 things: Salt mines and the infamous death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau. To be honest I didn’t care so much about the salt mines, since I’ve heard it wasn’t all that impressive. Auschwitz, however, was a must-see.
Getting to Auschwitz
The city of Oświęcim (renamed to Auschwitz by Germans) is located 67km away from Krakow. Nazis built 3 concentration camps there: Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II – Birkenau and Auschwitz III–Monowitz. Most tourists will book a guided tour to Auschwitz directly in Krakow. Most tours cost 100-150zł ($35-50USD). This includes transportation from Krakow to Oświęcim and back. However, you can make that trip on your own, for a lot less.
One way train tickets from Krakow to Auschwitz costs 9zł ($3) and bus ticket is 12zł ($4). This website will help you find the schedule for the trains and buses. I recommend taking a bus since it’s faster (1h15-1h20) and the local train takes over 2 hours to reach the city of Oświęcim. Some buses from Krakow will drop you off at the train station, others will take you to the Auschwitz I gate. If you need to get to Auschwitz from the train station you can catch a cab for 10-15zł or take a local bus (numbers 1 and 24-29) for less than 3zł. There is a free shuttle that runs every 30 minutes (sometimes more often) between Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau.
Entrance to both sites is free, however they have “donation boxes”, so feel free to leave some money which will help maintaining the museum. Remember that access to Auschwitz I is only open to organized tours from 10am until 3pm. If you are coming alone, make sure you enter the museum grounds before 10 or after 3, You can also join a guided tour at the museum for 40zł. You can also buy a brochure for 10zł at the museum kiosk, this brochure will explain a few things about the site.
I should mention that buses back to Krakow are running until 5-6 pm or so, last train is departing around 7:30pm. I might be wrong but that was my experience (on a weekend). Before going there I suggest you check the schedule on the website I mentioned earlier and plan your return trip so you don’t get stuck in Oświęcim for the night… unless you really like very small towns.
The Auschwitz I
“Arbeit macht frei” – “work makes (you) free”
When planning to visit the Auschwitz museum I was expecting it would be a sad experience. To be honest – it wasn’t sad. It was heart-breaking, it was disgusting, it was painful and very touching. Walking through that territory and imagining the suffering of Poles, Jews, Romas and many others is simply devastating. Then, I walked into the gas chamber. I can’t really explain what I felt. All I can say is that within minutes I had to walk out as I got dizzy, sick to my stomach and holding back tears.
Auschwitz I gas chamber
After a relatively brief tour I walked out from the museum grounds since I planned to visit Auschwitz II – Birkenau. This second site is located about 3km away from Auschwitz I. You can walk if you feel like it but I suggest taking the free shuttle.
Another tip: look at the shuttle schedule before entering the museum. This way you will make it to the shuttle stop and wouldn’t have to wait for 25 minutes till the next shuttle. Just make sure you get to the shuttle stop a few minutes before the departure.
Auschwitz II – Birkenau.
As I was approaching the second site I couldn’t believe how huge it was. Barracks after barracks after barracks.
This second concentration camp had a capacity of 200,000 people at a time. Millions of people were sent to this site, most didn’t make it out of there alive.
The railway tracks inside Birkenau split in different directions as camp was divided. Some parts were exclusive to men, some to women, some to Gypsies, some to Russians, etc. The rails that go to the right were probably the scariest, although most prisoners didn’t know about it.
Jews selected by SS for immediate death were headed along this road upon arrival to Birkenau. On the left and the right side of the road you can see ruins. Nazis tried to destroy the barracks and crematoriums to hide the evidence of their inhuman actions.
I probably would not visit Auschwitz any time soon. It is a very difficult experience. Besides understanding how many people died there and how they were killed a lot of other things seem to be happening. Maybe my mind played tricks on me but I could swear I still smelt like something was burning near the destroyed crematorium. The air around the camp was heavy and the atmosphere was just… different.
If you ever get a chance – please do visit Auschwitz because no one will ever be able to explain what’s it really like.
I spent a lot of time deciding if I should publish this post since writing about it brings back the sadness and some other feelings. I hope this post will help you get prepared for the visit to Auschwitz – Birkenau.
You don’t need to be a millionaire to travel through Europe, however money helps. If you are on a budget, there are several things you can do in order to travel without breaking the bank.
Flying in Europe
Flying is actually one of the cheapest ways to get around Europe. Especially if you don’t have a particular place to go to and if you are traveling light. You can fly from Warsaw to Oslo for less than 15$, from Frankfurt to London for $30. $30 will also get you from Milan to Paris. However, flying with these “low-cost” carriers may be difficult at times. You are only allowed to bring a small carry-on because checked-in luggage will cost you more than the flight itself. You also must be careful when booking a ticket. Some of these companies try to impose a bunch of extras on you which significantly increases the price of the ticket. Some even require that you print your ticket in a specific way, otherwise they fine you. Be careful.
Most known European low costs are Ryanair and WizzAir.
Ridesharing in Europe
Another cheap way of traveling around Europe is rideshare (aka car pooling). As I mentioned in a recent post (Traveling from Warsaw to Berlin) I used carpooling to get to Poland from Germany. I also went from Warsaw to Krakow and then back to Warsaw. I have also used this method in 2010, going from Berlin to Prague.
There are many ridesharing websites but BlaBlaCar seems to be the most popular one at the moment. It’s often cheaper and faster than buses and trains. The down side of carpooling is that you might not be able to find a ride exactly when you need it. A lot of site’s users offer a ride within a week of departure. If you are not time-limited, ride sharing could be a great idea but it could be hard to plan a trip in advance.
Hitchhiking in Europe
For the most adventurous there is hitchhiking. The fashioned “thumbing” on the side of the road seems to be making a comeback. In most countries this method of traveling is free, however Ukraine and Romania you might be asked to pay small fee. In order to prevent a misunderstanding it’s always a good idea to make sure the driver understands that you won’t be paying for the ride. I have been reading quite a lot of articles on HitchWiki about this method of transportation since I am planning to use it in the near future.
Unfortunately don’t have much experience with hitchhiking. In 2010 I traveled through Ukraine with my own car and I picked up quite a few hitchhikers that were going my way. This year I am planning to become a hitchhiker myself, when I will be traveling through the Balkans. I guess after that trip i will be able to share quite a few stories on this blog.
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The best way to see any city is by simply walking through it. Especially when you have a knowledgeable guide. This is exactly what I did in Warsaw: Free Walking Tours.
photo by Elizabeth Viatkin
I actually attended 3 of the 4 possible tours: Old Town Warsaw, Communist Warsaw, Alternative Warsaw. Unfortunately I didn’t get the chance to do the Jewish Warsaw tour. The guides were great, friendly and they knew the history of their city in great detail. Our guide, Agnes, not only knew lots of cool stories and details about Warsaw and the world history in general, she also made us laugh quite often with her great jokes.
– The Old Town Warsaw walking tour takes you through… well, the old town of the city. On this tour you will learn lots about the city, how it was destroyed and how it was rebuilt, mostly from looking at 18th century paintings of Warsaw. That’s the tour that will make you understand why the residents of Warszawa are so proud of their city. Everyday at 12 pm. and 6 pm. (summer schedule).
– The Communist Tour concentrates on the USSR influence and another part of Polish and Warsaw history. A lot of historical facts will be told by the guide so you could understand why the communism was not the most favorite regime of the people. Of course you will be making a stop at the infamous Palace of Culture and Science and a few other “key” locations. Wed. Fri. Sun. at 10:30 am. (summer schedule).
– The Alternative Warsaw tour is brand new. I think we were one of the first groups (if not the first) that went on that tour. This tour takes you away from the central Warsaw all the way across the Vistula river, to the Praga district. Praga has been the ghetto of the city but is now turning into a hip district. I could probably compare it to Berlin’s Kreuzberg or Montreal’s Plateau. Hipsters are starting to take over because the rent is cheap and the district is getting more and more artsy and fun. If you want to see bears practically walking on the street, if you want too see where “The Pianist” was filmed, if you want to see what many tourists won’t see – I highly suggest this tour. Mon.Thu.Sat. 10:30 am. (summer schedule).
The free walking tours in Warsaw are free and the guides earn their “paychecks” with money that attendees contribute at the end of the tour. The cool thing is that you are not obliged to give them any money. This makes the tour accessible even to the tourists on very low budgets. However, if you can – please do contribute as much as you think your guide deserves.
The same foundation offers free tours in other cities of Poland, such as Wroclaw and Krakow. I can only imagine these tours are as great as the ones in Warsaw.
Check out their website here for the tours schedule or like their Facebook page. I like their FB page because they constantly posts cool facts and stories about the city.
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