Tuesday, 26 July 2016

There and back again: Visiting Auschwitz

Taking the road less travelled 

I visited Poland recently and took a trip to Auschwitz, the famous Nazi concentration camp. I though I share details on getting there and getting in with those interested.

While in Poland I was staying with some friends in Wroclaw, the largest city in west Poland and fifth largest in all of Poland. Most people who visit Auschwitz go from Krakow. Its only about 65Km from Krakow and buses go up to the Museum. It take only about an hour. There are also train services from Krakow to Oświęcim. Auschwitz camp is located on the outskirts of Oświęcim (Auschwitz is actually the German name of Oświęcim). There are also several organised tours which run mostly from Krakow and some from Wroclaw. Here's a useful link for more information: http://www.beyondmyfrontdoor.com/wp/tips-for-visiting-auschwitz/ 

I was travelling from Wroclaw and didn't want to take one of those expensive (90-100 euros) bus tours. The tourist centre in Wroclaw suggested I take a train to Krakow and then a bus to Auschwitz. That would have been a long and tiring journey. Thank god I have friends smarter than the tourist centre. They suggested I take a morning bus from Wroclaw to Katowice (a city in between), followed by a local train to Oświęcim. This meant getting up at 4am, taking the bus at 5am and reaching Auschwitz around 10am. That's what I did. All in all the travel cost me 48zl (12 euros).

Reaching the bus station before 5am was easy. Trams in Wroclaw start running very early and go up to the bus station. I was a bit confused at the bus station because the bus arrived at a different terminal than advertised. The crowd of people in front of the bus and the board saying Budapest didn't help. No queue. Felt like home.

5am Polski bus from Wroclaw to Katowice. Clearly, like Indians, Polish also don't have any thing called a queue.

The bus reached Katowice half an hour late and I had only half an hour left for the train. Fortunately, the train station was near by. Unfortunately, I didn't know where. I asked two young girls at the station who didn't understand me completely and I didn't understand them completely. However, combining their instructions with google maps and GPS, I got to the train station in quick time. There was a automatic ticketing machine and the train was waiting at the platform.

Train tickets from Katowice to Oświęcim (top) and back (bottom)
Katowice station is small but modern. It is connected to a swanky mall. There are escalators everywhere and the platforms are clean. Young people can be seen improvising the platform space to get some rest.

Katowice train station
This was a local train on which very few people were travelling towards Oświęcim. For Indians, think of an upgraded version of the EMU. For the Dutch, it could be similar to the sprinter trains, only slower. It covered the distance of about 30Km in about an hour, stopping at every little station (like halts in India) and waiting for goods trains and other faster trains to pass. 

Train from Katowice to Oświęcim
Train from Katowice to Oświęcim
The train was mostly empty with a few locals travelling to intermediate stations. As far as I could see, I was the only tourist on the train. The seats on trains from Katowice to Oświęcim had nice padded seats but the return train had only plastic seats and seemed older.

Polish countryside and tiny stations on the way
Oświęcim station
Finally I arrived at Oświęcim. The station was under construction. I made my way around it and soon found little blue board on a pole (like an electric pole not a polish person). It pointed in the direction of Auschwitz museum. There were more boards at fixed distances. I followed the boards.

Boards like this are hung at fixed distances to direct tourists to the museum
After a 20 min slow and unsure walk, I was at the museum (return walk was less than 15 min).

Museum entry for pedestrians and cyclists
Until now I had walked mostly empty roads and foot paths. It seemed there were very few people in town. But as I entered the museum area, I saw people and vehicles everywhere. Apparently, I took the road less travelled.

That were all the people are

The museum

I made my way towards the museum gates. You can book entry tickets for the museum online here: http://visit.auschwitz.org/?lang=en

Individuals needs to book a guided tour slot. Guided tours are available in all main languages - Polish, English, Spanish, German, Italian, Hungarian etc. When I checked the website in Wroclaw, there were no English language slots available. This put a spanner in the works. Then I decided to just go in with a a different language group. I thought, the museum will have plaques in English which will be helpful. Now that I was in Wroclaw, it would have been a shame not to go, just because English language slots were not available. I also called the museum to check if I could visit without a guided tour. They said no. But they also said that they kept many tickets at the museum entrance which are seperate from those available online. So, I could just come there and get a ticket. Hurrah!

That's what I did. There was a little queue for the tickets and a long one for entrance to the museum. I arrived at the museum at 10.30am, got my ticket for 11am entrance by 10.45am and was inside by 11.10am. All the people in my guided tour group were delayed due to the long entrance queue.

Ticket queue. Ticket counter in the white box
Museum ticket
The ticket was 45zl (about 11 euros). With the ticket I got sticker for english language group. I was supposed to stick it on my top/blouse/shirt/jacket and stick with my group.

Language group sticker
Next I submitted my bad at the bag counter. If you have a bag bigger than a particular size (30x20x10), you must leave it outside the museum. There is a locker system and each bag costs only 2zl. After this, was the long queue to the entrance and security check. It took about 20min, longer than usual I was told. I found out later that this June and July, the museum has received more visitors than ever.

entry queue
security checks like an airport
Board on the way to security check. I don't want any one getting enriched at my expense.

After security checks, I was given headphones and a radio receiver through which our group guide communicated with us. And off I went on a tour of Auschwitz.

Collecting headphones and radio device
our guide and the group
Auschwitz was one of the most profound experiences of my life. You can read more about it in my other post - In the heart of the death star

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