Tuesday, August 11, 2009


This morning we left Prague - all too soon and my second visit has only increased my hunger for this fabulous city. Rightly so it is called the Paris of the East.

While the Black Eagle hotel has THE prime position in the Lesser Town, that is about all that it has. The rooms are hot - almost unbearably, they do have airconditioning but only in the 3rd floor rooms and no lift! It is billed as a non-smoking hotel, but staff stand at the front door puffing away as though their very lives depended on it. And you would swear that the surly young lass serving breakfast is paying for it out of her own pocket the way she doles out the limited supplies. All that said however, the reception staff were very obliging and the rooms are large and otherwise comfortable. Not sure if we would stay here again. But can't beat the location!

Its a sort walk to the car and this morning my calf muscles are screaming at me! After all, yesterday what went up (us in the funicular) had to come down and we did it by foot over some pretty steep and rough terrain. But the further we walk, the looser they get!

The Terezín Memorial is only about 45 minutes from Prague. Given what we learned (when we were at the Jewish Museum the other day) of the Jews from Prague being 'relocated' here in this ghetto established by the nazis, it seemed fitting that we come here before we drive over to Poland and to Oświęcim. The drive out is all on the motorway and pretty ho-hum. It was interesting to see suburban Prague - by comparison with other places we have seen recently, it is a tidy and pleasant city. Once we are out of the city proper and in to the semi-rural areas surrounding Prague we are amazed at the level of pollution. Not only can you see it, you can smell it. The air has that burning, rubbery metallic smell so symbolic of industrial places.

The town of Terezín has had a chequered past. Emperor Josef II founded this town at the end of the 18th century as a fortress; still surrounded by its massive ramparts, the town lies at the confluence of the rivers Labe (Elbe) and Ohře (Eger). The Main and Small Fortresses at Terezín, although the modern for their period, gradually became obsolete, and having lost their military function fell into disregard.

In the course of World War II the town was used as a "model" concentration camp for Jews from all over Europe, and the Small fortress served as a prison for the Prague Gestapo. The 5,000 odd residents of the town were forced to leave during the Nazi occupation of their homeland. In their place, over a period of 4 years more than 140,000 Jewish prisoner passed. Their story is tragic and told very movingly at the Memorial today. Click on this link to get a better picture.

How horrified the people of Prague must have been to arrive in such a place. Now, the town of Terezín is quite nicely laid out in an ordered grid around the central town square with its fountain and garden. But as nice as it might have looked, it would have been a far cry from the civilised, refined and lively arts scene that was Prague. Those transferred to this town now set up as a ghetto (n; A usually poor section of a city inhabited primarily by people of the same race, religion, or social background, often because of discrimination) had to walk the final 3½ miles from the train station - many of the old and infirm did not survive this hike.

Two quotes on a wall titled A Day in the life of a Terezín prisoner heightened the horror of life in this place for me:
"The bread has been stale recently. You get used to everything, even the repugnant and ghastly things"
"There's an entire orphanage here. I helped out at the sluice gate with children from L318. Some of them still don't even know how to talk properly, two or three years old, with transport numbers hanging around their necks and Waisenkind (orphan) written in pencil."

Oh, the children. Why the children?? In all, 63 transports left Terezín for the East, carrying a total of more than 87,000 individuals; of these only 3,800 would see liberation. The fate of the children of Terezín was equally tragic; of the 7,590 youngest prisoners deported, a mere 142 survived until liberation. Only those children who remained for the whole period at Terezín had any really chance of being saved; on the day of liberation, Terezín contained some 1,600 children aged 15 or under.

But maybe one of the most horrific things about Terezín was that the nazis actively used it to film propaganda showing how well the Jews were settling into their new 'lives' in the ghetto. Fake concerts and performances, sporting games etc were all staged and helped to hide the true brutality of the regime from the rest of the world for a time. Today, there are very limited opportunities to take photos - maybe one way of ensuring that never again can the town be so manipulated.

Our time here was limited to 2½ hours, but this was plenty. And although there was lots we did not get to see, it gave us the beginning of the picture that we will complete tomorrow. Not a nice picture at all either. Oh, and guess who we ran in to? Small world - we met up again with Tony, our guide from the boat cruise on the Vltava River. He seemed hurt that we would be here with another tour company but brightened considerably when we told him we had driven up ourselves!

We pass through the aptly named town of Hrdly - blink and you are sure to have completely missed it. The next small town though we can't remember the name has a most impressive church and about half a mile away, a smaller version as a chapel with another smaller chapel beside it. Faith must have been one of the few sources of pride here for a long time.

So then we are back on the road, headed for Oświęcim in Poland. We need to follow the fastest route because we have delayed our start today by coming to Terezín. So it is on the motorways all the way, skirting through the edges of Prague and even Brno. Boring sort of driving and part way, I get Michael to take over the driving as I am in danger of falling asleep. So he drives and I sleep and after about 2 hours we swap again and Michael sleeps as I drive. It is almost a 6 hour trip.

As we get nearer to Poland, the landscape gets hillier. And while there are still large tracts of land being farmed, there is now more trees on the hills. A nice contrast to the vast open spaces we have seen recently. The towns are more nestled at the foot of the hills and are much more compact. There are still a lot of sunflowers in the fields and hay - heaps of it. It is surprising to see the high yield from the land - lots and lots of large hay bales tell the story.

As soon as we reach the border with Poland it all changes. I did not expect to see the border areas looking so tired and abandoned. Sure, with membership of the EU there are no formal border controls any longer, but the infrastructure could be put to great use as a welcome area for tourism. But no, it is vacant and vandalised and overgrown. And almost right on the border, the road deteriorates - badly!

Poland near the border looks more like Slovakia than the Czech Republic. It seems that the country is still trying to throw off the shackles of its history and the occupation by others. Buildings are grey and grubby and tired. It looks like little has been done to keep them modern. And so the collective individual houses mean that the towns too look dated and past their prime. And did I mention the roads - honest to god, much of the main road is like a goat track. There is some work being done, but it does not seem to be with the same sense of urgency that many of the other European roads are - there is little equipment around and what is, is quite antiquated. We come across yet another long line of traffic trying to negotiate road works, only to get to the bottle neck finally and find that the deck of a bridge has hit the road underneath (a clover leaf). It looks as it is being demolished deliberately, but you have to wonder!

And so we reach Oświęcim, coming in to the town passed the former Auschwitz concentration camp site - so we know where to come tomorrow. We drive through the town noting that there are quite a few other sites we could see including a medieval castle and the market place - I suspect there won't be enough time though. At first we drive straight passed our hotel, but soon realise and turn back to reach it. It appears that they are in the process of adding an additional building to the complex.

The Hotel Galicja is modern and very nicely appointed with eating areas in the garden, three restaurants (we think that they must do a lot of functions here as well as be one of the better restaurants in town) as well as the accommodation. Our room is large and airy, air-conditioned and with a window that opens to the garden. A nice change. Shame about the mosquitoes! We choose to eat at their Polish Restaurant - we have the choice of all in our Dinner, Bed and Breakfast deal. The Restauracja Stara Poczta (the Old Post Offivce Restaurant) is lavishly set out and very classy. For those on the DBB deal they have four set menus to choose from! We settle on the following: Zupa (Soup):
Zupa pomidorava z ryżem (Tomato soup with rice whitened with sour cream) Michael
Żurek staropolski zabielany (Old Polish traditional soup) Maria
Danie glówne (Main course):
Filet a kurczaka z grilla z ziemniakami i zestawem surówe (Grilled chicken fillet served with potatoes and salad) Michael
Kotlet schabowy nakapuście z ziemniakami (Pork chop served with potatoes and fried cabbage) Maria
Deser (Dessert):
Szarlotka z bitą śmietaną (Apple pie with whipped cream) Michael
Sernik z bitą śmietaną (Cheesecake with whipped cream) Maria
The meals were truly delicious and freshly chef prepared - no packet stuffs here!

Back to our room where we catch up with all the kids on Skype. James leaves home after a short visit today to go to see his 'best friend ever, Chelsea' in Adelaide before going up to Darwin to stay with Antony, Amanda and Bella for a little while. Gen, of course, is staying in Maryborough - keeping Harry company.

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