Tuesday, December 31, 2019


June 23, 2019

Krakow (pronounced "krack - ohv") is one of the oldest cities in Poland and traditionally the center of Polish culture, academics, arts, and economics. Therefore, this is a good time to discuss Polish money, which combines at least culture, arts, and economics.

First off, can I just say that our US dollars are so BORING compared to these colorful bills?  The green 100 zloty note (roughly pronunced "zwall-tuh") has the face of Wladyslaw II Jagiello (King of Poland 1386-1434) on front and the eagle from his tombstone and the Grunwald swords on the back. The blue 50 zloty has the face of Kazimierz II Wielki (aka Casimir the Great, King of Poland 1333-1370) on the front and the white eagle from his personal seal on the back. The pink-orange 20 zloty has the face of Boleslaw I the Brave (first King of Poland in 1025) on front and a silver coin from his reign on the back.  
In the US, our "faces" only go back to George Washington (President from 1789-1797). We are such a young nation.

By the way, $1 USD = 3.78 zloty OR 1 zloty = about 25¢.

We had booked a personal tour of Krakow through Cracowguide.com.pl. Our guide, Krzysztof Blaszczyk (who told us to call him Chris--thank goodness), met us at the edge of Old Town in Jan Matejko Square at the Grunwald Statue, an imposing, hard-to-miss piece:
When I looked up this statue for this post, I learned that the monument was commissioned by Ignacy Jan Paderewski, an internationally famous pianist who became the president of Poland in 1919, nine years after this statue was erected.

The Battle of Grunwald, fought in 1410, was the turning point that marked the end of the domination of the German-Prussian Teutonic Knights and the rise of the Polish-Lithuanian Union. The guy on the horse on the top is King Wladyslaw Jagiello, the king on the 100 zloty note. The prone body on the front is the Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights, Urluch Von Jungingen. His pinky finger looks like it gets rubbed/touched a lot:

Friday, December 27, 2019


There are SO MANY books about Auschwitz: fiction, memoir, and historical. I think most people have probably read at least one. Here are a few that I have read within the last few years. If you have another one that you found insightful and worth reading, please leave the name of the book in the comments.

Man's Search for Meaning 
by Viktor Frankl
Perhaps the first significant book written about Auschwitz, this book was published in 1946 and is considered one of the most influential books of the 20th century. I first read this book when I was in high school, and while some of the deep psychological underpinnings of the second half of the book escaped me then, I nevertheless had a profound experience as I read about Frankl's experiences as detailed in the first half of the book. The older I get, the more meaningful his discussion of choosing one's response to suffering becomes.

My favorite quote from the book is this: "Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms--to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."

Wednesday, December 18, 2019


The Wieliczka Salt Mine lies about 50 miles east of Auschwitz, on the other side of Krakow.  It’s ambitious to do both Auschwitz and the salt mines in a single day, but Bob thought we were up for it. (Of course he did.)

It was a beautiful drive through what looked like mostly farmland:

One of the oldest mines in the world, Wieliczka was first excavated as early as the 13th century and was a producing salt mine until 1996. My guess is that it makes as much money from the tourist industry these days as it used to earn from salt mining. In peak summer months, as many as 9,000 tourists/day pay the entrance fee to go down into the caves, and about a million people visit the site each year. At about $23/ticket, it’s not cheap, although it is a little cheaper for Poles and Polish speakers, and there is also a family rate.

We began our tour in this large building, which is the mine entrance and once housed offices. That tower, called a "headframe," is an above-ground extension of the main mine shaft and houses a massive pulley:

The mine is spread over nine levels, is over 1,070 feet deep, and has more than 170 miles of labyrinthine passageways and hundreds of chambers. I would not want to be inside with no lights and no guide, that’s for sure.

Monday, December 9, 2019


June 22, 2019

After a good night's sleep and a fabulous breakfast in our new hotel in Krakow, (the Hampton by Hilton), a guide from KrakowTrip.com picked us up at 8:30 in a minibus. We made stops at a couple more hotels to pick up six additional passengers, and then headed out to perhaps the most infamous site in Poland: the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp.

Auschwitz is located about 35 miles west of Krakow, a 1 1/4-hour-long drive. We passed through beautiful forested countryside, and at some point we stopped to look at some train tracks and what appeared to be an abandoned box car.

It was abandoned--intentionally--to show visitors what prisoners arrived in when they were brought to Auschwitz. Note that there are no windows. Imagine being in one of these for days without bathrooms, without ventilation, without shock absorbers, and without space to lie down or even to sit.

The name "Auschwitz" is the German version of the Polish word Oświęcim, the name of a nearby town that was an important railroad junction. At the beginning of the war, Jews comprised more than half the population of the area, or about 8,000 people. In 1940 and 1941, the Nazis systematically expelled all the residents as part of their plan to create a 15-square-mile buffer zone around what would become their most deadly concentration camp of the war. The homes and other buildings were destroyed, and in the process, eight villages simply disappeared.

Auschwitz I was the main camp and the seat of the camp administration. The first group of 30 prisoners, who arrived in May 1940, were convicted German criminals. Their role was to be "functionaries," or to supervise the other prisoners. Their sadistic behavior established the tone of the camp early on.

I have seen the photo below many times, and it was chilling to stand in this spot myself.  Arbeit Macht Frei means "Work makes you free." The Nazis installed a version of this sign in multiple concentration camps, including Dachau. Made by prisoners, it was placed at Auschwitz by order of Commandant Rudolf Hoss:

Notice anything strange in the word "arbeit"? The B is upside-down, which some say was an act of defiance by its creators:

Friday, November 29, 2019


June 21, 2019

There is a lot to see in Gdansk, and a good way to see it is by hiring a private tour guide. Our guide, Klaudia, was excellent. 

The first place she took us was to Solidarity Square, the site where 45 striking shipyard workers who were protesting the communist regime were killed in 1970. At the center of the square is the Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers of 1970, also known as the Three Crosses Monument, which was erected 1980 next to entrance of what was then called the Lenin Shipyard. It was the first monument in the world erected in a Communist country to recognize victims of Communist oppression.

Three 138-foot steel crosses, each weighing 36 tons, stand on the spot where the first three victims of the riots were killed. The crosses represent the suffering and sacrifice of those first three victims, subsequent victims, and all of the protestors. The crosses are topped by anchors, symbols of the shipping industry. Bas reliefs of the dock workers adorn the bottom of the shafts.

Stockznia Gdankska = Gdansk shipyard:

Friday, November 15, 2019


June 21, 2019

Our second day in Poland was spent touring the resort cities of Sopot and Gdynia, both located north of Gdansk on the Baltic shoreline. I would compare them to California's Malibu and Laguna Beach--beautiful, indulgent places where the wealthy vacation.  

Sopot is marked on the map below with a red pin, about mid-way between Gdynia and Gdansk:

Our guide called Sopot, which is less than 10 miles from Gdansk, "the Polish Riviera." I can see why the Polish elite would want to spend their summers here:

One of the most famous hotels in Poland, and indeed in Europe, is Sopot's Grand Hotel. Built in the 1920s, it was THE place to stay for the rich, famous, and important. Its most infamous guests include Adolf Hitler and Herman Göring. (I wouldn't want to stay in the rooms they slept in, would you?) Over the years, other guests have included King Alfonso XIII of Spain, Fidel Castro, Charles De Gaulle (although he complained that the beds were too short for his 6' 5" frame), Greta Garbo, Vladimir Putin, Reza Shah Pahlavi (the Shah of Iran), and Omar Sharif.

Thursday, November 7, 2019


June 20, 2019

We had gotten up early after just a few hours of sleep and had walked all over the largest castle in the world in Malbork, and we were ready for a nap.  It was good to get back to our hotel, the Ibis Stare Miasto (Ibis Old Town), a hotel from a familiar (to us) French chain of budget hotels.

Our room wasn't especially fancy, but it was clean, exceptionally well-located (as we would later discover), and had everything we needed.

The view from our bedroom window didn't indicate anything especially spectacular in the neighborhood:

Thursday, October 31, 2019


June 20, 2019 

We had gotten to our Gdansk hotel in the wee hours of the morning, but we had plans already in place for our first day in Poland, so we got up after about four hours of sleep, grabbed a piece of toast from the breakfast buffet, and met our guide in the lobby.  Her name was Barbara (pronounced bar-BAR-uh), but she told us to call her Basha.  We hopped in her car and drove about 40 miles to Malbork Castle, where another guide specific to the castle was waiting for us.
Thank you, Google Maps

Located 20 miles from the Baltic Sea on the Nogat River, Malbork Castle was one of about twenty castle fortresses built by the Teutonic Knights in Northern Prussia:

Malbork Castle is one of those places that I can't believe I had never heard of or seen pictures of. 
•It is the largest castle in the world if measured by land area. 
•It is constructed of 10 million bricks. 
•It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 
•It was built by the Teutonic Knights (German-Catholic knights--think Crusades), with the first phase begun in the 13th century. 
•It was the spiritual, military, and administrative center of the Teutonic Kingdom of Prussia. 
•It is the most heavily fortified castle of the Middle Ages. 
•About 500 monks lived here at any given time. 
•It was restored three times: in the 19th century, in the early 20th century, and after World War II.

Why was it restored twice in the 20th century? Because THIS is what it looked like at the end of World War II:

Sunday, October 27, 2019


June 20, 2019

Poland has been at the top of my travel list for more than a decade. Our son served an LDS mission there in 2004-2006. During and since that time I read book after book about Poland, some of which I will include in future posts. I was moved by the stories of modern Poles that our son shared with us, and I was captivated by the resilience and courage I read about.

On the other hand, my mother was not so big on Poland. She was German, and the Germans look down their noses at the Poles. She told me they used to have a saying in Germany, "If your car is missing, look for it in Poland," implying that all car thieves are Poles. However, she too was moved by our son's letters and stories from his mission, and I think her heart was softened somewhat during those two years. I wish she were still alive and that I could share some of our experiences with her now.

As it turns out, Poland is now one of my most favorite tourist destinations in the world. I would return in a heartbeat. There is so much history, anguish, and triumph there. Situated between two super powers, Germany on the west and Russia on the east, Poland has been subject to a constant game of tug-of-war, and yet the Poles have managed to retain a national identify separate from either country. 

World War II was especially hard on Poland, partly because of its location, partly because its large Jewish population was annihilated by the Nazis, and partly because no one came to its aid. Poland, of course, was the first country invaded by Hitler in September 1939 (more on that in later posts).

Of all the countries that fought in World War II, Poland lost the highest percentage of its population--almost 20%. Six million Poles died, half of whom were Jews. Less than 10% of the total fatalities were caused by combat. Rather, people died in concentration camps, at the hands of brutal invaders, and of starvation and disease. It took almost 30 years after the war for Poland to recover the population it had at the beginning of the war.
Graph from here

Thursday, October 24, 2019


June 18, 2019

As noted earlier, there are only two ways to fly into or out of Greenland: via Iceland (Reykjavik) or Denmark (Copenhagen). As we had entered via Iceland, we decided to exit via Denmark. We had a direct, uneventful 4 1/2 hour flight that included a 4-hour time change:

When we arrived, everyone's bags came out but ours. We waited and waited, and finally sent the rest of the group to catch the shuttle to the hotel. Just as we started to head towards the missing baggage reporting station, our luggage rolled down the ramp. We grabbed our suitcases and were able to catch up with the group.

When we got to our hotel, the Marriott Bella Sky, we learned that the regular rooms were all gone, so they gave us upgraded rooms. We had a little more space, including a seating area, but everything still had very minimalist, monochromatic Danish design:

On our way to the hotel I got an IG message from a good friend from my home city who was also traveling. She said they were in the same hotel we were in.  What are the chances of that? We were 5,600 miles from home in a city with hundreds of hotels and yet found ourselves in the same city in the same hotel on the same night. It was a truly cosmic experience. We met up later in the hotel lobby for a photo:

After a good night's sleep, the ten of us walked to the metro station just a few blocks from our hotel. We got a good look at the architecture of the Marriott Bella Sky for the first time. It is pretty funky:

Somehow, someone in our group figured out how to buy ten metro tickets using only Danish instructions, and then someone figured out how to get to our stop. With just a single day in Copenhagen, we had decided to use a local tour guide to maximize our experience. We met up with her at a downtown bakery next to this American icon. (Why aren't our 7-Elevens in such gorgeous buildings?)

Our guide was a 51-year-old Israeli woman who had been living in Denmark for eleven years and had been guiding for two. She knew the city well and was full of good information, but she struggled a bit with the large size of our group and was often hard to hear.

Thursday, October 17, 2019


June 17, 2019

It had been a long day, starting with walking to the Ilulissat Icefjord, followed by eating lunch at Restaurant Mamartuk, catching a flight to Kangerlussuaq, and taking a bus to eat at Roklubben Restaurant. 

But Greenland is the land of the midnight sun, at least in June, and that means our day was far from over. We had one more adventure ahead, a trip down Greenland's longest road for an stroll on the Arctic ice sheet. 

We were picked up around 7:30 PM from Roklubben Restaurant by a long-haired, raspy-voiced Dane named Lars. The four-wheel drive vehicle we were expecting was a cargo truck front connected to a gigantic box with windows. The whole thing was perched so high off the ground that we had to use a ladder to get in and out.  It looked like it was part cattle car, part boxcar, and part prison transport vehicle.The only way to communicate between our "compartment" and the cab was with a walkie-talkie, and we learned later on that it was an unreliable form of communication. 
We set out on an 20-mile-long bumpy dirt and gravel road built by Volkswagen in the late 1990s to connect Kangerlussuaq with the inland edge of the Greenland Ice Sheet, which covers 81% of the island. Remember that no two towns or settlements in the country are connected by a road, and there are only about 100 miles of roads in the whole country, most of them unpaved. (A new airport is cheaper to build than a new road between settlements!) Volkswagen wanted a way to test their vehicles in extreme conditions, including driving on the ice sheet itself, so they decided to build their own road, the longest road in Greenland.

The road to the ice sheet was completed in 2001, but the road on the ice sheet was never built, and the whole project was abandoned in 2006. The government maintains the road--somewhat--and it is used for adventurous tourist trips inland, for hunting trips, and as an economical route to the ice sheet for environmental scientists. 

Luckily, I had enough Dramamine for myself and a few others in the vehicle, which looks quite nice inside, but no padding would be adequate for the bouncing and shifting and swaying. It was as good as any Disneyland ride except it didn't do any loop-de-loops. 

For some reason, I kept thinking of the old Disney movie The Gnome Mobile. 

The drive to the ice sheet took about an hour-and-a-half and included a couple of stops along the way. Our first stop was at the site of a US military plane crash that occurred in 1968. Three of eight planes flying in formation crashed after their pilots bailed out--all safely--during severe weather. This is what is left of one of the planes:

Sunday, October 13, 2019


 June 17, 2019

We stayed less than 24 hours in Kangerlussuaq, arriving in late afternoon on a Monday and flying out mid-morning on a Tuesday. There isn't a ton of tourist activity drawing people to Kangerlussuaq, but there are only two ways to get out of Ilulissat: fly back to Iceland or fly to Kangerlussuaq, and then fly from there to Copenhagen. Since we had flown in from Iceland, we chose to fly out via Kangerlussuaq.

This may be the only airport in the world with a taxidermied musk ox in the lobby:

I had to look up "Tikilluarit." It's Greenlandic for "Welcome."  Duh.

Friday, October 11, 2019


June 17, 2019

The last part of our Greenland adventure was in the tiny, tiny, tiny town of Kangerlussuaq, population 540.

As you can kind of see on the map below, Kangerlussauq is at the end of a very deep fjord. The fjord is named . . . you guessed it, Kangerlussauq Fjord. In fact, the word "Kangerlussuaq" means "big fjord" in Icelandic.

Ilulissat and Kangerlussuaq are only about 150 miles apart, but unless you have a dog sled, pretty much the only way to get to Kangerlussauq is by plane. There is no road that connects it to any other town. (There are no roads connecting ANY towns in Greenland. All roads are internal to the towns themselves.)
Which may account for the fact that Kangerlussuaq, with its 500+ inhabitants, is the site of Greenland's largest commercial airport. Yeah, that doesn't make any sense to me either.  

More about Kangerlussuaq later. First I have to tell the story of how we got there. 

We were transported from our hotel to the airport, which was just a few minutes away. Although we didn't realize it at the time, both Bob and Laura, another member of our group, had left things behind. Laura realized her purse was missing as soon as we got to the airport. She figured out that she had left it in the luggage storage room. She sent our taxi driver back to retrieve it, but he never re-materialized and we think he never actually went back to the hotel. (I can't remember how Laura got on the plane. She must have had some type of ID, or maybe they just trusted her.)

Later, while sitting in a restaurant in Kangerlussuaq, Bob realized that his camera was missing. He called Mamartuk Restaurant first, then the hotel. It turned out that he had set it down on the front desk counter while he paid for something. The hotel promised to send Bob's camera with Laura's the purse.

The plane looks fairly big, but it was a propeller plane with just 36 seats.

Sunday, October 6, 2019


June 17, 2019

On our last morning in Ilulissat, the ten of us took three cabs to the head of a trail, where we met up with Lisa, our Danish guide from the first day, who took us on an eco-tour of the area:

She explained to us that under the thin green layer we could see, most of ground was perpetually frozen, or permafrost.

In the scanty topsoil layer, mosses, flowers, and other plants flourished: