Its not over till the fat lady sings
Old Town Apartments, Prague, Czech Republic
I’m not quite sure who the fat lady is, but this aphorism sprung to mind early yesterday morning as, with Jo at the wheel, myself, a security guard and the local mechanic pushed a recalcitrant Ting Tong round a car park in Oswiecim. As it had been a little chilly the night before the Pink Lady’s spark plugs had once again revolted and said they weren’t going anywhere until they had warmed up. It was the fourth time in two days that Her Ladyship had caused us problems, reminding us that we may be 9/10ths of the way through our 14 weeks tukathon but it isn’t over till its over.
It was with great relief that her engine finally turned over and we turned out of our hotel car park towards Prague, 510 km’s away.
The last time I wrote a blog was in Lviv, when Jo and I had been too tired to appreciate the beauty of the place after two very long days on the road. After another bad night’s sleep, feeling far from refreshed, we set off early the next morning for Krakow, 300 km’s away across in Poland.
At 10.30 the first of the day’s incidents occurred when the accelerator cable suddenly went ping. Jo was asleep in the back and was rudely awoken by some bad language coming from the front and the bad news that we were going to have to perform a mechanical procedure. Under a leaden sky, in biting wind, we extracted the tool box and got to work; one and a half hours later we were on our way again, having had a few issues with pieces of wire not fitting where they were supposed to.
At about 1 o’clock we spotted a very, very long queue of cars which signaled our arrival at the Ukraine / Poland border. The crossing was lengthy but uneventful and four hours later we were in Poland, both very sad to be waving goodbye to Ladaland. We’ve spent 6 weeks in Russian speaking countries and have met so many fantastic people and seen so many interesting things. Entering Poland, and the EU, meant saying farewell to all that we had become familiar with; clapped out Ladas, outdoor showers, Kamaz trucks, gold teeth, Tartars, smetana, vodka and officious police. It also meant that we were well and truly embarking on the final leg of our journey and that our arrival in England is scarily imminent.
Driving into Poland was like entering a new world. Within 20 km’s we had spotted a Tesco and a McDonalds, those vile totems of westernization. Gleaming BP and Shell Garages were in place of their more disheveled Ukrainian and Russian counterparts. A surfeit of shiny new road signs marched along the roadside and everywhere the EU stars reminded you of Poland’s new identity. Never before had Jo or I seen so many road signs, it is as if Poland have gone overboard in an attempt to become a paradigmatic EU nation.
As if to complement our grey moods at having entered the western world, at about 5 pm the heavens opened, much to the disdain of TT’s temperamental sparks. They didn’t force us to a standstill but they did slow us down and the next few hours were accompanied by the sound of their spluttering disapproval. That and non-stop roadworks meant that at 10 pm we were still 100 km’s short of Krakow….at which point Ting Tong threw yet another tukking tantrum, suddenly emitting an alarming hissing sound from within the depths of her engine. She’d hissed before, but this was a different matter, and Jo demanded that we stopped and investigated further. I was all for limping on to Krakow and dealing with the problem in the fresh light of morning, but Jo, being the sensible one, decided otherwise. So we pulled into the next petrol station and for the second time that day went through the rigmarole of unscrewing the driver’s seat to get into the engine. The Chief Mechanic, AKA Jo, swiftly identified a large hole in the air hose, which after a bit of fiddling looked like it was sorted, and we carried on. Ten inutes later TT was hissing again, but this time we decided there was no more we could do so ploughed on to Krakow. We pulled up outside our hotel at 12.30, tizzy with fatigue, and after a glass of wine fell into bed and passed out. God what a day, certainly our longest yet at 15 ½ hours, and probably the hardest.
Krakow, like Lviv, is an incredibly beautiful city, with street upon street of architectural delights. And once again, like Lviv, we were far too exhausted to fully check it out. I didn’t actually get out of bed till 2 p.m the next day, and we spent the afternoon ambling about, chilling in cafes and taking a horse-drawn carriage round the Old Town. What surprised us both was the volume of tourists and the amount of American and English voices we heard amidst the crowds. Ukraine and Russia felt a world away and we both hankered for what we had left behind.
There’s an interesting legend about Krakow, which is that many moons ago Lord Shiva threw seven magic stones towards seven parts of the world, one of which landed in Krakow, in the Wawel Castle. The places that had been hit were instantly imbued with the God's energy, and remain so to this day. The seven places, known as the world's chakras, are: Delhi, Delphi, Jerusalem, Krakow, Mecca, Rome and Velehrad. You may dismiss this as hippy nonsense but apparently all sorts of dowsings, tests and divining has been done here and numerous studies published and they all seem to confirm there is something a little bit magic about this place.....
The next morning we headed straight for the nearest mechanic and then south-west out of Krakow, in the general direction of Prague. Our last stop in Poland was Oswiecim, better known by its German name, Auschwitz, a name synonymous with unfathomable cruelty and suffering. Under gathering rain clouds we covered up TT and headed into Birkenau, the first of the two museums here. Although less famous than its neighbour, Birkenau - which held up to 100,000 prisoners - was where the Nazis murdered hundreds of thousands of Jews, Poles, Gypsies, homosexuals and any one else they felt like. Although the SS, sensing defeat, tried to cover up evidence of their atrocities much of the camp still remains and as you wander around amongst the endless lines of barbed wire fencing and blown up gas chambers and crematoriums you get a sense of the scale of the Nazi operation. It felt suitable that it was such a dank, miserable day. At the far end is a massive monument in memory of those who died here, which states, in every European language, ‘Let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to all humanity…’. Its shocking to think that what happened here was only 62 years ago, and that so many innocents endured such horror.
Next stop was Auschwitz, 3 km down the road. Established in 1940 for Polish political prisoners it was expanded in 1941-2 to take in European Jews from as far away as Corfu, Greece and Hungary. No one quite knows how many people died here and at Birkenau, since as the war progressed the Nazis didn’t bother registering their victims, they just unloaded them straight off the trains and into the gas chambers. Tragically, many of the Jews who arrived here had been duped by the Nazis into believing they had been transported for ‘resettlement’; the Nazis sold them non-existent plots of land and offered them work in fictitious shops and factories.
Of course I knew about the Holocaust before, and how disgustingly bigoted and cruel it was, but it wasn’t until we walked round Auschwitz that it truly sunk in. Seeing those thousands of photographs, the piles of belongings, reading about the tales of heroic resistance movements, seeing the conditions the prisoners were forced to exist in. Harrowing is not the word, and not for the first time history made me cry. Almost worst of all was a photo of a woman who had weighed 70 kg when she arrived, but at the time of the photograph she was a pathetic 25 kg. As in Volgograd I was left horrified at humanity’s capacity for cruelty and mass destruction.
Everyone knows about the Holocaust, but less people are aware of how badly the Poles suffered at the dual hands of Hitler and Stalin in WWII. Both men set out to wipe Poland off the map, again, and by 1945 Poland had lost over 20% of its prewar population. Worst off were its intelligentsia, whom Hitler and Stalin feared the most. 57% of Poland’s lawyers, 40% of its doctors and 30% of its university lecturers were murdered by these two megalomaniacs. Its no surprise that the handful of Polish pilots who fought for us in the Battle of Britain were some of the most lethal fighters we had.
Anyway, enough history, back to tukking…..
After seeing the museum our night was spent at the unremarkable Hotel Glob, where the next morning we had the debacle of TT once again refusing to start. By the time she got her act together it was 9.30 a.m, and off we sped towards the Czech border. I was only just beginning to get used to Polish Zloty, and having an almost recognizable alphabet, and it was time for another country.
Amazingly, the border crossing took a mere two minutes and was a matter of flashing our passports. 450 km’s later, having cruised along immaculate Czech tarmac, we hit Prague. I’m all blogged out for now so will write more about Prague tomorrow, but my oh my we were glad to get here last night and meet up with Jo’s Pa. And wow there are a lot of tourists here. Xx Ants