Auschwitz and Birkenau

A guided tour is only as good as the guide.

After an hour and a half’s journey through the countryside of Lesser Poland, we arrived at the expansive, already full car park for Auschwitz Concentration Camp. At the entrance we were met by our guide, Anna, and were quickly whisked through security, collected our radio receivers and head sets and embarked upon a tour of the site where one of the world’s most inhumane atrocities took place.

We paused at the entrance, under the sign, “Arbeit Macht Frei” “Work Sets You Free”. It was a chilling place for us who knew what lay beyond the gate but for the many who came here, initially, might have had some hope. On either side of the gate impenetrable double fences of vicious, electrified barbed wire spread around the whole camp. Every so often a guard house towered above the fence, making it impossible to escape undetected. Beyond, in geometric precision, brick barracks stood, stark and uninviting. Before the war, this had been a Polish military barracks, saving the Germans the necessity to start the camp from scratch.

Passing through the gate the story of Auschwitz unfolded with Anna’s clearly spoken commentary. The fact that we were each wearing headphones meant that we missed nothing and everything she said was as if to you only. She took us into a number of the buildings, building up a picture of the horrors that they faced. In one, it was set out as a dormitory, one side just having straw on the floor, while the other had straw mattresses. There was not a gap between and each room was grossly overcrowded. There were toilets and washing facilities, of sorts, in an adjacent room, but they were not sufficient for such numbers and did not prevent the spread of numerous, often fatal, diseases.

When the Germans had the Jews, and other undesirable sections of society brought here by the train load, they had everything taken from them, their cases, shoes, brushes, pots and pans, glasses, even artificial limbs. Huge piles of these artefacts were displayed in some of the barracks. Seeing these we began to understand the scale of what went on here and specific notices on some of the walls put it into numbers. In total 1.3 million Jews from across Nazi occupied Europe, Polish political prisoners, Roma gypsies, Russian prisoners of war and other ethnic minorities were transported to Auschwitz between 1940 and 1945. About 1.1 million were murdered. It is an unimaginable figure.

Between blocks 10 and 11 there was an enclosed courtyard where certain prisoners were brought to be shot by firing squad. Initially, a firing squad executed prisoners near the camp at places where gravel had been extracted—the so-called “gravel pits.” From the autumn of 1941 to the autumn of 1943, the majority of executions were carried out in the walled-off yard of block 11, in front of a specially built “Death Wall.”

The condemned prisoners had to strip naked in block 11, on the ground floor. Any women among them disrobed in separate rooms. The women were then led into the courtyard and shot first. The condemned prisoners were led to the wall in pairs. The SS executioner walked up from behind and shot them in the back of the head with a small-caliber rifle. Designated prisoners threw the corpses onto trucks or carts that delivered them to the crematoria. Many of the people killed in this way were never entered in the camp records. Anna told us that the youngest to die in this way was a nine year old girl.

In another block, along the central corridor, there were photographs of prisoners with heads shaved, wearing the striped prison uniform with triangles sewn on to them. The colour of the triangle denoted the kind of prisoner they were – red for political, green for criminal, pink for homosexual and so on. The photographs, three deep along the full length of each wall, showed a gallery of misery. They were nearly all young men and women, deemed fit and able enough to work rather than go straight to the gas chamber. Underneath each picture it gave their name, age, occupation – farmer, baker, carpenter etc., the date they were registered in the camp and the date they died, usually within three months of entry. It was so chilling to look into the vacant eyes of these human beings as we passed down the corridor.

In Block 4 there was a room full of bales of hair taken from women and girls who had their heads shaved upon entry to the camp, or it was retrieved from the corpses before they were cremated.  They found 7000kg of matted discoloured hair when the camp was liberated. This is just a fraction of what was taken, the rest having been sent to Bavaria to make into hair cloth. It does not bear thinking about.

Then we visited the gas chambers where hundreds at a time were herded into a block to have a shower. Before they showered they had to disrobe and were then forced into the chamber. Once they were all in cyanide crystals were dropped in through a number of vents in the ceiling. The vents were then closed and the crystals set about their work of killing everybody in the room. The crystals reacted with oxygen and gradually filled the room with poisonous gas from the floor upwards. As people died, others climbed on their bodies in the vain attempt to get at the less toxic air near the ceiling. There was nothing they could do and no where for them to go. After about half an hour everybody in the chamber was dead and there would be a pyramid of tangled bodies rising to the ceiling. They were then cleared to the crematorium next door and the bodies burnt, leaving nothing but ash to dispose of.

One has to ask the question, how did the guards feel about what they were doing? They had little choice. The German propaganda machine convinced them that they were cleansing the world of all undesirable ethnic groups, the Jews being the most hated. They believed what they were doing was right, and, in any case, they had no alternative than to obey orders or be shot. Some guards, it is known, asked for transfers back to the front, but were denied, being forced to endure years cruelty on an unbelievable scale. How could they sleep at night?

After three hours our tour of Auschwitz 1 came to an end and we were given a ten minute break before we moved on the Birkenau.

The Germans built Birkenau from scratch and it spread as far as the eyes could see. Disecting the camp was the railway line that brought train load after train load of prisoners locked into wagons. Many had been so for several days with the ultimate outcome that they travelled in absolute squalor. Many died before they got to the camp.

As they were forced out of the wagons, they were met by a welcoming committee of SS soldiers. The commander was also there to meet them. The prisoners were lined up in front of him and were ordered to file past, a cursory glance and a wave of his hand determined their fate; wave to one side and they would go immediately to the gas chamber, the other the labour camp. The majority were so weak and ill after the journey that they were sent to the gas chambers at the far end of the camp. These were destroyed by the Germans as they fled the camp just before the liberation by the Soviet army in January 1945, in an attempt to cover up the evidence. The destruction hid nothing and the full horrors of the previous five years soon became apparent.

5 to a bunk!

As we visited the huts where those spared the gas chamber lived, I couldn’t help feel that those who failed to make the grade for labour might have had the better deal. Their agony was soon over, while those that were forced to work in the most appalling conditions, also lived in the most appalling conditions until the effects of hard labour, starvation and poor sanitary and living conditions killed them. If that did not happen, they would just have easily been sent to the gas chamber once their usefulness ceased.

Anna

I wondered how Anna could do this job. Surely, reliving the stories of Auschwitz regularly must have an effect. She told us she guided for three days a week, the rest of the time she works in the archive office. She has a personal reason for being there as some of her family went into Auschwitz and never came out. However gruesome the story is the world needs to be reminded what went on during those dark years. You would hope that we learn from it but looking at other parts of the world where there has been conflict, I’m not sure we all have. Look and Cambodia, Rwanda, the Balkans, they all have gruesome stories to tell.

As gruesome and harrowing the visit had been, it is a visit that must be taken at least once in order to try to understand and come to terms with a very dark episode of the 20th C. Anna, with her clear delivery, her empathy and her passion made it a very special experience.

 

 

 

Krakow

Having arrived at the airport in Krakow, we had to wait for the incoming flight from Birmingham, bringing four new group members to join us, replacing the four travelling home.

The Cloth Hall

I had arranged for transport to take us all into town and the Kossak Hotel. It was a bright, sunny and warm morning. Predictably, the hotel had not prepared our rooms so we headed off to the magnificent square in the centre of town for an early lunch. At 200 x 200 square metres it is the largest medieval square in Europe. It really is beautiful, with elegant buildings all around it. In front of the majority were umbrellas and tables bringing the restaurants out into the square. In the centre, almost dissecting the square in half is the Cloth Hall, now a multitude of colourful stalls focusing mainly on souvenirs and jewellery.

Standing alone towards one end of the Cloth Hall is the Wieza Ratuszowa, the Town Hall Tower. You had the feeling that this was just part of a once much bigger building but there was no evidence of that. On the other side of the Cloth Hall in the opposite corner, set at an angle, thus breaking up the symmetry of the square, is St Mary’s Church, brick built and standing tall with its two differently crowned towers. On the hour, every hour, a bugler blows his horn from windows at the very top of the left hand tower, re-enacting the tradition of an ancient Krakow Legend.

There was too much to see and take in in one go, but we did make time to visit the small church of St Adalbert’s, standing alone in one corner, at an angle, breaking up the symmetry of the buildings around the perimeter. The reason why it stands out is that it was built in the 11thC, which means it pre-dates the square. It is a mix of pre-Roman, Roman, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture. As soon as you walk in you can tell it is old. You drop down two metres as the floor level is that much lower than the rest of the square.

Back at the hotel we enjoyed watching the light fade over the city from the rooftop terrace bar while enjoying a drink or two. The low sunlight on the castle was particularly good, highlighting all its features.

While some went out in search of an evening meal a few of us donned down jackets and braved the falling temperatures on the roof to enjoy a particularly good meal and a couple of bottles of red wine. We were at least warm on the inside even if the outside was a little chilled. After the early start of the morning, an early night was needed so we retired to our rooms.

The following morning the majority of us went on an organised tour of Auschwitz and Birkenau. Because it was a comprehensive and chilling experience, I would prefer writing about it in a separate post.

By the time we returned to the hotel in the late afternoon, we were all pretty tired, both physically and mentally. After a suitable chill out time, Angela and I drifted towards the square in search of somewhere to eat. We didn’t really want to eat on the square again, but explore some of the narrow back streets of the old town. These are full of tucked away little bars and bistros full of Krakovians and tourists alike. The atmosphere was buzzing.

Vodka – the glasses are much smaller than they appear! Honest

After much deliberation, umming and ahhhing, we finally took the plunge and entered the narrow door of Cafe Camelot. It was quite busy but not overflowing. We were directed to the smallest table where two people could possibly eat but it turned out not to be a problem. Our table was in the middle of the room and we were largely surrounded by smart young locals. While we made up our minds what to eat we sampled a vodka each – very enjoyable. This was quickly followed by a delicious meal and a glass of wine or two. Service was good, atmosphere and ambience were good; the artwork on the walls and in the niches provided extra inspiration for conversation. Unfortunately we did not time our visit with live music, otherwise we might have had reason to spend much longer there.

Sunday dawned bright and sunny. A shame really as we were going to spend quite some time underground at the Wieliczka Salt Mines. Salt was first mined here in the 13thC and continued well into the 20thC. The economy of Krakow and the whole of Lesser Poland depended heavily on the income it generated. In 1978 it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

I was expecting more of this.

I was really looking forward to visiting the mines as the pictures I had seen were impressive and exciting. Unfortunately, it did not live up to expectation. There were impressive highlights but these were punctuated by long periods where there was not a lot to see. It did not help that we were kept waiting for at least half an hour before we were allowed to enter. I suspect that they stagger entry so that there is a staggered progress throughout the mine tour. At the beginning of the day it is inevitable that you are probably going to have to wait longer.

Once we were in, the descent into the mine was impressive; no cage lowering us into the depths, but a wooden staircase. Looking down over the handrail from near the top, we could not see the bottom. It seemed to go on forever. Going down, constantly turning left down the flights of stairs made you feel quite giddy at times. Eventually, we reached the point where we left the stairs to enter a tunnel. This was lined with interlocking tree trunks that supported both the walls and the ceilings. The amount of timber we saw underground during the tour was phenomenal, but then Poland has a lot of woodland. Much of the tour was spent walking along many of these tunnels with not a lot of visual interest. Our guide was talking into a microphone and we were listening with a headset. In the confines of tunnels it meant that unless you were standing close to her it was difficult to see what she was talking about.

Everything was rather grey

When we did enter the many caverns they were quite dull. The rock is grey and fairly featureless, unlike a natural cave that has been forming over millions of years.
Despite my negative thoughts about the mine there can be no doubting the incredible endeavour of the hundreds of men who worked in it. It was only towards the end of its life as a working mine that machinery was available and used. For much of its existence the only way the salt could be extracted was entirely by manpower.

After two and a half hours underground, we emerged into the warm sunshine and eventually headed back into Krakow, where we had free time until our departure late the next day.

One of the many elaborate altars during a service

Taking a long late lunch in the square in warm sunshine, we pondered what to do next. I had initially been interested in taking a horse and carriage tour around the city but having looked into it, it was very expensive and also there was no commentary. It was a means to be seen rather than a means to see. Instead, Angela and I took a tuk-tuk tour of the Old Town and the Jewish Quarter of Kazimierz. Our driver, Paul, had his iPhone connected to a speaker and, every so often, taking his eyes off the road, he programmed it to give us snippets of information about particular buildings. It was a relaxed tour and we could get off wherever and whenever we wanted to venture inside the buildings.

It was refreshing to see a city where there was no jostling for position on the roads. Everybody seemed to be very civil to each other, giving way at junctions, allowing pedestrians to cross without the fear of being knocked down. Within the Old Town, traffic moved very sedately, which made a pleasant change.

Kazimierz was distinctive with its narrow cobbled streets, monasteries, synagogues, and old shop frontages from a bygone age. Funky restaurants and cafes now occupy those old, traditional shop fronts. It was here, outside the 600 year old Synagoga Stara, that we met Claire, who had borrowed a bicycle from the hotel and was taking herself on a tour of the city. That just highlights how safe the roads were.

The Synagog Stara is no longer a functioning synagogue but a museum telling the story of everyday Jewish life.

In the evening we all ventured back to Kazimierz for our last night meal together at Klezmer Hois. This is a Jewish, but not full kosher, restaurant in the building that used to house the ritual bath. The restaurant is furnished like a bourgeois dining room from the early 20thC with old, dark furniture and embroidered tablecloths.

Mmmmm!

I made an interesting choice from the menu, particularly the starter. I chose Carp, Jewish Style. First of all, I had to get my head around the fact that I was eating, what I considered to be, an ornamental fish rather than a traditional fish for the table. It was a dense meat with an organic, earthy flavour to it. What I struggled more with was the plateful of jelly that it was sitting on. It was absolutely swimming in a jelly not dissimilar to that you get with pork pies. At least with pork pies it is only a small amount; my whole plate was covered in the stuff and I had to leave most of it. The roasted goose leg I had for my main was much better.

However, the highlight of the evening was not the food but the concert that took place just over my right shoulder. A trio of young people, a double base player, an accordionist and a violinist played two sets while we ate. They were superb and the girl playing the violin knew how to make her instrument sing. I realised, watching her, why I never got the same effect when I played the violin as a child. I didn’t move my body in rhythm with the music. I stood stock still in a state of intense concentration. She was so relaxed it was beautiful to both watch and listen.

A much smaller, but no less attractive church interior

Our last day in Krakow, we decided to explore on foot. We wanted to look at some of the churches and also to visit the cathedral within the castle. We visited numerous churches. I am never sure whether photographs are allowable. They are certainly not allowed in the most spectacular of church interiors, St. Mary’s on the edge of the square. It is magnificent. The altars in all of the churches are huge, and numerous, extremely ornate and mesmerising. The detail in them is astonishing. I am not used to such ornate and elaborate centre pieces and I found myself sitting and looking at them for long spells.

Choosing to have our last lunch in Krakow on the square, yet again, we chose a front row table looking out on to the area where the horse and carriages park, touting for business. I found this a fascinating spectacle. Each pair or ornately decorated horses and gleaming white carriage is cared for by a very smartly outfitted, often very attractive, woman. While parked in line, they talk to passers by trying to lure them into their carriage for what is actually quite an expensive ride. Obviously, the more people you can get into a carriage the more cost effective it becomes.

I was fascinated by their technique. As soon as clients had taken the bait and climbed aboard, a less attractive, often scruffily dressed, male jumped up next to the girl and took over the reigns. This did not happen every time but most times. There seemed to be no communication between the driver(s) and the clients; it was simply a ride around the streets. I would want more for my money. I know our tuk-tuk tour was not as glamorous but we did talk to our driver, we did have a commentary and we were able to get out to visit places of interest.

In the afternoon we walked around the Planty, a green area that surrounds the old town where the medieval walls once stood. This led us to Wawel and the ramp which leads up to the castle with a huge variety of architectural styles, as additions and alterations had been made with each incumbent king. The highlight for me was the courtyard, a Renaissance style building designed and built by artists from Florence. It was full of grace, elegance and style; such a pleasure to gaze upon.

Leaving the castle we dropped down to the river just in time to catch the dragon breathing fire. This metal statue, standing at the mouth to its cave, celebrates the legend associated with it. Legend has it that a dragon livIng in the cave devoured the town’s virgins until it was outwitted by a clever trick. The story is probably based around the fact that pre-historic animal bones were found in the cave.

That was it. No more time to enjoy Krakow. It is a beautiful city with so much to offer. We had been there for four days and I think, with the exception of Auschwitz and the salt mines, we had really only scratched the surface. There is plenty still to see and we could look at some of the places we visited in greater detail. Sometimes, a long weekend in a city is long enough. Not Krakow. I would happily return for another long weekend of exploration.

Slovakia and the Tatras Mountains

A strong tail wind took us to Krakow, enabling us to land at least twenty minutes ahead of schedule. We were equally quick passing through the airport to be met by Mike, who had travelled overland, and Marcel, our Slovak guide. We then journeyed across the border and over the mountains from Poland into Slovakia. It was instantly noticeable that Poland looked more affluent than Slovakia, with bigger and smarter houses, smoother roads and smarter cars. In many respects Slovakia was, on first impressions, more appealing, quaint and attractive. Another feature of the journey on the Polish side of the border were the many billboards along the roadside. Most of them seemed to be advertising clinics for cosmetic surgery and were quite explicit in their art work!

After about four hours on the road we arrived at the mountain resort of Novy Smokovec and the Reitmayer Guesthouse. Having settled we relaxed, did a bit of shopping for lunch snacks and tried out the local beer, Saris.

Breakfast!

After an excellent dinner we all felt we had some catching up of sleep to do after such an early start. By 8.30 I was in bed and immediately asleep. After a good ten hours I got up and prepared myself for breakfast at 7.00am. It was the most amazing spread of buffet items. It was not a huge table but it was groaning with food of enormous variety. No wonder we were offered the chance of making up packed lunches for a mere €3. It was all really good, as I hope the picture will testify.

The Green Lake

With darkening skies we left the hotel to drive a short distance to the start point of our walk, at a car park just outside the village of Tatranske Matliare.The climb up was not steep but Marcel set a good pace. Every so often, he would stop to give everybody a chance to catch up and give us juicy bits of information about the geography, geology, flora and fauna. At the first of these stops it started to rain and it gradually became heavier and heavier. Initially we were travelling under trees, which sheltered us slightly until they became drenched, whereupon they dropped heavily on to us. The gradient remained pretty constant throughout the climb and we arrived at the Green Lake and refuge after nearly three hours of climbing. It gave us welcome respite from the weather and the opportunity for a steaming bowl of goulash. My waterproofs have failed me yet again, despite re-proofing them just before we came out. It was impossible to get near the wood burner to dry off for the number of people gathered round it. At least I was warm on the inside, particularly after Marcel had supplied us with little glasses of local fire water.

White Lake surrounded by white mountains

By the time we left the hut the rain had ceased and the clouds began to lift revealing precipitous rock faces leading up to a jagged skyline of freshly snowed upon summits. Wow, it was beautiful.

From the Green Lake we climbed further passing Triangle Lake to the White Lake. Marcel pointed out the Red Valley, behind some crags, where there is Blue Lake. Everything seems to be colour coordinated!

We now had a choice. As we had been walking pretty quickly, partly due to the poor weather before lunch, we could continue and descend by a different route, rather than returning the way we had come. It would be longer but much more preferable than retracing our steps. This would take us down the divide between the limestone White Tatra and the granite High Tatra.

Was it a stag or a bear?

The National Park wardens have closed the paths in the White Tatra in order to help improve and sustain the wildlife. On these slopes Chamois and bears live and are thriving without human interference. As we descended we heard a roaring sound from the slopes opposite. Was it a rutting stag or a bear. We scanned the hillside for any sign of movement but saw none. Another roar confirmed that the sound was coming out of woodland. I would like to think it was a bear.

Reaching another hut, renowned for garlic soup, we had another break before heading down to the road and our waiting minibus. By now we had covered 13.5 miles and climbed 1200m. Not a bad warm up day, but it did give Marcel the opportunity to see us and assess us for some of the harder days to come.

On a much brighter morning a landrover picked us up in Tatranská Poliank and took us up 600m to the Horsky Hotel and the starting point for our climb. Ahead of us was a small lake with a waterfall sliding down the rocks from a hanging valley above. We were heading for Polsky Hreben (Polish Col). It was a steady climb over rocks all the way to the col. As we climbed, non-threatening clouds began to gather about the summits.

Glenys makes it look easy

Just before reaching the col we came across a section where we had to scramble across rocky outcrops. Chains had been secured to the rock because there was an element of exposure. In many respects it was easier to avoid the chains and rely solely on the rock, which had ample hand holds and was extremely grippy under foot. Also, if you were lacking confidence there was a tendency to lean into the rock rather than relying on the chain to support you. It was quite busy up near the col with people, like us, climbing up and others descending.

Gathered on the pass

From the pass we had views to the plains of Poland to the north and Slovakia to the south. It made you realise just what a narrow chain of mountains the Tatras are. Either side of the col the rock climbed steeply to summits. While we rested and took some refreshment, we contemplated climbing the summit of Vychodna Vysoka (2429m) on the eastern side of the col. it looked steep and fairly exposed in places. I wasn’t sure how my knee would cope with the descent and as we had 1250m of descent from the col without the additional 250m from the peak, I regrettably decided not to go to the summit. It proved a wise decision as I was in some pain and discomfort during the descent. As it turned out, just four of the group ventured up to the summit, thoroughly enjoying both the challenge and the achievement.
While the climbers headed up the rest of us began to make our way down. Negotiating the chained section was much more difficult on the descent as there was a greater feeling of exposure. I still, by and large, found it easier to avoid the chains.

View from the summit of Vychodna Vysoka 2429m

As we descended further, tiredness began to creep in and there were a number of stumbles on the uneven, rocky paths. I think part of the problem was that people were walking too close to each other and did not have a clear vision of where they were going and did not give themselves enough time to adjust. Nevertheless, we all made it safely to the cafe behind the Horsky Hotel while we waited for the summiteers to join us. Once they did so we continued with our knee wrenching descent to our hotel.

During the evening, as we listened to Steve rabbit on about concrete, numbing our brains, my knee swelled and stiffened. By the morning it was no better so I was forced to take a rest day.

While I was hobbling into town for a coffee, thirteen members of the group were trudging through ever deeper snow in the mountains. Then, having returned to our guest house, I learned that five had abandoned the walk and were back in the cafe I had recently visited. I hobbled out to join them.

The Met Office website told us that the sun was shining in the High Tatras. There was no mention of snow, yet it did not stop all day. Soon after lunch a message came through that Michelle had taken a tumble and that the rest of the group were returning. She had hurt her arm but she was OK. When they arrived at about 3.00pm, Marcel took her off to the hospital for a checkup. Fortunately, nothing broken but her arm was very sore.

The conditions up in the mountains had been getting progressively worse, with sufficient snow lying to cause doubt as to what was firm ground and what was a hole or crack filled with snow.

Sampling the Tatratea

The early end to the day meant we had more time to kill in the guesthouse so David produced a variety of flavoured Tetra Teas for us to try. These varied from 22 – 72% proof. They were warming from the inside out. Beers in the dining room by the fire, dinner and lots of laughter saw us through the rest of the evening, while the snow continued to fall in the mountains above.

The following morning the promise of wall to wall sunshine on the Met Office weather app, was quickly dashed when I drew back the curtains to a thin blanket of snow and it falling heavily from leaden skies.

After breakfast we drove for about an hour to the village of Cerveny Klastor on the banks of the Dunajec River, the middle of which forms the border between Slovakia and Poland. Here we were to meet up with our rafts for a ninety minute journey down through the Dunajec Gorge. The rafts can best be described as a series of wooden canoes lashed together to create a very stable platform on which to travel. Two raftsmen help guide the raft front and back using long poles. Ours were a characterful pair with massive hands, probably the result of years handling the wooden poles. The one managing the front of ours was a real character, although he looked as if he could have featured in a novel or a film. He had long hair tied in two plaits, a bushy beard, a twinkle in his eye and a wicked sense of humour. As we travelled he would pass snippets of information to Marcel, who would translate into English, stories about the legends of the gorge.

It really was a spectacular limestone feature, with huge vertical cliffs rising straight out of the river for as much as 300m. We meandered through the gorge for 6 miles before coming ashore on the Slovakian bank where the border veered away from the river. Had we stayed on we would have eventually reached Krakow. It might have been great to continue but it was so cold on the river. I had four layers on and I was still cold. Winter is definitely on its way in Slovakia.

It was hoped that we could have cycled back to Cerveny Klastor, along a cycle/walkway by the river. Unfortunately it was too late in the season and the bicycle hire company had shut up shop for the winter.

The two churches of Kezmarok

After a lovely goulash lunch, we drove to the town of Kezmarok where there are two interesting Protestant churches adjacent to each other. They pride of Kežmarok. This Protestant church was built in 1717 next to an older sacral stone building from 1593, which today is a sacristy. This unique wooden building made of yew and red spruce wood was built without using a single metal component. The Baroque interior of the church is also made of wood. Of immense artistic value is also the church organ with wooden pipes.

By way of a contrast, the following morning, I pulled the curtains back to reveal clear blue skies and emerging sunshine. The grass glimmered white with early morning frost and the clouds that had hung around the mountains like a necklace for the last two days had evaporated, revealing significant falls of snow on the higher slopes.

Eleven of us opted to walk up the Sucha Bela Gorge in the Slovak Paradise National Park south of Poprad. As we drove south we began to get views of the full range of the High Tatras and they looked spectacular, a skyline of jagged snowy peaks against the blue sky – stunning.

In the height of the season the Sucha Bela Gorge is very crowded and the walk up can take as much as five hours because of having to wait while people ahead scale the ladders. Today, there was hardly another soul about and we virtually had the whole gorge to ourselves.

It starts off very gently, walking up the river bed with only a trickle of water flowing down. The Cliffs either side rise steeply and the sun could only reach the trees much higher above our heads. Hence, the temperature in the gorge was only a few degrees above freezing. Littered all the way up were the remnants of trees washed down when the gorge had been full of water and closed to tourists. There was no way it would’ve safe if there were significant volume of fast flowing water.

Despite the cold air temperature, the exertion generated enough heat around our bodies and we were soon sweating.

The lower section of the gorge tended to have wooden walkways – tree trunks laid flattish with wooden slats across them. Higher up these became metalled steps held into the rock with reinforcing rods drilled into the rock. And then, where the river plunged over a waterfall, we had metal ladders to climb. The angle of these varied considerably from vertical to 45 degree angles. It was really good and everybody thoroughly enjoyed the journey. There were no histrionics, no hesitation, just a determination to enjoy the experience.

Each village seemed to be totally self-contained

After about two and a half hours we emerged at the top of the gorge. The mixed forest was beautiful and every so often we got glimpses of the full length of the High Tatras. It was such a relief to have such a perfect day. The path gradually descended to the valley below, a valley that could be no where other than Slovakia. Looking out across it from our lofty position each village seemed to be self-contained. There was nothing between them, no random houses or barns, just fields and then the next village. It held a beauty all of its own and was unique to our experiences in the UK.

As we emerged from the forest into the hamlet of Podlesok, we struggled to find a place for lunch. All, bar one, of the restaurants had closed for the end of the season, with signs on their doors saying they were reopening in March. However, we found one, and had an excellent lunch for very little money indeed. We had a traditional Slovak dish of potato pancake filled with chicken and pork, followed by apple strudel, washed down with half a litre of Saris, all for €8! The cheapness of food and drink in Slovakia is amazing. Beer in the hotel is €1.8. Buy it in a supermarket and it is €0.6! I bought an ice cream for €0.5. It is amazing how much further your money goes in this country, so much so that it has to be worth a return visit at some point in the future.

As we finished lunch the minibus brought the remainder of the group to join us and we all headed of to the walled town of Levoca.

Levoca Town hall and St James’s Church

Levoca, a small town of about 14,000 people is almost entirely surrounded by its medieval walls and was once one of the Royal towns of the Hungarian Kingdom. It has a particularly attractive main square with the Gothic church of St James, containing the world’s highest wooden alter, reaching a height of 18.6m. It was designed by the famous artist Master Paul, a resident of the town and after whom the square is now named. Adjacent to the church is the 15thC Town Hall, although it is no longer used as such, and houses a museum today.

The small piece of architecture that interested and amused us most was the Cage of Shame. There were numerous misdemeanours that could lead yo to spending a night a the cage from gossiping, cheating on your wife/husband, bad manners, being drunk in a public place and, if you were a woman, out during the hours of darkness. A spell in the cage, where you were the ridicule of all those who know you, where people were allowed to spit or throw stones at you, would soon bring you into line. It had to be done. We insisted all the females in the group spent some time in the cage, just long enough for a photo or two. In these days of equality, the men then posed in the cage for pictures. I think we were the better actors!

I guess it was too much to expect two consecutive perfect days. While the sun shone in the valleys to the south, cloud hung heavily about the High Tatras. Disappointingly, it was also raining by the time we reached our start point for the day at Popradskom Pleso, a lake under Mount Rysy, Poland’s highest peak. Although some of the snow had melted there was still quite a lot covering the rocky path. Our itinerary hoped we would climb Mt. Rosy but due to the weather our aim now was to walk up to Velke Hincovo Pleso, at about 2200m. It was pretty miserable walking; having layered up for the rain we were sweating profusely, so either way we got wet.

I think this justifies some deciding to return early

Emerging from the forest, the path began to steepen and the quantity of snow increased. Melt water ran freely down the path. Although nobody said anything, there was a feeling that not everybody was enjoying the walk, and were already nervously thinking about the descent in potentially difficult conditions. At one of the rest stops, I offered the opportunity for an early descent, which was gratefully taken up. Whilst I would normally have wanted to continue, I was concerned as to how my knee was going to hold up. The higher I climbed, the more likely I was going to have trouble, so I slowly lead five of the group down to Popradskom Pleso and the cafe.

Picnic view

Having recovered and warmed up a little in the cafe, we took a stroll around the lake, pausing long enough to enjoy a picnic in the emerging sunshine. From there we visited the symbolic cemetery just south of the lake which commemorates those who have worked and perished in the mountains.

Returning to the hotel, we awaited the rest of the group descending from Hincovo Pleso. We did not have to wait long as the conditions up at the lake did not warrant them spending long there. It was wet, windy, cold and had limited visibility. Why would you want to stay longer than necessary in such conditions?

Once they had had time for some refreshment and adjustment to their outer clothing we set off down the hill in glorious sunshine. If only we had had this type of weather earlier in the day. Our destination was Strbske Pleso, a ski resort with ultra modern apartments, ski lifts and two ski jumping ramps. It is also the terminus for the tramway that would take us back to our accommodation.

Marcel spent the evening with us as we celebrated the end of a very mixed but excellent week in the Tatras Mountains.

The following morning we had an early start. The Reitmeyer provided us with a full breakfast service at 5.30! On the journey to Krakow we were joined by Jarka who runs Rajec Travel. Marcel was unable to be with us for this last journey. For the first half of the journey we dozed but during the second half Jarka talked to us about all things Slovakian. It was very informative and is perhaps something that Marcel might have done during our journeys each day. In the end she praised our collaboration, saying that I was “very simple”. This caused great hilarity amongst the group. What she meant was that working with me had been very simple and that the joint organisation had gone very smoothly. The group preferred their own version.

Despite the problems I have had with my dodgy knee, I have thoroughly enjoyed this encounter with a new mountain range, and have seen enough to want to return, next time with a fully functioning knee! No doubt I will be contacting Jarka and Rajec Travel in due course.

Swimming in the Wye!

Having paddled the length of the River Wye last week and written about it, I felt I needed to have a different approach to this week’s two-day trip.

Chris & Angela

We were told the day before our trip that we would not be able to travel through the rapids at Symonds Yat as vital maintenance work was being done to the groynes that channel the water. Although the experience is short-lived, and underwhelming in the present conditions, I thought it necessary to add a little entertainment into the itinerary. I know how certain individuals within this particular group hunger for some excitement that enhances their experience and gives them something to talk about for months.

The whole team

The first incident took place at Kerne Bridge just before lunch. I was well aware of a problem on a sweeping, narrow stretch of fast flowing water that took you very close to the bank. It is where we had a spillage last week when a canoe hit a protruding tree stump just above the surface. I gathered the group by the bridge so that they could see the problem and advised them on how to approach it. That said, the protruding stump could not be seen. Then, one at a time each canoe went through the area of concern. Angela and Chris got their line wrong and hit the bank but managed to stay afloat and somehow bumbled through. Sitting nearby in his canoe was an instructor from another company. As I passed him I said, “Why is it always your wife who embarrasses you and gets it wrong.” With that I entered the fast water, knowing instinctively that I had got my line of entry wrong. There was no way I could bring my canoe round that sharply and I found myself in a web of willow branches and then I hit something more solid. The combination of a sudden stop and branches pushing against me, tipped me out if the canoe and turned it over. It all happened so quickly. I soon found the stump, it was now under the surface and my canoe was stuck on it. As I struggled to release it I discovered that I could only just put my feet on the riverbed and keep my head above water.

In drier times! (Photo Chris Woodcock)

Whilst all this was going on I was also aware that I was wearing a non-waterproof Fitbit on my wrist and my non-waterproof iPhone was tucked into the pocket of my life vest! The instructor who had watched my demise unfold came to my rescue and helped me release the canoe from the stump, empty it of water, turn it over and retrieve most of my kit, which remarkably had remained in the upturned canoe. Those ahead of me could see that I had come out of my canoe but were in no position to turn round and help. I was fine. Yes, I was wet but the water was not cold and I had retrieved everything from the river, except my Sigg bottle.

When I, a few minutes later, went for lunch at the Inn on the Wye, I discovered that both my Fitbit and phone were none the worse for their soaking. It was my first canoe capsize after several years of travelling down the Wye and everybody found it hugely amusing, including me.

Tim’s long body is not suited to hours of sitting in a canoe

Nothing dramatic happened in the afternoon as we paddled through the gorge and around the huge loop into Symonds Yat. I say nothing, but Tim’s back was suffering so Angela and I hitched our canoe to theirs and towed them in for the last mile or so. Tim was very uncomfortable and he came to the sensible decision that he and Beryl would drop out of the second day. A shame, but much the best decision.

We had a lovely evening together in Ye Old Ferrie Inn, eating, drinking and catching up with a beautiful outlook on to the mirror flat river.

The following morning the river was still like a mirror and there was hardly any flow in it at all. A couple of kingfishers sat on the hand pulled ferry staring intently into the dark, still waters in an effort to find breakfast. Finding ours was much easier and much more tasty than raw, live fish. Ye Old Ferrie Inn had looked after us well.

Ross on Wye Canoe Hire picked us up from the inn and took us to Biblins on the down river side of the rapids where we launched for our 10 mile trip to Redbrook.

It was a lovely morning, generally cloudy but still quite warm. As we passed through the deeply forested gorge the trees on either side were reflected perfectly in the river. A two foot salmon leapt out of the water across our bows and very nearly ended up in our canoe.

Picking up the pieces after the “Mayhem of Monmouth!” (Photo – Claire Cox)

All was going really well. We made excellent progress down to Monmouth, arriving at the boat club steps at midday, too early for lunch, particularly after the substantial breakfast we had eaten earlier. We continued, passing under Monmouth Bridge. Here the river is quite wide but much of its width is too shallow to navigate, even in a canoe. Angela and I were in the lead canoe and we headed for a narrow channel of fast flowing water tucked in against the left bank. We aimed for it but got too close into the bank and an overhanging willow tree. It was not my intention that we should explore the tree closely but the flow made it impossible for us to avoid it. In the middle of the foliage was a thick, cut off trunk, which stopped us dead in the water and tipped Angela over the side, quickly followed by me, with the canoe ending up upside down. It was so funny to see Angela with a bemused look on her face, her sunglasses askew, having been fully submerged. Our so-called friends in the canoes behind, as well as coming to our rescue, were highly amused by our spectacular exit from our canoe. While there were no pictures of the actual event, some were taken of the aftermath, I think by Claire. Again the watch and phone survived the dunking, although the phone seems to have developed a white line up one side of the screen. I have also, subsequently discovered, that if anybody rings me up, I can’t hear them. The perfect phone!

I think Angela will receive enormous amounts of sympathy but I am destined for a lifetime of stick! Well, if it makes them happy.

Finished (Photo by Chris Woodcock and it is her thumb!)

By the time we reached Redbrook we had dried off. Mark, from Ross on Wye Canoe Hire picked us up. He quickly learned of my demise and, like most who know me, was amused.

I have had two great trips in the last couple of weeks, made special by the people I have shared them with and by the excellent service provided by Mark and his team at Ross on Wye Canoe Hire. Thanks to all.