Just replace one letter, and you’re in a whole different city.
I recently decided to go for a quick trip Abroad in order to unwind between finishing second semester exams and embarking on a Master’s thesis, and chose the city of Lublin in Poland as my destination. There were a multitude of reasons for this, and the fact that it was the only flight I could afford played
a significant no role whatsoever in my decision.
I’ve actually been to Poland before, to Wroclaw on the other side of the country, and was quite taken with the city and its beautiful architecture. Lublin is a decidedly smaller place and very different in character, but I decided that was all part of the adventure.
I once again flew with our old friends Ryanair, who I defended after my last flight. It turns out there’s a big difference between a 45 minute hop across the Irish Sea and a 3-hour journey, and by the mid-point I was starting to feel the lack of legroom and the hardness of the seats very acutely.
Also, I paid an extra €8 for a window seat so I could look at Europe as we flew overhead, but a thick cloud bank was covering the entire flight route. I guess that’s not Ryanair’s fault, but I got bent out of shape about it all the same.
This is the hotel I stayed at. As you can see, it’s called Grand Hotel and is very fancy. I rolled up wearing tracksuit pants and sweating profusely, while the other guests sashayed around in polo shirts and those shoes rich people wear. You know the ones I’m talking about. The receptionists gave me some odd looks.
The reason I was all sweaty is due to the following things that I failed to do prior to my arrival:
- Check where the bus from the airport was going to leave me
- Save the hotel location on google maps
- Learn how to say the hotel’s name in Polish
- Learn the name of the street the hotel was on
- Learn how to say “hotel”
- Just arrange a damn taxi instead of fiddling around with buses
In my defence, one of the reasons I engaged in absolutely no pre-planning at all is because more or less everyone in Wroclaw seemed to speak English. This was decidedly not the case in Lublin.
My sunscreen got confiscated at security in Dublin airport, and shortly after arriving in Lublin I went looking for more. The elderly woman operating the first pharmacy I went to (it seems like Poland has twice as many pharmacies as Ireland) didn’t speak a word of English; her solution to this problem was to lean out the door and loudly flag down people passing by to see if they could translate, to the embarrassment of both them and me. She didn’t find anyone, but I appreciated the effort.
(I bought sunscreen in one of the four other pharmacies on the same street, in case you’re wondering)
The hotel was pretty nice though! I got a big room for not a lot of money, and it had excellent air-conditioning. This was important because it was around 27 C during my first two days, which is the sort of temperature that would trigger a national emergency in Ireland.
I drank a Pepsi from the hotel mini-bar and ordered a room-service cheeseburger because I was too lazy to find somewhere to have dinner. I think that means I’m a real adult now, although I lost points for taking all the salad toppings off the burger. Maybe one day I’ll learn to not eat like a five year old, but this was not that day.
This is the Krakow Gate. Apparently a dude comes out and blows a trumpet every day, although I didn’t see him.
Through the gate is the city’s Old Town, a narrow warren of old buildings that seem to follow road plans laid out during the Medieval period. It’s now a pedestrianized area playing host to an assortment of lively restaurants and drinking establishments, including the most un-Irish Irish pub I’ve ever seen. It didn’t even have old farm equipment hanging from the rafters!
This is the Crown Tribunal building, which sits right in the middle of the Old Town’s main square.
One of the main differences between Lublin and Wroclaw is that the latter definitely seemed to have aspirations toward being a destination for foreign tourists, hence the multi-linguistic skills of many of the shop and restaurant staff and the range of establishments catering to English, French and German speakers. By comparison, I get the feeling that Lublin is the sort of place that other Poles might visit but that foreigners don’t tend to go for– I repeatedly encountered people who seemed surprised when they realized I was an anglophone tourist.
By and large this didn’t actually cause problems, although the trip back to the airport was made more interesting when the taxi company’s claim that all of their drivers spoke English turned out to be hilarious inaccurate. It did, however, make me realize how arrogant we English-speaking tourists can be in assuming that the rest of the world caters to our needs. That assumption left me basically helpless in Lublin– if I had run into any sort of serious difficulty things would have been extremely dicey– and I resolved from now on to make more of an effort to learn at least some of the native tongue of wherever I’m visiting, as well as to become decently proficient in at least one other language when I have the time to engage in such a project. In many parts of the world being multi-lingual is par for the course; English-speakers have just been spoiled into complacency.
I saw this symbol all over the place, but have been unable to find out what it means. Anyone know?
I found this in a shop and could not in good conscience leave the country without eating it.
One reason Lublin caught my eye as a destination is Majdanek concentration camp, which is located within the city. Being interested in WWII and the history of Europe in the first half of the 20th century in general, I’ve always wanted to visit one of the Nazi camp sites. Majdanek is far less well known than the likes of Auschwitz or Sobibor, but it’s considered the best preserved concentration camp due to the fact that the NKVD designated it as a state museum more or less immediately following its liberation.
Some historians make distinctions between Nazi “death camps” such as Auschwitz, which were set up mainly to facilitate the systematic genocide of Jews and other targeted groups, and more general prison camps which also held communists, POWs and political prisoners and which weren’t strictly speaking intended to be places where people were sent off in bulk to be murdered– that still happened of course, especially to Jews, but the odds of survival if you were sent to the latter type of camp were higher and prisoners were often released after serving a few years for whatever their crime was supposed to have been.
Majdanek started out as the latter, but was slotted into the apparatus of the Holocaust as part of Operation Reinhardt, which aimed to eliminate all Jews in territory controlled by the German general government, and featured cattle-car transports, prisoners in striped uniforms, gas chambers and other things that people tend to want to see when engaging in the somewhat ghoulish activity of visiting sites of human misery.
By the way, the next couple of paragraphs aren’t exactly going to be a barrel of laughs, in case you couldn’t tell.
The big stone thing in the previous image is a memorial created in the 60s. A (very long) road leads from it to the mausoleum above, which holds a giant mound of earth that was mixed with the ashes of cremated prisoners for use as fertilizer. The letters on the roof translate to “Our fate is a warning to you.”
It’s kind of shocking how mundane the whole place looks. Most of the buildings are very small and slightly ramshackle, and from a distance the whole site looks like an idyllic farm. If you got rid of the barbed wire and watchtowers the prisoner barracks would resemble some sort of summer camp.
Executions were apparently carried out here, next to a room where bodies were stripped of their valuables. If you look closely you can see bullet holes in the walls.
A view of the ovens where bodies were burned. I think some of these might have been reconstructed. If so they were one of the few parts of the camp that were.
Majdanek was the only place I encountered other English-speaking tourists, and the museum seems to have been laid out with an international audience in mind, as all of the signs are in Polish, English and Hebrew. Several of the tourist groups making the rounds were Jews from either the US or Isreal. I kind of felt like an asshole when I saw them, as they were very obviously not having a fun time, unlike the Polish visitors and myself.
Note the grass and cobblestone paths. The site is very well laid out and presented, especially considering that they don’t charge for entry, but this gives it something of an identity crisis. Looking at photos of the camp when it was active reveals that a lot of work has gone into making it presentable and enjoyable to explore, and on the one hand this makes sense from the perspective of attracting visotors, but on the other it’s very difficult to really appreciate what it must have been like back in the day. It’s actually quite green and pleasant to stroll around, and more than once I found myself having to remember where I was.
Around this area I found myself in a somewhat tense situation. I was walking behind two teenage girls who seemed to be tourists from the middle east, both of whom were wearing pins on their backpacks that said “I ❤️ Islam.” A big bald guy noticed the pins, got a very ugly look on his face, and started following them closely, with me trailing a short distance behind. I thought something unpleasant was going to happen, but a tour group came around a corner and the guy abruptly turned around and started walking in the opposite direction.
These cages contain shoes belonging to murdered Jews, gathered from all across the Third Reich so they could be redistributed to poor German citizens. It looks like a lot, but according to the signs there’s less than 15,000, a nearly-insignificant fraction of the total number of people murdered in the Holocaust.
And here’s the main event, which I coincidentally came to last: one of the two gas chambers. The blue staining on the wall is Prussian Blue, a dye formed from the cyanide that was a component of the infamous Zyklon B.
Gas chamber door, with viewing port. The glass on the interior side is broken. I started wondering how that happened, then quickly stopped and decided not to think about much of anything for a while. The signs posted around here include the testimonies of camp guards who personally witnessed prisoners being gassed to death, and contain some real fun stuff.
A room just a few meters back from where this photo was taken was another gas chamber, except it was used to de-lice clothing, employing the exact same canisters of Zyklon B. Think about that for a second– in one room clothes were sanitized, and in another room literally a few steps down the hall thousands of people were murdered.
This was probably the most emotionally effecting part of the experience. It’s an art installation dedicated to the unknown victims of Majdanek; lightbulbs hang from the roof surrounded by orbs of barbed wire, which are then mirrored exactly, except that now the lights are gone and the orbs rest on the ground. The symbolism is obvious, but very powerful.
Anyway that was Majdanek. Let’s go look at videos of cats and bunnies for a few minutes before we move onto lighter topics.
I have no idea what flavour this is supposed to be. If anyone knows don’t tell me, I don’t want to spoil the mystery.
On my second day I decided to keep the fun-train rolling by visiting Lublin Castle, which was used as a horrific prison by both the Nazis and the Communist government (interestingly, the axe-shaped things sticking up from the main entrance are fascios, symbols of Roman authority from which Fascism takes its name). However, it turned out that the museum was curiously uninterested in this aspect of the region’s history apart from some signs in the courtyard that were only in Polish, so I was spared having to read any more about torture and mass executions.
Instead the content inside was a combination of general history of the area (and excellently presented, considering its small size) and a very weird modern art museum, which included paintings like this:
I think this piece is called “Terrifying Francis Bacon Silent Hill Figures That Live Inside Your Walls And Stare At You While You Sleep.”
But the real highlight was this… thing, which had honest to God 3D elements– the dude’s deformed animal leg and the rat were both pieces of sculpture stuck to the canvas. There were also several pieces of shiny holographic foil, for some reason.
I would really like to meet the person who made these, preferably in a well-lit public place with several armed bodyguards standing by.
One of the reasons I wanted to visit the castle is because it contains a chapel adorned with elaborate Byzantine-style wall paintings. Unfortunately the chapel was closed, but I did get to go up a big tower, which resulted in the photo at the top of this blog post.
Pretty sure this signs says that you should totally slide down the stairs for an awesome time.
On my final day I went to the Lublin Museum of Rural Life, a big sprawling space with recreations of rural buildings from History Times. I’ve been to similar places in Ireland and found them utterly enchanting, so I skipped merrily to this one and was delighted to find that it’s excellent.
The buildings are laid out in an enormous grounds that includes many animals like chickens, goats and a pissed-off cow. The interiors are generously accessible and there are very little set paths or areas that visitors aren’t allowed to wander around, so you can poke about and find interesting little features, like this cellar which I assume leads to a subterranean troll kingdom (I didn’t go and check because I was worried the trolls wouldn’t let me out, and then I wouldn’t be able to write this blog post):
Even the coffee shop, souvenir place and toilets are in period-appropriate buildings, which enhances the feeling that you’ve wandered back in time.
Given that even smaller development teams can now render interior spaces with close to photo-realistic accuracy, I can see a place for Gone Home style games as historical recreations. Imagine a game where you explore a building like the one pictured above (maybe inVR!), except you could walk all around it and pick stuff up to examine it, with some helpful historical notes popping up along the way. I think a lot of people go to places like this and itch to be able to explore more in depth, but of course that’s impossible because the attractions would quickly be damaged; recreating the space virtually would solve that problem.
My only complaint about the museum is that two of the more distant areas seemed to be either under construction or undergoing renovation, but there was nothing indicating this to save visitors from wandering all the way over. One of them seemed to be agricultural themed, so maybe they change seasonally or something and I happened to arrive during the transition period.
On my flight home the plane basically pulled up to the runway, disgorged its passengers, and then we were all herded aboard five minutes later. During take-off all of the interior lights and the speakers flicked off several times, and when we landed the plane bounced into the air and swayed alarmingly as if it was going to tip over. I’m not sure if any of those things are connected.
Those are my fascinating travel experiences in Poland. Once I start working I plan to go to London and will write a blog post about it so I can use the hilarious joke about Cockfosters that I’ve been sitting on for eleven years.