Leaving the Czech Republic behind, we crossed the border into Poland, heading for Katowice. Once again there was no border to speak of, but all of a sudden the motorways were visually very different. For long stretches there were high barriers on each side presumably to cut out the wind or noise or both, but they definitely restricted our view and made us feel quite penned in.
Where we could see out, the landscape of this part of southern Poland is very green and is dotted with the features of the heavy industry and coal mining that have dominated the economy of this region for centuries: mine heads, slag heaps, tall chimneys and big factories were all around us.
The other really noticeable thing about the roads in southern Poland was how much busier they were than we have seen for a while, and how much faster they drive. They don’t have the vignette system that many of their neighbours use, but instead we had to stop every 40km or so on the motorway to pay a toll. It wasn’t very much each time – 10 Zloti (about £2 or $2.50) – but as they weren’t automated toll booths, there were big queues each time and it seemed to take ages to get through. We also noticed the huge differences in wealth here, demonstrated by the kinds of cars on the road: it wasn’t uncommon to see ancient Ladas and old Fords (remember the wide mouth frogs?) alongside brand new Porsches.
Campsites in Poland
We were a bit apprehensive about moving into Poland as when we read reviews online about the campsites there, a lot of the comments were to do with safety and people reported having been broken into whilst they were there. There were also a lot fewer campsites to choose from and the general standard of the sites didn’t seem to compare favourably with those in other parts of Europe. In the end we found a campsite near Katowice that was on our general route. It had reasonable reviews, the main plus point being good security. In fact rather than just a barrier at the entrance, it had a full gate that was closed all the time, so that no-one could wander onto (or off) the site. It had the rather catchy name ‘Camping 215’ (the numbering a throwback to the communist era perhaps?) and was a pleasant enough campsite with a small swimming pool and good facilities, but it was right next to the motorway and the area around it didn’t feel like the sort of place you would want to go out for a stroll.
Katowice has a reputation as a dull, grey industrial city and is struggling to throw off this stereotype. During the industrial revolution it became one of the largest centres of coal and steel production in the region and today it is still an important industrial centre. As a result, its main cultural sights and history revolve around this industrial heritage. During the 19th and 20th centuries, many neighbourhoods were built to accommodate miners and their families. One such area is Nikiszowiec, on the eastern outskirts of the city.
Nikiszowiec was built between 1908 and 1915 and was designed to be a completely self-sufficient community for about a thousand workers and their families, right on the doorstep of their place of work. Homes, a school, church, bakery, hospital, post office, tavern and police station, in fact everything the residents could need, was provided within its small enclosed area. As you can see from the aerial picture, it was set out in a uniform pattern with inner courtyards between the three storey apartment blocks.
Today, one of the buildings apparently houses the ‘Industrial Ethnography’ branch of the Katowice Historical Museum, which looks at the history of the working class in this area and has a replica of a typical mine worker’s house. But Nikiszowiec isn’t a museum, it is a community in which people still live. We read what we could about it online and lots of people seemed to have visited and said it was an interesting place, so we decided to give it a go.
Unfortunately though, when we got to Nikiszowiec we didn’t feel very comfortable about being there. It didn’t feel right to be a tourist in such a place and we didn’t want to get out of the car. The whole place felt quite poor, quite grimy and not very welcoming. We felt as though walking around there would’ve been like treating the people and their homes as though they were exhibits in a museum, and we weren’t sure they would appreciate it. As it was, we felt like we were trespassing and as though we were being watched.
Would it have been safe to get out and explore? Probably (although maybe not for our GB registered car). Did that make it right and proper to do so? We didn’t think so. The neighbourhood was interesting to see, but we decided not to stop and instead just took a few photographs from the car window.
Maybe we were being too cautious, although I later read some advice that said “Though the district is generally safe to wander, you should still exercise sensible precautions about where you stick both your nose and that fancy new digital camera; and who you do it in front of.” (You can read the full article here). It seems that the Ethnographic Museum hasn’t been open for long and the city is definitely trying to encourage more tourism to the area. So maybe in time this neighbourhood will feel more tourist-friendly, although by then it will probably also have lost something of its authentic atmosphere. I fear it is hard to increase one without losing the other.
After this we weren’t inclined to venture out to anywhere else. Added to which it was too hot (did I mention how stiflingly hot it has been?) and so we really didn’t feel like tackling an industrial, non-touristy city where we didn’t speak the language. On top of that the campsite wifi broke on our second day there and no-one seemed to be coming to fix it, so it was hard to find information about places to go. They had some leaflets in the campsite reception but they were all in Polish. We have become so used to everything being presented in the local language and then also in English, so this was quite a surprise. To top it all, we asked the receptionist if she could recommend things to see and do in the area and she told us, on several occasions, that it was not worth going into the centre of Katowice as there was nothing at all worth seeing there! Not exactly encouraging!
The Question of Auschwitz
It is hard to come to this part of Poland without addressing the question as to whether you are going to visit the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Katowice is located in a region called Silsesia and it has changed hands many times over its long and complicated history. As a result, it has always been a multi-ethnic city, made up of Poles, Germans, Jews and Silesians. Prior to the First World War, the whole area was part of Germany. After WWI, Lower Silesia remained German, whilst Upper Silesia was split, part joining the Polish Republic and part the new Czechoslovakia. During WWII, Nazi Germany invaded the Polish part of Upper Silesia and then after the war, most of this territory was transferred to Poland.
The Nazis constructed many of their concentration camps in this region during WWII, including the huge Auschwitz-Birkenau complex near Oświęcim, as well many other lesser known camps. It was also the location of the famous Stalag Luft III prisoner of war camps, immortalised in the film ‘The Great Escape’ (1963). In fact, one of the main reasons people come to Katowice is that it is one of the nearest towns to Auschwitz-Birkenau. We knew that we did not want to take the children there as we felt they were too young to be exposed to the horrors of what happened within its boundaries. But then I was faced with the question: since we are so close to it, do I want to visit?
Many people say that everyone should visit Auschwitz-Birkenau once in their lives. They argue that it helps you to understand what happened in a way that just reading about it cannot do, that it makes it more real and more personal. They say that visiting is a way of remembering those who were killed and of honouring the dead. Reading people’s persuasive arguments online, I thought that perhaps I ought to go. I felt the pressure to conform, to do what everyone else does. But underneath, I knew that I didn’t want to go. I felt uncomfortable with the mere idea that somewhere like this could be a tourist destination and I didn’t feel that I needed to make what happened there any more real in my head than it already was. There were fewer voices arguing against visiting, although there were some. Anyway, the whole question ended up involving a lot of soul searching on my part, delving into the reasons why I didn’t want to visit and almost trying to justify my decision to myself. The truth is that no-one should try to persuade anyone else to make a decision one way or the other: everyone needs to make up their own mind and do what they feel is right for them. I am happy with my decision. What do you think you would do if you were here?
Our 1-Year Anniversary
As we arrived in Poland, we passed the 1-year mark on our travels and it was bittersweet emotionally. As we celebrated and reflected on our incredible year, we were also keenly aware of how little time we had left. At the time, we still had over 6 weeks to go – more than a year’s worth of holidays for most people, but it felt like no time at all. In fact, it felt as though the end of the trip was advancing towards us at breakneck speed. And it still does. As I write this now, we only have a few weeks left before we cross the channel and head north again. It’s like that feeling you get when you are half way through the second week of a two-week holiday and you desperately don’t want it to end, but you know that in a few days time you will be packing your bags and heading for the airport. This was also the furthest east we would be going, so we knew that every move from then on would be taking us home.
I know that we don’t need anyone’s sympathy, and there are positive things about returning to the UK, but psychologically the knowledge that this is all coming to an end has been tough. Our challenge for the next few weeks is to make the most of the time we have left, look forward to the next chapter of our lives and not mourn the end of this one.