I am sorry for the delay and have a disclaimer for you. The Internet connections have been a little bit sketchy at times, and so I will add only one photo with this post… That explains my lack of info, but I do want to catch up on the writing part, so I will do a photo montage later. 🙂
We had an early start on Friday morning, which was a good thing because we traveled through three countries. 🙂 We had breakfast in Vienna (Austria), had lunch in a mall in the Czech Republic, ate dinner in Poland and finally settled down to sleep in Krakow (Poland). Yes,that was three countries in seven hours – what an adventure. Thankfully, we were not heading to Hungary, as we understand that the highways were closed to traffic due to blizzard conditions!
Country side of the Czech Republic, en route to Krakow.
But in addition to the drive, we had another experience which was indescribable from many aspects, although I will try…
Before we completed our drive to Krakow, we stopped to visit the memorial at Auschwitz, the largest concentration/death camp established by the Nazis in Poland during World War II. The camp is very well preserved. As I write that, it seems an odd thing to say because of the horror it represents and the incredible impact it had on us all. We went through the camp in three groups, each with a different guide who shared the history of the camp with us, entreating us to please believe what they had to say. This also seemed odd, but they were clear that what we were witnessing was evidence of a time and place that some have tried to deny, but that we needed to believe and to understand, if understanding is possible. We were cold and tired, but this became insignificant as we absorbed the story of that place and came to understand, just a little, that the minor inconvenience we experienced of a little bit of cold was nothing compared to the cold and hardships the prisoners endured.
I personally found the stories terribly difficult to hear and the camp displays very, very difficult to witness, and so did everyone else on the tour, but I won’t go into details here. Please talk with your children about it – they learned so much. What I do want to share, though, is the profound respect and caring demonstrated by the amazing young people in the Reynolds Band and the chaperones who are privileged to be along for this journey. The kids were so respectful, and they demonstrated profound caring and sadness at what they were witnessing. They were absolutely silent as we walked through the blocks of rooms and observed the displays, and tears were common. They were also incredibly supportive of one another, taking care of those who were hurting with words and hugs and simple presence. These are aware young people, and even our guides were impressed by the respect the students demonstrated during the tour. But the adults supporting the group are also amazing – everyone took extra time to talk and support the students, and there were many explorations of the feelings that this tour evoked in all of us. And so I wish to acknowledge both the kids and the adults for what they brought to the experience; I hope, in time, we can process what we saw and find a way to learn from it all.
It was an emotional two days, to say the least… From the “best day ever” in Vienna to “how could anyone ever do that?” in Auschwitz. By the time we settled into the hotel last night, we were thoroughly drained. In general, though, everyone in the trip agreed that it was an important thing to have done, and it allowed us to learn something about this time in history and also about ourselves. Some of the conversations afterward really brought to light the notions of guilt and gratitude… We all agreed that we need to be more grateful for the immense good fortune with which we live.
So, from the horrors of Auschwitz to a salt mine – boy, do we know how to have fun! Actually, all jokes aside, the salt mine tour was amazing, even if it did require us to be up and on the bus by 8:00 a.m. And it was a beautiful day, sunny and cold, with sparkling snow and a gorgeous blue sky – yes, I am Canadian, and weather matters!
Krakow was made wealthy by its salt (referred to as “white gold”), and the mine we saw was incredible. At the lowest point, we were about 130 meters below the surface of the ground. We saw a number of chambers, chapels and underground lakes, and a really cool set of sculptures. The sculptures were cool because they were created by miners, rather than artists, and they were done in the miners’ “spare time”. This is impressive because their “spare time” was after the hour-long trip down, six hours of work mining, and another hour return trip up. Two other features that are important to mention are the steps (over 480… Thankfully, there was a “lift” back up!) and the very low ceilings that were fine for me but a challenge for some. :-). Just wait until you see the photos!
The highlight was the underground church chamber st 101 meters below the surface – it features mass every Sunday, and weddings can be booked in! (Some parents may want to start saving their pennies – a few of our girls are planning to get married here!) The chamber featured five chandeliers made entirely of salt crystals and a number of amazing wall sculptures, including a copy of da Vinci’s last supper that is a brilliant example of perspective. It is only six inches deep, yet from a distance of six feet away or more, it appears to be about a meter deep… Amazing. We had a group photo done, and then we had a special treat: our choir sang “Adoramus Dei” and it was beautiful. (Lots of other tourists stopped to listen.) 🙂
A few stops along the way at some gift shops and a view of a final grand chandelier featuring 3700 salt crystals, and the tour was complete… But it was only 10:45! Lots of day left ahead.
We followed the salt mine tour with a walking tour of the center of Krakow. The Polish people are very proud of their history and shared a great deal of information with us, including the famous legend of the Krakow dragon. (Ask your children about this one!) After visits to the castle, the cathedral and the oldest university in Krakow (Copernicus studied there!), we had free time to walk around the old part of the city (a Unesco heritage site). The chaperones had wonderful Polish comfort food (perogies, cabbage rolls, sausages snd fish soup…) for lunch at a restaurant established in 1899, and later enjoyed, among other things, the best hot chocolate in Poland, the best coffee in Poland, and the best plum cake in Poland (sold by the kilo!). The Polish people are great salespeople.
Shopping featured sweat tops, amber jewellery, Lego, books (in Polish!), and a collection of wooden swords. This group sword purchase led to some interesting exchanges with a knight in the square – again, ask your kids! Tired minds, tired bodies, cold hands and feet, and empty wallets (of zloty, at least!). But wait – there’s more!
Our concert at the State Drama School Spectacle Hall was a big hit with a small but VERY enthusiastic audience. They were taking videos of the band and called for an encore! Unfortunately, our tight schedule made that impossible, but we were complimented by some people who stayed behind to tell us how great it was, which was very lovely to hear. We even had our own posters! (Photo to come…)
The concert was followed by a wonderful dinner and folklore presentation (music and traditional dancing – yep – the Reynolds kids did us proud in the dancing department!), a walk back to our hotel in the lovely crisp air, and a well-deserved good night’s sleep.
I promise photos as soon as the Internet becomes my friend again. I estimate that there will be tens of thousands of photos coming back to Canada next Tuesday, but I will try to send a few before then.
Tonight, we are in Prague after another long travel day. ( Only two countries today…) We have a full day planned for tomorrow, and I will update tomorrow night. In the meantime, Happy St. Patrick’s Day, everyone!