From Kaunas to Warsaw it's a direct, but long, bus during the day. My impression from talking to other travelers is that Warsaw is a polarising place, some seem to hate it, others merely to dislike it. Initially I must admit that I was more inclined to plant my flag in camp hate; Warsaw is a vast concrete jungle, with busy roads which are seemingly impossible to cross; many people cycle here but, rather than risking their necks on the roads, opt to bomb along the narrow pavements instead. Most of the city was destroyed by the Nazis during the Warsaw uprising, but the old medieval centre has been carefully restored to something approximating its original splendour. The Central square is one of the most impressive spaces in the region, but the rest of the old town is small, and by this point I'd had my fill of old medieval European towns. There are many fine restaurants and cafes, but the waiters are often very grumpy; to dare to enter their restaurant and order food is one affront too far. That being said the city began to grow on me over the four days that I spent there. There is much to see and do, such as the excellent Warsaw uprising museum, in which the streets of 1944 Warsaw have been recreated. There are surprising tiny bars that spring from nowhere in the evening out of the concrete of the city. I was joined here by my little brother Josh, who uses a wheelchair. The city presented some challenges to my brother's wheels; the old town is built with cobbles, and the more modern parts make use of an excessive amount of steps. However, it is just about manageable, and we spent a very pleasant few days eating well (and cheaply), sampling the bars, cafes and museums, and exploring the districts and history of this many layered town. Warsaw reminded me a lot of Berlin, both cities that can't quite compete with the conventional beauty of Paris or Rome, but don't try to and instead use their alternative edginess to great effect. The one main difference here is that Warsaw is far less Multicultural than Berlin.
We took the train to Krakow the next day. The Polish rail system seems incredibly well set up for the disabled traveler, their very modern trains being equipped with hydraulic lifts, and a spacious area in which to park the chair, well done Poland!
I'm often amused by the nationalities of the tourists in some places. Some towns really attract Americans, the French, or the Germans, but Krakow is very much a British tourist destination. This is the place where I have heard more British accents than anywhere else. They are fairly easily avoided though, as these tourists have little imagination and flock to the same few places. Krakow is famous, rightly, for its well preserved old town, which was one of the few in Poland to be spared from the German artillery. The central square is stunning, reminding me a little of Siena in Italy. Again, I can only take so much of old town sightseeing, so we opt to stay in the newly hip neighbourhood of Kazimierz, once a Jewish district of Krakow, most of whom have now departed. It's also a beautiful historic neighbourhood, and is well on the tourist radar, but is a welcome break from the hordes of tourists in the old town. More than anything in Krakow we just ate incredibly well for very reasonable prices, sampling the best of Polish cuisine (surprisingly rich) as well as a Jewish restaurant and great French-Polish fusion foods. Despite the huge numbers of tourists the people here seem much friendlier than those in Warsaw, so my memory of Krakow was generally being treated like a king, and eating and drinking like one too. We didn't take our sight seeing too seriously here, but we did manage to take in the excellent (and free) modern art gallery, as well as Oskar Schindler's old factory, which has been turned into a museum more generally about the holocaust and the German occupation of Poland, as well as the life of Oskar Schindler himself. I found this museum didn't quite have the hard hitting force of, say, the Warsaw uprising museum, but maybe this is because I've been here before.
On our third day in Krakow we decided to visit Auschwitz. I'd been once before, but my brother never had. As we were with the wheelchair we were unable to join the tour of the camp, as this involves many steps, so we were left to explore the camp by ourselves. It's much harder to make sense of everything that you are seeing without the guide, but still it's a harrowing experience from the moment you step through the wrought iron gates with the famous words "arbeit macht frei". Each of the prison blocks has been turned into a small exhibit, the most disturbing being one block in which all the belongings of the prisoners have been piled into heaps. In one room there is a mountain of shoes, seeming to fill the volume of half a swimming pool, and in another a similarly sized pile of human hair, bleached by time into a monochromatic liftless grey. In the next exhibit there is a small cell in which 3 people were crammed into a dark box no bigger than a toilet cubicle for days on end, with no hope of being able to lie or even sit down. The other camp, known as Birkenau, or Auschwitz 2, is much bigger in scope, but was mostly burnt to the ground as the Nazis fled the area in an attempt to hide their crimes. Each hut was built from wood, but with a brick chimney stack. The wooden shacks have all disappeared, but the Chimneys survive. Climbing the tower at the entrance you can see a seemingly endless and repetitive pattern of the chinemys, and this, more than anything else I saw, gave me a sense of the huge insane scale of the Nazi's final solution. A grim experience indeed. The huge lines of tourists with cameras in hand queuing to enter the camp gives me a slightly uneasy sensation, but nonetheless Auschwitz is a must if you are in the area.
The next morning I put my brother back on the plane to Leeds and tried to book the overnight train to Lviv, Ukraine, but it was fully booked, so I stayed one more night in Krakow in a charming hostel to the north of the old town where not too many tourists go. I hired a bike and went out to a lake which was heaving with young poles but very few foreign tourists and swam out into the turquoise water. Another hidden gem to explore in Krakow if you are passing through.
Although I spent five nights here in the end, I felt like I could have stayed a lot longer, as there was still much that I had not done in the city. Krakow is a beautiful city with many interesting neighbourhoods, parks, museums and restaurants, and even the drunk british people are not able to spoil its charm.