Friday, September 28, 2007

Kraków, Warszawa and Vilnius

It's starting to feel more like the "Eastern Europe" that we were expecting. The Old Town of Kraków was similar to the centre of most European cities - full of picturesque buildings and quaint market squares. However, the bus ride to Warsaw (Warszawa) showed us another side of Poland - brick buildings with crumbling facades and Soviet-era concrete apartment blocks. The recent addition of Poland to the EU has definitely increased tourism, and beautified the tourist destinations, but much of the country's infrastructure is only slowly recovering from decades of neglect under communist rule.

We have learned quite a lot about the history of Eastern Europe as well - most of which was not covered in high school history class... We visited the Warsaw Uprising museum, which described an unsuccessful rebellion against the Germans in 1944. The Poles hoped for support from the Allies, but had to surrender after two months of fighting and hundreds of thousands of deaths. A few months later, the Soviets showed up, and the Poles again helped fight against the Germans. However, Stalin was keen on keeping Poland under his rule, so he arrested and deported the Polish war heroes, to keep them from leading a movement for independence.

In Vilnius (Lithuania), we visited the KGB museum, which mostly covered Lithuania's fight for independence from the USSR after WWII. They fought for nearly ten years, always hoping for support from the West, but never receiving it. The museum was housed in the old KGB prison, and the basement was unchanged, complete with water torture and execution chambers. We also visited a Holocaust exhibit and Jewish cemetery (there were large Jewish groups in Poland and Lithuania pre-WWII).

To avoid focusing only on the depressing side of Eastern Europe, yesterday we went to Trakai Castle - on an island in a lake near Vilnius. Today, we continue on to Riga, to meet up with our Latvian friend Ieva.

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