Monthly Archives: May 2012

Flying à la carte with Wizz Air

We flew from Budapest to Barcelona return on Hungary’s discount airline Wizz Air.  I think the name was meant to conjure images of speed but I can’t help thinking of urination when I hear it.  With the bankruptcy of Malev Hungarian Airlines in February 2012 (after 66 years of continuous operation), Wizz Air is now the leading airline and flag carrier of Hungary.  Officially, it’s a 2 star airline (that’s 1 star less than Air Canada whose service Canadians love to complain about) and it hasn’t made a profit since it began operations in 2004.

Hot pink, purple, and white plane flying through purple clouds

Wizz Air Plane

Wizz Air follows the ‘everything is extra’ business model, similar to Ryanair in Europe or Southwest Airlines in the United States.  This means that, in return for your hard-earned money, you are entitled to board an airplane to your destination with 1 carry-on bag.  And that’s it.  Everything else is extra.  And I mean everything.

Booking Fee — Want to use a credit card to pay for your flight? It’s $12 per flight per passenger or $48 for two people on a return trip.  Debit card is only slightly cheaper, so these fees are unavoidable.  How, when I pay for my booking once (for all flights and passengers), can they justify levying the fee per flight and per passenger?

Call Centre Fee – Want to book your flight over the phone rather than using their web site?  $15 per flight per passenger.  That’s $60 for two people on a return trip.

Airport Check-in Fee – If you want to check-in at the airport rather than online (or if you’re forced to because you don’t have access to a printer), it’ll cost you.  $10 per flight per passenger ($40 for a couple return).

Flex Fee – Think you might want to change your flight, but not sure?  You can avoid the Flight Change Fee later if you pay an extra $15 at the time of your original booking.  Basically you’re paying a fee to buy insurance to avoid potentially having to pay another fee.  It’s brilliant!

Name Change Fee  — If you make a mistake on the spelling of your name (which for security reasons can prevent you from getting on the flight), it’s $60 per flight per passenger to change it ($120 return).  But you’d better do it on their website.  It’s $90 per flight per passenger ($180 for a return ticket) if you do it at the airport.  Ouch!

Xpress Priority Boarding Fee – Wizz Air does not normally assign seats, so how early you board can mean the difference between sitting with your traveling companions or not.  People start lining up at the boarding gate immediately after they clear security.  Want to board early?  $6 per flight per passenger ($24 for a couple on a return flight).  $12 per flight per passenger if you change your mind and decide to skip the line at the airport.

XXLong Extra Legroom Fee – If you’re over 5’10”, the small and close seats on Wizz Air won’t do for you.  If you want to sit in an exit row for the extra leg room it’s $12 per person per flight ($48 for a couple return).  You still don’t get an assigned seat though, just a seat somewhere in the exit rows.

Food and Drink – Nothing is included, but a fine selection can be purchased on the plane for a fee.  I wonder if they charge for water?

Cancellation Fee – You can cancel your flight for a fee of $90, but none of their many extra fees are refundable, so you’re not likely to get any money back.

These fees are in addition to more common fees like Baggage Fees and Flight Change Fees.  Wizz Air has these too.  In fact, the fees mentioned above are just a sample of the 62 different fees that Wizz Air has listed on their web site!

If you have a question about any of these fees or the service you’ve received, you can of course telephone Wizz Air’s customer service center.  Calls to customer service cost $1.50 per minute for you to talk to someone in India.  They probably earn $1.50 per hour.  All calls are charged, and complaints must be made by email.

Do I sound bitter?  I’m not.  More fascinated by the business model.  Wizz Air competes in an ultracompetitive marketplace where consumers are attracted by low base ticket prices.  I know that I’ve been excited in the past by advertisements for flights or cruises with what appear to be low prices, only to learn that when all taxes and fees are included the total price is double or even triple.  When people search for flights online, the lowest airfares are typically displayed first.  Consumers very often choose the flights with the lowest base price.  It’s only after they’re invested in the reservation process that they learn of the extra fees.  Admittedly some of these fees are optional for some people, but some are impossible to avoid (i.e. booking fees) effectively resulting in a higher price than advertised.

With base ticket prices so low, Wizz Air has to make most of its money in fees.  They’re like contractors who underbid with the expectation of making their profit through change orders once they’ve got the work, or like steak houses that charge extra for the baked potato and for the vegetables.  And they’re not alone.  We took a flight from Frankfurt, Germany to Vienna, Austria on Berlin Air last September.  The base ticket price for this one-way, 1 hour flight was only $11 (can you believe it?), but with taxes and fees it grew to over $100.

We made the choice to fly Wizz Air despite all the extra charges.  Even though we paid the Booking Fee, the Xpress Priority Boarding Fee, and the XXLong Extra Legroom Fee, our total price was still half that of the next cheapest competitor.  With such low prices, we were worried that they would cut corners somewhere else (e.g. poor service, old planes, etc.) but the experience wasn’t any different than we’ve had with other small airlines.  Just fine for a short flight, and all flights in Europe are short flights.

Will this excessive level of extra charging be coming to North American soon?  Many discount carriers already charge fees for services that are free (or were once free) on other airlines.  I hope that it doesn’t get to this extreme, but the same basic business model applies, so I don’t see any reason why it can’t or won’t.  Hopefully consumers will stay focused on the total price and service and won’t be overly mesmerized by a low base price.

Note — I used an exchange rate of $1.50 per Euro to keep the price conversions simple.

Climbing in Montserrat

We took a short break from our travels to meet up with our friend Lee who was in Barcelona, Spain on business.  We left the S&M Motel safe and secure in a campground in Budapest, Hungary and arranged for a taxi to pick us up there at 3 AM in order to make our 6 AM flight.  Diane and I had arranged to meet Lee at the Barcelona Airport at 9 AM where we were picking up a rental car.  Unfortunately, Lee was waiting at the Budget car rental desk at Terminal 1 while we were waiting at the Budget car rental desk at Terminal 2, but this misstep was quickly resolved with a phone call and a shuttle bus ride.

We spent our first day and night in Barcelona.  After some wine in our hotel room and a mohito at the hotel’s 360 degree rooftop bar, we headed to the tapas bar Quimet y Quimet highly rated by locals and traveling ‘foodies’.  It is small and crowded, standing room only, which is OK because there are no chairs.  The walls are stacked high with wine and other delicacies.  They specialize in tantalizing seafood, many of which have been preserved in tins.  Exceptional food.  Some of the best we’ve had in Europe.  Particularly memorable were the olives wrapped in anchovies.  A taste explosion.  My mouth is watering as I write this.

Crowded taps bar with bottle lining the walls

Quimet y Quimet

Completed food orders are passed through the crowd from the small bar area where the food is prepared. Like most tapas bars in Spain, the many small paper napkins used are discarded and accumulate crumpled on the floor throughout the evening.  We drank the house dark beer and then switched to some terrific red wine.  Afterwards we found our way to a nearby bar recommended by the woman serving us at Quimet, where we ate spicy olives and continued drinking.

Two tapas on white plate with sun-dried tomatoes, shrimp, and caviar

Amazing Tapas

Patrick and Diane standing in tapas bar with Patrick preparing to drop a white napkin on the floor

Enjoying ourselves at Quimet y Quimet

The next morning, nursing our hangovers, Lee and I ate at the hotel breakfast buffet.  Diane wasn’t ready to face a buffet, and stayed in bed until we returned.  We got packed, loaded the car, and drove about an hour to the village of Monistrol.  It is located at the base of Montserrat, a multi-peaked mountain formation that is well known as the home of Santa Maria de Montserrat, a Benedictine Abbey.  The sanctuary there is home to the Virgin of Montserrat, a statue of Madonna and child, one of the many Black Madonnas of Europe.  Diane and I had visited on a dark day last November, and were glad to see it again in better weather.

Black madonna in with gold clothing, seated with child on her lap

The Virgin of Montserrat

After a stop at the local climbing store where virtually no English was spoken, and at some local shops to get food for lunch, we drove up the winding road to the parking area, then caught the Funicular de Sant Joan (a funicular railway) up to the top of the mountain.  From here it was only a short walk to the base of the Gorros, a series of small peaks made of the pink conglomerate rock found throughout Montserrat.  We started to climb the 5-star route Bandalona on Gorro Frigi, but soon lost the line and ended up finishing on Opera Prima.

Lee wearing shorts, t-shirt, and white helmet balancing on side of Gorro Frigi

Lee climbing on Gorro Frigi (photo credit: Diane)

The climbing in Montserrat is predominantly face climbing, where purchase is gained on the many small rocks that appear to be stuck into the rough surface of the peaks.  The other climbers nearby were a group of young people from, of all places, Newfoundland.  They complained bitterly about the runouts between protective bolts, despite the fact that the routes on the Gorros are considered to be the most well-protected of Montserrat’s notoriously run-out climbs.

Small climber in the middle of a large grey wall

Patrick Climbing on Gorro Frigi  (Photo credit: Diane)

After 5 pitches we reached the top then climbed down the back side to join Diane who was waiting for us near the base.  After a celebratory beer, we walked down to the Monastery the long way, via the climber’s refuge at Saint Benet (another climbing area here).  There we met the refuge guardian Angel (not the kind with wings, but a real man named ‘Angel’ whose job is ‘guardian’ of this climber’s hut), who tried to be very helpful despite his limited English.  He told us that there are over 6000 climbing routes on the peaks of Montserrat, with only about 5000 published in one guide book or another.  A lifetime of climbing within a few square kilometers.

The next day we decided to climb El Cavall Bernat, a huge free-standing needle that is the symbol of the area.  This monolith, standing over 700 feet tall, is a test piece, a right of passage for local climbers.  All those who climb it are considered members of Grup Cavall Bernat, an honorific climbers club founded in 1978 whose sole requirement for membership is having climbed the peak.  We chose to climb the most stunning profile of the mountain known as Punsola Reniu.

Large grey tower with orange line showing our route

El Cavall Bernat with Punsola Reniu route marked.

We got a late start since breakfast at our Hostel Guillemes, per the Spanish schedule, was not available until 9 AM and afterwards we needed to buy some food for lunch.  By the time we drove up the mountain to the parking area, racked our gear, and completed the steep hike to the base (about 45 minutes), it was late and it was hot.  We were baking in the sun as we started to climb around 1 PM.  I backed off the first pitch, not confident in my psych having not climbed outdoors in almost 2 years.

Climber part way up tower with rope running, up as viewed from base of tower

Patrick on the first pitch. Notice how steep the upper pitches are!

Lee was a rock star.  He led and we made short work of the first 3 pitches, gaining on the party of 2 who were high up on the face above us, the only other people visible.

Climber in sunshine approaching the top as viewed from the summit

Patrick on the last pitch of Punsola Reniu

By pitch 3 we made it into the shade, a welcome relief from the heat of the afternoon.  The difficulty of the climbing and the steepness of the route both increase steadily.  The final pitch leaves the belay station, turns a corner, and requires mandatory free climbing to the summit which is adorned with a statue of the Madonna and Child.

Metal status of Madonna with child on concrete base on the summit

Madonna and Child on the summit

Patrick on left in blue jacket with orange helmet. Lee on right with red jacket and white helmet.

Patrick and Lee on the summit!

Diane spent her day wandering the small town and enjoying lunch out.  After rappelling off the summit and completed the long down climb and hike out, we showered and then joined her for dinner at the same bar in the town square that we’d eaten at the night before.  Spanish beer with calamari, cockles, meatballs, potatoes, and bread.

On the morning of Day 3 we changed to a different hotel as our room was no longer available.  The next hotel wasn’t nearly as nice, but it was cheaper.  Lee and I rode the funicular up and climbed Magdalena Superior, another one of the Gorros peaks.  Another spectacular line of increasing difficultly and a great top out.  We rappelled the route and were back to the hotel before Diane, who we learned afterwards was getting her hair done at a local salon by a young woman who spoke almost no English.  Diane said she used a lot of hand gestures and pointing to communicate, which seemed to work well because her hair looked great.

That night we ate at the hotel’s restaurant.  Diane chose it after hearing from several local sources that it was good.  We shared a fine dining verison of patatas bravas (potatoes with spicy tomato sauce that translates as ‘wild potatoes’) and a succulent appetizer platter followed by an amazing pan of lobster paella.

On our last day of climbing, Lee and I still had the energy to climb a via ferrata (translates from Italian as ‘the iron way’), a style of climbing where the route is augmented with cables or rungs to make the climbing faster and safer.  The first such routes were established to allow troops to move through the Alps more quickly and safely.  Teresina ascends Sant Jeroni, the highest peak of Montserrat.  It was great to climb so quickly and freely and to finish by pulling over the railing of the viewing platform that hikers can only walk to.

The next morning we caught an early flight back to Budapest.  A very enjoyable 5 days.  It was great to be climbing again, especially in such a spectacularly beautiful location.  The warmer weather was fabulous; we haven’t had much so far this trip.  It was terrific to climbing with my friend Lee and to complete some outstanding routes, each of which topped out on a different peak.  A wonderful getaway during our extended travels.

Impressions of Hungary

  • The Hungarian language is very different from those of its neighbouring countries which speak Slavic languages.  Hungarian is more closely related to Estonian and Finnish which share a common history from when the Huns invaded the region in around 500 CE.
  • The Kingdom of Hungary existed for 950 years before being absorbed into the Habsburg empire which later became the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867-1918).
  • World War I was triggered when Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne and his wife Sophie were shot in Sarajevo by a Bosnian Serb assassin.
  • Hungary was on the losing side with Germany in both World Wars.  After World War I it lost two-thirds of its territory, including its only sea port and most of its population, to other countries.
  • After World War II the Soviet Union controlled Hungary, but not as strictly as in other Warsaw Pact countries.  Hungary’s soft ‘goulash-communism’ lasted until the fall of communism in 1989.
White building with many spires and a large dome beside the Danube River

Hungarian Parliament Building beside the Danube River

  • Hungary is better known for its wine than its beer.  The wine is of higher quality and is more popular.  When in Rome…
  • Hungary has some of the best food in Central/Eastern Europe.  It is famous for paprika (which is also the Hungarian word for pepper, pronounced here as ‘paw-prick-kaw) which infuses most of their food.  It is often classified as édes (sweet) or csípős (hot), but there are actually 8 different grades.  Hungarian specialties include stews, braised dishes, and soups including the famous gulyás (goulash).
  • Hungary is very good at water polo, winning gold in the last 3 Olympic games, and also in swimming (they are 4th in the all-time Olympic medal count).
  • Hungary has hundreds of small lakes and hot springs.  There are hot springs all over the capital of Budapest (pronounced ‘Boo-dah-pesht’).
  • Budapest is a beautiful conglomerate of 2 cities on opposite sides of the Danube river – Buda and Pest.  Buda is the hilly and more historic part, and Pest is flat and more modern.
Hill covered in many old buildings with church spire on top

Castle Hill in Buda

Impressions of Slovakia

We passed though Slovakia for our 2nd time. We were here last October briefly, visiting Bratislava for 1 day only.  Thankfully we had more time and better weather this visit. Here are some of the things I found interesting…

  • Slovakia is a narrow, landlocked country in Central Europe. It is surrounded by the Czech Republic, Austria, Poland, Ukraine, and Hungary.
  • For almost 1000 years, the region that became Slovakia was part of Hungary or the Austro-Hungarian empire. Slovakia then became part of Czechoslovakia, a union which took place after the World War I.
  • During World War II Slovakia separated again and was a fascist puppet state led by Jozef Tiso and controlled by the Nazis. The pre–World War II population of the country included an estimated 90,000 Jews. After the genocide only about 2,300 Jews remained. Tiso was the only European leader to pay the Nazi authorities to deport his country’s Jews.
  • After World War II, Czechoslovakia was reconstituted and was under the control of the Soviets. Jozef Tiso was hanged in 1947 for collaboration with the Nazis. As part of the many population transfers agreed to by the Allies, more than 80,000 Hungarians and 32,000 Germans were forced to leave Slovakia.
  • In 1989 the Velvet Revolution brought about the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia. Slovak nationalism was rekindled leading to the peaceful separation of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia on January 1, 1993 (known as the Velvet Divorce).
  • Slovakia has a varied geography with a lot of mountains. 20% of the land is protected in parks. The beautiful High Tatras, in the North of the country near Poland, are the smallest of the high mountain ranges in Europe.
Snow covered mountains reflected in lake with treed green shoreline
The High Tatras
  • We visited the capital city Bratislava last October. It was cold and drizzly and a Sunday, so everything was closed. The castle above the town was a recent reconstruction. I didn’t enjoy it much. It gets praise from many others though, so I’d like to give it another try some day.
Manhole cover with picture of castle and "Bratislava" surrounded by brown tile

Bratislava Manhole Cover

  • Bratislava is only 60 kilometers from Vienna, the capital of Austria.
  • Like its former partner the Czech Republic, Slovakia plays pretty good ice hockey at the international level. Slovakians are fanatical about it, which sounds like some other people I know…

Vignette Regret

Today, you get a $60 blog posting.  Others may give you a $20 posting, or perhaps even a $30 posting, but I give you a full $60 posting.  I’m willing to suffer for my art.  How can I be sure what it’s worth? Read on.

We were camped at the foot of the Tatra mountains in Northern Slovakia.  The sun was shining and the mountains were beautiful, literally begging to be climbed, but we had other plans this day.

Our camper van parked in a grassy field with tall, snowcapped mountains behind

S&M Motel at the foot of the High Tatras

I went for a run on the hilly trails while Diane planned our route south.  We were heading first to Spišský Hrad, the ruins of a 12th Century castle that along with the surrounding region is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Ruins of a castle on a hill with grassy fields in the foreground

Spis Castle

It was less than 1 hour of driving through the beautiful Slovakian countryside to our destination.  This route is ornamented with rolling hills and picturesque villages right out of a Brothers Grimm folk tale.  The previous day our route had been blocked temporarily by a wedding party in traditional clothing getting into horse carts.

Horse with red collar pulling a wagon with driver sitting in front of a church

Wedding Wagon in the Slovakian Countryside

I was slowing as we headed down a hill toward an upcoming construction zone.  The speed limit dropped quickly from 90 km/h to 40 km/h.  Diane said that there were police up ahead so I braked a little harder.  I was pretty sure that I was under the limit (or pretty close to it), but as we approached them, one of the officers waved me over using a short stick with a reflector on the end of it.  I pulled over and tried to look innocent.

The officer had to walk around the car as our steering wheel is on the wrong side (or as Martin would probably say, the correct side but in the wrong country).  He seemed pleasant enough but he was speaking to us in Slovakian, so it was hard to be sure.  I smiled and said, “English”.  Fortunately he spoke very basic traffic cop English.  “Driving license, car registration, and documents”, he said.  We took the later to mean my passport.  We searched for a couple of minutes to find all three, and debated whether I should also offer him my International Driver’s License or not.  After all, I paid $15 for it at BCAA and haven’t needed it yet, so why not get my money’s worth?

He stared at my driver’s license for a bit with a puzzled look on his face and then walked to the front of the S&M Motel to check the license plate.  He walked back to my window and said, “You need a vignette. This one is finished.” and then pointed to the small coloured sticker on my windshield.  I’d placed it there last October when we arrived in Slovenia on our way south from the Czech Republic.

Vignettes (pronounced ‘vin-yets’) are a method of taxing vehicles that is used in some European countries (Austria, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Montenegero, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Switzerland).  All vehicles using the road are required to pay a tax, regardless of the country of origin of the vehicle.  A small sticker is then affixed to the windshield to indicate that the tax has been paid.  Vehicles like ours that travel through a lot of these countries can end up with a windshield looking like it was decorated by a kindergarten class!  Vignettes are typically available for as little as 4 to 10 days or up to a year, and usually cost $10 to $20 dollars for the minimum duration.  When entering a country there are usually signs indicating that a vignette is required, which are then reinforced by the many additional signs of the various vendors offering to sell them.  Unfortunately there were no such signs, at least none that we saw, when we entered Slovakia on small mountain roads the previous day and so we had forgotten to purchase a vignette.

Close up of a purple and white 2012 Slovakian vignette sticker on the windor of our motorhome

Slovakian Vignette

While we were waiting I noticed that what I had initially thought was a radar gun on a tripod was in fact a spotting scope.  They were using it to look at a distance for cars without current vignettes.  This gave me some hope that I wasn’t going to receive a speeding ticket also.

The police officer returned and said in pretty good but halting English, “The max-i-mum fine is 140 Euros.  The min-i-mum fine is 40 Euros.”  I said, “I’ve got 40 Euros” in an attempted presumptive closing.  In Slovakia, as in many European countries, police issue ‘on-the-spot’ fines, which means that you have to pay in cash immediately.  I’ve always wondered how having police offers handle cash didn’t promote corruption, and I was about to find out.

Diane dug out €40 from the back and I handed it over the officer.  It felt very strange to be handing money to a cop through my car window, like something that happens in Africa (right Norma and Wayne?) but not in Europe.  A few minutes later, he returned with 4 chits worth €10 each as receipts for my payment.  He then told me to drive to Levoča, the next village, where I could buy a vignette at the Shell station.  I nodded and said that I would.  He returned my papers and waved us on.

I was grateful that I didn’t receive a speeding ticket (not that I think I was nor would admit to speeding), and thankful that the fine wasn’t larger.  Checking online later we read that driving without a vignette in Slovakia can result in a cash fine from €100 to €500 ($150 to $750).  Who carries that kind of cash?  And why is the amount of the fine not specific?  On what basis do police officers decide which people to charge 20 times as much as we paid?

Anyhow, we were not unhappy with the result.  It could have been a lot worse.  Diane was afraid we were going to Soviet prison.  We bought a vignette in the next town as instructed and were on our way to the castle.

Our €40 fine equates to roughly $60, our cost for the story you’ve just read (labour not included).  Hence, today’s $60 blog posting.

Down to our Last Złoty

Many countries in Europe are part of the Eurozone, a monetary union of 17 European Union (EU) member states (a subset of the total number of 27) that have adopted the Euro as their sole legal currency.  Some members of the EU are not members of the Eurozone, including several that we’ll be traveling to.  This requires us to purchase or convert to a new currency in each country, with the associated effort of buying or converting upon arrival and spending or converting upon departure.  This was a constant headache when traveling in Africa, where currency exchange often had to be done in an open air, risk laden free-for-all in the ‘no man’s land’ between border crossings.  It less hassle but still an inconvenience when traveling through non-Eurozone countries.  To make things simpler, we often try to spend all of our remaining currency before leaving a country if we won’t be returning or needing that currency at a later date.

This is exactly what we tried to do in the south of Poland, before crossing into Slovakia.  Poland’s currency is the złoty.  In Polish, it literally means ‘golden’.  We needed some groceries and we had exactly 38 złoty and 75 grosze to our collective names.  Each grosze is 1/100th of a złoty (like pennies to a dollar or pence to a pound).  This converts to $12.02 Canadian at current rates. Not a lot for grocery shopping, but enough to pick up some needed items.

We headed in to a Carrefour Market with our iPhone calculator in hand and with the objective of buying groceries adding up to but not exceeding our remaining złoty.  It’s kind of like the final showcase of the long-running game show The Price is Right.  To win you need to get as close as possible without going over your remaining cash.  Note that this shopping game is much easier to play in Europe because there is no added sales tax.

Diane started picking out things and I dutifully added the value of each to our running total.  Shopping in Poland is not without its challenges due to the fact there is no English, French, nor typically even German on the packaging.  Sometimes it’s a bit of a guessing game.  When in doubt we try to ask for help, but of course the staff don’t usually speak any English either.  We were trying to buy some peirogis (the Polish spelling of what we normally spell as ‘perogy’).  Diane wanted the ones with potato filling, but in Poland they are often filled with cabbage or mushrooms or meat, so she wanted to be sure.  She asked the young lady who was serving them, but despite their best efforts to communicate, nothing was getting through.  I offered the word “kartoffel” which is German for potato, in hopes that she might speak some German or that the word might be similar in Polish.  No luck.  Apparently potato is ‘ziemniak’ in Polish.

Diane went to the produce section and returned with a potato, pointed at the peirogis and then pointed at the potato in her hand.  The young woman shook her head, implying that none of them involved potatoes.  She went away for a while and in a short time returned with another young woman who spoke a tiny bit of English.  We said that we wanted potato peirogis and she spoke to the other woman in Polish.  By now there were also 2 other staff looking on to our spectacle.  The other woman answered her in Polish and pointed.  It turns out that potato peirogis here are called ‘Rosyjski’ peirogis (pronounced ‘ros-yis-kee’) meaning ‘Russian’.  Problem solved.

Things got added and removed from the cart as we tried to get the most important things we needed with the right combined price.  In the end, I lost track of the total, but I knew we were in the ballpark.  Diane had two cans of tuna that were optional, so we went to the till with the intention of watching the display as the other items were totaled, and then adding the cans of tuna fish one by one if required to get closer to our total budget.  If we were over, I was prepared to sacrifice the bananas.

And so, after all of this, here is the result.  This is what $12.02 CAD worth of złotys will buy you in southern Poland.

The food we purchased displayed on the table of our motorhome

What you can buy for 38.75 złoty

  • 2 small loaves of bread
  • 0.5 kg (1 lb.) of Gouda cheese
  • 0.5 (1 lb.) of cured, salty ham
  • Approximately 30 Russian perogies
  • 1 Litre of Coke Light
  • 2 bananas
  • 4 tomatoes
  • 8 rolls of toilet paper, and
  • 1 can of tuna fish (for good measure)

We think that this is significantly more than $12 would buy in Canada.

We had 1 złoty ‘and change’ left over (a strange expression given that the złoty, like the Canadian Loonie, is itself a coin).  We deposited our final złoty and groszy in the donation box by the door of one of the Wooden Churches of Southern Lesser Poland.

Church with tower all made of wood

A Wooden Church of Southern Lesser Poland

The interior was amazing.

Photo taken from rear balcony of a church with a carved wood interior that is hand painted

The ornate carved wood interior is hand painted

We headed to Slovakia ‘złoty-less’.

Auschwitz III

This is the last of 3 related postings regarding Auschwitz.  The first post is available here and the second here.

The last selection took place on October 30, 1944. In September Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer of the SS, ordered the crematoria destroyed before the advancing Soviet Army reached the camp. The gas chambers of Birkenau were blown up by the SS in January 1945 in an attempt to hide their crimes.

Large rectangular concrete bunker in the ground with roof collapsed

Gas Chamber with Collapsed Roof

The SS command sent orders on January 17, 1945 calling for the execution of all prisoners remaining in the camp, but in the chaos of the Nazi retreat the order was never carried out. They did try to evacuate the camp though.  Nearly 60,000 prisoners were forced on a death march toward a camp in Wodzisław Śląski, over 60 kilometers away.  Many never made it.  On January 27, 1945, Auschwitz was liberated by Soviet troops.

Twisted concrete and metal amid a field of debris

Remains of a Crematorium blown up by the Nazis

On November 24, 1947, the Polish Supreme National Tribunal in Krakow began the trial of only 41 of the over 6,000 Nazis who worked at Auschwitz.  It took less than a month.  23 death sentences were issued, as well as 16 imprisonments.  Commandant Höss was found hiding among the German civilian population.  He was tried, found guilty of numerous war crimes, and then hung on a gallows specifically erected for this purpose, in a place just between the home he shared with his wife and children and the first gas chamber at Auschwitz I.

Simple wooden gallows with 4 steps on grass with green trees in background

Gallows built to execute Commandant Rudolf Höss

Visiting the Memorial

In 1947, Poland founded a museum on the site of Auschwitz I and II.  It receives about 1.3 Million visitors annually.  Why do they come?  Why did I come?  I had already been to see 2 other concentration camps in Germany, Dachau and Buchenwald.

Visitors to Auschwitz I are required to go on a guided tour.  It includes the grounds, several of the barracks (including Block 11), and the first gas chamber and crematorium.  Particularly shocking are the exhibitions showing the confiscated belongings of inmates found by the Soviet liberators.  These include hundreds of eye glasses in a tangled pile, thousands of pairs of shoes, a room full of prosthetic limbs, a huge pile of suitcases (many with the names of their owners written on the sides), a 30 meter (98 ft.) long room filled with 2 tonnes of human hair, and nearby a display of the products made from this hair.

Pile of old leather suitcases (brown and black) with names written on the side in white paint

Suitcases of some of those who died

Some of the prosthetic limbs were from German Jews, veterans of World War I who fought for their country, only to be killed by the Nazis 25 years later. We also saw baby clothes and dolls of some children murdered here.  These items really brought home the humanity of the victims.  They were not just statistics, but real people just like us, who had children to be consoled, who wore shoes and who needed glasses.

While visiting we observed several other groups that were obviously Jewish.  We saw a group of Israeli military with the Star of David on their uniforms and a group of young men in black dress pants and white shirts wearing yamikas who were accompanied by a rabbi.  I wondered how many Jewish people are drawn to this place, to see what happened here.  How surreal must this be for them.  Notably, the signs at Birkenau II are in Polish, English, and in Hebrew.

There were many more visitors here than when we went to Dachau or Buchenwald, partly because it was a week with 2 national holidays, a week when many Poles take time off work.  When we arrived, there were touts trying to direct cars and buses to their private parking areas.  The staging area where people purchased tickets and waited for their guides was crowded and loud, too busy to encourage self-reflection at the start of the tour.  After this point, all visitors to Auschwitz I wear headsets to hear their guides’ voices transmitted wirelessly.  The barracks were similarly crowded with visitors, and the logistics of keeping our group together and on pace was distracting.  The whole thing had a feeling of mass-production.  For me, I could begin to reflect upon things only when we reached the quieter, open spaces of Auschwitz II-Birkenau.

Many visitors passing through gate with words 'Arbeit Macht Frei' (Work will make you free) above

Many visitors enter the gates of Auschwitz I.

The guide’s narrative was fast-paced and direct.  He did not pull any punches, rely on subtle differentiations, or utilize any euphemisms.  This surprised me because there were some young children in our group.  I wondered how many of them really understood what he was talking about.

Why did I visit another camp?  Perhaps because Auschwitz was different.  It was an extermination camp, the largest and the most infamous.  Why did I want to visit it?  Certainly not because my wife wanted to.  She went only at my request.  Perhaps it’s because I still can’t get my head around it.  I understand something of Nazi doctrine and how many Germans were seduced by it.  Hitler told them they were special, that he could fix their problems quickly, and he offered them someone else to blame.  I’ve studied the research that demonstrates that ordinary people can and will do terrible things to one another with the slightest institutional inducement.  The German people were not evil nor special in this regard.  Most of them didn’t know what was happening in the extermination camps.  The whole thing just seems so surreal to me.  The huge numbers of people killed make it hard to conceptualize.  The horrific acts almost impossible to imagine.

Today the confines of Auschwitz II-Birkenau are green and grassy.  It is surrounded by birch trees. When we visited, the sun was shining, the birds were singing, and there was a warm breeze.  This made it difficult to visualize what happened here.  Of course, when the camp was operational, there was no grass, only mud, due to the large numbers of prisoners occupying the space.

Grassy area surrounded by a fence with a guard tower and trees beyond.

Today the fence and guard tower overlook grass and trees at Birkenau.

For all these reasons, I found my trip to Auschwitz to be less emotional than my previous visits to other concentration camp sites in Germany.   Perhaps it’s a coping mechanism to allow the contemplation of such atrocities?

Auschwitz is a place where murder took place on an industrial scale with the goal of eliminating an entire race of people.  The scariest and saddest thing is that, albeit with cruder methods, similar things have happened since in other places (e.g. Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Sudan).  Will we ever evolve to the point where such atrocities don’t happen?

This is the last of 3 related postings about Auschwitz. The first post is available here and the second here.

Auschwitz II–Birkenau

This is the 2nd of 3 related postings regarding Auschwitz.  The first post is available here.

As many as 1 million Jews had already been murdered by the Nazis when they made the decision, in January 1942, to systematically kill all the Jews of Europe.  This was described by Hitler as the “Final solution to the Jewish Question”.  The initial extermination method of shooting people in burial pits was logistically inefficient and psychologically difficult, so in late 1941, the Nazis began establishing camps specifically intended for mass murder using gas chambers.  These camps had as their primary function genocide, the systematic killing of the people delivered there, although some also functioned as forced labour camps.

Extermination camps were built where most of the intended victims lived and Poland had the greatest concentration of Jews in Europe.  In the early years of the Holocaust, Jews were often sent to concentration camps with other prisoners, but from 1942 onward they were primarily sent to extermination camps.  The 6 main extermination camps, all located in Poland, were:  Auschwitz IIBirkenau, Chelmno, Bełżec, Majdanek, Sobibor, and Treblinka.

Construction of Auschwitz II-Birkenau began in October 1941 to ease congestion at Auschwitz I.  It was designed as a labour camp to hold several categories of prisoners including women, and also to function as an extermination camp.  It was larger than Auschwitz I and many more people passed through its gates.

Low angle image of train tracks leading up to Birkenau Gate

Train tracks leading to Auschwitz II-Birkenau Gate

Despite the terrible living conditions in Auschwitz I, it was far superior to Auschwitz II-Birkenau.  At Auschwitz I the barracks were made of brick but at Birkenau, most of the barracks were pre-fabricated wooden buildings designed to be used as horse stables.  As a result of their flimsy construction they have since disintegrated, but some have been re-built to allow visitors to see what they did look like.  The barracks were for the most part unheated and lacked any insulation, so they were freezing cold in winter.  In the summer they were hot and humid, with the terrible smell of having so many sick people crowded together.  People slept 5 or more to a bed on 3 levels.  Those on the lowest level slept on the concrete floor.

Two wooden bunks each with 3 levels with concrete floor and brick walls

Bunks in a Birkenau Barrack

Women had a particularly bad life in Birkenau.  They suffered greatly from being separated from their children and family.  Additionally, they didn’t have many of the skills that the men did to maintain their barracks, so their living conditions were even more wretched.

Initially small gas chambers were located in the woods at Birkenau to avoid detection.  They were created by sealing up existing buildings.  The bodies were buried in pits but had to be exhumed and cremated later when the ground started to collapse.  In 1943 four large gas chambers and crematoria were constructed at Birkenau to make the killing more efficient.  The majority of the victims of Auschwitz were murdered after this time. The facility had the capacity to kill up to 20,000 people each day.

Single wooden rail car sitting on tracks

Cattle car of the type used to deliver people to Auschwitz II-Birkenau

Prisoners arrived by train crammed into unheated cattle cars.  Many died during transport.  By July 1942, the SS were conducting ‘selections’ where doctors divided Jews into those deemed fit for work, who were sent to the right and admitted into the camp, and those who were sent to the left to be immediately gassed.  The group selected to die, about three-quarters of the total, included almost all children, women with children, all the elderly, and all those who appeared on brief and superficial inspection not to be completely fit.

There was no registration of those who were selected for death.  Men, women, and children were immediately marched a couple of hundred meters along the railway tracks, right past the camp ‘hospital’.  They were stripped of all their belongings and their clothes, and herded in to the gas chambers.  Diane and I walked the same route as those selected to die.

People who were sent to the camps didn’t know what to expect.  They were told that they were being re-located there.  They brought what luggage they could to prepare for their stay.  In some cases, they were even excited about the prospect of meeting a friend or relative who had been sent there previously.  For nefarious reasons, this ruse was maintained right up until the last moments.  New arrivals were told they were going to be given showers and deloused.  The gas chambers were equipped with fake shower heads to mislead them so they would stay calm as they entered.  The guards delivered speeches about what they should do after their shower was completed.  They were also reassured by the fact that they saw many barrack buildings in the camp, evidence of the fact that other prisoners were living there.

“Technically [it] wasn’t so hard—it would not have been hard to exterminate even greater numbers…. The killing itself took the least time. You could dispose of 2,000 head in half an hour, but it was the burning that took all the time. The killing was easy; you didn’t even need guards to drive them into the chambers; they just went in expecting to take showers and, instead of water, we turned on poison gas. The whole thing went very quickly.” – Rudolf Höss

What did the inmates of the camp feel as they saw the trains arriving daily, watched the Jews being marched down the tracks never to return, and smelled the burning bodies.  How could they persevere?

The extermination facilities were staffed partly by prisoners called sonderkommandos.  They prepared new arrivals for gassing (ordering them to remove their clothing and surrender their personal possessions) and transferred corpses from the gas chambers to the crematoria, having first pulled out any gold that the victims might have had in their teeth.  Commandant Höss reported being impressed by the diligence of the Sonderkommandos, despite their being “well aware that . . . they, too, would meet exactly the same fate” because members of the sonderkommandos were also killed periodically.   Höss further reported that the men occasionally encountered the corpse of a relative, but, although they “were obviously affected by this . . . it never led to any incident”.  He mentioned the case of a Sonderkommando who encountered the corpse of his wife, yet behaved “as though nothing had happened”.  What fear and torment must these men have endured to suppress all emotion in order to conduct these tasks?

In 1943 and 1944 the Allies received reports from prisoners who had escaped Auschwitz, which at first were dismissed as exaggerations.  Although the reports were detailed, it was hard for anyone to believe that industrialized killing on such a mass scale was taking place. 

The gas chambers worked to their fullest capacity from April to July 1944 during the massacre of Hungary’s Jews.   Hungary was an ally of Germany for most of World War II, but it had resisted turning over its Jews to the Germans, until Germany invaded Hungary in March 1944. From April until July 1944, 475,000 Hungarian Jews, half of Hungary’s pre-war population, were deported to Auschwitz, a rate of 6,000 – 12,000 a day.  The incoming volume was so great that the SS resorted to burning corpses in open-air pits as well as in the crematoria.   Burning in pits took as long as 24 hours.

Black and white image of many Hungarian Jews by rail lines with Nazi guards

Selection of Hungarian Jews at Birkenau (Source: Wikipedia)

It is estimated that 1.3 Million people died at Auschwitz between 1940 and 1945 including 1.1 Million Jews, 150,000 Poles, 23,000 Roma (‘gypsies’), 15,000 Soviet POWs, 34,000 prisoners transferred from other camps, and 25,000 other people.  The ashes of the victims of Birkenau were scattered on the grounds and between the barracks, so the entire area is considered a burial site, the largest in the world.  The ground upon which thousands of visitors walk is composed of the remains of the victims.

To be continued. This is the 2nd of 3 related postings about Auschwitz. The first post is available here.  The last post will focus on my experience visiting the memorial.

Auschwitz

This is the first of 3 related postings about Auschwitz.  The second post focuses on Auschwitz II-Birkenau, and the last post on my experience visiting the memorial.

Auschwitz was established as a concentration camp, a place where criminals, political prisoners, academics, dissidents, prisoners of war, Jews, Roma (gypsies), homosexuals, and other people considered dangerous or undesirable by the Nazis were held and forced to work as slave labourers.  In its first year (1940-1941) it was converted from a Polish military camp and grew to hold over 10,000 inmates, the large majority of whom were Polish.  Over the years 1940-1945 Auschwitz expanded to become the largest German concentration & extermination camp.  It consisted of Auschwitz I (the original labour camp and administrative center for the whole complex),  Auschwitz II–Birkenau (a labour & extermination camp),  Auschwitz III–Monowitz (a labour camp), and 45 satellite labour camps.

The site for Auschwitz was chosen because it was near an industrial area where slave labourers were needed to help the war effort.  It was also at the center of the rail network, allowing easy transport of goods and people across Europe. Additionally, it was a large area and relatively isolated from nearby towns.  The Nazis were concerned about the opinion of German citizens and some Western nations (e.g. Western Europe, America) and endeavored to keep secret what was really happening in their concentration camps.  Initially the Red Cross was allowed to visit the camps, and so some had hospitals and even schools, though they were primarily for show.  This is also why they located their 6 main extermination camps in Poland, where they were less visible to observers from the West.

Auschwitz I

Prisoners who would be staying in the camp were stripped of everything.  They surrendered all their personal property including their clothes.  Children with blond hair and blue eyes were separated from their parents, to be sent elsewhere for education.  Men and women were completely shaved and their hair sold to make wigs, blankets, and other items.  In the early days of the camp prisoners were photographed for identification, but this was later deemed to be too expensive and not particularly useful (prisoners lost so much weight that they soon didn’t resemble their pictures anyway) and so it was abandoned.  Today the hallways of the prisoner barracks are filled with thousands of these photos, row upon row of those who died here.

Black and white images of Auschwitz prisoners

Auschwitz Prisoner Photos

Prisoners also lost their identities.  All of their personal documents were destroyed.  Instead of names they were assigned numbers, one of many techniques used by the guards to dehumanize them, making them easier to abuse and ultimately to kill.  Initially names were sewn on to prisoner uniforms, but this was an added effort, so they switched to tattooing numbers directly on to the prisoners’ bodies.

Inmates wore striped pyjamas and wooden clogs without socks.  The footwear was often ill fitting leading to foot problems and pain that made it difficult to walk.  These were the only clothes they wore in all seasons, even while working outside in winter.  They worked and slept in a single garment that was not changed.  Like in other concentration camps, prisoner uniforms had patches that distinguished their group (criminal, Jew, homosexual, Roma, etc.)

Sign showing the symbols used to categorize prisoners on their clothing

Badges used to categorize prisoners on their clothing

The prisoner barracks, preserved to this day, are made of brick.  They were only used for sleeping as prisoners worked all day.  Although they had heaters, insufficient fuel was provided to warm the buildings in winter.  Initially the camp had no toilet facilities, and prisoners had to go outside.  They were only given 2 opportunities per day to do so.

Brick barrack in the sunshine

Auschwitz I Barrack

All inmates had to work in the nearby arms factories.  Those who couldn’t work were murdered.  Prisoners worked 10-12 hours a day, 6 days a week.  Most worked outside of the camp and had to walk to work.  To maintain illusions, a band played each morning as they marched out of the camp and when they returned each evening.  Every evening the prisoners were counted, so those who died during the day had to be carried back by their fellow prisoners for roll call.  Auschwitz’s 45 satellite camps were established to allow prisoners to sleep closer to their work, thereby losing less productive time having to walk to and from each day.  The harsh work requirements, combined with poor nutrition and hygiene, led to high death rates.

Black and white drawing by former inmate of prisoners leaving gate to walk to work

Drawing by former inmate of prisoners leaving gate to walk to work

The warehouses where prisoners sorted through the belongings confiscated from incoming prisoners and the dead were known as Canada.  At this time Canada was regarded as a paradise by Poles; it had a reputation as a land of plenty and was a desirable location for Europeans to emigrate to.  Working in ‘Canada’ was one of the best jobs to have in the camp.  The work was indoors.  Sometimes food could be found in people’s belongings.  Occasionally the workers smuggled out valuables which they could trade to the Nazi guards in exchange for favours.

Auschwitz was run in a very orderly and efficient manner, supervised by the SS (Schutzstaffel meaning ‘protection squadron’).  German doctors, dentists, engineers, and other educated people helped to design and to operate the camp.  The day-to-day enforcement of rules and the maintenance of order was handled by kapos, prisoners selected by the SS to be in charge of their assigned groups.  Initially, they were recruited only from the criminal population at Auschwitz.  In return, they were given special privileges, which increased their chances of surviving.  Our guide told us repeatedly that we should not judge these people too harshly, as they were only trying to stay alive.

Prisoners were fed 3 meals a day but the food was so limited and of such poor quality that starvation was the biggest killer in the camp.  We saw a picture of an adult woman who was liberated from the camp and who weighed only 25 kilograms (55 pounds) after 4 months in hospital.  Another major factor was exposure.  Working inside greatly increased one’s chance of survival.  In summer, those who worked outside might live a few months – in winter, a few weeks.

Very thin woman, naked on hospital bed

Auschwitz survivor after 4 months in hospital

Many prisoners were tortured, starved, and executed in Auschwitz I.  Barrack Block 11 was reserved for this purpose.  Although the guards tried to keep these atrocities quiet, there are no secrets in a small ‘town’, and word got around quickly. On September 3, 1941, the deputy camp commandant experimented on 600 Russian POWs and 250 Polish inmates by gathering them in the basement of Barrack Block 11 and gassing them with Zyklon B, a deadly cyanide-based pesticide.  Following this successful test, a small gas chamber and crematorium was established in 1941 by converting an existing bunker.  It operated for 1 year and was used to kill 60,000 people before the larger gas chambers were built at Auschwitz II-Birkenau.  We walked through this gas chamber.  Diane was initially reluctant to enter but decided that it was more important to see what was inside.

The Guards

The first Commandant of Auschwitz between 1940 and 1943 was Rudolf Franz Ferdinand Höss (not to be confused with Rudolf Hess who was Adolf Hitler’s Deputy).  Höss lived at Auschwitz I in a villa with his wife and 5 children, about 100 meters from the first gas chamber built there.  He claimed that he kept the real purpose of the camp a secret from outsiders for 3 years and did not tell anyone until he shared it with his wife in 1942.

Black and white image of Rudolf Hoss during his trial with armed guard behind

Commandant Rudolf Höss       (source Wikipedia)

Most of the guards who worked at Auschwitz preferred it to other more dangerous wartime assignments. According to Höss’s diary, after the war many of those involved directly in the killing went mad or committed suicide.

Josef Mengele was among the German doctors at the camp who performed human experiments on prisoners.  He was known as ‘The Angel of Death’ for the cruel things he did, particularly to identical twins.  Bayer and other pharmaceutical companies also bought prisoners to use as guinea pigs for testing new drugs.

Black and white head shot of Joseph Mengele in a suit and tie

Dr. Joseph Mengele       (Source: Wikipedia)

To be continued.  This is the first of 3 related postings about Auschwitz.  The second post focuses on Auschwitz II-Birkenau, and the last post on my experience visiting the memorial.

Impressions of Poland

After crossing Germany, we spent time in the south of Poland, visiting a variety of places and driving almost the full width of the country.  Here are some of the things about Poland that I think are interesting:

  • The Republic of Poland is the largest of the previously communist countries in the European Union.  At 38 million it has about 5 million more people than Canada, but has much smaller area.
  • Due to the Nazi genocide and the forced relocations that took place after World War II, Poland is very uniform ethnically.  98% of the people are ethnic Poles.
  • We had thought that Poland would be very different from the countries of Central Europe.  It looks a bit rougher than eastern Germany, but differences weren’t as great as we had imagined.
  • The campgrounds in Poland are plentiful and nice.  They have free wi-fi and the one we stayed at in Krakow even had free washing machines.
  • The Polish language is harder to figure out than German, which seems to have more in common with English.  As a result, food shopping was more of a challenge.
  • In 1795 Poland ceased to exist.  It was partitioned between Prussia (controlled from Potsdam in today’s Germany), Russia, and Austria (controlled from Vienna).  It was not reconstituted until 1918 at the end of World War I, but then immediately had to defend itself from Russia under Lenin who had visions of spreading socialism across Europe and eventually the world.  After the 2nd World War, Russia installed a communist government in Poland, despite its promises to the Allies to hold free elections.  Along with Hungary, it was one of the least repressive of the Communist Bloc countries.
  • While we were there, Poland celebrated the anniversary of its constitution, initially established on May 3rd, 1791.  It was the first set of modern supreme national laws in Europe, and second only to the American Constitution of 1787, which is something the Poles take great pride in despite the fact that their current constitution dates from 1997.
  • Poland is the birth place of Chopin, Goethe, Marie Curie, and Pope John Paul II.
  • Marie Skłodowska-Curie (Marie Curie) was a Polish physicist and chemist born in Warsaw in 1867 who did pioneering research on radioactivity in France.  She was the first female professor at the University of Paris, and the first person to receive 2 Nobel Prizes.  She died in 1934 of aplastic anemia caused by her years of exposure to radiation.
  • Pope John Paul II is revered here.  He was born Charles Joseph Wojtyla in the Polish town of Wadowice in 1920.  He suffered various hardships as a child (his parents died young), during WWII (he narrowly avoided deportation and had to study for the seminary illegally), and under the communists.  Despite this, he learned to speak 9 or more languages, became a philosopher, and a thought leader in the Catholic Church.  He took the name ‘John Paul II’ in honour of his predecessor (John Paul I), who died only 33 days after becoming Pope.  John Paul II was generally accepting of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution regarding the human body, but believed that the human soul was created immediately by God.
  • In 1980 the independent trade union Solidarity, which opposed Soviet rule, was formed in the shipyards of Gdańsk, Poland’s largest sea port.  Despite attempts by the government to curtail it, it spread until its cofounder Lech Wałęsa won the national election in 1990, ending the period of communist rule in Poland and leading to the eventual demise of communist regimes across Europe.
  • Many women in Poland try to dress in Western style, but the quality of the clothes and their fashion sense sometimes results in them looking cheap.  A lot of young women (and some older ones) prefer short, tight skirts, revealing tops, and platform heels to the point that they look like prostitutes.
  • In 2011 Poland elected the first transsexual Member of Parliament in European history.  Italy elected the first transgendered MP.
  • Poland seems to have whole-heartedly embraced capitalism.  Many of the big European chains are here (e.g. Lidl, Carrefour, Ikea, Mediamarkt) and there is advertising everywhere.
  • Overall, we were pleasantly surprised by Poland.  Diane described it as a “diamond in the rough”, with lots of potential as it develops.