A Polish Holiday 2

Even though yesterday was quite the emotional rollercoaster ride, the main event was still to come.  Today, we were booked onto a trip to see one of the surviving death camps at Auschwitz, the German name for the small, leafy town of Oświęcim during the Nazi occupation.

For the purposes of retaining a connection to it's horrific past, even though it is a constant reminder to the locals, two of the three main death camps in the town still stand, and there is no shortage of people willing to travel through the plain, unassuming countryside packed into coaches to experience them first hand.  Today, we would take our turn.

We pre-booked online, and for a little lighter relief afterwards, we added the tour of the nearby Wieliczka Salt Mine, as by that point we figured we could do with something to take our minds off what we had just seen.

Early in the morning, we boarded a mini-bus close to the hotel, which was tasked with hoovering up tourists from around the city by negotiating it's way through the narrow, parked car-laden streets.  Once pretty much full up, we headed out of the city and onto the motorway, a grey morning stretching out in front of us.

Fortunately, there was some entertainment of sorts, in the form of an English language documentary of the history of Auschwitz.  It was dry and sober, and as you would expect, mostly in black and white, but it gave us a fair primer of what was to come.

An hour or so later we arrived at Auschwitz-I, the first and most well-built of the death camps in the town.  A large car park, flanked by book and souvenir shops bustled with cars and coaches, and we filed into our spot.  We filed through a security checkpoint and were given our headphones, and exited out of the modern building, into the past.
The view in front of us is one of the most recognizable locations from tales of the second world war.  A neatly trimmed path circles around a grass lawn, innocently passing under the branches of a now-mature oaks and weeping willows, and towards the entrance gates.

'Work sets you free', says the sign, a grimly sardonic hint to the thousands of poor souls who passed under this sign that the only way out was being flogged to death, as many of them were. 

It was clear that in the early days of the regime at least, the Nazi army had at least taken the time and effort to create sturdy, brick buildings to house the inmates.   The majority of the inner compound was made up of a grid of two-storey buildings that looked well constructed and almost homely from a distance, with the sun peeking through the clouds and the sound of birdsong filtering through the voice coming out of our crackly headphones.  We were about to find out what the insides had to say for themselves.

The tour guide took us on a very deliberate route through the compound, stopping off at the few buildings that were open to the public.  Some had been closed for refurbishment, others were too unsafe to go inside.  Almost as a way of darkening the atmosphere, the sun went in and a dismal greyness took over the sky.  It began to rain.
The first couple of buildings were largely empty and devoid of period features, and had been stripped mostly down to just the walls and the unsuitable heating units that must have been little use in the winter months for the inmates.  On the walls hung diagrams of the camps, of the town of Oświęcim, and of the Nazi stranglehold on the entire region.  Krakow was at the epicentre of Hitlers' plans for Jewish extermination, and one room-high map in particular highlighted the extent of the extermination engine.  On it, the three camps at Auschwitz were surrounded by forty or so smaller camps, all set up for the same purpose.  Further afield, as far away as the Netherlands and France, another thirty or so camps were marked on the map.  Their inmates were all destined, sooner or later, for Auschwitz.

Padding through the rain showers between buildings became a source of refreshment and pause, as we moved from the inmates buildings into the 'processing' areas.  In the process of the dehumanization and eventual extermination of the prisoners, the Nazi occupation exploited every resource that the bodies of the inmates could provide.  Their belongings were taken from them, and anything worth money was put aside and sold.

But it didn't stop there.  Personal items - shoes, spectacles, jewellery, and even things like toothbrushes and false teeth were removed and confiscated.  Hair was cut from their heads and hoarded for the production of 'wool'.  And this was while each able man, woman and child was subjected to long hours of hard work, medical experiments, or forced into the Sonderkommando - prisoner units forced to do this work on their fellow countrymen.  The infirm and unable were, perhaps mercifully, the first to the execution chambers.

When the camp was liberated, huge stockpiles of untransported personal effects were discovered, and are now stored in glass booths that take up half of several of the voluminous rooms.  The stash of human hair alone, bundled tightly into sacking, was over 7 tonnes in weight, and sits silently in it's glass presentation case, a pile of human hair six feet high and thirty feet wide.  This, alongside some of the other confiscations, conveyed more powerfully the sheer scale of what was going on more than words or pictures ever could.

Though we were generally allowed to take pictures anywhere in the buildings, we were asked not to photograph the hair as a mark of respect.  Most people were just standing, mouth agape and too preoccupied with the sight in front of them to remember they had cameras in their hands.

Three or four buildings later, we reached the end building, where the yard between it and the adjoining building was open to us.  This was one of the execution yards.  The windows on the buildings either side were boarded up to heighten the mental torture of those inside, who heard the shots and screams of those who were to be executed that day, and when they would be next.  At the far end of the yard, a section of the original, pock-laden wall stands, surrounded by wreaths and candles, struggling to stay alight in the wind and rain.

Shattered from the weight of it all, we turned back and were led towards the entrance, but unfortunately we were not quite done yet.  Auschwitz-I had it's own gas chambers, and they hadn't been destroyed like in some of the other camps by Nazi's trying to cover up their atrocities.  We were led inside, and shown the hatch where the Zyclon-B cannisters were dropped through, from the point of view of the victims who died slowly and painfully, often at the hands of their Sonderkommando brethren.

A little way beyond, and through a double-fenced blockade, the world changed.  A heartbeat away from the torturous atrocities were the officers' camps.  Quiet, leafy office buildings of substantially better quality.  Some of the officers, and even their families lived here on-site.  Their children innocently played in the grounds a stones throw away from the gas chambers.

Our tour of the compound ended on a high - of sorts - with the gallows that Rudolf Höss, the first commander of the camp was summarily executed on in 1947, after his trial at Nuremberg.

Our guide gave us a meager ten minutes or so to work our way through the queues for toilets, book shops, or just simply to have a breather outside.  We felt pretty emotionally flattened, even though our minds, used to the detachment of seeing so much through a TV screen, filtered out a lot of the impact.  Looking back on the pictures from the comfort of my front room, is somehow more unsettling.

Our journey into the past was barely half over.  The rain continued to fall from the skies in a manner that suggested it could not make up it's mind whether to turn into a full-on storm or just sod off, and it continued to patter down just enough to be noticeable on the short drive to our next stop.

If the gates of Auschwitz-I drew a blank, then the iconic train tracks and guard house of Auschwitz-II Birkenau should trigger memories of a thousand Channel 5 documentaries.  When it became clear that - even when the prisoners were packed like sardines into the rooms - the first camp was nowhere near big enough a place to carry out the final solution, the Nazi's looked upon the wide open fields on the outskirts of Oświęcim as a suitable location for a second camp.

By this point, the Nazi's were more confident of their aims and goals, and were less motivated to try and hide the true purpose of their construction.  Whereas Auschwitz-I was modeled almost as a 'stopover' for the Jewish people on the way to some better land, Birkenau's buildings were brutally functional and honest.

We were dropped some way from the entrance, as if to heighten the anticipation of entering.  We were told to watch out for cars roaring past on the tight, narrow tarmac - the locals in the houses not so far from the entrance would take no prisoners on a road they considered to be theirs alone to drive on.  It seemed incredulous that some people, with a constant reminder of what it is to be an arsehole so close to their doors, could choose to act in such a way.  Almost on cue, a car whizzed past, and it's irate driver shouted abuse at one of the tourists.  It was surreal.

In 1941, a newly laid track branched off the nearby main-line and into these fields, where brick huts were built by the dozen.  With only a single floor and huge slanted roofs taking up at least as much space, the design required few windows, allowing little to no light to penetrate inside.  No water or electric like they at least had in the other place.  The interiors were dank and dark, with a cold stone floor, and brick and wooden frames for the beds. People slept three high, cramped together as many as could fit.  By 1943, the extermination camp, as it was officially designated by that point, had the capacity to hold 200,000 people - four times it's originally planned capacity.

And it worked like a factory.  Trainloads of prisoners rumbled in, through the guard house tunnel and past the walking dead, staring at them helplessly as they milled around waiting for the inevitable.  Halfway down the long central track, the carriages stopped and they got out.

The infirm were shot immediately.  Those who could work did so at the nearby factories - their pay being allowed to live another day.  Eventually they would become sick or otherwise problematic, and then they were killed.  Birkenau eventually had four buildings - combined gas chambers and crematoria, as well as the famous 'red house' and 'white house' crematorium buildings - converted barns that sufficed in processing the bodies during the early days before the influx of new bodies became too much for them alone.

The rain continued as if it was perpetual here.  We walked the long track next to the railway that cut through the centre of the massive compound.  To the left, the buildings were shabby but mostly intact.  To the right, the semi-complete process of the fleeing Nazi's, covering their tracks by burning everything to the ground, had left the area with little more than a perimeter of razor wire guarding some foot high foundations.

Wherever your eyes wandered was a gruesome mix of nature and the awful man-made structures that it was slowly re-taking.  The walking route, the whole length of the camp, was deliberate to allow time to ponder on the sights in front of us.  We were heading to the memorial at the end.

I'm not exaggerating for effect: as soon as we arrived it began to rumble with thunder ominously, and the clouds, relieved of their static electricity, proceeded to drench the air.  A grey and sombre structure, built at the far end of the compound midway between the two sets of crematoria buildings servicing each side of the camp, was backed by trees and nature and peace.  The structure and it's border appeared to be a final statement, that the horrid excesses of human cruelty should stop at this point and carry on no further.

As with Hiroshima and Nagasaki before, this was a place of international remembrance, and it was clear the cobbled ground would occasionally be populated by rows seating for visiting dignitaries. Flagpoles for each nation stood empty but ready, and plaques were set into the ground in every language, a mirror of the same message over and over.

In total, it was estimated that 1.5 million people passed through the three Auschwitz camps over the seven years of occupation.  We were given a little time to stand and read in our own languages the message of caution to the world, off our respective rain-splattered plaques, and think.

The rain finally made up it's mind and lashed down heavily, so the guide picked up the pace and headed through the destroyed remnants of the crematorium buildings and towards the womens' camp where we shook off our clothing and gathered inside one of the few remaining huts considered safe enough to enter.

The insides felt like a relief from the cold and the wet outside, but they could not have been much comfort for their original residents.  Barely enough room had been apportioned for each person to sleep, several bunks high, with small, dusty windows letting in precious little light, casting ghostly patterns on the ashen-coloured concrete structure within, and dimly illuminating the huge wooden structure of the timber roof above - where any heat would retreat to, out of reach of the freezing prisoners in the darkest depths of winter.

The rain never really stopped, but abated enough for us to chance en masse a trot back towards the entrance, stopping off briefly at the huge communal latrines.  During use, the prisoners would have to defecate together in large groups - no privacy was permitted, as you would have to sit cramped together in long rows on a cold concrete pot.  As bad as the job of cleaning them would have been, we were told that the few prisoners who had that unenviable task were among the lucky ones as aside from the obvious ickyness, it was one of the easier jobs in the camp.

With some gratitude, we finished the tour and emerged out through the guard entrance into freedom once more, where kids waiting for their parents in the souvenir shops balanced on walls and messed around.  We have never had it so easy.

Our day had one final stop.  As the sun hovered midway between the heavens and the horizon, we took the little bus about an hours' drive to the Wieliczka Salt Mine.  After the heavy emotional load around our necks, it would be a duller, but lighter and welcome change to the subject matter.
We pulled up as the clouds were parting into a semi-full car park.  A neat and trim garden welcomed us in, proudly displaying a UNESCO world heritage site sign.  Everything was neat and tidy, and though we were eeking the last of the pleasant autumn days out of the year, the gardeners had worked hard to keep it all flowery and colourful.

(I must confess, at this point I had little idea of what we were going to be seeing. Aside from the vision of some salt in a big hole in the ground, I hadn't got past the whole atrocities thing to consider what it might involve)

The mine was, as you might expect for a tourist destination, not in full use any more.  The office buildings had all been prettified and turned into tourist shops and mini museums, but we were here for what was under our feet.  We were advised to join the long queues for the toilets in the short while before our guide had finished with her current group, and we bought some much needed beverage for our journey.

Eventually it was our turn.  The first part of the tour basically involves traversing a massive staircase - heading down about fifty floors until you hit the upper levels of the mine - which takes some time to do.  When you eventually arrive at the bottom, a massive air lock door (which might have been made a bit more fancy for the tourists than the more functional original) is prised open, and a massive gust of air billows about us from the depths below.

It would have been quite natural to assume that the 1000 or so feet of depth is just salt deposits and the odd rusting bucket - and there was certainly plenty of both.  In most places on the walls and above our heads, the rock was covered in snow white salt crystals, covering the old pickaxe marks of ancient workers by some inches in places.   Nice though it was to look at, the thought of spending the remainder of the day being bustled by wind and having the top of my head scraped off by sharp salt crystals was not so appealing.  Mercifully the depths had a bit more to offer.  Only recently has it totally stopped being mined for salt, and before 2007, it had been a source of gainful employment for the locals going back to the 1200's.  In that time, an awful lot of salt has come out, and thus a whole lot of tunnels have been dug through the rock, and in places these tunnels have opened out into some pretty spacious rooms where the surprises were kept.

As we made our way through a succession of draughty airlocked corridors, the path consistently sloped slowly downwards.  Periodically we passed distance and depth markers, and several branching tunnels off route which were either closed to the public (some volunteer miners still worked in some of the more remote branches) or were being refurbished.

It became quite pedestrian going through the long corridors, and in the early stages the occasional stopoff was not that exciting; often they would containing one of several pieces of antique machinery used to either dig out the salt or transport it back again.  Often these were set in motion by modern electric motors that replaced the grunting labourers, or quite often, horses whose whole life would be spent below the surface.  The machines were often joined by manikins of miners and their horses in action poses.

Other areas displayed scenes from local history; kings and knights doing battle or somesuch.  Life-size stone statues played their part, carved by some of the more artisan miners to make it more bearable below the surface.  Here and there, small shrines or memorials to the hard work of the miners were displayed.  Often, though these were the work of artists and sculptors from modern times,  commissioned works to remember the thousands of men who flogged their bodies and ruined their health over the years.

About two thirds the way to the bottom, we were shown something that, thanks to my lack of research beforehand, took me by complete surprise.

We were several hundred feet below the surface of the earth, and yet here we were in a cathedral, carved out of the granite rock.

We started down the twin staircase from the entrance, and marvelled at where we were.  On the wall was a relief of The Last Supper carved with great precision into the rock.  Huge chandeliers made of salt crystal hung from the ceiling.  Statues of martyrs and bishops lined the walls, and the floor was polished granite, carved to look as if it were covered with hexagonal tiles.

This was, and still is a deeply spiritual hall, known as St. Kingas Chapel.  It has been party to many religious ceremonies; it's acoustic qualities make it ideal for classical music performances and has hosted weddings for a lucky select few.  We had barely enough time to take in the surroundings before we were moved on.  The beloved Pope John Paul II, whose visit here as with many other places around Poland, is commemorated by a statue.  This one was carved from a huge rock of salt rock and stood guarding the exit.

There were several subsequent open areas although none as spectacular as the first chapel.  One of the most eye-catching was a large, open chamber near the bottom.  We entered from a high vantage point and were not able to take in the scale of thingsThe rock disappeared into the darkness high above us, but was replaced by a beautiful and seemingly infinite framework of white painted timber joists, presumably there to stop the whole thing falling in on itself, but lending the spacious cave a strange claustrophobic feel.  Large salt chandeliers hung from the lower timbers and lit the room beautifully.

Right at the bottom - and we should have guessed this given the nature of museums, although it still came as a surprise this far from the surface - was a gift shop.  And a restaruant, and a load of other rooms and facilities that just seemed to be there as if nothing was strange about it.  We were given a hurry-up-and-buy five minutes to look around the trinket shops, including two or three selling off carved jewellery and those lumps of rock split in half to show beautiful crystalline structures inside.  I doubt they were from the area, as none of them looked remotely salty in origin but then at least you could say you bought them from a thousand feet below the earth I suppose.  We ummed and ahhed, but ended up coming away empty handed without regrets.

The final part of our journey was to get back to the top - and this was a bit of a bottleneck.  A single elevator - not much more spacious from being a double-decker one - was crammed full of a score of tired tourists and then sent upwards.  When it was finally our turn, we were placed well inside the intimate zone of several complete strangers, and then sent upwards - in complete squeaky, draughty, creaky darkness all the way back to the top.  The blackness occasionally abated by the bright flourescent lights of areas we had walked through and went back to darkness just as quickly, and then just as it seemed we were all going to start screaming for it to stop, it did and we fell out into the (other) gift shop at the surface.

We gathered our nerves and headed back to the coach.  In our absence, darkness had fallen outside, and once everyone had been accounted for, we went back to Krakow old town, got back into our room and collapsed into bed.

That was our final full day in Poland.  The next morning we packed and were picked up by a cab which took us straight to the airport.  We spent our last Zloty on choccy for workmates back home, and then got on the plane.

Though we had not really looked at Poland as a place to visit, I'm certainly glad we did; the atrocities of Auschwitz and the shadow of the nightmares still present around Krakow in particular are haunting in a way that I had felt when I was at Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and it felt somewhat fulfilling to visit all three at last.  Although Poland could have used it's past more to fund it's future with such dystopian tourism there was a sense of keeping it measured and low key, but making sure it is remembered, and the balance feels about right.

It would be nice to go again and explore some more.

A Month..

Even less than that, now.

After we had returned from Poland last September, and we had got around to sorting out the big pile of post stopping the front door from opening, I happened upon a large, red package.  Upon opening it, I started jumping up and down and shouting.

It was a confirmation letter - I would be doing the London Marathon in 2014!

In 1996 - and I recall it clearly, I was told by a physio, who was at the time kneading my knotted muscles after a bad sciatica flareup, that my dreams of ever running a marathon should be stopped in their tracks.  'A half marathon is the best you can hope for in your condition', he said.

Right, I said.

Admittedly, it did take me about a decade to get around to it (my first proper 10k was in 2007) but I eventually got the bit between my teeth, worked off the videogaming flab and built up my distances.  In 2011, I did my first half marathon, In 2012, I did my first Marathon...

Hey, maybe it's time to take down that old Liverpool Marathon sponsor link and replace it with something a little more.. current? >>>>

So, I managed to stick one into the face of that damned physio two years ago, so what's the big deal?  Well, I did Liverpool because I wasn't having much luck with the London registration, receiving only a handful of failed ballot letters and a Jimmy Saville-style track suit top that is for some reason out of vogue right now.  London is the big one.  So when I got that letter, well things were pretty sweet.

Of course now that the thing is about four weeks away, I'm bricking it.  I've got my final instructions through this week (and bloody hell is is more complicated than your average 10k).  I'll be lining up alongside 36,000 other people as opposed to the 8,000 or so in my usual competitions, including world class athletes on a 'world marathon major' competition.  I've got my tickets and hotel sorted and my distances are about right, and a knee injury that showed up as the year incremented has thankfully been seen to (thanks again to a physiotherapist, but this time not the same one).  I'll study the course map like it's a final exam cram, so the last few miles of twists and turns don't turn into psychologically draining surprises.

I'm as set as I'm going to be.

So, here's the badgery-bit:  Please sponsor me.  I will - as ever - be running for MacMillan Cancer Support, as they are a very worthwhile network of supporters of victims of cancer and their families.  Though I have run for them many times now, this past couple of years I have felt a particular need to run for them.  My father is currently recovering from cancer, and will be hitting the operating table not long after the run to have the last stage of his reconstructive surgery completed, so this will be a personal goal I want to achieve in more ways than one.

Oh and just for good measure, there will be a handful of 10ks, a half marathon, a decent sized walk and the York Marathon in October, just for good measure...

Not a Happy Chicken!!!

Right now this computer is about fecking due for being thrown out of the window!

I'm back from work.  The dog has been out for a good ball throwing sesh.  It's still too dark outside to get in the garden.  I'll do some much needed blogging, I think.

I spend the next three hours writing the next part of the Polish holiday blog.  A bit of research to refresh my head about Auschwitz.  Some neatly-placed photographs.  Some sombre but powerful words to convey the weight of the experience.

Then - as I am about to finish for the night, my hand brushes over the mouse pad.  The entirity of the text is highlighted and dragged off the text field that I am typing into now, and off to the ether - a bit of the webpage that doesn't do much when you drop text onto it.  My new blog post goes blank.  I scream.

Ctrl-Z to the rescue?  Hell, no.  That for some reason has stopped working.  As a last resort, I hurry the mouse cursor over the 'Close' button to abandon my edits and get back to a previous save, but just as I click on the button - the auto-save kicks in.

I have lost it all.

Whether this is down to Firefox, or maybe Google's attempts to be too clever with it's online text editor, or even Apple with it's stupid mouse pad, I thank their efforts in making me scream and shout at this time of night and waking the neighbours.

I'll start again tomorrow, I guess.

A Polish Holiday 1

The following morning brought a fresher feel, but the clouds had still stayed away enough for some pleasant sun as the city started to stir.

The plan was that we would make our way to the Oskar Schindler museum on the other side of the city, and looking at our handy guide map, we could get there by skirting along the imposing Vistula River that cuts through the south just outside the old town, including a visit to Wawel Castle on the way.
Perched on top of Wawel Hill, the entrance route spirals slowly upwards passing a strange sculpture of a dragon, which every five minutes or so (making us jump) spits out a gobful of flames.  Only when you look closer do you realise several of it's 'arms' have heads on them.

As the street-sellers unpacked the wares onto their trollys we carried on upwards until reaching the main castle grounds.  We must have missed out a bit of the tourist trail as we found ourselves in an open area looking at Wawel Cathedral, which shared equal billing, vying for attention from the tourists walking around the primly kept gardens that took up most of the open area inside the battlement walls.

It was a strange concoction of buildings of different styles, seemingly added to down the ages at the behest of several of the castle owners, none of whom seemed to agree with the others on what was a good choice of brick.

Given our time constraints and the rapidly ascending sun, we decided that only one of the two could be given any decent attention before we could go, and so we chose the cathedral as it looked the most interesting of the two.  Certainly the crowds were flocking, encouraged probably by the fact that this was once where the future pope, John Paul II gave mass.

'No entry without ticket' said the sign, alongside some others with a camera inside a crossed red triangle, meant that we had to put up with looking at things with the naked eye rather than through a viewfinder.  After getting the tickets in a clashingly modern building alongside we filed in between guided crowds.

The inside decor was as you might expect for such a prominent religious building.  High ceilings held up by arches decorated with dusty saints of old; a central area for worshiping lined by black wooden pews, pointing at a huge, lavishly draped altar, gilded gold with shiny-worn brass ornamentation and trim, surrounded with heavily trodden stone and marble flooring, large painted frescoes depicting romanticised battle scenes and a general intention of telling whatever god-fearing visitor might enter that the people who preach at these places should be treated with respect and awe.

The little wooden poles connected by ropes were in force, turning what was once (and is presumably still, on Sundays) a quiet place of worship, into a linear maze of shuffling feet and whispering crowds.  After cooing at the opulence on display on the ground floor, the route went up into one of the cathedral towers, where visitors were treated to a succession of increasingly large metal hats suspended from the ceiling on wooden joists.  Far too heavy for everyday usage, at one time only royalty were privileged enough to wear them.  In these austere days however, they allow you to be photographed wearing the largest one, for a small fee.

Once down from the tower, and beyond some of the small chapels that lined the outer walls of the main cathedral, we headed down into St. Leonards' Crypt where several high-ranking Polish nobles are buried.  It was quite a serene place, reminding me of the Egyptian tombs at the Valley of Kings, except these rooms were modern and mood-lighted by subtle spot-lighting.  From the earliest burials the passageways edged slowly outwards, the styling of the caskets became more modern, you could tell from their styling and whether they were plain stone or marble, how much money and influence was behind the pile of bones inside.  The last crypt room before the iron gated exit was the most modern.  The body of respected Polish general Wladyslaw Sikorski laid inside a creepy looking bronze metal box in the shape of a coffin, decorated with large domed rivets but seemingly without any seams to be held by them.  The place was decorated with a dour and unnerving set of WWII-era tributes - crossed gun motifs, staring portraits.  It seemed to represent a final goodbye of the cultural influences on Poland of the era.  As we adjusted our eyes to the early afternoon sun, we felt as if we had come back from the darkened past.

On our way out to rejoin the river, we came upon the 'Dragons' Den'.  At the sheer edge of the rock on which we were standing, a thin and slender tower extended downwards.  For a meager fee the bored-looking teenaged ticket attendant opened the gates for us, and we descended the spiral staircase downwards to ground level - except that it kept going some more after that.

We stepped out into an underground cave complex, lit as these things often are by hidden spotlights in little alcoves.  The floor seemed to have a path lifted out of the ground at us.  The air was dank and cool, so we followed the cave through to its' end where we emerged out at the dragon statue, who guffed out a snort of flame to greet us.  It seems that Wawel has an oft-exercised Dragon myth of it's own, making several appearances in various forms in every gift shop in town and even gracing the awards of the Krakow film festival.

We skipped down onto the waterfront and carried on.  The Vistula is wide and winds through the south of the city in a gradual arc, occasionally crossed by industrial-looking bridges and decorated with all sorts of interesting looking graffiti.  On the other side of the river sat a large grey sphere, innocuous aside from it's oddity.  We assumed it was some sort of gas container.

Glancing back as we carried on, it was surprising to see the sphere now fully a hundred feet into the air, tethered only by a single rope.  We resolved to return on the other side, and ride the delicate little basket suspended below.

Some walking later we crossed over on a busy road bridge, and followed our city map into a semi-constructed commercial area.  Fresh new tarmac flanked by half finished pavements, 'business as usual' signs, and lots of wire fencing separating us from yet more building projects suggested we were going in wholly the wrong direction.  Suddenly the evidence of the new dropped away and a far older style of factory building - many of which looked in a poor state of repair became the dominant sight.  We had arrived in the small part of Krakow that had been kept anything like it was during the most violent political upheavals of a city in modern history, and the epicentre was the Oskar Schindler Museum.
From the grey, unassuming frontage - little changed except maybe a little better maintained than it's pre-war self - didn't overtly advertise it's intentions, except as you got closer and studied the windows - full of the pictures of the factory staff who helped keep the factory keep running in the face of intense pressures during the war years.

Though there were no explicit signs inside to ban picture taking, the winding passages told a mesmerising story, starting in the pre-war years where the population - healthily populated by Jews at the time - saw the impending years as possibility for growth and change for the better, but the growing realisation that those entering into power had much darker intentions, began to split and break the community, even before the war had begun.  The most gut-wrenching moments depicted was the room dressed full of posters with the festivities marking the end of summer 1939, just before the Nazis gained power.  Much like the Nagasaki and Hiroshima museums managed, I left feeling emotionally drained, but if you have the chance to go, it is highly recommended.

Needing some air, we headed outside, and, since there was a tourist golf buggy heading round the corner with nobody inside, we took the opportunity to get around a few other sights in double-quick time, since the sun was beginning to get lower in the sky.

The driver had barely given us time to climb aboard before setting off, and we scooted across the busy intersections towards the closest sight.  At one point - apparently - we passed near the site of one of the few preserved remnants of the old wall that was erected around the Jewish quarters of Krakow old town - one of five Ghettos used by the Nazi's to further emasculate it's citizens, but unfortunately we were gone in a blink and I didn't see it. 

What we did manage to see was a monument to the Ghetto Jews.  In the middle of a square was a well-maintained, cobbled square containing evenly-placed chairs.  All around the buildings were modified or replaced entirely with modernity, but the chairs had significance.  Created in 2005, each of the chairs - and there are many situated in the square, including some at the bus stops - represent a thousand Jewish victims of the exterminations in the Old Town alone.  People are encouraged to sit on them, reminding them that anyone is capable of being one of the victims.

The disappearing light told us that it was time to give up on the sightseeing, and so we asked to go back to the city centre, close enough to the hotel but on the other side of the town square so we could pass through.  After seeing the sights for today it was refreshing to return to the crowded and pleasant market square where people were happy and carefree, although we looked with new eyes on the architecture thanks to our history lesson; particularly the central clock, the historical place of hangings and beheadings, and the restored statue of Jewish poet Adam Mickiewicz, destroyed by the Nazis at the start of the war.  The square itself was briefly renamed Adolf Hitler Platz - something the overtly modest dictator had a penchant for doing.

Our day was nearing it's end, but we were not quite done yet.  Our hotel only had it's room available for today, and so we needed to lug our things across from the south to the north side of the town centre, where a swanky new hotel would provide quite a contrast to our delapidated (but more interesting) current one.

Ms. Plants insisted she knew the best route and a tram/taxi was unnecessary.  I was quizzical - and increasingly so as we lugged our heavy belongings through the darkening and busying streets.  Eventually, we found the hotel - an impressive but rather featureless structure no more than a year or so old - and checked ourselves in.  We rested our bones for a while, went out for a meal, and looked around the evening markets in the cool night air.

The Golden Plantpots 2013

Plantpots time is here again, and I have on my sparkly costume, the pockets filled with golden envelopes.  Directors shun the opinions of the Cannes judges at this time of year because they know the Plantpots will soon be revealed.  This is a fact.

With the odd mainstream cinema film inbetween, this review of the year comes from the following festivals:
Due to one thing and another, the number of films watched this year was tempered quite a bit and some of the big hitters - Gravity, for instance - managed to slip through unwatched.  I'd just like to reassure any film directors that just because you weren't mentioned doesn't mean your film was bad, so step away from that cliff edge.

So in order for the year to be rounded out properly and the assorted filmistas of the world to know what DVDs to buy, here are this years' pots.

Best Film - Little World (Spa)

There is something so positive and uplifting about the story of young Albert and his worldly travels.  At such a young age he has kept his cheeky teenage spirit and yet seen more of the world and the kindness of it's people than many of us ever will.  It's a film about love and separation, the kindness of strangers, and the positivity of what might happen if you just keep going.  I defy anyone not to be inspired by this film.

Honourable Mentions:

The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Ind/Pak) - A challenging and entertaining adaptation of the best-selling novel, presents a complex and clouded view of right and wrong in today's fear-fuelled society.

Nebraska (US) - An ageing Bruce Dern as Woody - stubborn, cranky and a little bit off his rocker, initiating a father-son road movie full of warmth and laughter. One of the highlights of Leeds this year.

Captain Phillips (US) - Superior to A Hijacking earlier this year (which in itself is a good film), Tom Hanks again manages to shake off his mainstream persona and give one of the best performances of his career.

The Rocket (Australia) - A slightly macabre story of a cursed child trying to win a rocket competition to get his family out of debt isn't going to win any prizes for originality (spoiler: they win) but the setting is unique, the characters lively and entertaining, and the journey is equal parts funny and tragic.

From Up on Poppy Hill (Jpn) - Though Miyazaki Jnr. still has some way to go before he can take over the reins from his recently-retired dad, (the permanence of which remains to be seen) this father-son collaborative effort is richly evocative of previous real-life Ghibli films (sometimes very much so) and shows that he has come some way since Earthsea.

The Look of Love (UK) - Although the subject matter - the life of notorious pornographer Paul Reymond - may put some people off (along with the large amount of female flesh that comes with such a study), this film makes a good job of portraying the man behind the bodies without any rose-tinting, although some of his closer acquaintances will probably complain at some of the bits they missed out.

Pearblossom Hwy (US) - The story of the unfortunate life of Cory; a young, effeminate man living uncomfortably and in secret in the deep south with a tough army guy for a brother could go many ways, some very depressing I would guess.  But this low budget offering manages to keep the situation realistically edgy while also giving hope that people can change their perceptions and not let differences come in the way of family.

Best Short Film - The Livelong Day (UK)

This affectionate look at the lives of model train enthusiasts is a perfect example of the sort of short film that works most effectively - highlighting a passion or a person that would normally stay hidden from the world.  Subtly mixing model train footage with actual engines going through the American mountains, it's just long enough to make you look with different eyes at an oft-demeaned hobby.

Honourable Mentions:

The Globe Collector (Australia) - A film in a similar vein to the winner, and there was little to choose from between them. Andrew probably drove his mother mad with his stacks and stacks of hoarded lightbulbs, but the film was filled with affection and made his passion interesting.

Jerry and Me (US) - A woman's fond memories of the films of Jerry Lewis as she grew up in an increasingly unstable Iran gave an effective, personal account of the shifting perceptions of the outside world during that era.

Rocket (UK) - The winner of the Virgin Shorts competition opened the Bradford festival this year, and charmed us with a dog who wanted to fly to the moon. Adorable.

Miniyamba (Den/Fra) - The story of an old man taking a perilous journey to Spain for a better life is beautiful and bittersweet.
Best Animation -
Patema Inverted (Jpn) 

This year's choices were a bit thin on the ground for animation and as usual, anime dominated it.  There were a few slight disappointments and even though Patema Inverted was another take on two kids from opposing sides of a war coming together, with a slightly ridiculous plot mechanic, it was still the best of the bunch, although Poppy Hill managed to be up there too.

Honourable Mentions:
From Up On Poppy Hill (Jpn) - The collaboration between Miyazaki's senior and junior had it's faults (and retreaded some pretty familiar ground) but it was leagues ahead of Earthsea and up there with the best of Ghibli's 'real life' films.

Hal (Jpn) - A short from Production IG with a sizeable story eclipsing some films twice it's length.  It's gentle and quirky, sci-fi while retaining it's down to earth humanity, and not completely predictable.

Evangelion 3.0 (Jpn) - Eva 3 has several reasons not to watch; a depressingly wrecked world, hundred mile an hour conversations and even faster action sequences and a complicated story canon behind it so if you hadn't seen the first two films recently you'd be well out of your depth.  But Anno has [re-]created a desolately, horribly beautiful film with 20-year old fully-rounded out characters.  I await next years' final conclusion.

Best Documentary -
Little World (Spa)

There were many documentaries to choose from but Little World was always going to be up there.  Albert's attitude to life and the people he meets, despite his paralysis is an inspiration.

Honourable Mentions:
 The Last Dogs of Winter (NZ) - The unlikely pairing of an ageing hippy and an ex-teenage TV celebrity working together to preserve the packs of unwanted eskimo hunting dogs gives a window into a desolate and beautiful world where passion and sense of duty create something unique.

Grasp the Nettle (UK) - The story of one of the more well-known Occupy movements and their origins in a plot of undeveloped waste ground, living outside the norm and supporting themselves. Many a cynical eye will have seen the makeshift tents and structures and sneered, but this film gives voice to the movement, and it's diverse characters.

William and the Windmill (US/Mal/SA) - A fly on the wall documentary that exposed perhaps more than enthusiastic Tom might want to have shown, as he guides the naive and agreeable William from his small African hometown, through interviews alongside gawping celebrities and book and movie deals whether he likes it or not. A multilayered film with a story behind a story behind a story, the crassness of publicity and the need to not always be so polite.

Tokyo Waka (Jpn) - A beautiful meditation on the city and it's birds and people, and how they interact.  Slow and purposeful, almost zen-like documentary.

A Lot With A Little Award - Nebraska (US)

Road movies are traditionally low budget bankers for a good laugh and a decent story, but Nebraska in particular used what seemed to be a very thin shoestring to deliver a very high-quality film, so long as you don't get hang-ups about seeing something in black and white. Grumpy Woody, his sons and family, and the people they meet are the perfect companions on a road trip across dysfunctional America.

Pearblossom Hwy (US) - The bittersweet tale of an awkward young man and his bolshy brother coming to terms with their approaches to life even borrowed the characters from another film to keep costa down.

Secret City (UK) - Though it could have done with some tidying up and a bit of fat trimming off, Secret City contained a lot within it's zero-budget runtime.

Much Ado About Nothing (US) - I hesitated in including Joss Whedon's take on the Shakespearean tale since he's not short of a bob or two, and the film is littered with celeb-types from his various other works; but if you'll believe the stories, this was all done over a weekend after they had all come over to his house for a bit of a knees-up, so technically they didn't spend a dime. Maybe.

A Night Too Young (Cze/Slo) - Set entirely inside a cramped apartment, A Night Too Young makes for an awfully uncomfortable night for two young boys stumbling on the world of the adults and realizing it's not somewhere they should be. Troubling to watch but masterfully acted.

Enjoy The Journey Award -
The ABC's of Death (US/Various)

There is little else to do with the ABC's of death other than to just sit there and watch, open mouthed, as many people meet with an inventive array of gruesome deaths.  The clever twist of getting a different director to do each of the 26 five-minute pieces makes for a refreshingly entertaining take on the horror film, if that's your thing.

Honourable Mentions:

Little World (Spa) - It can be watched in many ways; an inspiration to stop making excuses about your personal limitations and get out there, to restore faith and trust in your fellow human, or just simply to enjoy as a nonchalant trip around the earth.

Tokyo Waka (Jpn) - A gently meditative look at the existence between man and nature in the largest metropolis on earth, taking it's time and popping off on indulgent tangents as it went.

Leviathan (Fra/UK) - It's repetitive nature grated after the first twenty minutes or so, but one thing this film did do correctly was give a warts-and-all peek into the horribly fishy, stormy, undulating lives of the poor fishermen catching our food day and, more often, night.

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (US) - Never going to win any intellectual prizes, the latest, and probably last, Universal Soldier film was a surprisingly good bullet-fest that kept the eyes from glazing over right up until the pitted and worn faces of Lundgren and Van Damme at the end.
After the Credits Roll - The Tax Free Tour 

Perhaps an odd choice, but the subject matter of the film  - how the corporations we know and love are screwing their host countries out of millions of pounds in tax avoidance - was a talking point between friends and family for some time afterwards.  See also Secret City.

Honourable Mentions:

Dysmorphia (UK) - A deeply disturbing film about a man whose own limbs cause him revulsion.

After Lucia (Mex/Fra) - Perhaps the most difficult film to watch this year; After Lucia is a very powerful testament to the cruelty of children in the years before a moral conscience develops.  This may be a cathartic or horrifying experience for a viewer if they were the victim of bullying during childhood, but there is no doubt it was a fantastically played film.

Captain Phillips (US) - Tom Hanks gives a particularly fragile and nuanced performance as the titular captain in this true-life story of a container ship hijacked by somali pirates.  The final scenes of the broken man as he is brought out of the danger zone stay in the mind for some time after.

Little World (Spa) - It was hard to come out of this film and not reflect on my own achievements.  Young Albert put them to shame.

 Emotional Kick - After Lucia (Mex/Fra)

Make no mistake; this is not an easy film to watch, but the emotions will run high throughout this tale of a poor girl on the receiving end of some serious bullying.  And it will stay with you.

Honourable Mentions:

My House Without Me (Pol) - The quiet life of an old Polish grandmother in a dilapidated farmhouse is momentarily returned to the most upsetting period of her life, through the memories she recounts of uprisings and seizures and losing everything as the war machine bulldozed it's way through her life sixty plus years ago.

Twist Award -
Hal (Jpn)

Hal was one of those films that didn't quite make sense until you experienced the twist near the end, and everything slipped satisfyingly into place.

Honourable Mentions:

The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Pak/Ind) - An array of characters with satisfyingly obscure motives meant you were constantly being shifted one way and another between whether or not to fully trust Riz Ahmeds' character.

Patema Inverted (Jpn) - Can I put this here? Twists were a bit thin on the ground this year, and there were plenty of (non-narrative) twists thanks to the gravity dynamic.

Echo (UK) - A mid-film twist turns what you saw before completely on it's head, showing a woman's city centre predicament as not all that it seems.

Cleverest Film -
Patema Inverted (Jpn)

A clever inversion of gravity concept behind the film is a little silly (since it's for some reason affecting only some people) but what it does with it feels like a refreshing breeze into the occasionally stagnant anime genre.

Honourable Mentions:-

The ABC's of Death (US/Various) - Horror may not be your thing, but the sheer inventiveness here is something to be admired.

Computer Chess (US) - Not completely honest to it's audience, it's difficult not to admire a film for it's ability to keep you guessing between documentary and parody for the first twenty minutes.

The Ballad of Maria Lassnig (Austria) - A charming little film celebrating the life of a woman and her work, in her own words, songs, and costumes.

 Biggest Laugh - Nebraska (US)  

Constantly entertaining with a wide range of foil characters for Woody to bounce off.

Honourable Mentions:

The ABC's of Death (US/Various) - Once you've seen the final letters, you'll see why this is here.  The Japanese and American directors vie it out for most over the top, ludicrous ways to die.

Beware of Mr. Baker (US) - Mister Baker wields a fist at the interviewer within the first minute.  He's a grumpy old sod with a sardonic sense of humour.

The Perfectionists (Spa) - A perfectly judged mickey take of the seriousness put into method acting, in a film just short enough not to be annoying.

Best Indie to Show Your Friends -
The ABC's of Death (US/Various)
It was difficult to choose this years' best for introducing friends, but this death-fest is the best contender based on entertainment value, variety and occasional jaw-dropping wtfunniness.

Honourable Mentions: (subtitled films have a *)

The Rocket * (Australia) - A charming tale of a young boy overcoming his 'curse' and getting his family out of debt is as entertaining as it is improbable.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Ind/Pak) - Complex and entertaining, it stays just this side of confusing not to be a barrier.

Nebraska (US) - Again gets a mention.  Consistently funny, warm and entertaining.

Little World * (Spa) - It's difficult not to recommend this even with the language barrier, which is the only reason it didn't win.

The Look of Love (UK) - A heady mixture of female flesh, seedy back rooms and Alan Partridge playing a straight part results in a nicely judged film about a man many would find deplorable.

The Manky Sankey Awards

Consequently, the lack of films overall means less to complain about as well.

Biggest Let Down -
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (US) 

With a story canon as important as a major DC comics character, and millions of fans hoping for an impressive big budget tribute to the life of the man in black, what we got was a stitching together of two direct-to-DVD films that have the budget of the average Saturday morning cartoon.  Camp without the 60's TV series charm, grumpy and violent without the finesse of the latest films or the cartoons of the 90's, it tries to straddle the markets for kids and adults and ends up suitable for neither.  And it got an indulgent documentary for some reason.

Dishonourable Mentions:

Kill Me (Ger/Fre/Swi) - My main problems with this film are the rather clumsy attempts to steer the audience to an opinion of the escaped convict and his 'hostage', and the complete lack of surprises in the story. It was by no means a bad film, but just disappointing.

The Strange Little Cat (Ger) - Though it had the potential to be a clever, thoughtful film that relied on character development to keep interest up, there just wasn't enough to the characters - even the appealingly cheeky daughter - to make it pleasurable to watch.

An Anthropological Television Myth (Ita) - What could have been an engrossing documentary about the political and cultural upheavals during the Sicilian upheavals of the 1980's was bogged down with dull footage and a lack of clear narrative.

Garden of Words (Jpn) - There was a time when Makoto Shinkai had the expectations of being the next Miyazaki, and while its certainly the case that he is a talented artist, his storytelling is constantly melodramatic and his trademark quick scene changes and birds in flight becomes tiring.  Garden of Words manages to be watchable but nowhere near the heights of storytelling that would accompany visuals of this caliber.

Leviathan (Fra/UK) - Though it managed to convey a rugged and fishy-smelling life aboard the vessels bobbing about on the seas of the world, it became too repetitive and slow-moving to become entertaining.

Cold Eyes (S Kor) - Though praised by the people at Cannes, it contained too many stock action items and became a bit too Inception-y to stand out on it's own.

Most Pretentious -
Remote... Remote... (US)

The sixpackfilm is a goldmine of pretentious idiocies of film, freshly found this year with the sixpackfilmclassics strand.  Top of this list comes Remote... Remote..., a 'classic' short film involving a woman cutting her fingernails and cuticles until they bleed while some idiot bangs a paint pot with a stick.  This is not genius.  It is rubbish.

Dishonourable Mentions:

Ballhead (Austria) - Sixpackfilm provides a woman typing with her bandaged head as she bleeds profusely.  Stupid sound effects play behind.  Awful.

Self Mutilation (Austria) - Another sixpackfilmclassics entry.  A person.  Paint, wires, dull-blade knives.  Idiocy.

Most Drawn Out Scene -
Leviathan (Fra/UK)

There wasn't many films this year with such scenes, but Leviathan had several prime examples.  Sure, these scenes were effective in showing the often disgusting slop and dangerous conditions rife in such a profession, but they went on far, far too long, and repeated themselves when the director thought we had forgotten about them.

Dishonourable Mentions:

Trees in Autumn (Austria) - Trees.  In Autumn.  With loads of knackered film footage.

Habitat (US) - A ten minute long montage made from images of buildings overlaid on each other, with the odd tree included here and there.  The usual scratchy soundtrack didn't help.

Most Annoying Film - Ballhead (Australia)
There are any number of the six pack films that would count as annoying, but Ballhead gets inclusion here.  A woman self-mutilates (a common theme in these films, it seems) and then dresses her bloodied head, and then uses it as a typewriter.  It goes beyond annoying and into meaningless wrongness.  I wish I could have shown you how wrong it was but no online footage seems to exist.

Dishonourable Mentions:

Computer Chess (US) - Though it had it's funny bits and was less annoying once you had accepted and adjusted to the parodical rather than documentary nature of the film, Computer chess still managed to annoy throughout because I was constantly thinking about what a missed opportunity this film was.  An affectionate look at early computer intelligence competitions with found footage and interviews would have made for a far more enjoyable film, but instead the director decided that sneery derision in the form of unlikable characters would be more fun.