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History Students head to Berlin and Krakow

During the early hours of 12th October 17 of our Year 10-13 Students embarked on an unforgettable 5 day trip to Berlin and Krakow as part of their History study.

Department Head, Mr Banks, organised this wonderful trip and shared a daily journal; please see below to read all about their adventure.

Day 1: Berlin

A long and tiring day but rewarding.

Everything tended to take longer than we anticipated and we did make a few wrong turns and got a little confused about whether we were going West or East on quite a few occasions. 

The iconic Brandenburg Gate was a great photo backdrop. The thought provoking holocaust memorial provided some deep moments of reflection. Then gaudiness of Check Point Charlie provided some retail therapy. 

We all wished Jack a happy 16th  and sang a raucous happy birthday. 

We had a really excellent American guide for our walking tour and the hotel rooms were BIG and they even had a Pizza vending machine!

Day 2: Berlin

A good German breakfast – lots of meat, cheese and fruit – was followed by a full on day in the city. 

We first visited the Stasi, East German Secret Police HQ for a bit of grim Cold War history. 

After a couple of adventures on the public transport system we arrived at the Bundestag for a visit to this remarkable building and the even more remarkable panoramic dome. It really was very impressive. Sadly, the weather decided to turn grey and damp and this spoiled the far reaching views a little. 

We then hot footed it to Friedrichstrasse for a lunch break with many options of fast food – including good old fish and chips! 

On next to perhaps the highlight of the day.
The remarkable Judische Museum. Both the architecture and the exhibition contents properly enthralled our Students. Some of the exhibits were very challenging and sobering. Our Students did the school proud in their interactions with the excellent guide (who was the son of a Holocaust survivor). 

We ended the afternoon with an hour and a half free time in the Alexander Platz area to enjoy coffee, cakes and shopping. 

We returned for dinner at the end of a fascinating day. One last trip into Berlin tomorrow morning and then Krakow.

Day 3: Berlin

A grey, windy and wet morning greeted our bleary eyes at 0700. However, by the time we got to central Berlin the clouds had given way to beautiful sunshine and blue skies. This gave us a fantastic perspective of the array of monumental classical buildings across the Spree on ‘Museum Island’. There were some gorgeous photo opportunities. 

We entered the labyrinth of the Neus Museum at 10.15am and lost ourselves (at times literally) in the treasures of Egypt, Assyria, Persia and Golden Mycenae. We emerged into the sunlight at 11.45, too late alas to make it to the Hamburger Bahnhof Gallery. Instead we strolled through Berlin’s Art Market and ended up in the Hackische Market  to enjoy some superb street food for lunch. 

We took the trusty M6 tram for the last time back to our base at Genslerstasse deep in old East Berlin. At 2pm promptly our coach arrived and we bid farewell to the A&O Kolumbus and to Berlin, and began the 8 hour drive to Krakow. 

The long drive was punctuated by ‘comfort breaks’ and a McDonalds!
We arrived about 11pm in light rain.  The Hotel Maksymilian is very different from the A&O Kolumbus. City centre, old street with trams, an old high ceiling building and a courtyard bar! Most importantly after an 8 hour drive, it has comfortable beds.

Day 4: Krakow

Visit to Auschwitz Birkenau.
This was easily the most profound of our visits so far. It was, on one level, a powerful contact with one of the darkest episodes in recent human history and an episode whose legacy has touched so much of the world’s history and development since. But on another level it was an intensely personal and sometimes emotionally challenging experience. There were some points on our tour when some Students needed to step back and take a moment to process what they were seeing. 

It is in fact two distinctly different experiences. The Auschwitz part of the tour was quite intimate, mainly indoors and with headphones. The exhibits sometimes straining the capacity to deal with the levels of cold cruelty. The Birkenau part of the visit was entirely outdoor and challenged you with the shear size of the site, 420 acres accommodating over 100,000 people at a time. On this bleak and open site over one and a half million people were murdered.

After returning from Auschwitz we had some down time in the hotel before dinner. After dinner we took a short walk to the heart of ancient Krakow and the magnificent flood lit Rynek Glowny square. This area really is impressive at night, the floodlit magnificence of the Cloth Hall and St Mary’s Basilica and the square lined with cafes with their flaming external heaters. The fairy tale atmosphere is further enhanced by a romantic castle on a hill and LED bedecked horses and carriages for the romantically inclined tourists with deep pockets. The students settled for less expensive indulgences such as ice creams, chocolates and ‘second dinner’ opportunities. The atmosphere was a massive contrast to the solemn tones of the morning and made some of our students quite giddy. That may explain why a couple of them bought full sized replica wooden swords without stopping to think why they might want them and how they intend to get them back to the UK!!

Quite a contrast to Berlin! 

Day 5: Krakow

The Wieliczka mine is just a short coach ride from Krakow. They have been mining salt here for more than 2000 years and as recently as 1991. In that time they dug down 170 meters and created 17 levels and well over 100km of passages. The most impressive sights are the huge caverns – some over 50 meters in height – all hewn out by miners over centuries. One we saw had a large brine lake that people used to bath in believing it cleansed the skin. There is a chapel in the mine which conducts regular Sunday services (you can get married there for 2000 Euro). There are hundreds of beautifully crafted salt statues and everywhere glitters with the encrusted salt. 

We saw about 1% of the mine and walked over 5km underground, descended 850 steps and enjoyed a thrilling fast elevator ride to the surface at the end. Everyone really enjoyed this unforgettable experience. Our guide was superb and his sense of humour well appreciated. 

In the afternoon we returned to Krakow and the magical old town. Here was an opportunity to explore two Basilicas, a castle and the remains of the city walls. Quite a lot of our group also explored Starbucks and the Cloth Hall craft market.

After collecting our bags and saying goodbye to the Hotel Maksymillian, it was off to the airport and home. 

Reflections from the trip

Berlin has all the attributes of a large, cosmopolitan capital city. A great and diverse set of cultures and experiences. A lot which was ‘classical’ and grand and a lot that was quirky, experimental and thought provoking. It is a big place though and getting about always takes longer than you would think- especially when there are 17 of you and some are genetically programmed to want to pause at every food vending facility! 

Krakow is not a small city but it is far more homogeneous than Berlin, the architecture is more harmonious and the atmosphere more intimate. We were fortunate to be based just 800 meters from the centre and could enjoy the night time beauty of the illuminated city. 

Of all the many things we squeezed into five hectic days, the Students felt the most impactful sights were the Judisches Museum and Museum Island in Berlin, Auschwitz-Birkenau of course, the beauty of Krakow at night and the salt mine at Wieliczka.

Mr S Banks.