It doesn’t feel like 15 years have passed since the 9/11 attacks, nor two years since the 9/11 Memorial Museum opened at Ground Zero. Yet, somehow, they have, and the memorial site at Ground Zero is so familiar and so firmly embedded on the tourist route that a group of lads on a stag party (or bachelor party, to American readers) will nonchalantly pose in front of the two sobering memorial pools, a blow-up doll alongside them.
The stag photos rightly caused controversy this week, but the outrage didn’t extend to the preening and pouting fellow tourists around them. One couple took a kissing selfie, perhaps blissfully unaware of their surroundings or just too self-absorbed to care. The thing is, it’s a privilege to stand at the memorial. It should be a place where you stop to reflect, whether you choose to go to the adjoining museum or not. If you are brave enough to face the Memorial Museum, this is what you can expect.
You don’t decide to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau on a whim, so it’s crucial to make the most of your time there. In my last post I covered the emotional impact of visiting the two camps, but now I’m focusing on the practical side.
Do you want to take the bus, the train, a pre-booked coach trip (with or without a tour included), or would you rather hire a driver? When you arrive, would you prefer to wander alone or join a group? If you’re indecisive, or a bit confused by conflicting opinions from other travellers, take a deep breath, grab a cuppa and we’ll go through the options.
There’s so much to tell you about visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau that I’ve split this into two posts: first the emotional side of things, then the practical side. It’s important not to let logistics overtake the reasons you’d want to visit: to learn, to pay respects, to remember, and to pass on what you’ve seen.
My mum and I arrived on a cold but sunny March morning and joined a group tour with an official guide. This was what we discovered under bright blue skies.
What to Expect
Auschwitz I looks less like a traditional camp and more like a forlorn housing estate, because it used to be an army barracks, whereas Birkenau’s low wooden buildings were stables for horses before they housed people, and the brick buildings came later. Life goes on around the camps, with houses and businesses on their very fringes, and signs directing you to KFC. Monowitz-Buna, one of the satellite camps, was based further away and doesn’t exist anymore, but our guide pointed it out from Birkenau as laying beyond the two industrial towers in the distance.
I’ve seen couples posing for romantic photos at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, and children use it as a playground, leaving sweet wrappers behind; I’ve seen bored teenagers struggling to feign interest at Sachsenhausen concentration camp. In those cases it was the visitors, not the attractions, lacking emotional intelligence and leaving me speechless.
London’s Jack the Ripper Museum, in the heart of Whitechapel, has gone one step further in terms of emotional intelligence failures, by actively encouraging tourists to mock murder victims. The appalling serial killings of Victorian prostitutes are offered as the perfect subject for a selfie or two this Halloween weekend. A recent press release, publicising the museum as a Halloween attraction, suggests visitors take “a selfie with the serial killer” (or, at least, a mysterious bloke in a top hat). Fancy “a picture with Jack in Mitre Square together with the body of Catherine Eddowes”? Go ahead. It’s not like Eddowes can complain, right?
There’s nothing like a walking tour to immerse yourself in a city, but being guided by a pirate is an added incentive. During my recent stay in Bristol I finally got to try out the famous Pirate Walk, led by Pirate Pete, which covers swashbucklers, slavery and 18th century life. Pete is a lively entertainer, with his eye-catching costume and Jolly Roger flag, and you can tell he loves his job – after all, he’s been offering tours for 15 years, and has even given lectures in Florida about the famous Blackbeard.
I’m the proud owner of the complete Poirot DVD box set. It’s pretty addictive watching a moustachioed David Suchet (as Hercule Poirot) solving crimes with his little grey cells in overdrive. However, I’m under no illusions that real crime is anywhere near as neatly solved as Agatha Christie would have us believe.
Whilst Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime is Poirot-less, it does contain more than enough genuine artefacts and stories to keep whodunit fans in suspense. I’d already read crime writer Val McDermid’s book (of the same title), which acts as the official companion to the exhibition, so I had an inkling about some of the displays and their place in the history of forensics. If you haven’t already bought the book and don’t have time to read it beforehand, try to get your hands on a signed copy from the Wellcome shop.
The website says it best: ‘At a Death Cafe people, often strangers, gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death.’ Not to discuss the weather, or your latest celebrity crush, but something much more dramatic and important that affects us all. You know, the big impending sense of doom that we Brits are generally too polite to talk about.
Death Cafe is a unique not-for-profit franchise, spearheaded by Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz in 2004, pops up all over the world. The UK-led website (inspired by Crettaz and run by Jon Underwood) lists 1325 previous meetings, which have been held everywhere from San Diego to Stratford-Upon-Avon, and from Brisbane to Beijing; it’s hoped a permanent cafe can be established in London soon.
The Portuguese capital is associated with WWII spies and dimly lit cobbled streets, but at face value it would seem to be missing the deadly undertones of cities like Paris (bloody revolution, catacombs, the Père Lachaise Cemetery) or London (plague pits, the Great Fire, Jack the Ripper).
As with most major cities, there are the inevitable ghost stories associated with Lisbon, and the ghost tours that go hand in hand; it would be naive to say that death doesn’t have a global entertainment value. Last year there was even a play called Dark Tourism, devised by local dance and drama group Silly Season, staged in a theatre on Rua Garrett. But if you want something more concrete, more respectful, there are plenty of options – you just have to know where to find them.
Imagine a cemetery where the decor mirrors the state of the city surrounding it; imagine elegant plinths crumbling away and rusting railings guarding them. This is the reality of Cementerio Colon, a sprawling 140 acre site in the Vedado district of Havana, where the lines of graves are so long that there are actual streets carving up each section.
There’s as much decay here as in the city centre, but there’s also a sense of belonging, with the tributes left to loved ones being much more personal and emotional than anything you’d encounter back in the UK. Yet many of the graves are poorly maintained because the relatives left behind have escaped Cuba and managed to emigrate elsewhere, leaving some corner of the cemetery to fall into obscurity in their absence. This is what I found when I spent a morning inside the gates…