Mum and I are on our own today as Dad has gone down with a cold. Whilst this is unfortunate for him, we are a bit excited that as well as sightseeing, it means there will also be an opportunity to do some shopping.
On the way to the old town (Stare Miasto), we stop off for some breakfast at a cafe that I read about called Café Zagadka (Zagadka meaning riddle due to the fact the owners didn’t have a name for the café). It’s a very cool little place, Kings of Leon playing over the speakers. We order salty (savoury) omelettes and when they arrive at our table they are massive and fluffy. I’m sure by looking at it I won’t be able to finish it, but when I taste it, it’s incredibly light and delicious.
The meandering walk to the old town is full of graceful old (ah, new) buildings and hidden surprises. There are lots of monuments, the importance of which I can’t understand (due to a lack of English descriptions), and lots of building going on. This is the part that doesn’t look liked a communist lego town.
Finally, we arrive at the old town. Being only 50-odd years old, Warsaw’s Old Town looks to be 200. The most valuable historical monuments were restored to their previous appearance based on original drawings and photographs, and these efforts were mostly concentrated around the Old Town. So complete was the restoration that it was granted the UNESCO Old Town World Heritage status in 1980. The Royal Castle wasn’t rebuilt until 1971 and was completed in 1984.
The old town itself is tiny and doesn’t take long to explore at all.
The authorities had to build a whole new city from scratch, which unfortunately for many suburbs, and under Stalin, resulted in a city centre of bunker-like structures and prefabricated concrete blocks. New steel and glass towers are starting to break up the skyline though.
Our first stop in the old town is Kamienne Schodki. These are the famous stone steps where Napoleon walked and for some reason it has caught a twig at the back of my brain as one of those tiny strings of information I recall my grandmother commenting on – not in any important way that meant anything to me – just a line that for some reason stayed buried deep in my brain. Turns out, the stone steps are a special place for all Poles. They are listed as a UNESCO Heritage site even though they are only 60 years old.
This narrow street lined with a stone staircase, was first mentioned in 1527 when people used to pass through a crack in the defensive walls of the city in order to carry water from the Vistula River. In 1806, Napoleon Bonapart went down to the shore of the Vistula in the company of Prince Jozef Poniatowski via the stone stairs.
Napoloeon Bonaparte spent a great deal of time in Poland, and was revered by the Poles as a potential national saviour. He personally vowed to reverse the Polish partition that had been imposed on the country by Russia.
Not far from the steps, you come across a grassy knoll that offers sweeping views of the River Wisla. Known as Gnojna Gora (Compost Hill to you), this are once served as the town rubbish dump, and at one stage was renowned for its healing properties – this is where the rich would come to be buried up to their necks in rubbish as a supposed cure for syphilis.
There’s nothing to commemorate the spot, so I’ll assume this is it.
The Barbican and City Walls is just around the corner. Warsaw is one of the few European capitals where a large portion of the old city wall survives. Like most things, the wall was partially destroyed in WWII, and had to be rebuilt in parts and the barbican was restored to its full scale.
Even further around the corner is Syrena – symbol of Warsaw. She’s plastered across everything. Legend dates to the time of Prince Kazimerz, who allegedly got lost while on a hunting expedition in the area that is now Warsaw. Behold! A mermaid transpired from the marshland – um, righto – and guided the prince to safety by firing burning arrows. Me thinks the Prince may have slipped into the forest to finish off a bottle of top quality Belvedere, fallen asleep and had a rip-snorter of a dream! Really! Mermaids in marshes!
The Poles are a superstitious bunch believe it or not, and if you come across the junction of Ulica Piekarska and Ulica Rycerska, you’ll find an area that used be home to a small square primarily used for executions. This is where witches and other ragamuffins would be burned at the stake, hung or have their heads chopped off. I couldn’t find anywhere to commemorate this, but this is the only kind of square in the location, so once again, I will assume this is the area.
There an abundance of churches in this neighbourhood, but the one we’ve come to see is the Holy Cross Church. Because in a small urn by the second pillar on the left side of the nave, is Frederik Chopin’s heart. Yep, you heard me right. It was bought here from Paris after Chopin’s death, in accordance with his will. The church unfortunately doesn’t appear to be open.
Poland, or Warsaw in particular, is Chopin-mad! And they have a right to be because it’s here that he was born in 1810. The city of Warsaw has installed fifteen musical benches, placed at key sites connected with Chopin’s life. Made of cast iron and polished black stone, these benches feature a button which when pressed are designed to unleash a thirty second torrent of Chopin. Also equipped with a route map and brief explanations of the site, the benches also go techno – each one is encrypted with a special code – take a pic on your phone and send it to the instructed number and you’ll be rewarded with free access to Chopin melodies, facts, figures and photographs! We managed to stumble upon one.
Leaving the old town, we came across the sad panda. Head in hands, rollerblades on feet, he sits with a collection tin in front of him, bemoaning his bad luck. He shakes his head, cries and rubs his pretend tears away. He just wants your money. Please help the sad panda out!
For lunch, we indulge in a tasting of pierogi and they are amazing. There were a lot of different kinds on the menu, and it was hard to narrow it down, but we did well and the pierogi were amazing. We had Russian pierogi, spinach and feta, wild mushroom, cheese and champignons and cream. Sooooo good.
Now, it was time to hit the shops. We didn’t do that much damage, but I managed to pick up some items for my niece and it was nice for a change of pace. Across the road however, was something I hadn’t planned on investigating, but it was so close it would have been a shame to miss it. The Palace of Science and Culture.
Also known as the white elephant in lacy underwear, it’s another one of those ‘gifts from Stalin’ that the Poles are still paying for, and they don’t like it one bit. It’s actually one of the most interesting buildings on the skyline, so I think I would be right in understanding that the hatred of the building is based purely on feeling and not on asthetics. Upon entering the marble clad monstrosity (there are over 3,000 rooms in this building), you can buy a ticket for a ride to the 30th floor, accompanied by a lovey grumpy polish woman on a chair, for the best view of the city around. Unfortunately, you’ll probably have no idea what you are looking at, because not much is sign posted as with other look outs around the world.
What it did make us realise was exactly how far we had walked today. So it was a well deserved taxi ride home to enjoy aa relaxing bubble bath and champagne before we think about what to do tonight.
We decide to have a quiet meal at the hotel and then take a stroll around our interesting neighbourhood. At the intersection of Chlodna and Zelazna, are two giant metal poles connected across Chlodna by wires. This is the location of one of the most recognisable images of the Warsaw ghetto; the footbridge that connected the small and large ghettos. In fact, if you’ve seen the pianist, you’ll probably recognise it. It is now a memorial called the Footbridge of Memory.
At night, the wires light up and create a virtual bridge in the exact location of the former ghetto bridge. The poles also have viewing windows where visitors can flip through images of life in the Warsaw ghetto. You’ll also notice the pavement outline that symbolises the ghetto’s borders which are found on the sidewalk along Chlodna.
As I mentioned, I originally thought I’d made a mistake booking this hotel as it wasn’t in the best location, but in reality, it’s a neighbourhood full of hidden stories about the past. The streets and buildings tell a million stories of battles won and lost and it’s historically fascinating. After dinner, we take the opportunity to walk around the streets. Here are some of its stories…