Witnessing ‘W’ Hour

Across the road from my apartment is the grounds of Krasinski Park and Palace.  Built in 1683 for the provincial governor of Plock, who was heir to a large fortune.  He set about building this residence in Poland’s capital to fulfil his political ambitions and show pride in his family.  It was purchased by the Polish state in 1765 and partly rebuilt after a fire in 1783 only to be completed burned down and demolished by the Germans in WW2.  It was of course rebuilt and you’d probably never know, as with most of the restoration work undertaken in Warsaw.

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The gardens have been accessible to the public since 1768 and the space is enjoyed by young and old today.  Covering 9.2 hectares, there are different gardens, water fountains, ponds, deck chairs and places to lay.  Heck, there’s even free wifi!

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So it’s a really enjoyable stroll through the gardens on my way to meet my cousins at POLIN this morning.  POLIN is the Museum of the History of Jews in Poland – all 1,000 years of it.  And to be honest, that will feel exactly how long you will feel like you are in there for!

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It’s an extremely comprehensive museum covering aspects of Jewish life and the struggles of the Jewish people, including Poland in WW2.  There are lots of interactive displays and lots and lots of information.  I did feel a little overwhelmed upon leaving to be honest.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely a great museum and if you have the time and the inclination to visit, you will enjoy it.  I just found it a little much.

After a brief morning tea stop in the cafe of POLIN, we make our way alongside Krasinski to the Supreme Court of Poland, where we are visiting our cousin Dorotka.  She’s an Under-Officer there and she’s agreed to give us the grand tour.  Here in this building they try both civil and criminal cases.  We start with a trip to the roof-top which has a lovely view over Dluga Street and across the city…

…before Dorotka locks us in a cell!

Lunch is served in the milk-bar style cafeteria, with a choice of 4 dishes.  I choose the cutlet with potatoes and soup with a glass of kompot.  It’s super tasty, as the simplest dishes are, and we chat a little about the family during the war, until the airport calls to say Katherine’s luggage has finally arrived.

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The building itself is rather modern, having been built in the mid 1990’s; green metal stairways throw their hue across large panelled glass walls and an outer corner of the building is held upon the heads of three large copper women.  It’s worth a look, even just from the outside.

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Wieslaw comes to collect us and briefly shows us the Field Cathedral of the Polish Army across the road before offering to drive the Pruski’s out to the airport to collect their missing luggage.  This is where Paula’s son was recently baptised.

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Walking inside, along the side walls are memorial plaques to all those in notable military units who have lost their lives, including those in the Smolensk air disaster.  Inside the cathedral you can see all sorts of decorative icons, including the headress associated with the legendary winged hussars.

Going our separate ways, I head back to my apartment to map out a plan of attack for this afternoon’s Warsaw Uprising Commemoration.  I planned this trip to make sure I was in Warsaw for this event but one thing I hadn’t quite nutted out was exactly which vantage point I would watch it from.  Paula had originally planned to come with me and we were going to head to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, but she couldn’t make it.  I knew I wanted to be where the action was, I just didn’t know where that would be until I caught a glimpse of a Facebook post that mentioned the Rotunda near the Palace of Science and Culture.  So that’s where I headed, stopping to buy an arm band along the way and pinning on a small brooch that some cadet girls passed me.

 

For those that don’t know about this day, the citizens of Warsaw spare a minute’s silence in which the whole city stops to remember those who made sacrifices during the Warsaw Uprising.  Before coming to Poland, I had seen a video titled There is a City, which not only made me cry, but sums it up perfectly.

Anyway, standing on the corner of the Rotunda, trying to find the perfect spot (when I’m not actually sure what’s going to happen or where), I hear the road of motorcycles.  Heaps of motorcycles.  Which scares me at first.  They roar up onto the middle of the Rotunda and wait.  Everyone’s waiting.  I have no idea what the time is, but then the chanting starts, so I guess it’s close to 5pm now.  I have no idea what the chanting is either, but it tapers off, Polish flags go up and one by one, flares are let go.  Smoke and red light fills the atmosphere.  It’s hot and red.  After the one minute of silence, the motorbike’s rev their engines.  It’s hot and red and loud.  And oh so patriotic and stirring.  I feel tears start to well.

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Then it’s over and the crowds disburse.

 

 

 

 

Bright Lights on the Wild Side

Praga has always been known as Warsaw’s ‘wild side’.  Think criminal underclass, dilapidated tenement buildings and black market trade.  At one time it was even known as the Bermuda Triangle.   And although the artists and musicians have now moved in and given the place an edgier feel, there’s no denying you can feel the shift when you cross the Vistula and arrive in Praga.

Today, this is where the Pruski’s and I will be exploring but I arrive about half an hour before our meeting point time to do some exploring of my own.  My Dziadzia’s (grandfather) war-time military documents note my Babcia’s (grandmother) last address in Poland as ulica Il Listopowde.  There’s no further indication of whether that was in Warsaw proper or in Praga, but seeing as the Praga version comes up on all my Google searches, I can’t miss the opportunity to see if I can find the building.

I walk up and down Il Listopowde, knowing where the building should be in the scheme of those around it according to the street numbers, but I can only find empty spaces. (Google-searching again later it seems I walked about 500m short of the destination, but unfortunately didn’t make it back there before I left Poland).

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Disappointed, I head to the Galeria Wilenska mall to wait for my cousins.  A few moments later, we are crossing the road to ulica Targowa 59 to see where my great aunt, Ciocia Ana, lived most of her life.  Ana spent the duration of WW2 living in Praga, after unsuccessfully trying to reach the rest of the family in Ostrow; though at a different address not far from here.  Praga was relatively untouched during the war – if you compare it to Warsaw.  For some reason it didn’t interest the Russians or the Germans, though I have no doubt life was seriously tough.  Dad was fortunate to meet her on his first trip to Poland, but she died a few years after.  I unfortunately never met her, which is a shame because I believe she would have had a book-load of stories to tell.

I have often wondered what it would have been like for her, sitting out the war here, not knowing what had happened to her family or whether she would ever see them again.

There are some other interesting things to see in Praga, but we need a fueling stop before we move on, so finding a Polish bakery we load up on pastries and lattes.  The cakes are really good.  On the whole, Polish cakes and pastries are not as sickly sweet as I’m used to, which is refreshing.  My niece Lola is in love with Sernik, Polish cheesecake.

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A short walk away lies the newly opened Vodka Museum and it’s been at the top of all our ‘to do’ lists prior to arriving in Warsaw.

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Housed in the old Koneser Vodka Factory which has been beautifully restored to bring you the incredible story of Polish vodka, this museum is definitely worth the trip to the gritty side.  Especially if you are a vodka fan.

First a short video is screened in the beautiful old cinema, outlining the history of Polish Vodka, and in particular the Wyborowa brand.  Wyborowa is one of the most popular Polish Vodka’s (it’s a rye vodka) and was the first to become an international trademark.

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Then you learn the even longer history of vodka itself, how it is distilled, how many types and brands there are and even partake in some little quizzes – including putting on some ‘alco goggles’.

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Now that was an interesting experience and I’m proud to say I have never in my life been that drunk that my world looks like what I saw through those glasses!

The tour concludes with three tastings of different types and brands of vodka.  The tastings included Wyborowa, Luksusova and Ostoya.  Wyborowa,as I explained earlier, is a rye vodka.  Luksusova is a potato bodka and Ostoya is a wheat vodka; the wheat is grown in the Bieszczady mountains (which I’ll visit later).  I simply had no idea that different vodka’s tasted so completely different.  I thought vodka, was vodka.  It was at this point that my new appreciation for vodka began and I vowed never to drink rubbish vodka again.

By the way, my pick is go with the Ostoya.  Can you guess which one was my least favourite.

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An Uber-ride away, lies the Soho Factory – an ‘avant-guarde space for culture and business’.  Soho seems to be a continually evolving space, but the one thing that has remained constant since the concept was created, is the Neon Museum.

This highly recommended museum is dedicated to the preservation of Cold War era signs.  It’s a small space with a lot crammed in.  Little placards explain the history of some of the signs here, advising which building the sign came from, which includes cities from all across Poland.  There’s a small gift shop on site for those who like to take home souvenir mugs and the like.

Also on the grounds of Soho is restaurant Warsawa Wschodnia, sooo posh the waiter’s place the food on your plate for you, portion by portion, throwing unamused looks at those who attempt to do so themselves.  In fact, it is one of Mateusz Gessler’s restaurants.  The food, I ordered the Risotto with Boletus (mushroom risotto) was fantastic, but I’ve never fitted into a place less.

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Warsawa Wschodnia is open 24/7.  Unsual for such a dining experience, but as Mateusz explains; “there is always a good time for good food”.  The restaurant is beautiful, with an industrial edge to it and I’d definitely go back – perhaps dressed a little better.

We bid our farewells at the tram stop, as the tracks differ for our journeys home.  I’m looking forward to a quiet one tonight because tomorrow will be busy.

Nearing my apartment, a crowd is gathering for a concert in memory of the Warsaw Uprising, tomorrow being the actual day of commemoration.  The concert is love songs from the Uprising.

 

 

Warsaw Through My Own Eyes

I was last in Warsaw about four years ago.  I was making my way through several European countries and agreed to meet Mum and Dad there on my way home.  They had also been travelling, though through different countries.  It was my first trip to Poland.  Mum and Dad hadn’t been particularly impressed by Poland on their first visit and I had wanted to change their opinion.  We did loads of fun things and had an awesome time in Krakow, but I still ended up feeling like Warsaw wasn’t open to the world.  Yet.

What would I think this time?

From what I’d seen on social media in the long lead-up to this trip, Warsaw had made great strides.  In fact, it now had way cooler looking stuff going on than Perth (though, you know my conflicted feelings about Perth by now).  Throwing away any notions from the last trip and being here completely on my own agenda, I couldn’t wait to explore every inch of the city and find out.

My cousins from Wales also arrived in Warsaw yesterday, though missing luggage has put them behind the 8-ball and I haven’t yet had the opportunity to catch up with them.  Today I’ll hopefully get that chance.

The sun rises early for my first morning in Warsaw.  My apartment is a small studio, basically one room with a bathroom and a loft. Two beautiful large windows open out to a courtyard housing nothing much except noisy people in the early hours of the morning.

Wanting Warsaw to myself for a little while, I walk to the Old Town.  The cafes and shops are yet to open, apart from the couple of Carrefourre Express stores hiding in the quiet.  The heat has already rolled in for the day and the sky is right blue.  There are only a few people out and about.  It’s hard to believe this is a city that was rebuilt almost from scratch over 70 years ago.

The weather in Warsaw is humid – just like a Perth summer in fact.  And it doesn’t take me long to realise I have not packed appropriately.  I mean, I knew it would be summer and I was hoping it would be nice and warm, but a conversation with someone prior to leaving got me second guessing and I packed thinking ‘oh it won’t be THAT hot’.  So, with little budget available for an extra travel wardrobe, I leave the Old Town and head to Marszalkowska Street to carefully select some clothes which are a bit more suitable to this heatwave.  I find a cool pair of cotton pants and am flicking through a rack of t-shirts when I hear ‘do you think this dress suits me?’.  I turn to see my cousin Chris, holding up a colourful summer dress to himself.  His daughter Katherine, who I’ve not met before (but recognise from Facebook photos) comes up not far behind him, then Chris’ wife Sharon wanders over too.  The four of us catch up quickly – I haven’t seen Chris and Sharon since my trip to Wales just before my trip to Poland, and head back to our shopping, agreeing to catch up later for a glass of wine at Cafe Sloik not far away.

Cafe Sloik is filled with colourful jars.  It’s an interesting choice of name.  Officially, it means jar.  But it’s also slang for a person from a small town that works or studies in Warsaw and leads most of their social life in their hometown.  The name is derived from the jars of cooked food which the stereotypical słoik brings back to Warsaw from their hometown to save money.   Scanning the menu for the cheapest items, I wish I had bought a meal from home!  Not that Poland is expensive, because it’s not, but my budget was based on eating at my apartment as much as possible.  I settle on carpaccio and a negroni and enjoy both.

A couple drinks under our belt, it’s time to head to Wieslaw and Dorotka’s for dinner – our first official family dinner.  I haven’t seen them since my last (and first) visit to Warsaw four years ago.  Dorotka is Dad’s cousin and mother to Paula, Zuzanna and Maja.  Paula and Maja are already there, along with Paula’s baby son Marcel, and Stan who is related by marriage to Chris’s mother.  Broken Polish-English conversations abound but between us we have a great old time.

Family Dinner with Pruskis

We enjoy an array of delicious dishes thanks to Wieslaw’s cooking prowess and there are plenty of drinks, hallmarks of Polish hospitality.  Plans are made to meet again in the next day or so.  It feels great to be here surrounded by the other side of my family, which I have not yet had the luxury of getting to know in depth.  I hope this trip will be filled with chances to do just that.

Welcomed in Warsaw

After flying forever, I can’t explain what it felt like to arrive in Warsaw for five whole glorious weeks of exploration.  Exploration of the city, exploration of my roots and exploration of what it meant to me to be Polish and proud of my heritage.  Five weeks of spending time with family, honing my language skills, travelling around and eating as many pierogi as possible.

I walked out of Gate 2 at Chopin International, only to find that my gorgeous cousins Paula and Maja were awaiting me outside Gate 1 with flowers, sparkling wine and welcoming signs.  I have never felt this kind of reception myself, though I’ve seen it at other airports and always thought that must be really nice!  And it was.  I felt welcomed the minute I saw them and knew that spending five weeks here in Warsaw getting to know my family was going to be just awesome.

We drove a short distance through Warsaw’s streetsto what would be my home for the next five weeks – an Air BNB apartment located in Dluga Street, very close to Warsaw’s Old Town and about 20 minutes away from my cousins.  It was the perfect location, and the perfect apartment (thank you Anna and Bartosz).

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The girls left, which gave me some time to shower, rest, unpack and check out the local area for groceries.

It’s been almost four years to the date since I was last in Warsaw (give or take a month) and I didn’t spend more than a few hours in the Old Town at that time, so I’m keen to start having a look around to explore just what it is that makes it every tourist’s No. 1 stop in Warsaw.  Firstly though I need groceries, so I hit the streets and find a little Zabka grocery store where I buy a packet of frozen pierogi (sacriligous I know), and head home to cook them up for dinner.

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Feeling guilty that I’m spending my first night in Poland with fake pierogi (OK, truth be told they actually weren’t that bad, fried up with a bit of butter I grabbed off the plane, but you know what I mean), I pull my tired self together and head out into the night air to soak up the atmosphere of the Old Town on a Saturday night.

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It was a great move because the evening is beautifully warm, the light is just gorgeous and the town’s restaurants are full of people enjoying Polish cuisine and hospitality.  Perhaps tomorrow, after a good night’s rest, I will be one of those people.

Who Saw Warsaw Coming?

Apart from that little long weekend in Singapore all the way back in February, I have only one trip planned for this year. But it’s a big one. Five weeks, yes five weeks, in Poland.  Well, mostly Warsaw.

IN THE SAME COUNTRY! I know right!

You know me, I usually like to tick off 5 or 6 countries when I visit Europe.  That way, it makes the super long flight worth it.  But this travel thing is about evolving.  And although I love getting to as many places as possible, on recent trips I’ve found myself really wishing I’d had more time in each place.

Well, this trip I’m giving myself plenty of time.  And with good reason because I am heading back to Warsaw, home of my paternal lineage.  It’s gonna be a kind of root finding exercise.  I will be searching for family birthplaces, possible new relatives and my lost pierogi-consuming, mushroom-picking, vodka-drinking heritage.

Dad’s family were part of a relatively unknown page of WWII history.  I say unknown, because many of the survivors were told never to discuss it.  They were ashamed to do so, just wanted to forget it or, even sadder, just didn’t think anyone would be interested.  I’ve done a lot of research into this period of history over the last few years and never realised the struggles my family faced.  Those who are interested are welcome to read about my geneology search at my website Looking for the Lukasiks.  For those who are not so interested, here’s a brief wrap up; because it forms the basis of so much of what this trip will be about for me.

World War II broke out in Gdansk on 1 September 1939 when the Germans swept into Poland from the West. The Russians swept in from the East on 17 September and deported the Poles living there to Siberia.  This area was named ‘Kresy‘, or borderlands.  Many thousands died and those who survived, spent the next decade, displaced and wandering the world, looking for shelter and safety.  New lives were created in new countries after the war; a new Polish diaspora.

I am lucky that the majority of my family survived, unlike others.  But I never really knew their story until recently.

My wishes for this trip?  That I can piece together a clearer picture of who my family was, gain a deeper understanding of my heritage and what it means to be Polish.

From what I’ve seen on social media, things have changed in Warsaw since my last visit.  I’ve been watching this city come alive with keen interest and looking back on the words I wrote after my last trip to Warsaw:

Warsaw – what can I say – I read recently that you have a face that only a mother can love. And it’s true. I know you want to open up, but I don’t think you can just yet. I’ll give you time and see how you go, but you are brave and you are a fighter and you have a fantabulous history that the world is waiting to hear about.

I’d say the buzz that was just starting when I visited in 2014 is now blooming and I can’t wait to check it out!  Let the count down begin.

Those Crazy Poles

This morning we leave Poland for our route home:  Warsaw to Frankfurt with a 10 hour stopover before heading off again.  So it’s gonna be a long boring couple of days.  Frankfurt Airport is horrible.  It’s massive.  But the signage and maps are totally unable to explain where you are and where you want to be going at any particular one time and there doesn’t seem to be any discernible rhyme or reason to layout.  Even when you ask the staff where things are they can’t explain properly.  One guy said he had been working there for 15 years and still had no idea how to get around!

I’ve talked and talked and talked for the last couple of weeks about all sorts of stuff and probably bored you half to death.  But believe it or not there are some things about Poland I may not have mentioned (ugh!) and given we’re (I’m) sitting here with not much else to do during our layover, here goes:

  • Poland (allegedly) boasts the most winners of the “World’s Strongest Man” title.
  • Poles who became household names include Antoni Patek (cofounder of watchmakers Patek Philippe & Co), Max Factor (the father of modern cosmetics) and the four Warner brothers (found of Warner Bros.)
  • Winston Churchill observed that Poland was the only country which never collaborated with the Nazis in any form and no Polish units fought alongside the German army.
  • The word ‘vitamins’ was coined in 1912 by Polish biochemist Casimir Funk.
  • ‘Esperanto’ was a Polish invention.

Anyway, its time to board our next flight and by now you know that no trip is complete without a couple of days in Singapore – don’t you roll your eyes at me!

Baby You Can Drive My Nysa

This morning we are in the hands of Adventure Warsaw to experience their “Off the Beaten Path” tour.  An our incredible journey starts in an original Polish van, the Nysa 522, symbol of Polish communist times.

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Our guide is Adam, and there are two other guests along for the ride.  Given we are already in the area, we start of with the former ghetto area, which is not usually included.  Adam tells us we have to listen to the buildings and they will tell us their stories.

Walicow shouts its story loud and clear with bullet holes littering it’s armour.   A surviving fragment of the Jewish ghetto.

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And the building across the road starred in a scene from Roman Polanski’s film, The Pianist.

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People still live in these hulks of memory.

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A bit further along, we come back to the spot Mum and I walked yesterday, Chlodna Street.  As well as the Footbridge of Memory and a few other sights, we also come across something I had trouble finding yesterday.  Etgar Keret’s house.  Keret is an author and he lives in a seriously, small, house.  It is one of the thinnest homes in the world.  Designed by architect Jakub Szczesny, the steel-framed construction is finished with Styrofoam and plywood with its widest point being 152cm and its narrowest just 92cm.  The house was built for Keret to use as a home in Warsaw.  When he’s out of town, the installation acts as a studio for visiting artists.  Found on what was the border between the large and small ghettos of Warsaw, the building can be found perched between a Communist era block and a pre-war tenement which provides the perfect social comment on the neighbourhood’s divided past.

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Can you see it?

Leaving the area, this is where the trip starts to get funny.  Our Nysa has decided that it doesn’t want to run properly.  We jerk along for a bit, then stall.  Adam gets the van going again, but she is stalling every time we brake, which with the day’s traffic, is quite frequently.  And at every set of lights.  We name the car’s new mode ‘Eco-mode’, as we coast along each time she decides to konk out.

We visit the Jewish Quarter of Warsaw, taking in the Palace of Science and Culture, and other remnants of the past and points of interest, still rolling along.

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A close up of post war Warsaw

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We stall along the way into Praga.  Praga is famous for all the wrong reasons.  For decades she’s worn the stigma of being the most run down, dull and dangerous part of Warsaw with derelict streets ruled by the criminal underworld.  But now the artists and musicians have moved in and Praga is cool.  It’s also home to Praga zoo and a group of bears living in Praski Park.

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Praga was relatively untouched during WWII.  My Babcia’s sister tied to travel to the countryside to meet up with the family, but it was too late and she couldn’t get out.  She remained in Warsaw for the remainder of the war and lived in Praga until her death a few years ago.  She was in her late 90’s.  They breed them tough out here.

We park our bright blue van on the footpath and head in to the milk bar for our lunch.  Milk bars (or ‘bar mleczny’) served traditional Polish cuisine to an endless stream of tramps, pensioners and students back in the socialist days, all for a meagre sum.  Poland’s first milk bar was actually opened in Kraków in 1948. Originally no hot dishes were served because this was a place where you went simply to enjoy milk.   They were the the Party’s attempt at popularising milk-drinking due to Poland’s surplus of dairy products.  And the food is ok.

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Compot, juice with stewed fruit in it

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When we return to our bright blue van, some bright spark has decided to park behind us, blocking us in on the footpath.  No worries, Adam has it covered…

Still sputtering and stalling, Adam creatively manages a 700-point turn in eco-mode to manoeuvre the van 180° to face the footpath in front of us, where will need to make our escape.  He deserves the massive round of applause he gets for that trick!

Lastly, we are invited for a shot of typical polish vodka in a communist style apartment, AKA Adventure Warsaw’s museum/office.  This is where we get to see all sorts of memorabilia from the era, some of it similar to the apartment in Krakow.  This tour was absolutely great, Adam was extremely knowledgeable, and not only in being able to drive the socialist relic of a van.  Like the Crazy Guides tour in Krakow, this was an amazing opportunity to see a different side of Poland.

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Having had a quick fix while we were busy skulling vodka, the van is now running much better and safely and more promptly, returns us to our hotel, where Waldek is awaiting us, ready to take us to afternoon tea at Stan’s.

I can’t believe our time here is at an end.

When the war ended, the task of tracing family members began. Notes were pinned to trees, electric poles, fence, and buildings as a short of public lost and found. On the fences of all the train stations were hundreds of notices containing addresses of those searching for lost loved ones. Large crowds gathered in front of these ‘forwarding offices’ from morning til night. There were many that would never be found; people like my Dad’s father, Krzstopf.

Warsaw’s Sad Panda

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

From below, surrounded by modern age buildings
From below, surrounded by modern age buildings
...and from the 30th floor, this is our hotel (the Hilton) in the background.
…and from the 30th floor, this is our hotel (the Hilton) in the background.

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.

The footbridge as it was - easily recognizable from many WWII movies.
The footbridge as it was – easily recognizable from many WWII movies.
The Footbridge of Memory by day...
The Footbridge of Memory by day…
...and by night.
…and by night.

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.

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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…

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Searching for Princes

So last night was our family dinner and I got to meet Stan (who is related by marriage a little way back, so not really a relative), his son Waldek, wife Dorothea and daughter Paulinka, plus the family of Dad’s cousin Graszinka, her daughter Dorota, husband Wyeslaw and daughters Paula, Susie and Maya.  It was an odd feeling to be surrounded by people talking in a language you don’t understand, though both Paula and Paulinka spoke English and Paula’s parents spoke about as much English as I know Polish, but the evening seemed to go fairly well.  It’s hard to form a strong bond with people who have not existed in your life before in such a short amount of time, but who knows what the future will hold.  It wasn’t a really late night, but we still had a late start to the day.

We were only going to visit one palace in Poland.  But whenever I researched the palaces of Poland, the elaborate rooms of Wilanow (vee-lah-noof), keep forcing their way onto the screen.  I didn’t think I could live with myself if I didn’t take the opportunity to walk through its vivid rooms.

About a half hour drive from the centre of Warsaw is where you will find ‘the Polish Versailles’.  Built in the late 17th century, Wilanow is opulent.  The grounds immediately surrounding the palace are filled with colourful flower beds and rose gardens, the larger garden grounds with large shady trees.

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It’s free to visit Wilanow on Sundays, but you still have to line up to get a ticket for 0 zloty’s.  Very Polish.  The tickets are printed with the time at which you are able to enter the palace (limited groups go through at a time), though of course, they don’t tell you this when you ‘buy’ the ticket.  So now you know.

The rooms are painted boldly, paintings adorning the walls en-masse, intricate furniture filling the spaces of its grand rooms.  Royal wallpapers and gold filigree live on the walls, ceilings and doorways.  The palace seems enormous and it feels like hours worth of exploring.

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Now I’m here looking for a Prince, so here are the lucky candidates….

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So I’m thinking I might just stay single for a little while longer.

The remainder of our day is to be spent at Lazienki (wah-zhen-kee) Park.  It is the largest park in Warsaw, weighing in at 76 hectares.   The grounds are a mass of shady trees with squirrels ferreting around the shrubs and tourists.

Lazienki Palace, also known as the Palace on the Water is it’s centrepiece.

In stark contrast to Wilanow, Lazienki Palace is a white elephant.

Where Wilanow’s rooms shout opulence, Lazienki’s whisper.

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Three gondolas adorn the lake, and we board one for a short but relaxing ride.  The sun is out, the park grounds Gondola Ride and Palace on the Water, Island Ampitheatre, White House and Belvedere Palace, with free Chopin concerts at noon and 4pm and ice cream (lody) – which the Poles are apparently mad for!

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Visiting Poland and not attending a Chopin concert is like… going to the Vatican without seeing the Pope, as a certain saying goes. It’s beautiful out this time of year (okay – most of the time), and the Łazienki park is lushly green and soothing and lovely – even more so when you’re listening to masterfully played piano music.  The concerts fittingly take place underneath the Chopin statue, and their tradition goes back to 1959, with the festival changing and evolving over the fifty-five years that followed.  Free admission, what else could you possibly want?  A fantastic way to relax and unwind this is.

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Wyeslav picks us up outside Lazienki and drives us back to his home for a dinner with the family.  A beautiful meal is set out on the table – wonderful sliced tomatoes covered with white and spring onions, hardboiled eggs, salmon, cheeses, glorious grainy bread home made by Dorota, home made butter with herbs in it made by Paula, cold meats and pierogis.  And there’s sparkling wine and vodka – lots of it.  It is a lovely evening even though only Paula speaks English from their side and only Dad speaks Polish from our side, but they are coming to Australia early next year and everyone is excited.