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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The award winning POLIN Museum, designed by Rainer Mahlamäki

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.

W Hour

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’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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