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.

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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