Maria Skłodowska Curie was born here, Frederic Chopin attended the university and Jan Paderewski played his piano, composed and spoke out for Polish independence in the city before dying in America at the grand old age of 80.
So why come to Warsaw? It wasn’t on my ‘bucket list’, despite me being extremely fond of Eastern Europe and its cities. It wasn’t somewhere that I had at the back of my mind to visit in the near future. I suppose I was persuaded by the Ryanair Christmas sale. Too good to miss, I booked a few days here in the capital and largest city in Poland. Standing, as it does, between the Baltic Sea and the Carpathian Mountains, it was an unknown quantity. I’d expected grey Soviet-style blocks; after all, the original city was almost totally destroyed by the end of the Second World War. I was also concerned by the lack of any up to date guide books. I scoured Amazon and E-bay, Stanfords and the web. There were a couple of books on Krakow and Warsaw, but the former dominated and the latter was very much the after-thought. Wikitravel wasn’t much better, either. Eventually, I managed to get hold of a copy from the out-dated Thomas Cook ‘Traveller’ series and a ‘pdf’ from ‘Warsaw in your pocket’ – both without a decent street map.
But, good heavens! What a surprise awaited me. It is a truly beautiful city. Rebuilt from 1947 with such care and using 18th century plans, it is a city of beautiful architecture, a blend of large squares, narrow, almost Medieval, streets and infinite charm. It offers excellent food, warm and welcoming bars and outstanding beer. What is really striking is how quiet a city it is. It lacks the hustle and bustle one expects from a capital. I dare say that, at the height of summer, tourists from all over Poland pour in for its cafe culture. But, mid-way through January, everyday feels like a Sunday. Except for the fact, of course, that all the shops are open. So, what better place to head for? A short two and a half hour hop from the UK and into a different world.
Our flight from Liverpool is to Modlin, a new airport, manufactured out of forest and pasture land, some 40km from the city centre. The flight is only half-full, predominantly Anglo-Polish families, presumably heading home for a post-Christmas break.
Hector’s parents may well have had visions of greatness for their off-Spring, worthy of a son of the Iliad. I’m not sure that chief steward on a Spurs-blue and canary yellow-decked Airbus heading East has delivered all their aspirations. However, the pressure of making sure all the paninis, aftershave and scratch-cards are sold before we descend from thirty-odd thousand feet are clearly taking their toll.
“I do have scratch cards and I do have a tester for the Paco Rabane. At £1.94 or €2 for one or six for the price of five, I do think these scratch cards are a bargain. I will shortly be passing down the cabin and I do urge you to buy to win! We did have a winner last week. In Berlin…..”
As Francis Albert would have crooned: ‘Doobee….doobee…..do…..’
Ah well, we land into a snowy landscape without becoming the proud owners of a new car, free from microwave-induced indigestion or smelling like a polecat on heat. Poor Hector, he’ll have to work even harder on the return leg to Liverpool.
Transfer is so simple and efficient. There is an OK-Express bus immediately outside of the terminal that transfers you to the Palace of Culture in the centre of the city in a little over 50 minutes for a ridiculously small fee.
We’re staying in the Old Town, courtesy of Airbnb. It’s a small apartment that is so central, you are almost tempted to pop to the shops in your slippers. Except, of course, for the fact that there is snow on the ground and a raw temperature of -6C.
90% of the city was destroyed in the war. The German Luftwaffe bombed it in 1939 and their tanks and artillery put paid to the rest while the Russians looked on and waited for their opportunity to collect the spoils. In 1939, there was a city population of 1.3 million. By 1945, fewer than 1,000 people were living in the rubble of what was left standing. Today, the population is close to 3 million and it’s the 9th most populated city in the EU.
It never ceases to amaze how so many Eastern European towns and cities were put back together so sympathetically that, half a century in, it’s almost easy to forget that you’re not looking at buildings that have been around for the best part of a millennium.
It’s almost a month since Christmas and long past Twelfth Night, but the Old Town in Warsaw is still seasonally decked. The ice rink still attracts skaters of all ages and the small Bavarian wooden shacks are still selling spiced wines, beers and sausage. Street lamps remain decorated and the Christmas trees are lit and as beautiful as they would have been weeks ago.
We eat in a quiet Polish restaurant on our first night. Chicken rolled in mushrooms and cabbage, pork in breadcrumbs with pickled cabbage…I suspect that cabbage is going to be a recurring theme.. The portions are huge, the beer excellent and the bill refreshingly low.
We learn, from the waiter, that we share a common tradition of taking down Christmas decorations at home on January 6th, but the city continues to celebrate until the end of the month. The nets of lights stretching across the streets and the huge twinkling displays that would have excited children awaiting the arrival of Mickolaj (St. NIcholas) on Christmas Eve, are still attracting the crowds, long after the event. The Royal Palace, that dominates Plac Zamkowy, is lit by projections from across the street; snowflakes ripple across it, making the whole square feel magical. It warms and brightens cold wintry evenings.
The young waiter speaks excellent English, as do all the shop assistants and people you meet on the street. English, or German, are very much second languages and the former predominates. He tells us he practises his language watching films and we chat about the successful re-emergence of the Polish film industry. He’s impressed that I’ve seen ‘Ida’ and he tells me that the Polish people are extremely proud of their tradition to tell stories through film. It’s easy to see that for yourself, there are so many cinemas dotted around the city and posters advertising the latest offerings are on every street corner.
At last I manage to pick up a decent street map. The tourist office, in the centre of the Rynek, the main old town square, is my starting point. They have a multitude of guides to Warsaw, in a wide range of languages. Why these are not available in the UK is a mystery.
Later, I lie in bed, watching the moon reflecting off the snowy rooftops. Just across the square, the attic windows, five storeys up, open onto long sloping roofs. You can almost imagine young men, disturbed by the sound of heavy boots and shouting, making their escape out of the small double windows, sliding down the tiles, desperately clutching at the drainpipes as they clamber down into the garden below. All those years ago, and yet still vivid in the imagination.
In the morning, I venture out in search of a bakery. On the corner is a large white building that advertises ‘Podwale Bar And Books – the most refreshingly civilised place to meet’. It offers a degree of conviviality that is endearing; a place to meet, read, chat, smoke cigars and drink strong spirits. Marvellous.
Across the road is a small piekarnia, or bakery. The small shop is full and the display is largely made up from slabs of strong dark breads and small, heavily glazed rolls. I’m happy in there. It’s warm and I’m at the back of a long queue. I smile inanely and open the door for customers, wondering what on earth to buy. Slowly I make my way to the front of the queue, aware that this is where my elementary Polish will be taxed to the limit.
Suddenly, I spot croissants on the back shelf. I try the universal greeting: a big smile, and a breezy ‘Dzień dobry’
‘Dzień dobry’, comes the reply. Clearly, I’m mistaken for a local. Well, that’s the limit of my Polish so it’s back to the inane smile and the pointy finger.
Apparently, there are different types of croissants in Warsaw. Some are mysteriously large, others comfortingly smaller and obviously more plain. I opt for the cheapest, working on the premise that the more expensive may well be ‘filled’ and I fear starting the cabbage intake too early in the morning. Fortunately, I’ve chosen well.
I’ve learnt caution when shopping in foreign bakeries. A few years ago, in Qatar, I was sent out for breakfast supplies. I managed to find what must be the Arabic equivalent of ‘Greggs’. I came back with four lovely-looking pain chocolat to have with our morning coffee, to set us up for a day’s sightseeing. It’s a shock to the senses when the pain chocolat turns out to be curried cheese. They repeated on us for the rest of the day, nay, the whole week.
The Old Town of Warsaw is wonderfully compact and can be criss-crossed easily in a short day. Any further time can be spent inside the cathedral crypt or in one of the many, many museums and art galleries that are dotted throughout the area.
We spend a long morning walking the old town, enjoying the quiet and absence of crowds. It’s only when you come up against a snake of primary school pupils out on a history trip that you realise how quiet the town actually is.
Of course, everything is relatively new but everything has a tale to be told. The main landmark, the statue of King Zygmunt stands on its third column. The remnants of the previous one, shot to bits by German occupiers and the Polish resistance, lies on its side by the nearby Royal Palace. The Palace itself was built post-war, but at least in a fittingly classical style.
The Trasa W-Z tunnel spans the dual carriageway that runs on the edge of the Old Town, although, unless you know, you would never realise it was there. The tunnel houses the oldest escalators in Warsaw and the subway at the bottom is lined with murals from the Soviet realism era and photographs from 1946-50 showing the reconstruction of the city.
Back in the Old Town, each street carries its own story: Baker Street, Beer Street, the House of the woman who fed pigeons, and so on. At the far end of one street is a monument to the children who fought during the Polish uprising. A pathetic little child, Antek, aged 13, wears a soldier’s helmet, far too large for his head, and carries a machine gun. This part of Warsaw is full of plaques, monuments and edifices, testament to the sacrifice paid by so many half a century ago.
There are a set of stone steps leading off from the Rynek down to an area high above the Vistula. Bonaparte stood here and contemplated the ill-fated siege of Moscow; not his best afternoon’s planning and scheming, but the view from the bottom looks far away into the distance and across the wide river that rises in the Carpathians and runs 651 miles into the Baltic at Gdansk.
On a clear, cold afternoon with a flurry of fresh snow in the air, we decide to walk the length of one of the most beautiful streets in Warsaw. Krakowskie Przedmieście starts at the Old Town and heads away south. The walk takes you past beautiful churches, prestigious shops, the Presidential Palace, embassies, some incredible architecture and out past the University. Eventually, we arrive at Łazienki Park, the largest park in the city covering nearly 200 acres. It’s snow covered and incredibly pretty. At one side is an ‘alley of lights’; huge outlines of 19th century men and women, all decorated in fairy lights. Somehow, continuing to celebrate aspects of Christmas brings cheer to a cold and snowy landscape. There are many open spaces here. So many, that it takes away any of the claustrophobia that you often feel in cities. In winter, they are covered with a white blanket. In summer, they are ideal for picnics, bicycles, dog walking and family outings.
As you would expect, there is no shortage of places to eat. The usual coffee shops are here: Green Cafe Nero, Costa and Starbucks. However, there are also many, many others. Small intimate tea rooms and cafes selling excellent coffee, huge slabs of apple cake or millefeuille filled with rich confectioner’s cream and so many other types of pastries. For evening dinner, there are many authentic Polish restaurants selling pierogi, Polish dumplings filled with meat, or vegetables or other savoury concoctions, alongside pork, beef or chicken dishes; all supporting a long history of family cooking. If that isn’t what you fancy, then there is more than enough choice of international cuisine. The key is that the food is excellent and such good value for money. There are still a few ‘milk bars’ here in Warsaw.All but disappeared elsewhere, they remain in the city as echoes from a time past when locals could eat cheaply. They still serve two meals a day for a few zloty – a very limited menu, and lots of cabbage!
The walk north from the Old Town takes you into the ‘new’ town. On the banks of the Vistula stands the Katyn museum, housed in a huge and forbidding brick bunker. The museum, which is dark and somber, stretches away underground and is a memorial to the 20,000 Polish officers who were executed by the Soviets in 1940. They were taken to a Russian forest, executed and buried. In time, the artefacts have been uncovered and brought home. It’s a tragic collection and, as with so many other sites, there to mark the huge losses suffered by the Polish people.
On the main Krakowskie Przedmieście stands a smaller monument marking the Tupolev air crash of April 2010. Members of the military, the Parliament and other government officials were in their way to Katyn to mark the 70th anniversary of the massacre when their plane crashed with no survivors. At the site, candles burn, there are fresh flowers and in memorium cards. So many losses in such a short period of history.
On Krasinski Square stands the monument to the 1944 Polish uprising. It is both massive and moving. It stands over thirty-three feet high and covers a vast area on the southern side of the square. Cast in bronze, it depicts a group of insurgents fighting the German forces, amid the city ruins and in its sewers. It’s one of the most visited monuments in the city and certainly one of the most impressive I’ve seen. What strikes you about military monuments in the East is so often the size, the realistic nature and the raw brutality of their depiction.
The Royal Palace just off the Rynek in the Old Town, was first bombed by the Luftwaffe and then destined to be blown up by the Nazis on the orders of Hitler. Holes were drilled in its walls and explosives planted. He had a plan to rebuild it in the Germanic style and use it as a centre for a new city of 100,000 carefully-chosen, ethnically-correct citizens. Unfortunately, these would not include any Poles and the insurgency and resistance did its best to thwart Hitler’s plans. Eventually, it caught fire and nature took its course. Fortunately, dedicated teams of museum curators braved the danger to hide away many of the treasures and today, they are there in the rebuilt Palace, restored and resplendent in their original glory for all to see. Communist Poland had other priorities throughout the 50s and 60s and it wasn’t until the 1970s that the Palace was completed and reopened to the public.
Sometimes we avoid eating too close to our accommodation on the grounds that ‘it’s only around the corner’. A nonsensical idea, really, as everywhere is ‘just around the corner’ for someone. Each day, as we are making our way back after sightseeing, we pass Portretowa, a small Polish restaurant at the end of our street. The owner stands outside, armed with the large wooden spoon and wearing a white cook’s hat, drumming up trade. He always stops for a chat, wants to know where we are from and knows where we are staying. So, on the last night, we relent and drop by for dinner. Had I known it was to be as good as it turned out to be, I’d have gone there every night. Inside, it was little bigger than someone’s front parlour. Dark wood, white embroidered table cloths and twinkling lights. We ate enormous plates of fresh trout and duck with cranberries and orange, all served with salad and roast potatoes. With a litre of local red wine, served from a cut-glass decanter, the evening was perfect. The bill? A few pence over £20.
The weather begins to change. Heavy mist drops and there is more snow on the way. It’s time to leave and make our way back to the airport. Across the park at Piłsudski Square, young men guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The tomb holds the remains of the unidentified body of a young soldier who fell during the Defence of Lwów. It’s a harsh posting, standing out in the cold for hour after hour, stood to attention, warmed only by standing close to the eternal flame, protecting this young man, the symbol of all the hundreds of thousands of Polish sailors, soldiers and airman who fell in defence of their homeland and who fought for a free Europe in battles from 952AD until1963. Cedynia, Smolensk, Lipsk, Arras, Monte Cassino, Bolonia, Normandy, the Battle of Britain.…the list seems endless.
And so ends our time in Warsaw. I’d come back. The city has left its mark on me. It’s elegant, welcoming and fascinating. You should go and see it for yourself. It won’t disappoint.