Warsaw was certainly a city of surprises. I decided to visit at the last-minute, after realising that I could get to Greece, but couldn’t get back to Dubai. Oh dear. There were two cities with light loads and affordable, non-standby connections on to Zagreb – where I was meeting Matt. They were Bucharest and Warsaw, flying Air Serbia and LOT Polish, respectively. Warsaw it was!
I potentially know a little more than the average Westerner about Poland, although still not an awful lot. This is, in part, due to the fact that I had a Polish pen pal growing up, and a strong interest in World War Two history. Despite my original grumpiness at having to change my plans at the eleventh hour, I am so glad I ended up going to Warsaw. I absolutely loved it.
I arrived at about 1PM in the afternoon. Transiting through the airport was quick and easy, and I managed to get a taxi into the city no problem. He knew straight away where I needed to go – even though it was an AirBnB and not a major hotel – and I was there in 25 minutes. I had read online about all sorts of scams and dodgy taxi drivers. However, I used the official taxi line at the airport with no issues. Nearly everything I read online about Poland – which was mainly all negative – turned out to be very misleading.
My AirBnB, while spartan, was comfortable. It was also in a brilliant location in Śródmieście – 10 minutes walk to the Old Town, 20 minutes walk to the central station and one minute to Theatre Square and Saxon Gardens. While Warsaw has an efficient and cost-effective public transport system, I hardly used it – walking 50kms over four days.
After settling into my apartment, I walked straight down to the Old Town via plac Teatralny. Firstly, I took a slight detour onto Senatorska, and visited Kościół św. Antoniego Padewskiego, the Church of St. Anthony of Padua. Outside of the church, the walls are covered in memorials for Polish people who have died over the years. There are also a huge number of memorials to those who died during World War Two. It was a bit of a harrowing start to my trip, but very interesting.
I looked at the beautiful Great Theatre and Jabłonowski Palace, before noticing a plaque that indicated they were rebuilt in the 1950s and 1990s, respectively. It then clicked in my mind that most of Warsaw was damaged during WW2, and rebuilt after the war. Plac Teatralny saw heavy fighting during the war, with the Palace being the headquarters of Warsaw’s civilian defence. This gave me a good introduction to Warsaw – a very sad place, full of history, and built on the ruins of a city absolutely obliterated by the Nazi’s.
Nowhere was this more obvious than the Old Town, the Stare Miasto. I walked into Castle Square (plac Zamkowy), with Zygmunt’s Column in the middle of the square and the Royal Castle on the right. Beautiful old colourful buildings sat opposite. A quick google told me that the buildings were built in the 1950s and 1960s, and the castle in the 1970s. Destroyed during WW2, the Old Town was meticulously recreated from old drawings, photographs and architectural diagrams. It doesn’t have a disney-fied feel to it and looks like an accurate representation of the town as it was. In fact, the Old Town has been placed on the UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites as “an outstanding example of a near-total reconstruction of a span of history covering the 13th to the 20th century”. I feel that it is something Warsaw should be quite proud of, considering the difficult environment in which the area was rebuilt.
I visited the Royal Castle first. It was formerly the residence of the former rulers of Poland. After the failed Warsaw Uprising, the Nazis drilled thousands of holes in its walls, filled them with dynamite, and blew up the Palace. Polish Palace workers risked life and limb to rescue many artworks and architectural elements, smuggling them out of Warsaw before this explosion. The Nazis had a much larger plan for Warsaw – The Pabst Plan – which basically involved the creation of a model German town with 130,000 ‘pure’ German inhabitants, supported by 80,000 Polish slaves. Blowing up important historical buildings was seen as crucial to destroying the morale of the Polish people. A pile of rubble and two fragments of walls was all that was left of the six-hundred-year-old Palace.
Given the scale of destruction of the city, it took quite awhile for the rebuild to get going. It finally started in 1971, with local Polish people chipping it to help clear the site and raising donations. If you visit the castle, there is a very interesting series of videos played in the basement about the history of the castle, its destruction during WW2, and its reconstruction. I believe that section is actually free of charge if you don’t want to visit the rest. However, the whole castle is worth a look – I saw beautiful interiors, painstakingly reconstructed. I guess to me, it is a little bit of a shame – I’ve always thought it a very special honour to walk through historical rooms and residences where famous people of history have dwelled. While it is a bit strange to walk through entirely reconstructed spaces, it is really not that much different from walking through, say, the Winter Palace – with nearly all the furnishings of the last Tsar destroyed in the Russian Revolution. There is also a nice art collection within the castle, including two treasured Rembrandt paintings.
After I visited the Palace, I walked down towards the Old Town Market Place. This was once the historical centre of Warsaw, and features a statue of the famed Warsaw Mermaid in the middle of the square. It is one of the prettiest little town squares I have visited. While the restaurants on the square were a bit touristy, they were still incredibly cheap and I picked an outdoor table at Bazyliszek Restaurant. Great, I thought, I’d have a romantic dinner for one overlooking the square! Unfortunately, that square hosts the bravest sparrows I have ever seen. I ordered a pork schnitzel and some dumplings, thinking I’d get about three. First, the complimentary brown bread arrived, along with beef tartare and cheese spread. I figured I’d try a little, but didn’t want to fill up on bread. I batted the sparrows away furtively. Then arrived my schnitzel. This thing was bigger than my head. Then, my pierogies arrived. Huge beef dumplings, about ten of them. I was beginning to panic. Sparrows were coming at me from all directions. I laughed at the sheer size of the meal, which sent my poor young waiter off in a scurry. He sent back an English-speaking waiter and I explained I was just laughing because I had too much food. He later helped with a box to take home the rest of my dumplings. The food was fantastic, though. The food in Poland was one of the many highlights – fresh, hearty fare, and very cheap. After a complimentary shot of some sort of cherry liqueur with my bill, I waddled home for the evening, passing the Monument to the Heroes of Warsaw.
Stay: Design Studio (AirBnB) – Śródmieście, Warszawa. From 160AED per night.
Visit: Warsaw Royal Castle, plac Zamkowy 4, 00-001 Warszawa. 30pln.
Eat: Bazyliszek Restaurant, rynek Starego Miasta 1/3, 00-001 Warszawa. From 20pln.
Transport: The Old Town is best visited on foot, but there is a major tram stop located near the Palace (Stare Miasto)