And finally, the last day of my short trip to Warsaw last month.
To be fair, this day involved some grim visits. As you might have gathered by now, I like to learn about history. All facets of history. Even the bits that are sad, or scary, or uncomfortable. This is why I used my last day in Warsaw to visit two historical sites – Pawiak Prison, and The Mausoleum of Battle and Martyrdom. Pawiak Prison was first up. I hadn’t realised how close this was to POLIN – I would recommend visiting Pawiak after POLIN, if you are in the neighbourhood. I arrived just after the prison opened in the morning, and it was very quiet. Outside, there is a courtyard with a bronze cast of the famous Pawiak Elm. The tree was one of the few living things to survive Pawiak during WW2, although the original tree succumbed to disease some time ago. The replacement bronze was cast to its shape and is covered with metal memorial signs placed by families.
The place itself felt dark. Built in 1835, it was requisitioned by the Nazi’s during WW2. Approximately 300,000 people passed through the prison (and the neighbouring woman’s prison, ‘Serbia’). 37,000 of these people are believed to have been executed, and 60,000 sent to German death and concentration camps. Because the Nazi’s blew up the prison complex, exact records have not been found. There is little left of the original complex.
The visit to the prison takes you through a series of reconstructed cells, and a large room containing mementoes belonging to former prisoners. When I went in, the two Polish ladies guarding the entrance asked me to sit down. I did, and after about twenty minutes, I tried to flag down someone speaking English to figure out why I was waiting. Turns out they needed to flick a switch to turn on an English introductory video for me. Hmm. I’m not sure it really required a twenty minute wait. Anyway, after this, I visited the area containing the momentoes of the former prisoners. This was a small, but interesting, exhibit, and had items from other prisons and concentration camps. Even though the prison cells were reconstructed, they felt very sad and cold. It was a depressing feeling walking the corridor by myself, and I didn’t stay long.
After visiting Pawiak, I hopped on a tram and went towards the former Gestapo Headquarters at al. Szucha 25, in the basement of the Ministry of Education. It is an easy site to miss – you need to walk past the huge Roman style columns and turn left to find the Mausoleum of Battle and Martyrdom (Mauzoleum Walki i Męczeństwa). However, I’d caution you to only visit if you are really interested in Nazi history. I have to admit that this place was even a bit too much for me. I’ve visited many harrowing sites, but this felt the worst. There is a short introductory video in English and Polish, and then a number of cells where prisoners were held, and in some cases, tortured. It is a very creepy setup. There are videos of guards boots stomping past outside of the cells. At the end of the row of cells, there is a video of a tortured prisoner collapsing, that looks like a shadowed silhouette. Apparently, the recordings of screams are no longer on rotation, but it is still incredibly creepy. You can look through one guard’s spyhole to see a huge hole in the opposite wall – where prisoners were shot. I only spent about 15 minutes there. That was enough for me.
I had (wisely) decided not to eat before visiting those two sites, so thought I better go looking for some lunch. Unfortunately, I was in the Government district, and there was absolutely nothing around. I came across one dinky little restaurant – Rozdroze. Luckily, the food was great homestyle Polish food. I had a huge schnitzel, salad, egg and Warsaw Cake for about 35AED. Bargain! As I wanted to visit the Palace on the Isle, I walked through the park, past the famous statue of Chopin. I was very pleased to find a huge number of red squirrels in the park. Tame red squirrels. One of them even gave me a high five. Life goal achieved there.
In the scheme of palaces, Lazienki is a rather small one. It is also, in true Varsovian fashion, partly reconstructed following damage in WW2. The Nazi’s drilled holes in the walls – like the Royal Castle – but never actually got around to blowing it up. They did, however, strip a number of its beautiful interiors. While some of the rooms haven’t been refurbished to their original state, it is still a gorgeous residence, which was originally used by King Stanisław II Augustus as his summer home. Overlooking the park, it is very peaceful, with wandering peacocks and geese.
I took a very long walk back to the apartment after this, covering about seven kilometres. Warsaw is a perfect city for walking – safe, relatively quiet, and something interesting around every corner. Different parts of the city are quite beautiful too, for different reasons. Overall, I enjoyed my visit to Warsaw far more than I expected. It is one of those underrated destinations that you need to make sure you visit.
Stay: Design Studio (AirBnB) – Śródmieście, Warszawa. From 160AED per night.
Visit: Pawiak Prison, ul. Dzielna 24/26. Open 10:00 – 17:00. Closed Monday and Tuesday. 10PLN. The Mausoleum of Battle and Martyrdom, al. Szucha 25. Click here for opening hours. 10PLN. Lazienki Palace/Palace on the Isle, Agrykoli 1. Open Monday 11am to 4pm, Tuesday – Sunday 9am to 6pm. 20PLN.
Eat: Rozdroze, al. Ujazdowskie 6. Open 7 days. From 15PLN.