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krisek Warszawa - A travel report by Krys
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Warszawa,  Poland - flag Poland -  Mazowieckie
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krisek's travel reports

A true city-phoenix in perpetual reinvention.

  6 votes
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Poland's capital has been on the rise for a number of years. Probably for the last 65 years. Recently, it stepped into the 21st century. Skyscrapers keep popping up. And the old town stays cosy and picturesque as ever.


Plac Zamkowy (Castle Square) at the Old Town, photographed from a church bell tower.
Plac Zamkowy (Castle Square) at the Old Town, photographed from a church bell tower.
There are few capitals on our planet that suffered as much Warsaw had. The amount of horror is indescribable. The horrendous cruelty the city and its population were inflicted during the Second World War defies belief. On the 31 August 1939, Warsaw was a grand, beautiful and prosperous city of 1.4 million inhabitants. On the 17 January 1945, when Red Army entered, (having waited on the other side of the Vistula river for half a year for the city to bleed to death) Warsaw was occupied by less than 20 thousand people. Over 85% of the city was completely destroyed. To the ground. Offices, factories, and residential homes were virtually all gone. After the war, the incredible skeleton of Warsaw was still the capital of Poland. That was what the maps around the world stated. But it could not function like one. Łódź, a large city about an hour's drive away, took over as the capital for a number of years. In the meantime, the Poles mobilised impossible resources to rebuild Warsaw. The socialist regime however, had little ambition to restore the charming and grand architecture of the city. Instead, massive projects to create a new social realism character were established. This was to erase the imperialistic heritage of capitalistic Warsaw. Yet, the proud nation did not give in entirely. On the verge of true miracle, a national movement collected an incredible country-wide whip-round, enough amount of money to restore churches, chapels, palaces, galleries, mansions, the Royal Castle, and the old town with picturesque square lined with colourful residential tenement houses. Old photographs and 18th century paintings by an Italian artist Bernardo Canaletto were used to reconstruct the old town. It took over 30 years. This gargantuan effort marked with blood and sweat did not go unnoticed. In 1982, UNESCO awarded the Warsaw's Old Town the World Cultural Heritage Site status. And that was an exception! For UNESCO does not inscribe restored sites.

Favourite spots:
Old Town Market Square (Rynek Starego Miasta) with the statue of the Warsaw Mermaid.
Old Town Market Square (Rynek Starego Miasta) with the statue of the Warsaw Mermaid.
And when the socialism collapsed in Poland in 1989, Warsaw's authorities embarked on a string of projects to erase the social-realism drabness of the city. Since then, glass and steel, architecturally ambitious structures started to arise in the downtown area, and more pre-war structures were rebuilt. This time using corporate funds. Streets have been cleaned, and in the historical part of the city, pedestrians and pavement cafes have been given priority. The old town's facades have received face-lift, fresh paint and clever illumination at night. It is all truly heartwarming. The beginning of the Royal Route and Old Market Square are among my favourite spots.

There is still plenty to do and to restore. Many scars remain. Right in the heart of the city! And they are likely to be there for the years to come. But Warsaw will host the opening match of the UEFA European Football Championships in June 2012, and by that time many grey areas around the city should have disappeared.

What's really great:
Krakowskie Przedmiescie Street, seen from a church bell tower.
Krakowskie Przedmiescie Street, seen from a church bell tower.
I don't think I had noticed this before, but the two old water pumps at the old town market square actually do work! And people used them to fill up their water bottles. Weather with 35C temperatures, not terribly oppressive, made people thirsty. Since I am not an animal, I did not opt for water but beer. Although I limited myself given that my best friend was soldiering in Afghanistan.

Warsaw introduced free wifi Internet access in the Old Town, which was great. It was fast and covered the Royal Castle Square and the majority of side streets in the old district, including the Old Town Market Square. Now, this is something to like!

Warsaw is one of few European capitals with a cluster of skyscrapers. This makes the architectural mix of the city beyond simply 'interesting'. From Gothic to Renaissance to Baroque to Rococo to Neoclassical to Socialist to Art Nouveau to an unidentified. There soon be approval for more high rise towers, which should top the 231 meter high Palace of Culture.

Sights:
The Barbican at the Old Town City Walls
The Barbican at the Old Town City Walls
One of Warsaw's most prominent sights, the Palace of Science and Culture, is also one of the most controversial. Hated by the locals, admired by the tourists. It once was the largest building in the EU, and remains the tallest building in Poland. In the area where it stands, many homes, although badly damaged during the WWII, could have been saved instead of being levelled to make room for this 'palace'.

Fortunately, there also other sights Warsaw has to offer. The reconstructed Old Town is a sight in its own right, complete with the Royal Castle, Barbican, City Walls, numerous churches, and an unusual cathedral. The Royal Route, connecting the Royal Castle with the Royal Summer Residence in Wilanow, could be the city's prettiest avenue. Many grand buildings line along it. Including the Presidential Palace (one of the largest and grandest in Warsaw), the Belvedere (former presidential residence), the Royal Lazienki Park, the austere government buildings.

Accommodations:
Room 912 at the Hilton Warsaw Hotel, standard kingsize bed room.
Room 912 at the Hilton Warsaw Hotel, standard kingsize bed room.
There were increasingly more accommodation options in Warsaw to fit the entire spectrum of budgets. I stayed in Warsaw's hotels several times. Once at the mid-range Jan III Sobieski Hotel (named after the King of Poland, who saved Vienna from the Turks in 1683), once in a lower budget hotel (I think called the Maria Hotel), a few times at the Gromada Hotel and the Marriott Courtyard Hotel (both near the airport), and, on this trip, at the Hilton Warsaw Hotel and Radisson Blu Centre. Most of the times, I stayed at the Hilton. It is a modern, five star hotel, with all the expected amenities. Regular rooms are 30-35 square meters in size, have spotless bathrooms, minibar, satellite TV, phones, iron and ironing board, etc. The personnel was professional, but some of them did not smile enough for my liking. The exception was the Lobby Bar called Pistaccio. Its service staff was amongst the friendliest and most professional of any other I had met at Warsaw hotels.

Nightlife:
Long wooden tables at the Lolek Pub and a band playing live music in the background.
Long wooden tables at the Lolek Pub and a band playing live music in the background.
One of funkiest ways of spending a night on town, or actually in a park, was the Lolek Pub. It was based at the Pole Mokotowskie, near Zwirki i Wigury street. I had been around for about 15 years. Last time I had been there, it had been just slightly smaller (less tables) and had had no stage for live music performers. This time, it was great to see that things had developed in the right direction.

Warsaw had ever growing number of clubs, lounges and bars. Mainly clubs. Many, however, had ridiculous door policy preventing even pop stars and celebrities from entry. They had articles in newspapers and tabloid magazines written about this phenomenon. So, I will not do any of them a favour and will not recommend one.

Since 'the pub' was never a Polish tradition, its brief episode in the 1990s, had ended promptly. Yet, there are plenty of lounges and bars. Some of the funkiest ones were on ulica Piwna (Beer Street) in the Old Town. They stayed open until the last customer left.

Hangouts:
One of the cafes at the Old Town Square.
One of the cafes at the Old Town Square.
The Old Town Square has been changing for better and better. It got filled with pavement, open-air, under-a-parasol cafes and restaurants. And in the summer, there is the Warsaw Jazz Summer. Beyond the cosy, colourful and animated square, there were numerous 'places with tables' at the Square of the New Town, the Royal Castle Square, and along the Royal Route, running from the Royal Castle Square to the De Gaulle Roundabout.

After all that coffee or hot chocolate or cheesecakes, one could venture to one of Warsaw's parks to play with squirrels, pick up conkers, watch the water flowing down the flamboyant fountains, visit monuments to famous people. The Royal Lazienki Park is amongst the prettiest. It features the Palace on the Water and an incredible Frederic Chopin monument. This is where summer sees legendary afternoon piano concerts. I still have to attend one, though.

Restaurants:
Ale Gloria, interior of the 'wedding cake' restaurant by Magda Gessler
Ale Gloria, interior of the 'wedding cake' restaurant by Magda Gessler
If one was visiting Warsaw for one day only and wanted to choose a great place to eat, I would recommend Oberża pod Czerwonym Wieprzem (the Auberge under the Red Hog). Not only do they cook there well, and serve beer in five litre tubes, and the decor is refreshingly communistic, there is a story to the place. At the time of the regime, the political elite hid an underground party spot in this building. On the ground floor, there was a simple eatery for the working class to mask what was really going on downstairs. Apparently, communist leaders, including Lenin himself, dined there. They ate their favourite 'national dishes' there cooked to perfection. An entire book of recipes and comprehensive menus were found in the ruins of the auberge. This is how it was discovered what this place really was. Now, the inn is back to its former /un/glory.

The other places that I could recommend are:

Ale Gloria, Fukier, Folk Gospoda, Papu, The Mexican, Zen, Sunanta, and ToBaYa.

Other recommendations:
The Frederic Chopin Museum in Warsaw.
The Frederic Chopin Museum in Warsaw.
The year 2010 marked Frederic Chopin's 200th birthday anniversary. A number of events marking this anniversary have been taking place in Warsaw, and in fact around the world. On the same occasion, a modern museum was also set up. It could be the most modern museum in Europe. It has an excellent collection incredibly personal items, including intimate letters the composer and pianist wrote to friends and family describing his struggle with being an expat in France. He wrote birthday cards to his parents. He wrote about his illness. Visitors, whose numbers have to be regulated, can play Chopin's music, sit in cabins choosing mazurkas, nocturnes, polonaises... Each visitor gets a radio-enabled card, which learns the visitor's preference, and intelligently pre-selects snippets of music. There is also a kids section. Plus the palace, where the museum is based, is a great building, too.

Published on Saturday November 13th, 2010


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Thu, Nov 25 2010 - 11:25 AM rating by bootlegga

A very good report on a place I'd never thought of visiting - now I think it might be worth the trip!

Sat, Nov 13 2010 - 07:35 PM rating by pesu

Very interesting, well-written report, nice pics. Yes, it's good to see you back here but don't let it stress you out!

Sat, Nov 13 2010 - 06:14 PM rating by porto

Excellent reading Krys and nice to see you back here. :)

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