My weekend in Warsaw started with a near death experience on my plane ride in. I was flying Ryanair, which is consistently very cheap so it’s the logical choice for a budget traveler such as myself. But I learned one thing about them a while ago on my return flight from Munich, that they don’t slow down much for landing. Our landing on our return back from Munich was a near-death experience as well because we landed incredibly fast, and it scared the living daylights out of me. After our return landing from Munich my friend Sarah turned to me and said, “Oh yea, that’s right, on Ryanair flights they don’t slow down as much for landing because they save fuel by landing faster.” Now, I obviously will continue to fly Ryanair (for several more trips to be exact), but our landing in Warsaw was the scariest yet. I’m pretty sure there are still claw marks in my armrests on that airplane from how hard I grabbed them!
Anyway….after this terrifying landing I tried to catch a bus, but the bus was full soooooo I did what any logical person would do, I got a cab with three total strangers into the city! It ended up being two French guys, a Lithuanian girl, and myself all cabbing into Warsaw’s train station together, and it was pretty cool. I mean, I certainly haven’t had that international of a cab ride in the States! At the train station I met up with my friend Brian who is studying in Warsaw and who most importantly speaks Polish (without him I would have been lost), and we took my stuff back to his dorm room, and while walking to Brian’s dorm, he pointed out a plaque on a wall of a building. He told me this plaque was commemorating a group of people who were murdered here by the Nazis, and he went on to mention that these plaques are all over the city. Just imagine walking down a street and seeing a sign that reads “32 people were murdered by the Nazis here”, it’s a very shocking and grisly thing, but at the same time, it is something that the Polish have choosen to stay strongly connected to, as evidenced by these plaques all over. As dark as the history behind these plaques may be, I think they are necessary both to remember those who were murdered, and to remind us of our history. After putting my stuff away we went out that night to a couple bars, which was really interesting, cause for a while we are at an area of bars that are located in the old communist market building, so the interior of these bars is this really plain concrete (communists apparently hate beautiful architecture), which has since been covered up (mostly) with wallpaper.
The next day we got up and went to one of Warsaw’s many cafe’s, where I was able to enjoy a great cup of coffee. And it wasn’t unique to that spot, Warsaw has a great cafe and coffee culture.
After enjoying our coffee we went to Łazienki Park, where we saw a statue of Chopin as well as many views of a park well into it’s fall beauty. The leaves were all sorts of orange, yellow and gold and it was absolutely beautiful.
We spent a good amount of time in the park before heading downtown to the Palace of Culture and Science, which is historically, a very interesting building. The Palace was gifted to Poland by Stalin, and people in Poland aren’t exactly his biggest fans, ya know with the whole communist control of Poland and all. I asked Brian if they had ever considered destroying the building and he said no, but that there was talk about building other buildings around it, but that was decided against because some people argued it would be as though they were making a crown around the palace, which they didn’t want to do. Also, Brian told me that in Warsaw, there have been several instances of people buying land and starting to build/develop it, when a person comes out and sues, claiming ownership of that land, and many of these people have won. The reason, because they actually do own the land, it just happened that their house/building was destroyed during WWII. Considering almost all of Warsaw was entirely destroyed under the Nazi’s there have been several lawsuits like this. The point of this, is that surrounding the Palace are massive parking lots, because nobody wants to buy them and start to develop buildings and have somebody come out of the woodwork and sue for ownership and win, causing the entire investment to be worthless. Anyways, we went up to the 30th floor terrace of the Palace to look out over the city and it was an amazing view. Many in Poland even joke this is the best view you can get of the city, because the Palace itself isn’t obscuring your views! Below is the Palace, which has been described as an Elephant wearing Lace (ie a big building with only a few decorative aspects to it).
After departing the Palace, which holds countless things inside of it, including a Cinema, opera halls etc., we went and got some Polish food. We started by getting some paczki (donuts) with rose filling (yea, they literally mash up rose petals and put them inside), and they were delicious! We then went to another cafe where we grabbed lunch before heading to Old Town. Old Town is interesting, because besides the Palace, it is the only real main tourist attraction in Warsaw. Brian was telling me that there was one particular shop in Old Town advertising itself as the best noodles in Poland for 200 years (or some long duration of time…I don’t quite remember), but in actuality, it only opened a month or two ago. Oops. The ironic thing about Old Town, is that it’s actually not as Old as it sounds, for it too was almost entirely destroyed in WWII, but it has been meticulously rebuilt. Regardless of how old it is or whether it’s a reconstruction, Old town was filled with beautiful buildings, and it is in fact located where Old Town originally was before being destroyed, so it was cool just to walk there.
We found this little street art while we were walking around Old Town and it shows Marie Curie and the two elements she discovered. Brian was telling me that few people know Marie Curie was Polish, so in this particular street art, they included her Polish name, Skłodowska, so you would have no doubt how Polish she is.
On Sunday, we woke up and headed out to the Jewish Cemetery, which was originally located outside the city, but has since been enveloped by the city as the city limits grew. The Cemetery itself was started in 1806, so it is quite large. The strong connection to history continued here, for several graves we passed there had the colors of the Polish flag (red and white) wrapped around the headstone, and a small Polish flag with the symbol of the Polish uprising printed on it. Brian thought these graves were of people who perished in the Polish Uprising. As the ribbons and flags were in great condition, I believe someone consistently replaces them, showing again, a great respect to those who fought on behalf of Warsaw. We walked further around the cemetery and Brian pointed out many things to me, most notably the stones marking out the mass grave containing the bodies of those executed by the Nazis there, and even a spot in which a bunker was dug up, for it was in this bunker that a Jewish man in Warsaw and his family successfully hid during WWII. It was a place that was again, filled with a somber and often dark history, but one that was darkly beautiful amidst the leaves of Fall. We also passed several tour groups, who were from Israel, as there were speaking Hebrew and they all head Israel logos on their jackets, showing how much of a connection the Jewish community still has to this place.
We then headed out to meet two other Georgetown students (one studying in Poland one working at the embassy there) for lunch at a restaurant in the park. It was a great restaurant with a casual atmosphere. After another delicious Polish meal, this time I opted for the Kielbasa, as I had Pierogis the other night with Brian, we all left. Brian went to a hardly known cafe called Starbucks to get some work done, and I went on my own to the Warsaw Uprising Museum. I mentioned it earlier with regards to some of the graves in the Jewish Cemetery, but I’ll explain more here. The Warsaw Uprising was an uprising by those living in Warsaw in 1944 against the Nazis there. The uprising was crushed, mainly due to the overwhelming numbers and weapons of the Nazis and due to the lack of aid from the Soviets. The plan was the uprising would occur as the Soviets neared the city, so the Polish would soon get help from the Soviets, but that help never came, as Stalin ordered his troops to stop. Many believe he did this intentionally, so that when the war was over, Warsaw could be easily taken under Soviet leadership without the Polish trying to re-establish their own independent state. All of this is interesting, since it was the Soviets who not only air-dropped guns to the Polish so they could revolt, but it was the soviets who encouraged them to revolt. It seems Stalin intended the Polish to revolt, and get massacred all along, just so he could take control of the city in the post war period with ease. This stance is further evidenced by the fact that in the post-war period it was the Soviets who arrested and jailed the leaders of the Uprising. Altogether, the museum was fascinating.
Here is an example of some of the communist artwork that can still be seen all over the city. As you can see it’s very blocky, and is focused on glorifying the average worker, in this case a drill man.
After the Museum I returned to met up with Brian, and we went out and hung out at another cafe that night, and we did the same the next morning. Like I said, Warsaw has a great cafe culture. From the cafe that morning I left for the airport to catch my flight back to Dublin.
I realize this post had a lot of history to it, but it’s hard to visit a city like Warsaw, which was and still is incredibly affected by both the Nazis and Communists without talking a lot about its history. As horrifying as much of the history surrounding Warsaw is the town is incredibly inspirational. Charles Dickens, though in A Tale of Two Cities he is writing about Paris after their bloody Revolution, his words can easily apply to the character and resilience of the people of Warsaw after facing such grave atrocities under both the Nazis and the Communists.
“I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out.” – Charles Dickens