Warsaw is a polarizing city. You’ll either love or hate Warsaw. Reading the accounts of most people on Tripadvisor, I concluded I would hate Warsaw and allocated just half a day (10 hours to be precise) to check out the UNESCO Heritage Old Town, two museums and eat pierogis.
I couldn’t have been more wrong as I fell in love at first sight with Warsaw when I stepped out of the train station and spotted a yellow tram with a huge Communist era building (Palace of Culture and Science) towering through the somber sky.
It is ironic that a few steps away on Ul. Zlota is one of the remnants of the old Ghetto wall. I could comprehend why many tourists hate Warsaw. Flamboyant Soviet and post-Soviet architecture in a war-ravaged country juxtaposed with Ghetto wall and other Holocaust memorials is probably not the idea of a vacation.
Old Town & New Town
Warsaw Old Town (Stare Miasto) is a short bus ride from Warsaw Central station. The vivid but tiny facades, a children’s-fairy-tale Royal castle and cobblestone streets resemble a Hollywood movie set. I mentioned this to a guide on the Warsaw Free Walking Tour and learnt the reason: Warsaw Old Town was razed to ground by World War II bombings. Nonetheless, it was meticulously reconstructed after the war and the ‘Old Town’ as we see it today is only ~50 years old.
The guide also told me a funny story about the tiny facades. There was a time when property tax was proportional to the area of the front facade. So, the rich ‘elites’ paid architects to design houses with the narrowest possible facades. I had heard of similar stories in other parts of Europe. Attempting to evade taxes is probably a space-time invariant behavior, especially for the uber-rich.
Warsaw Old Town is pretty compact and I soon found myself at the main square in the Old Town area. This oft-photographed picturesque square surrounded by colorful buildings resembles a crayon box set. Quirky characters and cafe servers in medieval costumes upheld my impression of a Hollywood period movie set. There is even a mermaid sculpture, in the center of the square, augmenting its peculiar ambiance.
What is a pretty mermaid sculpture doing in Warsaw? Thanks to industrialization, the so-called river Vistula is but a wide sewage drain. I doubt if fishes survive there. Mermaids are a far call. According to a guide, one version of the legend claims her to be the sister of The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen. Some imagination!
I ambled down the cobblestone streets, past the Barbican (fortified gate) to the New Town area to check out Maria Skłodowska (better known as the Nobel Prize Winner Marie Curie) Museum, New Town square, remnants of the Old Ghetto Wall and the Warsaw uprising Monument. New Town was also annihilated by bombings during the Warsaw Uprising. However, the muted colors of the reconstructed New Town buildings and their relatively simple construction is in stark contrast to the Old Town. Perhaps, this is because the Barbican separated the nobles from the New Town bourgeois.
You can’t fill your stomach with views, however interesting they might be. I hadn’t eaten anything since my early dinner at Budapest Keleti station and could feel my stomach grumbling. Luckily, I located the tripadvisor recommended Pierogarnia Bednarskiej, a cute, authentic Polish restaurant where English was an alien language, and had two of the best Polish dishes-potato crepes and two plates of Pierogis (Polish dumpling). Delicious!
Museums: POLIN and Warsaw Uprising Museum
Museums normally make me sleepy; I have napped at most of the museums I have visited. Furthermore, the heavy carb-loaded lunch had started to induce drowsiness. It was a really bad idea to visit museums in this state. However, POLIN (Museum of the History of Polish Jews) takes an interactive approach to narrate the story of development of 3 million strong Polish Jewish community which was essentially obliterated by World War II Nazi delirium. The life-size exhibits and interesting re-construction of the history vaporized my lethargy.
After a brief stop at the Ghetto Heroes Monument and the Jewish cemetery, I headed to the famous Warsaw Uprising Museum which has the potential to bring any adult to tears. The kids, however seemed to enjoy the full size B-24 Liberator plane captured during the uprising. To me, the most significant part of the museum was probably the collection of footage shot by insurgent photo and videographers and the account of the German atrocities during the Uprising.
I vividly recall one such video. During the initial phase of the Uprising, at one post, the Germans were firing in vain at the Jews hiding behind makeshift trenches. Suddenly, a little girl started running from one trench to another, where her mother was. A young German soldier immediately took aim and shot her in the head. The shot pieced her scull and the impact caused her little body to fly back and smash on a wall, creating a blood trail. As her mother pierced the sky with her wails, the
soldier murderer kissed his rifle, turned to the narrator(who was standing next to him) and with gleaming eyes exclaimed “Perfect shot”!
The horrifying accounts of brutality had melted my appetite. Nevertheless, I had to pick something up for dinner. I walked into a ‘Bar Mleczny’ or Milkbar and packed a delicious Beetroot borscht soup that cost ~$1. The milkbars are cheap canteens which serve traditional Polish food. In general few ‘milkbar’ employees understand English and ordering food is an experience itself.
A few hours later, as my train rolled into beautiful Polish countryside outside Warsaw, I realized Warsaw had etched an indelible mark in my memory. I have a premonition, this was not my last visit to Warsaw.
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Warsaw through a few more photos