The Polish capital, a city devastated during WW2, has shaped itself over decades of turbulent history into what today has become a wonderful city of contrasts.
Stunning modern skyscrapers. Decaying brutalist concrete blocks. One of them now a big McDonalds, another adorning a huge Coca Cola advert. The Trabants and Yugos are long gone. Look hard enough though amongst the concrete jungle and you can apparently still find the odd café selling ersatz coffee, a wartime coffee substitute drink.
I spent a couple of days walking around it in March 2016. I’m so very glad I did. They were beautiful days, hardly a cloud in the light blue sky. Temperatures were around freezing, judging by the ice puddles that never melted during the day.
Journey to Warsaw
The journey to Warsaw begins with a fairly early rise in Kraków’s colourful old town, the taste of Vodka still lingering in my mouth from the previous evening.
First things first, a traditional Polish breakfast consisting of different sausages, pâté, cheese, bread and mustard. All of it cold of course. I think it’s important to try local food when you travel.
It’s a misty drizzle outside and the air is cool, catching the back of the throat as you inhale. The only warm thing is the cup of strong coffee, with a tiny splash of milk, sitting in front of me.
The setting is a quaint and rather quiet little cafe that in terms of decor and staff uniforms wouldn’t look out of place in the streets of 1930s Paris. In a word, elegant.
What follows is a walk to the central train station and a three hour standard class rail journey to the Polish capital.
The old train is comfortable. It’s the first time I’ve ever been on one with little individual compartments, entered via a sliding door from a long narrow corridor. Eight people in each one, at maximum capacity, with overhead luggage storage. The heat is stifling. The Soviets knew how to build in warmth I’m guessing. I locate a little electric heater control and turn it right down. The whole feeling of the thing evokes imagery of watching Hercule Poirot on the Orient Express, only on a far less opulent scale. The journey costs only £10 (€13), which by UK standards is excellent value.
Places to Visit
First thing in the morning I walked to Łazienki Park. It’s the largest park in Warsaw, covering 76 hectares. It’s a wonderful, peaceful green space that had been a park since 1918.
It’s a great place to go for a relaxing, calming walk. It feels far removed from the noise and bustle of city life and features some stunning architecture in the form of the Palace on the Isle.
For lovers of wildlife I was amazed by the numbers of red squirrels and especially how close they like to get to their human visitors.
Palace of Culture & Science
From the park I walked back to the city centre. I knew the way because of the towering Palace of Culture and Science. Or, as I called it, “Uncle Joe’s.” The iconic building was ordered to be constructed by Joseph Stalin as a ‘gift to the Polish people from the Soviet Union.’ It was completed in 1955, using Soviet plans and 3,500 Soviet workers – of whom 16 died in accidents during construction.
Warsaw, as I’ve already said, was completely obliterated during WW2. The Poles have done here what the Germans did to half of Cologne (Köln). They’ve reconstructed this part of the city to the appearance it would have had pre-war.
A wonderful job they have done too. I love the aesthetics of the architecture of yesteryear, complemented with their eye-pleasing pastel colours.
I walked here from Łazienki Park. This charming area is home to an array or cafés, restaurants and little shops. Perfect for that Polish speciality dish or souvenir.
I then headed to the Warsaw Uprising Museum, Muzeum Powstania Warszawskiego, in which there is a wealth of information and artefacts on the famous uprising against the nazis in 1944. You would probably need to allow for an hour or two to see the museum and all its photos, displays, written accounts and historical items properly. Most areas have translations available in English. Travel tip: if you visit on a weekday then there is the possibility of school parties visiting the museum.
Within easy walking distance of this museum is the old Communist restaurant The Red Boar Inn. I’ve covered it in another blog already and whole-heartily recommend it.
On the return walk to the hotel I walked past the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Grób Nieznanego Žołnierza. It’s located at Piłsudski Square. It’s lit by an eternal flame and guarded by the Polish Army. A good place to pay your respects after a visit to the Warsaw Uprising Museum.
I’ve feel I’ve only really scratched the surface of wonderful Warsaw. I visited all these places by foot, it’s easily doable if you have a reasonable standard of fitness. Alternatively you can take trams or buses, public transport is cheap and frequent.
If you can do it by foot, then do. Keep your eyes open and really see this amazing city of contrasts.