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Another capital – A travellers guide to Warsaw

Fri 17 May ’13 – day 6 I am awake feeling refreshed after a short nap and pack my day sack with the cameras, grab the map and head out to explore.  The Palace of Culture and Science is literally at the end of the road on which my hotel is situated, so that seems a good place to start.

The building is massive and houses a huge congress hall, three theatres, a multiplex cinema and two museums as well as lots of office space.  It also contains a Tourist Information Centre that caters for virtually all the needs of a visitor to the city; the staff are multi-lingual and very helpful.  I strolled around the building to the main entrance and there bought a ticket for entry to the viewing gallery of the 30th floor with is 115m up; the high speed lifts rocket you upwards and you exit to a breath of fresh air as the gallery is open to the elements, but with wire screens over the openings that prevent anyone from taking the quick way down.

I get an aerial view of both the station and my hotel  and can see the Old Town towards the north.  However because of the destruction that happened during WW2 the majority of buildings are of a recent vintage.  There is a cafe located within the viewing gallery so I decide that a coffee and a piece of cake will suffice as the excellent lunch I had on the train was the main meal of the day.

As the sun sets the city lights up but I decide that it is time for bed because as I will be pounding the pavements again tomorrow I need my rest.  I wonder when I will sleep in a comfortable bed again once I have left Poland.

 Sat 18 May ’13 – day 7 I rise early and pack my day sack with everything that I will need for the day and set off for the river cruise terminal, but after walking for ½ hour I realise that I am heading in the wrong direction, basically 90 degrees to the right of where I should be heading, so it’s a quick left turn and then a long trek to reach the river.

My misdirection has meant that I have missed the first trip of the day so I find a café by the river bank and sit and write postcards while waiting for the next trip to start.

The sun is hot and I board the boat which sets off at 1100hrs, not knowing what to expect I find the trip a little disappointing; the east bank has been deliberately left undeveloped as it is in the flood plain and the west bank, except for the Old Town, is being built on so at the moment looks pretty bare.  Even the boat needs updating.

 After the boat returns to its berth I head towards the Palace of Culture and Science which is visible from just about everywhere in this part of the city.  On the way to the start of the walking tour I pass the Monument to the Engineers which depicts a solider on mine clearing duties.

 Getting to the start of the walking tour takes just ½ the time the outward journey took and the meeting point is near the ‘Palm Tree’.  Jan, our guide on the ‘Communist Tour’ was born in Bolton to Polish parents who settled in England after WW2 and he had many interesting stories about travelling to visit relatives in Poland during the Cold War period while travelling with his British passport.

He explained that the ‘Palm Tree’ is a piece of art and the installation was organized by the Centre for Contemporary Art, in Warsaw (13 December 2002 – 13 December 2003).  Since then, the palm tree has become a permanent fixture of Warsaw, as it was not removed at the end of the official exhibition but instead came under the protection of the President of Warsaw.

It went neglected and leafless two years later, until the artist and friends mounted its restoration. It still stands in the centre of the city.  In the summer of 2007, the palm underwent a complete makeover, becoming more weatherproof and easier to maintain (unlike natural palms, its fronds require periodic manual replacement).  It has now become one of the places where people meet before going out.

The tour’s actual meeting point was at the ‘Monument to the Polish Resistance’ which he said can be taken in many ways; those people who supported the Germans against the Communists or the people who were on the side on the Allies, or in some cases individual and groups that fought against invaders from the east and west and wanted an independent country.

We visited what had been the headquarters of the Polish Communist Party and this was built with the very best materials after the workers had been ‘encouraged’ to contribute day’s wage to help pay for its construction.  The inside of the building is still in immaculate condition and parts have been leased to some of world’s most prestigious companies as their Polish HQ, BMW amongst them.

The Office of the Censor Jan told us had to pass judgement on everything from the daily newspapers to song lyrics before they could be published.  At street level shops have opened in what was once office space and were selling a wide variety of upmarket and eclectic goods.

I saw an advert that I certainly didn’t expect; the company are getting everywhere.

Jan took us into the courtyard of a ghetto building and said the despite its poor condition the residents were reluctant to move out because of the high cost of property elsewhere in the city.  The ownership of dwellings like this was also very complicated as the Polish Government had passed a law that returned property to its pre WW2 war owners.  However it was often very difficult or sometimes impossible to establish ownership as documents had been lost or destroyed and in some cases owners had been killed or died before the law was enacted.

We passed on the cities remaining ‘Milk Bars’ which were established in Communist times to ensure that all the workers could get a good cheap meal every day.  A number still exist but are now commercial enterprises although the basic tenant of good cheap food still remains; these are open to all comers and are good place to eat without having to break the bank.

Before the fall of the Berlin Wall the only place where westerners were allowed to stay in the city was the Novotel.  Jan explained that to the residents of Warsaw this was like a palace and one that they could not afford to stay in even if they had been allowed too, which they were not.  Non-residents were allowed to use the coffee bar on the ground floor which had an entrance from the street and it was said that if a lad wanted to impress a lady friend this is where they would meet, as two coffees would cost a fortune by local standards.  So a coffee here and then go somewhere very much cheaper, which was virtually everywhere else.

Near the Novotel was one of the shooting monuments that are springing up all over the city and these are sites were people were herded together during the Uprising and just shot by the SS troops.

Like all the guides I have met, he was extremely knowledgeable and took us to places the average tourist would never find – and it was free, so a large tip was in order.

Having finished the tour I returned to the hotel where I drunk 2 litres of orange squash in ½ hour as I had allowed myself to get dehydrated – I really should know better.

I had a snooze and then a nice hot bath to ease my aching limbs and sore feet before getting dressed and heading out for ‘Museum Night’.  Jan told us that on one Saturday evening in May every year all the museums in Warsaw are open and entrance is free to all-comers.

I head for the Uprising Museum ½ hours walk away and then have to queue to gain entrance.  I am the only non-Polish national in the building which is a fascinating place and really needs lots more time than I have to properly see all the exhibits.  The museum deals with the Polish Uprising in 1944 which was ruthlessly crushed by the occupying Nazi forces and the Old City was obliterated on Hitler’s orders.  It is absolutely packed with locals who have brought their children along to understand what happened and why.  I had a coffee and lovely piece of cake in the museum cafe and when I leave at 2230hrs there is still a long queue of people waiting to get in.

I walk back to my hotel the long way around and there were crowds of people outside all the museums and thronging the streets.  It was an amazing sight see how the locals flood out to see their culture and history, but I can’t see something like this happening in the UK, more’s the pity.

I am tired and my legs are sore so a good night’s sleep is in order.


Sun 19 May ’13 – day 8 Still slightly dehydrated when I awoke so drank another litre of orange squash.

I pack all the things that I no longer need and set off for the main Post Office, it is exactly where the man in Tourist Information said, but had a bank sign outside so slightly confusing.  The Post Office is open 24 hours a day but is empty on a Sunday morning, however I still have to follow the bureaucratic procedure; get a ticket and then join a non-existent queue before I get served.  The lady is very helpful but it costs nearly £20-00 to send all the unwanted guidebooks etc home by priority mail, so will have to see how long it takes to arrive.

While waiting for the ‘Jewish Tour’ to start I sit in the hot sun and write some more postcards.

There are just three people on the tour, two female Polish students plus myself with a local lady as our guide.

Nothing exists of the original Jewish Ghetto as it was razed to the ground, again on Hitler’s orders following the Ghetto Uprising.  We were shown photographs of the area and it was an amazing sight; piles of rubble between the cleared streets.

The Ghetto was huge in size; and in two parts separated by Chłodna Street, which due to its importance as Warsaw’s major street leading to the east was excluded from it.


The area south of Chłodna was known as “Small Ghetto”, while the area north of this street – “Large Ghetto” and the two parts were connected by a wooden footbridge, which today has its own monument.

The original boundary of the Ghetto is now marked by a line of cobbled stones.

The Noẑyk Synagogue was the only Jewish place of worship to survive WW2 and is still for religious purposes. There is a kosher store in the basement.  There are a few parts of the ‘Small Ghetto’ remaining as this had become part of the Aryan area of the city and so was not involved in the Uprising.

There were a couple of quirky things to see in an otherwise very sobering tour, the first was a set of concrete reindeer outside an apartment block and just nearby were a few old Russian cars in very good condition.

The most thought provoking part of this walk was in and around the ‘Museum of the History of Polish Jews’; the museum has been a long time in the planning and construction phase and was not fully open when I visited; the grand opening is scheduled for Sep ‘14.  Nearby is a monument with a relief of Willy Brandt, the then German Chancellor, praying before the Ghetto Memorial.  Also in the vicinity is a monument which has been placed at the spot where the Polish Jews were loaded in railway trucks before being transported to the extermination camps.  Close by is a memorial to the Polish doctor who was in charge of a children’s hospital and orphanage and when the Jewish children were deported he insisted that as they were his patients he should go with them.  He was never heard of again!!

 On the main road back into the centre was a sculpture depicting the non Jewish Polish people, mainly Catholics, who were deported for a wide variety of reasons and never returned.

Another very good and illuminating tour, but a stark reminder of that period of man’s inhumanity to man.

Walked back to the hotel via the Old Town which was absolutely packed so I gave it a miss.  In the main square an outdoor Mass was being celebrated with worshippers from all parts of the country.

None of the lights are working in my room, so down to reception to complain and I end up moving rooms as the duty staff can’t fix the problem.

As the hotel had free internet access for the guests I went on-line and checked all the e-mails I had received, then sent an update to my sister and Anne at John Allan Travel.

Having had a long soak in a hot bath to ease my aching muscles, I went out to have a meal in the nearest ‘Milk Bar’, however it was closed so I returned to the hotel and had dinner in the restaurant; the meal was good but I didn’t like the wine.

It took me some time to drop off to sleep, which was surprising since I felt quite weary.


Mon 20 May ’13 – day 9 I have decided to pay for an extra night as the train to Minsk does not leave until late evening.  It is expensive as I have to pay the ‘rack rate’, but it means that I can get my laundry done and have a shower before departure.

There is an organised walk through the Old Town which I want to do this morning, so I head in that direction but stop at the Post Office to send another parcel home.

At the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior a ceremony is in progress, so I watch until the end and then continue on my way to the starting point of the tour, Sigismund’s Column in the castle square.  The tour is run by and yet again is free; I find this amazing as the guides work just for tips.  The guide was excellent, but when she spoke she closed her eyes – very strange.  It is hard to imagine that the Old Town was completely reconstructed after WW2 as it looks so authentic – it is so realistic that it is now a World Heritage Site.

 Castle Square is a visitor’s first view of the reconstructed Old Town, when approaching from the more modern center of Warsaw and is an impressive sight, dominated by Sigmund’s Column, which towers above the beautiful Old Town houses.  The square was in its glory in the 17th century when Warsaw became the country’s capital and it was here in 1644 that King Władysław IV erected the column to glorify his father Sigismund III Vasa, who is best known for moving the capital of Poland from Kraków to Warsaw.  The Column is the oldest and tallest non-church monument in Warsaw and stands 22 metres high with the actual figure of the King measuring 275 cm.  The sword he holds in his right hand symbolises bravery, while the cross he holds in his left hand symbolises his readiness to fight evil.  According to legend, should the King’s sword fall downward, disaster is sure to follow.  The statue fell during World War II and its destroyed column was placed next to the Royal Castle, where it can still be seen today.

Nearby is St. Anne’s Church which is currently it is the main church parish of the academic community in Warsaw.

The Royal Castle is more of a palace than a castle as it has no defensive ramparts or walls.  It was the residence of the Dukes of Mazovia but became the royal residence when the capital moved from Krakow to Warsaw.  In its long history the Royal Castle has been repeatedly devastated and plundered by the invading Swedish, Brandenburgian, German, and Russian armies.

The castle was completely destroyed by the Nazi’s during World War II.  From 1945 until 1970, the Communist authorities delayed making a decision on whether to rebuild the Castle, but when the decision to do so was taken in 1971, it took until 1988 to complete the reconstruction using castle remains and rubble.  Then in 1980, the Royal Castle, together with the Old Town was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Every day at 11:15 hours a trumpeter plays from a window in the clock tower at the front of the Royal Castle.

After World War II, the Old Town was meticulously rebuilt with as many of the original bricks being reused where possible and the rubble was sifted for reusable decorative elements, which were reinserted into their original places.  Bernardo Bellotto’s 18th-century vedute, as well as pre-World War II architecture students’ drawings, were used as essential sources in the reconstruction effort.

Kanonia is a small, triangular square near the cathedral and in the middle of the there is a huge bronze bell from the 17th century which has never hung in any church, but apparently when you circle around it three times, it will bring you good luck.  Everyone on the tour group did just that.

Kanonia has the narrowest house in Warsaw – a clever trick of the landlord, as in olden times, the amount of land taxes to be paid depended on the width of the external façade.

Walking through the streets it is hard to believe that what you are seeing is just 50 or so years old. In the Old Town Market Place where all the buildings were reconstructed after World War II and their appearance is a perfect match to the Square’s original look in the 17th and 18th centuries, is a statue of the Warsaw Mermaid which is surrounded by a fountain.  The statue is a copy as the original was moved to the Historical Museum of Warsaw after it had been vandalised.  According to legend, a mermaid swimming in from the sea stopped on the riverbank near the Old Town to rest and she found the place so admirable that she decided to stay.  Local fishermen living nearby noticed that something was creating waves, tangling nets, and releasing their fish and although their original intention was to trap the offender, they fell in love with the mermaid upon hearing her sing.  Later a rich merchant trapped the siren and imprisoned her in a wooden hut, but a young fisherman heard the mermaid’s cry and with the help of his friends released her, whereupon she declared her readiness to offer fishermen her help whenever it would be needed.  Ever since, the mermaid armed with sword and shield, has been ready to help protect the city and its residents.

In a street near the Old Town Market Palace is the Maria Sklodowska-Curie Museum which is housed in the townhouse where she was born.  On the outside of the building is a motif which depicts the two elements she discovered and their numbers in the Periodic Table.  Maria Sklodowska-Curie is the only woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize twice and the only winner in history to be honoured in two different fields of natural sciences: physics and chemistry.

The city walls and ramparts are again reconstructions, not that you would know it.

Outside the walls are two statues to the cities defenders 250 years apart; the first commemorates Jan Kiliński, a cobbler by trade who was the leader of the Kościuszko Uprising in 1794 against the Russian occupying forces.  The second is the Little Insurgent Monument  and is of a young boy wearing a helmet which is much too large for him and honours all the heroic children who fought and died against the Germans during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944.

 This superb tour ended at a bar where it was instantly apparent that the locals like tourists and have embraced western habits.

 Just as the tour ended thunder started and then some lightning, but when the rain came it was not heavy and did not last for very long.

As I am unable to find anywhere I can buy an English newspaper I brought a copy of the International Herald Tribune so that I could catch up with what is happening in the world.  I then headed for the food hall in Mall adjacent to my hotel where I have some pasta for my daily meal as there will be no catering facilities on the train tonight.

Back at the hotel I pack and then try to have a snooze but can’t drop off to sleep.

When I check out the ladies at reception are amazed that I am heading for Minsk in Belarus as they consider everywhere beyond the eastern Polish border to be the ‘Dark Lands’ – their words not mine.