Quoting Travellers Warsaw by Thomas Cook: “Once a sleepy provincial Russian town, it was transformed into the ‘Paris of the North’ prior to the outbreak of war in 1939, reborn of ashes it became a grey city hidden behind the Iron Curtain. At present, it is changing again, swiftly evolving into a European center for politics, commerce and entertainment.”
This was the Warsaw that I experienced in my recent trip. A completely re-born brand new city, risen from the ashes of the old Warsaw that the Nazis blew up.
Now vibrant, new and/or restored, Warsaw has emerged on the international scene as a power to be reckoned with. What we experienced in our visit there was some of the new Warsaw, in addition to the completely rebuild Old Town, now called the newest Medieval City in the world.
After a long bus ride from Krakow in the south we were very happy to arrive at the gorgeous new skyscraper Intercontinental Hotel, right across the street from the ugliest building in Warsaw. I didn’t care, though, as soon as I saw our extremely lovely, perfectly outfitted room, and the panoramic view we commanded from the 25th floor. The ugly building was the Russians’ gift to the Poles, dubbed the Cultural Center. The Poles say that the best view of Warsaw is from this building, because when you are up on top of it, you cannot see it.
The Intercontinental Hotel is also very close to the train station and to the newest, (and, I was told, the biggest) shopping center in Poland. There are numerous other shopping centers in Warsaw, and several giant contemporary skyscrapers, which are immediately recognizable examples of the economic boom.
There is no question that Poland is different from other European countries, and the difference is hard to define. They are now part of the EU, but they are not on the EURO, instead they use the Zloty. They have a president who seemed unpopular with the folks we met, has defied the EU a few times already, but who was recently re-elected, probably because of the increased economic benefits felt by the citizens. The people love Americans, they are looking to the future of Poland, and some are even RETURNING from abroad, from England and America.
What we saw in Warsaw was evidence of the newness of this capital city, and nostalgia for the old, coupled with the enigma of the Poles and the Jews. Once the Jews were welcomed in to Poland, but that was in the 11th century. Now, there are only10,000 Jews in Poland where there were probably more than one or two million in 1939. Why have they not come back? I do not know the answer to that question, and it was one that no one seemed willing to tackle. On this exploratory tourist trip, however, all was new and exciting and enjoyable.
We met with a young Polish student who had spent a year in Syracuse, New York, who came to speak to our group along with a much older gentlemen, who was a survivor of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. It was mesmerizing to hear him reminisce, even though he spoke only in Polish. The young man was shy but charming, and gave us a glimpse of what Poland could become.
Of course, one of the highlights of Warsaw was the Old Town, which really did look a bit like a movie set, rebuilt from old photos. We had a marvelous lunch there at a place just off the square, called Tartuffe, delicious beef strogonoff, and REALLY good white wine.
That evening in the pouring rain (it only rained for 20 minutes the whole time I was in Poland, but this had to be it, when I put on my best shoes) we walked through Lazienski Park past the famous Chopin monument to a lovely palace for a thoroughly enjoyable Chopin piano concert, by the head of the Music Department of Warsaw University.
On our last day, we drove out of the city to Wilanov, (pronounced “VEElanov”) called the Versailles of Poland. An elegant sprawling palace, this was well worth it (even though it was another tour, through yet another castle,) because we had a chance to see the famous gardens there, AND a view of the “suburbs” on the way. Even better, our bus got “stuck” in traffic on the way back, for, guess what, the Warsaw Marathon!
In the afternoon, we went to the new Warsaw Uprising Museum. This museum is all the rage, and is certainly done with all the most contemporary ways of exhibiting. It is full of interactive stuff that appeals to children, but is rather confusing. However, one should not miss this paean to the brave citizens of Warsaw who staved off the Germans for three months, while the helpless world watched, expecting the city would fall in just a few days.
Our farewell meal was at the French Brasserie, in an office tower, between the Intercontinental Hotel and the central train station, (I can’t remember the exact address.) It is a restaurant that I would recommend, with lots of fresh vegetables served with the beef roulade, and frozen chocolate mousse for dessert.
There is much we did not see in Warsaw, which I regret. I would also love to see more of the country and cities like Zamosc, Gdansk, and Torun, the birthplace of Copernicus (who changed our view of the universe, in case you’re thinking Poland is not very important in world history.)
And on my next trip, I’ll be hoping to go to the south, to Zakopane and to the Tatra Mountains.
I may be repeating myself, but Poland is charming, much of it beautiful, enigmatic in its history, yet full of promise.