WARSAW - As I stand at the foot of what could be known as The Empire Distaste Building, I am reminded of Apocalypse Then in a city that really and truly has come back from the dead.
Once one of Europe’s most architecturally creative capitals, Warsaw was reduced to rubble by the Nazis in World War II and then rebuilt, painstakingly recreating the original Old Town, albeit in the shadow of the hammer and sickle as Communism dictated the monotonous and sterile shapes of surrounding apartment buildings.
As the ultimate symbol of power, the Soviet Union in 1956 built the Palace of Culture and Science to dominate the skyline. I immediately thought of this being the Red Army’s finger to the populace. The resilient Poles, as my guide Jarek tells me, were prickly about their overlords and sarcastically dubbed it “Stalin’s Penis.”
Today this monument to mind control still offers the best views of the city on all four sides (it is the tallest building in Poland) but as you wander its transformed interior there is no doubt it is now more capitalist than communist with its exhibition centre, multiplex movie theatres and museums. At night, its LED lighting draws eyes to the skies, a blinkingly amazing sight.
Above: Warsaw Monument remembers the uprising.
Nowy Swiat, the ironically named “New World Street,” that leads into Old Warsaw — a floral-lined cobblestoned pedestrian thoroughfare bustling with people, stores, restaurants, terraces and even parks where you can escape from the main drag amid colourful buildings recreated in all their old splendour. Think of a paint smorgasbord on the Vistula.
Warsaw abounds in parks, many of them great people places like Lazienki Palace, where the king once played host to many of high society’s leading lights. Today, the tranquil surroundings are a favourite spot for young lovers escaping into their own world, where boaters paddle among the swans in this 60-acre oasis from urban noise.
To say the city has become Westernized is an understatement. It has caught up with many of its peers from 1945 in a blaze of neon signs and an abundance of shopping featuring the best stores in Europe. And, of course, it would not be Americanized without McDonald’s, Starbucks and their peers.
Guided double-decker bus tours are the best way to max your time, taking in the Old Town, the Chopin and National Museum, the Copernicus Science Centre, the Royal Castle and the Botanical Gardens, to name a few of the hop-on, hop-off options. For about $25 (Cdn), you can get a two-day pass.
Above: Warsaw's modern skyline is lovely but its back streets still retain a lot of charm.
Needless to say you cannot see the Warsaw Ghetto, only the memorials which mark the land where the Nazis kept and then decimated the Jewish population. However, The Museum of the History of the Polish Jews, opened in 2014 after seven years of construction on the former ghetto site and blends in with the stunning black sculpted monument to the heroes of the Warsaw Rising, located on Krasinski Square.
No visit to Warsaw is complete without going to the Warsaw Rising Museum where you can be immersed in World War II history when residents of the city threw themselves into battle to try to shed the occupier's stranglehold. The mood is somber, the lighting dark as you meander a maze of wall displays.
Fighting with the barest minimum in weaponry against the German troops, the struggle lasted for 63 days during which Nazi ground and air power gutted the city’s buildings and population with 16,000 freedom fighters and more than 150,000 civilians lost their lives.
The large cinema in the museum features a series of newsreels (with subtitles) from the time and, if you need a break after a two-hour browse, take in The 1940s café for coffee and ciastkas (cakes). There are also many flyers to take away (in Polish and English) which outline the exhibits in detail. Entrance fee is about $6 and the best way to avoid long lines is to buy online. It is also closed on Tuesdays.
Dining is a great experience in Warsaw, particularly if you like tasty European dishes. My favourite is in a quiet side street in the Old Town called Podwale 25 on Kompania Piwna, an indoor-outdoor café with great atmosphere and entertainment and staff dressed in traditional costumes. Think wenches in an old English pub.
Above: Warsaw's Old Quarter hold a lot of memories, both good and bad.
Dishes — Polish, Bavarian, Austrian and Hungarian — range from the jumbo-sized wiener schnitzel to the local pork knuckle, all coming with plenty of optional side dishes. And the draft beers are among the best — Tyskie, Pilsner Urquell and Princes Dark Mild Red Lager. Prices are also reasonable. Dinner for two with beer runs around $36. Although zloty is still the currency, Euros are acceptable.
I choose the Novotel Centrum as the base for the visit and it proved to be an excellent location with friendly staff, offering a filling breakfast buffet and excellent dining. Another plus was the convenience of the currency exchange around the corner. Be careful with ATM usage since many of the cash machines are limited to European banks.
With the main train station only a few blocks away, it’s easy to make for Krakow, a 160-minute trip (tickets are about $64).
Be careful to choose a modern train — usually the fastest — and you will ride in comfort, looking on as seas of poppies and sunflowers extend to the horizon, dotting the flat and then hilly landscape as you approach the former Polish capital.
The second largest city in Poland, Krakow was the capital of the occupying German Army during the WWII in an area near the infamous extermination camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau — eerie places to visit but a must on your itinerary if you are to comprehend man’s inhumanity to man.
Although the historic images of the camps and those persecuted in them will remain seared in the memory banks, one modern image will remain for me — that of a German teenager walking under the sign, Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Sets You Free) wearing a T-shirt with Germany emblazoned across the front. A bit tacky, I'd say.
Unlike Warsaw, the Jewish part of Krakow remains very much intact. Surrounding the Jewish cemetery are hotels and restaurants in the Kazimierz District, founded in 1495, where you can step back in time in one of the city’s most trendy areas. The Hotel Ester on Szeroka Street is a great location where you can walk to interesting eateries, serving kosher, Polish, European and even Mexican dishes.
The visit would not be complete without visits to Wawel Cathedral, on Kanonicza Street, where Pope John Paul II preached to his compatriots; Wawel Castle, for centuries the home to kings; the bustling and expansive medieval Market Square (Rynek Glowny), with St. Mary’s Basilica and the Cloth Tower; and Oskar Schindler’s factory, made infamous in the Oscar-winning movie.
But what makes Poland great are the people. The older generation still fears communism but are no longer afraid to express their opinions.
The young people have spurned learning Russian in favour of English, and are happy to engage you on any topic. Big Brother, in the shape of the monolithic downtown marker, no longer worries them.
Air Canada and LOT Polish Airlines fly from Toronto to Warsaw. In addition British Airways, KLM and Lufthansa have connecting flights from major Canadian cities. / For tourist information, go to www.poland.travel/en/