As my last two posts contained some pretty heavy duty discussions about the miseries inflicted upon Central European countries by their Communist regimes I thought I would lighten things up a bit to quash any budding misconceptions that my trip was all serious business. And the best way I can think of doing that is by writing a post about my introduction to Warsaw – yes you read right, Warsaw.
While you might think that Warsaw’s history would make it a city laden by misery, that doesn’t accord with various stories I have heard over the past 30 years. Even as far back as the early 1980s I had heard the backpacker cognoscenti considered Warsaw to be the premier European party town. As well, a university professor I knew enjoyed Warsaw so much he would make an annual pilgrimage there to teach summer classes. And more recently, a non-Polish aunt of mine came back from Poland raving about the great time she had.
But countering these positive experiences was my parents’ failed 1979 trip. When it came to travelling, though, my folks’ comfort zone was extremely narrow and they were not very forgiving if it was breached. So overall, when I boarded my Warsaw-bound train in Berlin on the morning of Sunday 7 July 2013, I did so with more than the usual amount of curiosity and excitement I feel when embarking on a new journey of discovery. These emotions were also, no doubt, heightened by the fact that I was about to enter the land of my ancestors.
The six-hour trip was uneventful but still enjoyable. Train travel is my favourite mode of transportation provided I have sufficient leg room and there is a large window for the scenery to pass me by. Certainly train tracks pass through some depressing industrial areas but this comes nowhere near negating the emotional highs of winding through pastoral fields and mountain valleys.
It was late Sunday afternoon when I arrived in Warsaw. The train station’s main floor was practically deserted and the tourist office was closed. I wondered if I had made a poor timing decision by arriving on a Sunday afternoon. Warsaw is, after all, a strongly Catholic city. Maybe the citizens celebrate the Sabbath by going to church in the morning and then continue to observe the solemness of the day by remaining indoors until Monday comes to release them. This was potentially a rude welcome for someone who had heard that Warsaw was party central.
I couldn’t find any city maps at the station that would give me any clue as to how to reach my hotel on Foksal Street. From my hotel’s description on the internet I gathered that it was centrally located. But when you don’t know where a train has deposited you, you don’t know where “centrally located” is. For all I knew Foksal Street was some place distant.
With only a few disinterested souls in the vicinity, I glided my luggage over to the only people who appeared like they could assist me – two cleaning ladies idly chatting in a corner. With my rudimentary Polish and their broad knowledge of the city I was able to get general directions consisting of “go to the tram stop (across the street) and head east”.
As I emerged from the station’s underpass and climbed the stairs to the tram stop there was still a decided lack of activity in the vicinity. As I looked around and surveyed the stillness a sky-obscuring full-on view of the dreadful Palace of Culture and Science gave me a sudden shock to the system. (Some readers will be familiar with my views on this structure from an earlier post).
Marvelling at this behemoth did distract me from my tram-chasing for a few minutes as I gawked in a state of fascinated bemusement.
When I returned to the task of getting to my hotel I must have cut a pathetic sight. While trying to make sense of the tram map this comely young lass approached me and offered much needed help. She addressed me in English, probably because no Pole would look that lost in his own country. I was directed to the correct tram and with a warm “Welcome to Warsaw” she even donated me a tram ticket because I didn’t have appropriate change for the machine. At that point I was still unsure how interesting Warsaw would be but I could not complain about the hospitality shown to a stranger.
I got off the tram at the Krakowskie Przedmieście tram stop and started walking up the street. Almost immediately I sensed a change, the city seemed to be coming to life. Only a little at first but people traffic was increasing and there were open shops serving ice cream, tourist souvenirs and what have you. Pedestrian numbers increased steadily as I moved along the street, but I quickly came upon Foksal.
As it happened, I lucked out on my accommodation. My hotel was just off Krakowskie Przedmieście and restaurant marquees filled the street area below my hotel. It looked like it had some fun to offer.
As I looked up Krakowskie Przed – let’s just call it KP for short, ok? – I could see stuff. Stuff was happening up KP! I suspected there was an interesting street up there just waiting for me to explore.
Curiosity was so eating at me that I quickly checked into my hotel, dumped my bags and headed out again.
My suspicions were correct. The further I ventured up the street, the more there was for me to gawk at. I was now getting my first inclinations as to what it was about Warsaw that appealed to backpackers and old university professors. The atmosphere was fantastic. Most of my fellow walkers seemed to have no particular place to go but they were going to go there anyway.
And the street parade was long. I journeyed up the broad boulevard that was KP for maybe a kilometre…
until it opened up into Castle Square…
then squeezed myself into a choked laneway with fellow travellers…
until we were disgorged at Stary Miasto.
After having an initial look around Stary Miasto I resumed my wandering until I found myself outside the Stary Miasto Wall.
There was such a variety of things to see on my journey from hotel to Stary Miasto Wall: Prayers being said for Pope John Paul II…
monuments to historical Polish figures (some of whom I even recognised)…
political sloganeering (Poles have a passion for politics)….
churches of course…
hitherto unknown life forms…
unorthodox (to my eyes anyway) religious performances…
and even a yogi.
And it wasn’t all just happening at ground level. If you didn’t look all about you would miss things like this fellow….
As I passed by the outdoor cafes I took delight in studying the menus which offered traditional Polish dishes that my mother used to prepare. I scoured the menus and let nostalgia overtake me. I thought back to when I used to regularly eat kielbasa (like any good Pole would), potato pancakes and the innards of cabbage rolls – the cabbage itself always gave me indigestion so I usually unfurled it and pushed it aside.
As I walked along I didn’t feel like a visitor in a strange city. Rather, I drew comfort from all the Polish I was hearing. I didn’t care to surreptitiously listen in on the conversations (indeed I could only make out about half of what was said anyway), just being surrounded by Polish speakers provided a strange kind of comfort. I could say I almost felt like I was home but, of course, I had never been to Warsaw before. It’s more the case that hearing a language that has become largely lost to my ears engendered a certain sentimentality. It was the cadence, the accent and sometimes hysterical delivery of the spoken words that appealed.
My walk had taken about 2 ½ hours and it was already past 6.30 pm and I hadn’t eaten since the morning so I figured I should find a place to eat. The Stary Miasto area was a place where I could sit outdoors. enjoy a panoramic view and partake of authentic Polish food and beer.
I was keen to have my first taste of Polish beer in Poland, all that walking had made me very thirsty. I have had Polish beer on a number of occasions over the years but it was made specifically for the export market; and had always been horrible. It tasted so heavily of yeast it could have been used to bake bread. At this particular point in time, though, it wouldn’t have mattered much to me if the beer was all yeast just so long as it quenched my thirst.
Very much to my surprise the beer was as enjoyable as any I had tried in Berlin. This got me to wondering why the export beer had been so terrible. Perhaps it was another victim of cheap-ass Communism. But then I impressed upon myself that sometimes I think too much and should instead just sit back, quaff the good stuff and enjoy the passing street parade until my food arrived.
I don’t remember much about the meal. It wasn’t bad enough to sear itself into my memory or tasty enough to leave a pleasant recollection. That’s what you might expect of a restaurant in a tourist area I suppose: don’t expect the food to be as great as your mother used to make but be satisfied if it fills the spot.
As I surveyed the scene from my table I began to think of the semi-artificiality of my surrounds. Stary Miasto had been destroyed in World War II…
and rebuilt according to original architectural plans.
Not that the rebuilding was obvious. If you were unaware of the area’s history the only thing that might tip you off was that the buildings did not have a layer of soot and grime that many medieval-era buildings have.
By the time I finished my meal it was getting on to 8 pm and I reckoned I should head back to my room; particularly as my hotel was some distance away. But it seemed the citizens of Warsaw were not as ready to let go of their Sunday just yet.
There was still plenty of street action on my journey back but the setting sun was sedating the atmosphere.
And, you may remember, I mentioned there were a number of restaurants on Foksal Street? The street below my balcony remained busy with restaurant patrons long after I got back to my room and fell asleep. How do I know? By being awoken by ongoing revelry at 3.00 am. Maybe I would have got an uninterrupted night’s sleep if I had stayed closer to the train station. 😉