Lisa-Anne Julien dis­cov­ers War­saw

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Lisa-Anne Julien found the city of War­saw’s most dis­tinc­tive char­ac­ter­is­tic

to be its lit­eral rise out of the ashes af­ter WWII

War­saw was only meant to be a stopover. My part­ner and I f lew there on our way to Krakow and the Auschwitz-Birke­nau Me­mo­rial. But we soon suc­cumbed to the city’s charm. War­saw is one of Europe’s most un­der­rated des­ti­na­tions. Not only are there his­tor­i­cal gems, the city is meant for walk­ing and the rand thank­fully stretches that bit fur­ther, which meant that stay­ing at the five-star Radis­son Blu was sur­pris­ingly af­ford­able.

Me­an­der­ing along the wide, busy streets, I had to keep re­mind­ing my­self that this was all re­built. The large ma­jor­ity of War­saw’s build­ings were de­stroyed dur­ing WWII. One such build­ing is the metic­u­lously re­stored Royal Cas­tle, orig­i­nally built in the 14th cen­tury, stand­ing re­gal in the cen­tre of War­saw’s Old Town.

As I strolled through its many rooms, it was easy to imag­ine the last King of Poland, Stanis­laus II Au­gus­tus

(1732 – 1798) sit­ting at his ma­hogany desk writ­ing let­ters with a quill pen be­fore re­tir­ing to the grandeur of his bed­cham­ber. It seemed in­cred­i­ble that the painted ceil­ings in the Great As­sem­bly Hall, enor­mous chan­de­liers and gold-framed old masters were not there orig­i­nally. This for­mer glory was re­stored thanks to vol­un­tary do­na­tions which, by 1975, had al­ready reached US$140m. For­tu­nately be­fore the cas­tle was bombed in 1939, paint­ings from Stanis­laus Au­gus­tus’s col­lec­tion, in­clud­ing two Rem­brandts, were smug­gled out. Th­ese, along with hun­dreds of oth­ers do­nated by pri­vate art col­lec­tors, now form part of the cas­tle’s per­ma­nent col­lec­tion. The Royal Cas­tle was of­fi­cially re­opened to the pub­lic in 1984.

Af­ter the op­u­lence of the cas­tle, it was time to see how and where the other half lived. War­saw’s Old Town, it­self a post­war re­con­struc­tion com­pleted in 1963, is now a UNESCO World Her­itage Site. The town square, which dates back to the 13th cen­tury, is sur­rounded with richly coloured build­ings, and is an in­ter­est­ing mix of yes­ter­year and

moder­nity. Fuch­sias spilled out of count­less f lower boxes and artists seated at easels were a con­trast to the mi­cro­phone sound checks in prepa­ra­tion for live en­ter­tain­ment.

For those in­ter­ested in Pol­ish folk art, the square is filled with shops sell­ing nest­ing dolls, an­tiques and any item that can be cov­ered with the dis­tinc­tive f low­ery de­signs. Shop­keep­ers and ven­dors were gen­er­ally very chatty and we found it easy to find our way around as many of the signs were in both

Pol­ish and English. The square is also home to lots of two-ta­ble cafés serv­ing light lunches, strong cof­fee and Pol­ish desserts like szar­lotka (ap­ple pie) and paczki (tra­di­tional dough­nuts).

The Mu­seum of War­saw is sit­u­ated on the edge of the square. A high­light was the cu­rated set of post­cards do­nated by Poles in Poland and abroad. Th­ese not only served as vis­ual re­minders of life in pre-1939 War­saw, they were also a record of many of the per­sonal do­na­tions to the War­saw re­con­struc­tion ef­fort, which be­gan just af­ter the war and was com­pleted in 1984.

The many Catholic churches fea­tur­ing beau­ti­ful stained-glass win­dows, huge pipe or­gans and old­world lat­ticed con­fes­sion­als were wel­com­ing and the priests and nuns didn’t seem fazed by dozens of vis­i­tors with selfie sticks.

But War­saw of­fers a lot more than re­li­gious and his­tor­i­cal at­trac­tions. The cui­sine is very cos­mopoli­tan, and as a veg­e­tar­ian, I had my choice of cur­ries, pas­tas and all forms of Asian fu­sion.

It’s also a des­ti­na­tion for in­ter­na­tional bands and we found our­selves among the hun­dreds of thou­sands jump­ing up and down at a rock con­cert at the Na­tional Sta­dium.

If you’re into shop­ping, an al­ter­na­tive to the many malls, which are not that dif­fer­ent from those here in South Africa, is Fac­tory Ur­sus, an out­let mall ap­prox­i­mately half an hour from the city cen­tre by bus, of­fer­ing huge dis­counts on brand names.

But War­saw’s his­tory was all around. On a stroll through the

Saxon Gar­dens, with its mas­sive beds of f low­ers, we came upon the Tomb of the Un­known Sol­dier. This small struc­ture, erected in 1925, con­tains the body of an uniden­ti­fied sol­dier as well as urns con­tain­ing soil from Poland’s bat­tle­fields. The chang­ing of the guard takes place ev­ery day at noon.

I re­alised that my knowl­edge of his­tory, WWII in par­tic­u­lar, was woe­fully in­ad­e­quate to fully un­der­stand the hor­ror of the Nazi dom­i­na­tion of Poland. On our last day, we vis­ited the War­saw Ris­ing Mu­seum, which com­mem­o­rates the Pol­ish in­sur­rec­tion in Au­gust 1944. An ex­am­ple of new mul­ti­me­dia tech­nol­ogy, it brought the war to life. With the sounds of planes, bombs and com­mands, you felt as though you were there with the in­sur­gents as they launched of­fen­sives against the Ger­mans. We walked on rub­ble, de­signed to de­pict the shat­tered pave­ments in wartime and crawled through low cor­ri­dors (the braver ones chose to be blind­folded), to sim­u­late the ex­pe­ri­ence of trav­el­ling through the sew­ers to es­cape from the cap­tured Old Town. It was an in­tensely mov­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. But, un­for­tu­nately, there was no time to grad­u­ally ad­just to the present day with the help of a Ży­wiec Porter beer. The train was wait­ing to take us to Krakow.


All types of Euro­pean cui­sine can be found in theOld Town Mar­ket Square.

The Miche­lin-guide U Fukiera is the old­est res­tau­rant in War­saw.

The King’s Bed­room inthe Royal Cas­tle.

A small din­ing roomin the Royal Cas­tle.

The Palace of Cul­ture and Sci­ence

Saxon Gar­dens

The Old Town Mar­ket Square

Saxon Gar­densThe Old Town Out of rub­ble andash, a new War­saw emerged.

The War­saw Ris­ing Mu­seum.

One of War­saw’s many churches.

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