FROM WORLD WAR TO WORLD CLASS
Lisa-Anne Julien discovers Warsaw
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
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.