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03 March 2013

A Journey Through Warsaw's Past and Present

Welcome to Old Town Warszawa or Warsaw, Poland. All photography is the property of Sharon Joseph. Unauthorized use is prohibited.
Welcome to Old Town Warszawa or Warsaw, Poland. All photography is the property of Sharon Joseph. Unauthorized use is prohibited.

I am thrilled to introduce my guest Sharon Joseph, a colleague and dear friend who just returned from two-week vacation in Poland. What you are about to read is her poignant tale through the past and present of Warsaw, Poland—a journey from a ravaged past to a promising future for this eastern-European nation. Without further ado, I present Warszawa seen through the eyes of a traveler who has seen beyond the visible world before her.

We are staying in a small town called Ostrołęka northeast of Warszawa (Warsaw). The days are very cold and gray but the hospitality could not be more opposite. Every day we embarked on a journey into town for some food shopping, a little beverage and explorations—simple trips with only the intention of sustenance, supplies and a break from home.

For the weekend, we took a bus into Warszawa—our big adventure. We packed a small bag and a few zloty, took a short drive on a windy road and climbed aboard our two-hour bus ride to the big city of Warsaw.


Old Town Warsaw, Poland.
Old Town Warsaw, Poland. 

Steeped in a war-torn history, Warsaw is a city bursting with new beginnings. Our afternoon/evening was spent in the financial district where our hotel was located. Flashy high-rises, booming shopping centers, overpriced restaurants…strip away the signage and Warsaw would be indistinguishable from any modern cityscape.

To a tourist looking for some comfort and familiarity, staying at the Hilton Warsaw in the financial district was a dose of home. Capitalism and western-hemisphere standards could be found throughout every facet of the hotel, including door greeters, bellhops and other staff, many of whom spoke English. The amenities were that of a Las Vegas five-star hotel and included a fitness center, spa, shopping, casino, restaurants and bars. If we didn't want to leave the hotel, we didn't have to.

We spent Sunday touring the city. I will try to describe my experience and knowledge of Warsaw but you must know that this city grew up during an age of conflict. In the most recent half century when most cities were thriving with their dedicated industries, technologies and change; Warsaw was stunted by "divorced parents and changing schools constantly." (To put it simply.)


Warsaw's 'Little Mermaid.' This photo only: WikiMedia.org.
Warsaw's "Little Mermaid." This photo only: WikiMedia.org.  

But, let’s start from the beginning. Like most cities, Warsaw was founded along the river, the Vistula River to be specific. Mermaids lived here and chief among these denizens of the waters was a very special mermaid named Sawa who guided a man to the hilltop to settle. His name was Warsz, hence the city name Warszawa and the beginning of the Old Town.


The Belweder or Belvedere Palace in Warsaw, Poland.
The Belweder or Belvedere Palace in Warsaw, Poland. 

Our explorations led us to "Royal Way," a street that dates back to the 17th century and connected Warsaw royalty with suburbia of the day (a distance of about 10 miles). Lined with palaces, pillars and statuary from the 18th and 19th centuries, Royal Way was our way to Belweder Palace (remember the "w"s are pronounced like "v"s) perched atop the a manmade Łazienki Park, (pronounced wa-jien-ky and translated means "bath house") designed by Tylman van Gameren for King Jan III Sobieski in the 17th century. The king wanted his park to be the cultural center for the citizens of the land as well as a focal point for the world's cultures to converge in Polska. From man-made ponds and an amphitheater to libraries and entertainment parlors, the park today is free to the public and a wonderful place to stroll along the natural settings, attend a concert, and stop to feed the birds at any of the feeders throughout the park. Of the multiple buildings you see, most are either museums, or used for educational or official government business.


Łazienki Park was designed by Tylman van Gameren for King Jan III Sobieski in the 17th century.
Łazienki Park was designed by Tylman van Gameren for King Jan III Sobieski in the 17th century.

The Water Palace in Łazienki Park in Warsaw, Poland.
The Water Palace in Łazienki Park in Warsaw, Poland.

The Belweder Palace (remember "w"s are pronounced as "v") served as home to Poland’s presidents until 1994. Most of the royal buildings were sectioned off during WWII for German use and of course spared during the two uprisings.


Monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising honors the victims in a park that occupies the former Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw, Poland.
Monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising honors the victims in a park that occupies the former Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw, Poland.

Beyond the political section of Warsaw, German occupation created the largest ghetto in the world—home to 450,000 Jews and spanning 1.3 square miles. In 1942, prisoners were selected every day, herded into cattle cars and deported to Treblinka for extermination in the gas chambers. Ultimately, the entire ghetto and the surrounding land were destroyed during the Jewish Uprising of April 1943. Today, Warsaw honors the victims with several striking monuments that serve as poignant reminders of this sad moment in history.


Monument to the Warsaw Jewish Ghetto— stands as a testament to the suffering and courage of the Warsaw's Jewish population during WWII. Upon it, the inscription reads: 'To those who fell in the unprecedented heroic battle for the dignity and freedom of the Jewish people, for a free Poland and for man's liberation. From the Polish Jews.'
Monument to the Warsaw Jewish Ghetto— stands as a testament to the suffering and courage of the Warsaw's Jewish population during WWII. Upon it, the inscription reads: "To those who fell in the unprecedented heroic battle for the dignity and freedom of the Jewish people, for a free Poland and for man's liberation. From the Polish Jews."

Rick Steves walks us through Old Town Warsaw, Poland, and recounts the horrors of WWII and the suffering of the city and its residents.



Post WWII and at the start of Soviet control, Warsaw changed its personality through much resistance to communism. One of the most significant signs of this era is the notable gift of Joseph Stalin; a tower building in the city center. Originally known as the Stalin Palace, the Warsaw landmark remains the city’s tallest, housing offices, a tourism center and a congressional center. Surrounding this cultural and scientific hub are many buildings of "socialist realism architecture," many of which are typically found in communist cities. This style is easily identified by its arches and sculpted scenes depicting "working people". Ironically, while the building itself is socialist, its current tenant is capitalist.


The Warsaw Palace of Culture and Science was originally called the Stalin Palace and remains the city's tallest landmark today.
The Warsaw Palace of Culture and Science was originally called the Stalin Palace and remains the city's tallest landmark today. 

Today, Old Town resembles its former pre-Holocaust state with medieval-fortress-style architecture, colorful buildings and cobblestone streets. Much of its foundation, however, reveals fire stains, bullet holes and other detritus from the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 when citizens rebelled against Germans who retaliated with brutal force and systematically reduced Warsaw to rubble! Like mass production, German soldiers laid down small tracks into prominent buildings and with remote control bombs, razed them to the ground. The bullet holes you see in the façades of the buildings serve as a grim reminder of when the citizens of Warsaw were lined up outside their homes and executed.


The embedded metal links below the plaque comprise a piece of the German tank 'Goliath' that was used during the Warsaw Uprising in '44. The plaque explains this and the fact that Goliath was responsible for the destruction of the Cathedral walls.
The embedded metal links below the plaque comprise a piece of the German tank "Goliath" that was used during the Warsaw Uprising in '44. The plaque explains this and the fact that Goliath was responsible for the destruction of the Cathedral walls.

The Lucky Bell in Warsaw's Old Town. According to legend, circle the bell three times and you'll have good luck.
The Lucky Bell in Warsaw's Old Town. According to legend, circle the bell three times and you'll have good luck. 

While Old Town certainly bears the scars of a struggling country, it thrives today and has become an idyllic vision of Eastern European history. UNESCO’s World Heritage List even commends the city’s efforts calling Warsaw "an outstanding example of a near-total reconstruction of a span of history covering the 13th to the 20th century." Streets are brimming with shops, cafés and artists; and visitors can easily enjoy views of the Vistula River from the top of the hill, historic architecture, a lucky church bell and Marie Curie’s residence.


The Marie Curie Museum is an 18th-century building where Marie Curie,Maria Skłodowska,was born.
The Marie Curie Museum is an 18th-century building where Marie Curie,Maria Skłodowska,was born.

On the other side of Vistula River is a district called Praga—a grungy area of Warsaw that once hosted a smaller ghetto for Jews, a black market bazaar and a community of struggling artists. During the cold war, Praga was spared by communist control and passed over by any potential of growth or wealth, still evident today in this district of struggling artists and unemployed/underemployed. At one point, Praga had a thriving vodka factory which has been transformed into an artistic hub, part of a Renaissance the entire district is experiencing. Fittingly, the Academy-Award winning "The Pianist" was filmed in this district to emulate the poverty and ghetto setting of the era.


On the other side of the Vistula River lies Praga, a once derelict district that is going through a Renaissance after the end of communism in 1989
On the other side of the Vistula River lies Praga, a once derelict district that is going through a Renaissance after the end of communism in 1989.

Praga, Poland is where 'The Pianist' was filmed.
Praga, Poland is where "The Pianist" was filmed. 

Notable mentions

  • Fredrick Chopin left a proud imprint on the city and his legacy is immortalized in statues, amphitheaters; and even his heart is headquartered in one of the city’s catholic churches (literally, the man’s dying wish). Chopin spent most of his life in Poland and he is idealized for his profound musical contributions to the country and the world. 
  • Similarly, Copernicus is immortalized in statue, an educational building and in books for his legacy and affiliation with Warsaw. Modern university buildings boast rooftop gardens and large tablets of "human culture" as well as a façade that symbolizes the mixture of knowledge in the city. 

From a foodie perspective, Folk Gospoda has been the best restaurant during my trip to Poland. We found the location by accident and so happy we did! The staff was very accommodating to our mix of Polish and English, which made it very easy for me to communicate and place my order. The beer selection was very impressive and the dining menu extensive. If I had the stomach to eat everything on the menu, I would have. We ordered potato pancakes, worth dying for; three-mushroom soup that could win awards; and the goat cheese salad that delivered upon my expectations of my trip to Poland. It became clear to us that there was a lot of love that went into everything about Folk Gospoda: love in the food, love in the service, and love in the decor. As we went to get our jackets on the way out, a part of me wished we could stay until we were ready for the next meal.


A touching photo of our author sharing a moment with one of the birds in Łazienki Park.
A touching photo of our author sharing a moment with one of the birds in Łazienki Park.

31 comments:

  1. Thanks for this great post! The most I read about Poland, the more I want to visit. I can't imagine all the wonderful history to be discovered in this country.

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    1. this is a great post and pictures about a city and time period that was hard on the people and the world

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    2. Thank you so much Debbie and Eileen for stopping by and for your kind words!! I was particularly moved by this post...especially after having been to Amsterdam to learn about the plight of the city's Jewish population during the war. Indeed it's a fascinating city nonetheless, and has a lot to offer all who visit!

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  2. Did you know that the rebuilt old town of Warsaw is very different from what it was prior to WW2? The rebuilding of old town Warsaw is a fascinating story in and of itself. Basically, it is not "real".

    Prior to the war the old town was falling apart on its own. It was kind of the “scummy” section of town full of the poor, students, artists, crooks. A number of buildings has actually collapsed.

    That old town was a mixture of a wide variety of styles - gothic to monumentalism to romantic and so on. They were all mixed together in a very natural way. The reconstruction group found that returning it to what it was would be too complicated and expensive so they chose one representative style for the reconstruction.

    Just two examples…first, the Royal Road…before the war is was a very modern street of 20th and 19th century buildings some reaching 8-10 stories. And yet is was rebuilt if a completely classical style. Second, the Barbican…it was actually removed about 50-70 years before WW2 and what the Nazis razed in that placed were homes. And yet, the resconstruction committee decided it would be cheaper (not to mention suit the fantasy) to build a new Barbican than early 20th century housing. You have to love the Royal Castle too….that wasn’t even rebuilt until the 70s.

    One more fascinating thing I’ll leave in this comment…the reconstruction committee consulted paintings by an Italian who came to paint Warsaw in the 1600s I believe. This painter made hundreds of fanciful additions to his paintings….adding buildings, levels, architectural styles and so on…that never actually existed. He was well known for this. So many of the reconstructed buildings and their styles NEVER actually existed outside that guy’s paintings….but now they do.

    The whole old town is a fairy-tale fake creation. And a heck of a lot of fun!



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    1. What incredible insight into the history and reconstruction of Warsaw! Thank you so much Jim for taking the time to share with us all of your valuable information and for opening our eyes even wider to this fascinating city in Poland. I can't thank you enough!

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  3. Nice page indeed. Thanks a lot for having what you've got in here. Impressive indeed. We all have our own experiences. It definitely teaches all the lessons we need to learn! Traveling provides an education in life that you cannot obtain in any other way. so keep the travelling, it gets the creative mind flowing!

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    1. HI there Andrew and thanks so much for stopping by! I couldn't agree with you more about the educational benefits of traveling and experiencing the sights in person...the message and immersion resonate forever.

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  4. Enjoyed this very much. Just one small note, the plaque that is captioned "commemorating Jews lined up and executed during WWII" is actually a piece of a German tank called "Goliath" that was used during the Warsaw Uprising in '44 (different from the Jewish ghetto uprising which was in '43). The tank destroyed the walls of the Cathedral it says.

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    1. Ooh..thank you so much for that information my friend. I labeled according to the author of this post so I will be sure to update right away. Thank you so much for taking the time to explain all of this to our readers!

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  5. Wow! This is amazing. I went to Warsaw in the summer and how different it is to see it in the winter through your pictures. I really have a special bonding with the city, really enjoyed my time there and wish to go back soon!

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    1. Hi there Aggy and thank you so much for stopping by and for your kind words! The pics make it look cold and wintry, don't they? Tell me more about your special bond with Warsaw.

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  6. Last summer I have been in Warsaw. It looked totally different. Nice to see it also in winter, in your great photos.

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    1. Hi there Laura and thanks so much for stopping by. I am glad you enjoyed this wintry perspective of Warsaw. Now, I want to see it in the summer. ; )

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  7. Maybe it's the winter in your pics but I fell like the city is still under the influence of it's not so happy recent history.
    The communist era and of course the Warsaw Ghetto period are still too recent for the city to recover...

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    1. Hi there my friend and thx so much for stopping by. I agree with you but renewal is in the air according to my guest blogger and so we all must have faith it continues!

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  8. Awesome picture with lovely reflections. This can be awesome, We went along to Warsaw in the summer and also how various it can be to discover the idea in the winter by way of your current photos and also would like to go back rapidly!

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    1. Hi there Sadaf and thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. Yes, winter does present Warsaw in a whole new light, a more dramatic light as well. I would love to visit someday!!

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  9. Great photos! I lived in Warsaw in the early 1990s and loved it.

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    1. Hi there Margaret and thanks so much for stopping by! I bet it was wonderful to live in Warsaw and witness its continuing rebirth. I will be sure to pass your compliments to my guest blogger too!

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  10. Hi Jeff
    wow.. great post. thank you

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    1. Hi there my friend and thank you so much for stopping by and for your kind words! I will be sure to pass them onto my guest blogger!!

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  11. Who would have thought that Warsaw was once a place in utter distraught? Thanks for this post! Very, very nice!

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    1. Hi there Yenny...the more I travel through Europe, the more I discover how many countries and their people suffered the ravages of WWII...it's heartbreaking but inspiring at the same time to know that these places have moved forward while never forgetting their tragic pasts. Thank you so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!

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  12. Jeff, I'm planning a trip to Warsaw as we speak/write. So happy you have this awesome post about what to do and see...with a restaurant review to boot! I plan on doing most of what Sharon wrote here...Yay!

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    1. Hi there Corinne and thx so much for stopping by. Can't believe the coincidence of your travel planning. Hope all works out and that you get to experience a lot of what Sharon had during her trip. Have fun and please stop back here to tell me all about your trip.

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  13. Jeff, I knew I had read this before...but we decided against Warsaw for now. We're just headed to Wroclaw. I've bookmarked this for the Warsaw trip later on. Thanks!!!

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    1. Oh, you commented on April 27 too! How funny. You'll have to let me know how Wroclaw is my friend. Thanks for stopping by again!

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  14. Amazing photos and article, have you visited Krakow in Poland too?

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    1. HI there Tom and thx so much for your kind words. Alas, I have not been to Poland yet but after my guest contributed this insightful article, I hope to visit soon. Thank you for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!

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  15. Great summary of Warsaw! We've lived here for 6 months now and always take visitors to Folk Gospoda. The food is always good every time and people love it! Also, try the Red Hog under the Inn owned by the same company and located just a few blocks away. Great times!

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    1. Hi there Joy and thank you so much for stopping by and sharing your tips with me and my readers! I am truly grateful. Glad you enjoyed this post too!

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Thank you for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!