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.|
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.|
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.|
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.|
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.|
|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.|
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.
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.|
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 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.|
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.|
|Praga, Poland is where "The Pianist" was filmed.|
- 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.|