The best way to travel, and it’s a luxury, is to have a local friend. Instead of going for the obvious, you can go wander around the back ways, push this door which leads to a stunning baroque church, drink the best mead in town and avoid the trap of the Disneyland restaurants.
Wendell and I are lucky enough to call Margo and Waldek our dear friends and they became our guides for one week in Poland. Margo took us around Warsaw, new and old, to the best ice-cream places, the typical Milk Bar, the Jewish Museum of Polin, showed us the incredibly lively craft beer scene and made us put on about 10 kilos on incomparable żurek, pierogi, poppy seed cake, smoked shepherd cheese, and all sorts of incredible gnocchi style dishes from Silesia and other parts of the country. Waldek made us feast in an old communist speakeasy where Lenin, Breżniew, Honecker, Fidel Castro or Mao Tse Tung came to sample exquisite food and wines while the rest of the population was queuing to get the most basic ingredients. It’s called Oberża Pod Czerwonym Wieprzem (“the Inn Under The Red Hog”).
We also spent two days in beautiful Krakow. For this first article, I’ll start with the old town of Warsaw. I must confess that the soviet part of the city was so depressing that stupidly I didn’t take any photos. I regret it now, because it’s a very important part of the city and I would like to document it. Oh well… I guess I have to go back next year! So for Warsaw, the historical centre is all you’re gonna get…
But before I start showing you around, I should mention, as you probably well know, that Warsaw was purposely destroyed by the Nazis in 1944, under the very eyes of the (Russian) Red army stationed on the other bank of the river. 85% of infrastructure was destroyed: houses, apartment blocks, churches, libraries, schools, palaces, shops, everything. The Russians didn’t budge. Hundreds of thousands were killed, members of the resistance and civilians.
In Warsaw, the Jewish quarter was walled and became the infamous ghetto from which trains laden with starving and desperate people unloaded at the doors of Treblika’s gas chambers and other camps. They were around 400.000 people squeezed in 3,4km2. A vast majority of them died of hunger, diseases, murder via concentration camp or during the destruction of the ghetto itself.
These are simple numbers… but imagine! Just imagine…
There is nothing left of the ghetto and former Jewish quarter, only streets with Jewish names and a few bricks aligned on the ground. Encased in a metal ribbon, and covered by metal words, they mark a little piece of the former ghetto walls. It is very moving and extremely disturbing to step on them…
Warsaw in 1945 – Photo from Wikipedia
Poland and Warsaw are heavily scarred by history. This part, and the long struggle for independence, of being the casualty of politics, the Camembert crowned and not crowned heads have been slicing for centuries. And then there was communism which has brought its usual list of humiliations, starvation, and ugliness.
What is absolutely extraordinary despite all this, is the indestructible soul of Poland, the iron will of its people to survive, to thrive. After the war, it was decided, following a long debate, that Warsaw was to be reconstructed, meticulously, authentically. And this was possible thanks to the efforts of its inhabitants. Rubble was carefully sorted for the noticeable pieces to be reused in their original place. Pre-war architect drawings, highly detailed paintings from the 18th century and numerous historical archives miraculously preserved were used as a model to rebuild the city as it was at the peak of its glory (the Vienna of the East) in the 1850’s.
The puzzle was complex and, if most cellars were preserved, everything had to be reconstructed respecting the parts from the Middle Ages and all the layers and add-ons until the 18th century. It also had to be re-conceived as a modern city with the utilities of the time. The works on the old city continued until the 60’s and the end of the 80’s for the Royal Castle.
The result is spectacular. Walking the streets of the old town, you have the feeling that everything has always been there, buildings look like they’re ageing at a normal rate since ancient times. Restaurants are settled in vaulted ceiling ground floors behind very old looking heavy wooden doors. Frescoes or painted embellishments are decorating most walls. Its nickname of the Phoenix city, reborn from its ashes, is well deserved.
Warsaw is also the only site placed on the UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites which is not a genuinely old city. It has been selected as “an outstanding example of a near-total reconstruction of a span of history covering the 13th to the 20th century” (quote)
The old walls of the city of Warsaw – Facade of a reconstructed house
Rich of this knowledge, we followed the steps of our friend Margo, admiring this incredible city and being blown away by the beauty of its architecture, and its colour palette.
It started with a visit to the Royal Baths park where the Łazienki Palace still stands, all restored. And the photo above is my (failed) attempt at photographing a squirrel…
The Łazienki Palace
This small palace was mostly preserved during the war even if the Nazis had drizzled it with gasoline and drilled holes all over, inserted with dynamite… they didn’t get to throw the lit match as they were leaving.
It had to undergo very important restorations, during 20 whole years, but is now open to the public. I didn’t visit inside but took a peak through a few windows. It looks absolutely beautiful.
OK, I got him this time…
After crossing the park, admiring the outdoor theatre island where Margo used to perform as a child, (see the statue on the photo right at the top), we headed to the old town through Krakowskie Przedmieście.
It’s a long street which leads to the square where the reconstructed Royal Palace is. But before we started the long walk…
We stopped for the usual beer at the craft beer bar and brewery Cuda Na Kiju cosily installed in the former communist party headquarters. The local IPA was truly delicious. I shamefully forgot to write its name down!
But let’s go back to our main street leading to the old town…
My friend Margo and Wendell ordering craft beers.
The colours of this city are to die for. The palette chosen by the architects of the reconstruction is really beautiful: ochres, brick reds, olive greens, salmon and grapefruit pinks, some creamy beiges and dark greys.
Plac Zamkowy with its famous column seen on many 18th century paintings of Warsaw representing King Sigismund III Vasa which was found in many pieces near the walls of the destroyed Royal Castle.
Kolumna Zygmunta III Wazy
Before the war and since the Middle Ages, the Market square was the heart of Warsaw’s life. It was given back all its glory with incredible colours, gold decors, stone work and decorative paintings.
Rrynek Starego Miasta and the syren “Syrenka”, symbol of Warsaw
The weather, wet, and quite grey was perfect for photography, for seeing the colours well, in all their rich subtlety.
The Jesuite Church – A pink little corner of the old town
And then we had a little pause…
Only in Poland you get such marketing!
I must confess that it doesn’t appeal to me much, I’m more of a quality girl than a quantity one but I found it hilarious.
Here is my friend Margo translating the menu for lunch. Her real name is Małgorzata and it’s pronounced a bit like ma-oo-go-ja-ta. And the “ja” is not “dja”. It’s the J sound but without the D sound first if you see what I mean. Anyway, we call her Margo, it’s easier :)
Oh and it means Marguerite or Margaret.
Look at the squash, raw, bathing in a herby sauce and spices, it was really delicious and such a great idea to eat it raw. On the right you can see typical Polish cheeses with lots of spices in them. They have the texture of either feta or halloumi. And at the back left is a Polish style steak tartare.
If you had to paint a whole city, wouldn’t you choose these colours?
More beautiful facades
A little Bridge between two buildings – The partial reconstruction of a synagogue in the Polin museum.
I couldn’t leave you without showing you a rare photo of the communist era buildings. These are the most decent ones, made of stone, massive, very impersonal for some reason. Maybe it’s the absence of real decor except the heavy columns, or maybe it’s the tiny windows… or is it the proximity of these threatening street lights?
The tram and buses are painted in these bright colours of yellow and red, which are a bit unfortunate when a city has such an incredible colour palette. What is fantastic about them though, is the lawn that is carefully grown and mowed on the tracks.
So that was my little tour of Warsaw’s old town. I hope you liked it! Very soon, I’ll publish my visit of Krakow and more of my European Summer adventures.
A few cool addresses:
- Polin Museum
- The Inn under the red Hog: Oberża Pod Czerwonym Wieprzem
- A brilliant Cookbook Store: Księgarnia Kulinarna Bookoff
- Handmade and design object store: NAP
- Modern Polish cuisine restaurant: Bibenda
- The most incredible Polish cookbook ever: Smakowite Drzewa by Małgorzata Kalemba-drożdż. Recipes from the forest, think pine cones, pine needles, wild berries, acorns, seeds, leaves, and ultra creatives stuff. I wish it was translated in English…
- Cuda Na Kiju brewery
- The hipsterest food court/market in Warsaw: Hala Koszyki
- Milk Bar Smietanka for ultra cheap typical family dishes
- The most incredible mead at To lubię café
If you have more ideas of nice things to do in Warsaw, feel free to add them in the comments below :)