Backstory to my Travels to Warsaw
I really had no idea what to expect from Warsaw. I’d only read about it and seen movies in the context of World War II, and only met a handful of Poles my whole life. But when the opportunity came up at school to spend a week at the Warsaw School of Economics, I jumped at the chance.
I ended up really jiving with Warsaw – its big buildings, large roadways, open-late nature, and friendly inhabitants reminded me of home (America)! The Polish people I met were surprised to hear me say that Warsaw reminded me of New York City … It’s not a particularly diverse city by any standards, and yes, it’s much smaller than New York, but it had an energetic ambiance that you feel when you get to New York that I haven’t felt in a while. The London of the East!
My First Weekend
The first weekend I stayed at a wonderful Airbnb in the Muránow area. I tried out a trendy little café, Państwo Miasto, recommended to me by my host, and took a very long walk to Centrum after it had snowed. I stopped in a pierogarnia, a pierogi joint, called Tramwaj that you can see in the pictures below. The pierogis were deliciously heavy, but I couldn’t escape the Polish hand ball tournament they had on the TV screens in all the rooms of the restaurant. It was like listening to Mexican football announcers – loud and incomprehensible!!
The Main Week
I switched to an AirBNB in the Stare Miasto (Old Town) to be closer to where the rest of my classmates were staying. I loved looking out my window every morning to the old-style buildings of the courtyard, but with the big office buildings at Centrum visible in the distance. The mix of the old (well, made-to-look old because as I learned, there was barely anything left after the Nazis had their way of it and the whole city has been rebuilt since the end of the war) and new modernity was something I really liked about Warsaw. It feels big and colorful and exciting, but also bold and cold at the same time.
One morning I walked from the Stare Miasto down Nowy Świat (New Street), then down Mokowtowska to get to the Warsaw School of Economics in Old Mokotow. The area felt pretty trendy, and there were some really beautiful buildings like the blue one below.
I also enjoyed the controversial Tęcza, or “rainbow” at Plac Zbawiciela. It looks like the arch at Disney World but supports LGBT rights, and as such as been vandalized at least 5 times. But it’s a progressive symbol in a progressive city and looks great.
Fifteen Minutes of Fame
On my way to go to the 30th floor of the Pałac Kultury i Nauki or “Palace of Culture and Science”, a nice young Polish photographer named Bartek Szmigulski (watch out NYC!) working for the Wars Sawa mall asked if he could take my picture for their local fashion Facebook page. I was stoked! And flattered, after later checking out the other fashionistas featured.
The Palac Kultury i Nauki is said to be a “gift from the Soviet people to the Polish nation”. A lot of Poles detest it because it stands as a grand symbol of Soviet oppression, but not enough to knock it down! It’s become quite a symbol of Warsaw, and you can see it from all around the city. The views from the top were stunning, as I happened to catch a brilliant sunset. I didn’t stay up there for long though, as I realized I’m a bit more scared of heights than I ever gave myself credit for…
Muzeum Powstania Warszawskiego
That Friday I went to the Warsaw Uprising Museum, which is definitely worth a trip even if you think you’ve been to all the WWII museums in the world. I knew about the Jewish Ghetto Uprising, but I didn’t know that the Varsovians had fought back so intensely against the Germans. And I know a lot about WWII (my interests at age 7 included American presidents, Barbies, and WWII. Yes, I’m still a bit weird.) In a nutshell, here’s what I learned happened:
The Germans invade Poland in 1938. Hitler and the Nazis hate the Polish people almost as much as they hate the Jews, and start killing them off as well. I read about this extensively in Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder which I read for a 20th Century Europe class I took a few years ago…I had to stop reading before bed because I was having graphic nightmares about German and Russian soldiers.
Anyway, between Hitler and Stalin, the Polish people faced unimaginable odds of emerging from the nightmare that was WWII. So the Nazis come in and start rounding up as many Poles as they can and murdering them. The people of Warsaw, for years, start building up an underground army and procuring weapons. In 1944, the Soviets start dropping pamphlets telling the Varsovians that it’s finally time to put all the preparation to use and fight back against the Nazis, that the Soviets were only a few kilometers away and wanted to get rid of the Nazis too.
So the Varsovians fight back like hell, taking back large chunks of the city from the Nazis. Hitler finds out, is beyond furious, and redirects any and all troops to annihilate Warsaw. There end up being more German troops than the Varsovians could handle, and the Soviets ended up being traitors – Stalin knew how Hitler would react to a Polish attack, and wanted the Nazis to finish off the job so he could take Poland for himself. Which is exactly what he did. The Germans beat the Poles, rounded them up and shipped most of them off to labor camps. Then they blew up or burned down every last building in Warsaw and left it for the Soviets.
The Warsaw Uprising Museum, was super informative, actually, I felt almost had too much information, it was a bit overwhelming at times. There was amazing video, photography, personal effects, stimulations…that was all great, but sometimes walking around the floors I lost track of the chronology, so I left loaded with information and images but still a little confused over how everything had gone down. But you should leave a museum like that wanting to know more, so I went home and watched a few documentaries that I found on Youtube to figure out exactly what happened.
I don’t usually take photos at museums, but I was very moved by this letter that Roman Zelazna’s sister turned over to the museum many many years later, so I thought I would share here his bravery and love for his family on my blog.
I’d downloaded an app called Spotted By Locals, which I highly recommend! It’s a nice way to go to places your guidebook might not know about, and to get a local taste for the city. I’d read about a lot of places in Praga, on the right side of the Vistula River, which runs through the city. I mentioned to one of the Polish professors that I wanted to go there one night, and he kind of freaked out and said it was going to be really dangerous…it was fine! Just as I imagined, it was a bit like Williamsburg or Bushwick in New York, a little run down in some areas but you could tell it was gentrifying a bit. Yea, don’t walk down that dark alley way at night, but there’s tons of people, bars, malls, and bazars that keep it alive.
I settled on Bar Mleczny Rusalka for breakfast on Saturday…a word of advice: take pix of the restaurant itself but for the love of God do not try to snap a photo of the old women in the kitchen!! They will yell at you in Polish and it will be embarassing and awkward for everyone involved!
I couldn’t read the menu, even the one in English was confusing, so I just repeated “breakfast” until the woman at the cash register ordered for me. I had been imagining eating a plate of mashed potatoes or something, and what I picked up at the counter was the white blob and bun below. I can’t remember what it was called in Polish. For most of my life I have been an extremely picky eater, and just a few years ago would have refused to even look at what was on my plate, but all hesitance aside, I decided to go for it.
It turned out to be some sort of cheese on the bottom, covered in a sort of cool whip topping with sugar, and you scoop it up with the bun. I ended up thoroughly enjoying it! So here’s to new food experiences! And lo and behold, Rusalka has chosen my breakfast photo to be their main photo on Trip Advisor! Woo hoo!
Afterwards I walked over to an old bazar called Bazar Różyckiego. The girl on Spotted By Locals described it as “…the oldest market in Warsaw. During Communism it was the most popular market in Poland and it’s a centre of the specific culture of Praga district: dialect, food, music, games and a way of being.” and that “‘it’s said’ somewhere in the stands with wedding dresses you can buy illegal cigarettes and alcohol from Russia, as well as fake driving licenses, passport or diplomas. Besides all these beautiful myths, this place is unfortunately starting to become a memory of the legends. Young people prefer to shop in the supermarkets, leaving Różyc almost empty, sad.”
Definitely sounded like a place to check out. The local also mentioned a “typical Pragian delicacy -‘pyzy’ (potato balls). The old ladies with ‘pyzy’ in their little trolleys have been coming here for years and serve this dish in jars”, which I really liked the sound of.
So much to my joy there was an event promoting the neighborhood of Praga going on at the bazar, and they were handing out…the potato balls! I had to write something nice about Praga on a post it and then waited in line behind a bunch of locals to get my own little pyzy in a jar, which I ate as I strolled down the aisles of wedding dresses, baby tuxedos, and hats. The girl was right – there were lots of empty stalls and it felt a bit bleak, but it was nice to see the community turn out for the event and that there were still things being sold in the market.
A Time to Reflect
During my week or so in Warsaw, I ate at a ton of nice restaurants, and there were so many more to try … Warsaw makes up for its pretty homogenous population with a very large array of world cuisines to eat! The city was beautiful and old-looking if that’s what you like to go to Europe for, but also new and frenetic, with loads of fun bars and cool coffeeshops, stores that stay open past ten and an awesome, well-functioning public transportation system. Enough people speak English that you can get by and have some nice chats, otherwise people are perfectly happy to mime at you while they explain directions in Polish. I felt bad for not making a little more effort with the Polish language but it literally took me two full days to get dziękuję (thank you) down pat.
My last two photos are of the Vistula River going from Praga to the Old Town and a puppy with an American flag collar. Because it’s always nice to see a bit of home when you’re away from it (otherwise you know I would never have taken a picture of a dog!)