It was perhaps appropriate that my visit to Warsaw coincided with the final days of the Nato summit earlier this year. With President Obama in town, in fact staying at the hotel next door, security was extra tight with armed police lining the closed-off streets, an assortment of decorated generals loitering in hotel lobbies and a constant soundtrack of droning helicopters and shrill sirens.
It’s not easy to forget that for a comparatively young European city, Warsaw, with its wide cafe-lined boulevards, acres of green parkland and impressive modern skyline, has had more than its fair share of war and unrest. Since it lost its independence and monarchy at the end of the 18th century, Poland has been primarily ruled by occupying forces until 1989 when it established itself as a democracy. As a result the city, located in the heart of Europe, is a mix of eastern and western cultures and influences.
Warsaw became Poland’s capital in 1596 when King Sigismund III Vaza moved his royal residence from Krakow after he became tired of the 1200-mile commute between Krakow and Stockholm. Sigismund was also King of Sweden and was the country’s third elected monarch. His imposing statue, clutching a sword in one hand and a large cross in the other, watches over the old town from his 70ft high perch. It’s said that the city is in for troubled times either when he rattles his sabre or it was to ever touch the ground. History has proved this to be true, most recently in 1944 during the Warsaw Uprising when a shell from a Russian tank knocked over the column. It’s since been rebuilt with large chunks of the original column now laid out horizontally outside the adjacent Royal Castle. Sigismund’s monument is also a popular meeting point for lovers and tour groups.
Loading article content
It was here that I joined the free walking tour of Warsaw’s old town, a fun-filled two hours with our guide Bartosz (Bart), his dry sense of humour animating the city’s local history with the type of tales you won’t find in guide books. In the town’s market square, close to Syrenka the mermaid who is the symbol of Warsaw, he pointed out the portraits of three young girls painted on the front of a house. These sisters feared they would never find husbands – their father was always far too busy to parade them around town – so in an early version of Tinder, they commissioned a painter to draw their likeness on the building to advertise their virtues. Apparently it worked a treat.
Outside the city wall, we paused outside Barbakanem, one of the city’s ubiquitous milk bars (bar mleczny) where the Dali Lama once stopped in for a cup of tea, according to Bart. However, he suggests we go elsewhere for pierogi. These filled dumplings are a Polish speciality and woe betide any woman who can’t rustle them up. Apparently Bart’s mother only agreed to his choice of wife once she had passed the dumpling test.
Instead we have lunch at the Bambino Milk Bar in the city centre where the modern up-market decor seems at odds with the traditional communist workers’ canteen. After paying for our food – fortunately most milk bars now have English menus otherwise it would be impossible to make a choice – we queued up alongside the locals at a small kitchen hatch where we were served hearty soups and casseroles by rather formidable looking women. Quite a few people appeared to use the milk bar as a handy takeaway service, coming armed with well-used plastic containers. Why bother cooking at home when you can buy delicious traditional food at the canteen for a snip?
The milk bars are a great place to taste authentic Polish food but the international cuisine is also worth checking out: a mouth-watering British meets American menu is on offer in the Aioli restaurants across the city while the best evening meal we had was at Thaisty, which serves Thai food with a fruity twist.
Warsaw is populated with ice-cream (lody) parlours which are a godsend in the heat of the summer. The chatty owner of Lody Naturalne Brassier Gessler on Hoza Street told me that this particular outlet had been in his family for three generations. His uncle was an engineer in Glasgow and he himself had visited Aberdeen. This was to be a recurring theme in Warsaw with everyone I met having either been to Scotland or having relatives who had. As part of his expansive worldview the owner had written on the blackboard the word ‘ice-cream’ in every conceivable language including Indonesian (askrim), Ukranian (????????) Icelandic (rjómaís) and Basque (Izozkia). The shop also doubles as a bakery and as we left he insisted on giving us delicious cakes fresh out of the oven.
It’s impossible to visit Poland’s capital and not be aware of its turbulent past even though so many of the original physical markers of its history have been destroyed. Of course Warsaw’s old town is really a new town given that it was completely rebuilt in 1962 after the 1944 Warsaw Uprising which saw 85% of the city, including the Warsaw Ghetto, raised to the ground. As there are only a few fragments of the original wall remaining, there are plaques on the cobbled streets that indicate where the ghetto walls stood and many more plaques detailing the number of people executed by the Nazis in different locations around the city.
Then there’s the Path of Remembrance, dedicated to heroic acts by various individuals or marking the location of significant events along the route, and Wincenty Ku?ma’s striking 1989 monument to the Uprising featuring a group of insurgents and another faction retreating into the sewers. For visitors keen for more details about the city’s history the Warsaw Uprising Museum and the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews are musts, and in the case of the latter there is the added bonus of Finnish architect Rainer Mahlamäki’s bold new building.
Warsaw has many famous sons and daughters, but it is Frederick Chopin who seems to be everywhere. The main airport is named after him, there is a museum dedicated to him and an urn containing his heart in Holy Cross Church. Because there are no physical buildings left associated with the composer, there are a series of Chopin Benches around the city on important sites, such as the one from where he took the stagecoach to Paris. At the push of a button, these beautiful benches will play 30 second bursts of his most famous piano works. Even better are the free Sunday afternoon Chopin summer concerts where you can laze in the sun by the lake in ?azienki Park whilst listening to a young up and coming pianist. The recitals take place next to Wac?aw Szymanowski’s unusual sculpture of the composer with a willow tree, it’s ‘triffid’-like shape dividing artistic opinion.
Like Chopin, Marie Sklodowska, better known as Marie Curie, also left Warsaw for Paris, never to return. She was first woman to win the Nobel Prize and the only person to win twice in multiple sciences (physics and chemistry) and she named polonium after her native country. In the city’s old town there is a small museum dedicated to this remarkable multi-award winning scientist in the house where she was born – it was temporarily moved elsewhere whilst the house was renovated when I visited – and her name was recently given to a new bridge over the Vistula River.
Although the past is very much alive in Warsaw, the city, one of the fastest-growing European capitals – also has an eye on the future. For years The Palace of Culture and Science, a gift from Stalin which echoes the Empire State Building, dominated Warsaw’s skyline but it, and it now has some competition. Zlota 44, the recently completed luxury apartment block opposite, designed by Polish/American architect Daniel Libeskind who was behind New York’s Ground Zero development, is a building that deservedly demands attention. The impressive sky-blue tower changes shape and colour depending on the light and vantage point.
There is so much to see and do in Warsaw that a long weekend isn’t anywhere near enough. The expansive ?azienki Park, the largest in Warsaw, demands at least a day to explore the palace on the isle and the numerous summer houses, pavilions and gardens spread over its 76 acres. I’ll certainly be back.
Susan Nickalls travelled from Edinburgh to Warsaw Chopin airport via London with EasyJet/Norwegian Airlines (fare from £180 return) and stayed at Polonia Palace Hotel (from £50 a night).
Ryan Air offers direct flights to Warsaw Modlin (from £16.99 one way) from Edinburgh.
Wizzair offers direct flights from Glasgow to Warsaw Chopin from £170 return. Klm have flights from Glasgow via Amsterdam to Warsaw Chopin from £160 return.
Accommodation includes the Bristol and Sofitel hotels (from £180 a night) and Air bnb Warsaw (from £15 a night).
Best city guide: inyourpocket.com/warsaw