Warsaw was a bonus stopover, half a day on the way from Paris to Beirut. Aside from a couple of days in Prague last year, I’ve never really travelled in Eastern Europe…and now I find myself being more intrigued than ever. The whole region seems to be changing fast, with an educated and mobile young population who speak English. And this seems to be especially true of the Polish, who I’ve bumped into everywhere.
Years ago I shared a house with some Polish in London, and over the past year I hung out with a Polish guy in Bangkok who was married to my Japanese friend, a Polish girl in Prague who’d been a classmate of my German friends, and two Polish women in Vienna I met through an Austrian guy. In fact, one of the friends I made from my course was also from Poland, so we were together all throughout Europe and often went out. Although she’s not from Warsaw, Emilia knew I’d be passing through on a long layover so we made plans to catch up while I was in town. We hadn’t seen each other since the end of June, so it was great to reunite though it hadn’t been so long.
Having a friend show you a place they’re familiar with is absolutely the best way to get the most from a place, especially when it’s such a brief visit.
Our first stop on my whistle stop tour of Warsaw was a magnficent restaurant called Halka she’d heard about. It was beautifully and ornately decorated, a bit of unexpected Old World Europe in a grungy nondescript neighbourhood. It was a hot summer’s day so we chat while sipping lemon iced teas, waiting for our food: refreshing yoghurt soup, fried potato dumplings and blueberry pierogi served with a thin cream. It was all so delicious, and probably one of the best meals I had in my entire year abroad.
Later that day, we had more traditional food in a cheap, divey bar with loud music, which was typically Polish and probably not the kind of place that would earn much praise on TripAdvisor. I ordered pickled cabbage with pork, while Emilia had some sardines — and we accompanied the food with shots of flavoured vodka. I tried both lemon and cherry and that pretty much sealed the deal as far as I was concerned — Polish vodka is amazing! And yes it’s true, I turned into a bit of a lush while in Europe ;-)
Being an excellent tour guide, Emilia took me to the Warsaw Uprising Museum. It just so happened that I was in town on the very eve of the 70th anniversary of the Uprising, so there were media crews about ahead of the city’s big commemoration the following day. Emilia told me that there would be, among other happenings to remember the many who had died, the singing of songs that had been forbidden during occupation. The uprising is one of the key events of WWII — along with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising — and it seems to be an especially defining event for the Polish, even though it was ultimately not successful. (Much like the way Australia feels about Gallipoli I suppose). Going through the informative and well-designed museum, I couldn’t help but feel terribly moved by the tragic and large-scale loss of human life. The Polish have suffered a lot, and continuously — after WWII there was of course Communism — and feelings of nationalism aside, they’re clearly a resilient people.
Many have told me that Warsaw is ‘ugly’ compared to Krakow, but I figured out recently that any big city that people express a bad opinion of from a tourism perspective, I’m pretty much guaranteed to like. The ugly places can be a lot more interesting than the beautiful ones, and Warsaw was no exception. It was largely destroyed during the war and a lot needed to be rebuilt. Given that history, I didn’t think it was particularly ugly at all, just under construction. It reminded me a little of home with how much was new.
A few weeks before my visit I’d actually said to someone that I kind of missed skyscrapers after living in such small towns in Europe, and he said that I’d probably like Warsaw, which he’d been to many times before. He was right — and we passed through a park with a small open air exhibition which documented how much the city had changed over time. It’s great seeing places that change to adapt to the evolving needs of its population.
During my time in Europe I tried to opt for ‘slow travel’ as much as possible — trains, buses, ships — rather than what often feels like ‘fast travel’ by plane, where you get no sense of the changing landscape as you go from one place to the next. But I still ended up travelling a bit too fast by not spending enough time in places. However, it did mean that I got to experience a lot and though you can’t see much in half a day, you can certainly form some impressions. As we stood there waiting for the bus back to the airport that evening, hundreds of people whizzed past on rollerblades — somehow the mass skating related to the 70th anniversary celebrations the following day — and it was a beautiful last image to take away from a fast changing city.