Travelogue Poland 3: Warsaw

WARSAW 
11-12 June 2014

We’d done the right thing booking the first flight out from Katowice to Warsaw because, while it was a mission to get up early after the NIN concert festivities, it meant that – even with commute and transfers – we had a full day in the nation’s capital.

We caught a taxi from the airport for about R200 that dropped us almost at our lodgings, unable to drop us at our door as we’d booked to stay right on the Old Town Main Square (Stare Miasto Rynek), which was pedestrian-only for a few blocks around it. 

Our apartment was a bit like the one we had in Zagreb; quaint, perfectly appointed, huge wooden bay windows, translucent curtains… but minus the unexpected old lady live-in landlord (and hopefully minus the church bells at dawn!). The building must’ve been super old, with its entrance a mere tunnel off the Square, the wide and winding staircase (we were on the 4th floor; no lift!) in the original bare wood, the front door thick, heavy and solid with the original brass key (and a collection of deadbolts that the door had obviously collected over the various periods of strife it’d lived through).

We were an hour early, so literally bumped into the caretaker and his wife (as they were coming up the stairs and me careening down the stairs to tell Christian the bad news, that there was nobody to let us in). They were more than happy to let us deposit our bags as long as we got out of their hair to make up the flat. Not that we needed any encouragement on that front; we were out the door in a flash!

As luck would have it, there was a Tourist Information office right beneath our apartment, so we grabbed a free map… and were almost immediately able to tick off number 10 (The Old Town Square), 11 (The Warsaw Mermaid Statue), 12 (The Historical Museum of Warsaw) and 13 (The Museum of Literature) of the Top 30 Things To See in Warsaw!

Founded in the 13th century as a prince’s headquarters and a fortified settlement, the Old Town is an exceptional place. Almost entirely destroyed during World War lI, it was restored so faithfully to the original that UNESCO still listed it as a World Heritage Site. The Square is a constant hub of activity, with cafés and restaurants on the fringe spilling out umbrella’ed decks and beer gardens, artists exhibiting sculptures and paintings, children playing in the fountain, and buskers creating a continuous melodious soundtrack making every moment a memory. 

In the centre of the Square is the Warsaw Mermaid Statue, paying homage as the mermaid is Warsaw’s symbol and on its coat of arms. Legend has it that a mermaid swimming in from sea stopped to rest near the Old Town and liked it so much that she stayed. The local fishermen thought she was interfering with their hauls so intended to catch her, but fell in love with her instead when they heard her sing. Along came a baddy rich merchant and actually did capture her, so when a young fisherman mobilised his mates to free her, she took arms with sword and shield and vowed to protect the city and its people. 

Our walking tour next took us one block down to an even bigger square, Plac Zamkowy, in front of the Royal Castle. This had been the headquarters of kings and authorities since the 16th century, was the place where the Constitution – the first in Europe and second in the world – was adopted, and is now a museum. It was almost completely destroyed in the war, but was rebuilt using the parts that survived. 

Again the Square was there to be enjoyed and people were darting in and out of purposefully-placed sprinklers to soothe the seating heat. There was a lively atmosphere and the resonance of people enjoying themselves – in the restaurants as well as just hanging out, walking or cycling. Not entirely sure why so many people were free on a Wednesday afternoon, but that’s a different discussion entirely. 

We walked past the Waza Column – erected in 1644 by King Wladyslav in honour of his father who’d moved the capital to Warsaw from Krakow – and down the road. While there weren’t any places of interest according to the tourist map, the road and its buildings are still surreal and breathtaking. Double lane wide pavements on either side of a double lane road, everything immaculately paved and cobbled, dotted with neat street lamps and flower boxes. Grandiose buildings on either side hosting all sorts of things, arbitrary and otherwise. And ice-cream shops. Lots and lots of ice-cream shops. 

Every second person has a varigated chocolate and vanilla softserve cone, with the ice-cream spiralled gravity-defyingly taller than the depth of the cone below it. Ice-cream is a big business in Warsaw, it seems. Apparently it’s all year round too; obviously in the blazing summers, but also in winter where people bundle up so much that they get hot in all their thermals and buy ice-cream to regulate their body heat!

By now it was lunchtime and so stumbling across a Molly Malone’s was all the serendipity we needed to get a grazing happening. We still went local though, sharing a wicked but delicious chleb (lard with bacon bits served with slices of sourdough and rye to smear it on), a bigos (sour stew made from cabbage, sausage and mushrooms) and a plate of pierogi (mushroom and cabbage). Polish food is really tasty – and of course agrees with me since their main food groups being sausage, potato, cabbage and mushroom!

Lunch gave us quite a bit to work off! Luckily all the sites are walking distance, in a convenient loop and – like Krakow and Katowice – Warsaw is completely flat, making walking a pleasure.

We tackled the inland sights first, heading for the Tomb Of The Unknown Soldier where, fortuitously, we caught some sort of military parade with loads of soldiers dressed in different types of uniforms were marching with all the usual pomp and regalia. 

On the road again, we headed through the Barbican and curtain walls into the New Town, which is not so new now having been around since the 14th century. Until the 18th century it was a completely separate town, with its own town admin, city hall and church. Its Rynek (Square) doesn’t hold a candle to Old Town though, being a fraction of the size and – besides living up to the by now quite passé breathtaking beauty of the buildings in general – quite unremarkable, with its only piece of interest being a cast iron well adorned with a virgin and a unicorn.

We’d long-since gotten church fatigue, which is a pity because, of course, all of them are magnificent. They stand out even among the rest of the picture-perfect city… but there are just too many to make any stand out as of consequence. We did however pop our heads into the St Francis Seraphic Church as it is famed for its original 17th century baroque interior escaping the fires ensuing from the War’s bombings. And we were walking past. And it was open. And it was free. And there was no queue. 

That was the farthest point on our plan, so we changed direction toward the Vistula on a road that junctioned at a panoramic viewing deck. Sadly, Warsaw has opted to put a double lane freeway along the bank of the river, so it’s not as pretty or serene as Krakow’s. They do however have a Multimedia Fountain Park on the riverside, with literally hundreds of fountain nozzles ejecting water in sequence for a constant show, which apparently is accompanied with lights and music on Friday and Saturday nights. The fountains are all housed in pools the size of Durban’s paddling ponds, but swimming is not allowed, just dipping of feet, made comfortable by a thick flat lip around the pools for people to sit on.

We of course were on a mission, so no time to dillydally in the fountains! We had a few last things to see before sundowners at the oldest pub in Warsaw (not that there was any danger of the sun going down for hours yet, just that our body clocks are preprogrammed on SA time and you can’t mess with that!)

The most notable stop was a turn through Kanonia, a small triangular square behind the cathedral where the canons (priests) had been housed in the 17th century. Besides being charming in its crude rickety cobbledness, it also houses a large gunmetal bell, which was never hung. Apparently, going round it 3 times brings luck so, never one to turn back on a superstition (as Granny said, just in case), that’s what we did.

We also saw the narrowest house in Warsaw, which is only one window wide. This shrewd builder avoided taxes as back in the day land tax was based on the width of your facade, just like in Hanoi). Still, more scientific than our dear City of Joburg who seem to do property valuation using ouija boards and bingo balls!!

Sights done and dusted – and probably a good 10km of tread clocked – we crossed the river to the oldest pub, Pod Barnlka, for a Guinness. We thanked our lucky stars that we booked the apartment we did as we’d very nearly booked one on this Square (almost expressly for its reference to the oldest pub!). While still ok and still an easy walk into the Old Town – everything is after all walking distance from everything – it didn’t hold a candle to where we were based, right in the thick of things! 

Having seen everywhere on our walking tour, we’d pinpointed New Town for our dinner so wound our way slowly back there, taking time to stop at some of the sights that had been busy earlier when there had been lots of tour groups (refreshingly seemingly mostly young Poles) out. The most notable was the Little Insurgent Monument – a statue of a little boy wearing a helmet way too big for him and carrying a big machine gun, commemorative of the contribution made by the heroic children who took part in the Warsaw Uprising. Scary that times were so awful that small children were actively fighting wars.

The day had provided lots of good fodder for dinnertime conversation at our chosen destination, Podwale Piwo Kompania, which we’d chosen for the setting, the atmosphere and – most importantly – gabolki on the menu… which turned out to be so delicious that we contemplated ordering a second round!

But we didn’t, and rather went for a second round of sundowners outside the Palace. Very confusing with the sun only setting so late and throwing everything out of sequence! 

When we were finally en route back home we considered stopping for a finale at the beer garden outside our apartment, but were lured into the Shamrock underground (literally) pub. With a normal (but small) entrance on rhe road level you enter onto a landing and then veer down some steps, snaking to the tunnels below, where the pub itself is housed. They reckon some of the cellars date back to the 13th century and are naturally the best preserved because they’re underground so they avoided all the chaos of the wars and whatnot. 

The tunnel we were in was semi-circular and only just high enough at it’s highest point for Christian to stand upright with a smidge to spare. Couches were built into the low part on the one side and a well-stocked bar ran the length of the other. Not a window in sight! Moving to the end of the bar we saw a few steps down, which opened into a full blown (big!) undeground tavern, with the only natural air or light coming from a small delivery chute at the far end. What a wonderfully weird and wicked place to conclude our trip!