Wonderful Warsaw

By | Category: Travel destinations, Travel tips & opinions

Poland’s capital Warsaw is a city with a dark past – a tumultuous and painful history – yet despite this, it is now firmly back on the European tourism map writes Robin Nowacki

Like an old oil painting restored by a great artist magically recapturing the romance of bygone days – this is the essence of Warsaw today! Despite suffering more tragedy and turmoil than perhaps any other European city in history, Poland’s capital now stands proud, rebuilt, rejuvenated – once more attractive and sophisticated – a testament to the remarkable spirit of the Polish people.

Unlike many old cities – largely destroyed during World War Two – and then reconstructed in the concrete and glass tower blocks fashion of the late 20th Century – the Old Town of Warsaw was restored to its original 17th/18th century appearance, painstakingly rebuilt from debris that remained.
This remarkable work of restoration has been recognised by the (new) Old Town of Warsaw achieving World Heritage Site status, and job offers for the restorers coming from war damaged cities outside Poland.

Now visitors to Warsaw can see once more the city shaped by the Kings of Poland and walk the same streets as some of the Warsaw’s most famous émigrés – such as Marie (Sklodowska) Curie, Joseph (Korzeniowski) Conrad, and Frederic Chopin.

At the centre of the Old Town is the picturesque Old Market Square (Rynek), the perfect place to start a Warsaw tour. Here, beneath the colourful Baroque and Renaissance facades of the restored burgher’s houses, the tables and chairs of numerous busy restaurants and bars spill out into the square, where portrait painters and the drivers of traditional horse drawn carriages ply their trade, the clattering of the horse’s hooves mingling with the sounds of music and song from buskers and groups of roaming street musicians.

At one end of the Rynek is the History Museum of Warsaw, crammed with fascinating exhibits reflecting the city’s rich, and at one time very dark past. This includes film footage shot by the Nazi’s during their five terrible years of occupation during World War Two.

A five-minute walk from the Rynek down cobbled streets past art galleries and the beautiful Gothic St John’s Cathedral, lies the imposing Royal Castle, once the home of the Polish Kings. Within are magnificent rooms with high ceilings and a museum displaying fine tapestries, furniture, and paintings, some dating from mediaeval times.
 These are genuine original treasures, which, along with many others on display in Warsaw, were removed and kept hidden deep in the vast Polish countryside during the Nazi occupation. Adjacent to the Royal Castle the Pod Blacha Palace houses a fabulous collection of Oriental rugs and textiles, including a notable 17th century
dragon design rug from Armenia.

The Royal Castle

Amazingly on the edges of the Old Town some of the original medieval walls of the City of Warsaw still survive intact, the best preserved to be seen at the Barbican, where ramparts and watchtowers stand next to narrow streets.

The Royal Route, a four-kilometre long thoroughfare, bisects the centre of Warsaw, and runs from the Castle Square in the Old Town to the magnificent baroque Wilanow Palace on the outskirts of the city. This is the former summer residence of King Jan III Sobieski, perhaps Poland’s greatest – famous for defeating the Turks in a major battle at
 Vienna in 1693. Catholic Poland, then at the height of its power, was once at war with the Muslim Ottoman Empire for 150 years! The Wilanow Palace today houses a famous collection of portraits by Polish artists from the 16-19th centuries.
Along the Royal Route there are many other historic places of interest, including St Anna’s Church, with 16th century murals by Walenty Zabrowski, and monuments to Nicholas Copernicus (Poland’s famous astronomer) and Adam Mickiewicz, the nation’s greatest romantic poet. Nearby the Lazienki Park is to be found, created by King Stanislaw Poniatowski in the late 18th century, with the fabulous neoclassical Palace
on the Water (Lazienki Palace) at its centre, surrounded by beautiful lakes and gardens.
Concerts of the music of Chopin regularly take place here, both within the elegant Palace, and outside on the lawns during the summer months – close to a monument of interesting design celebrating Poland’s greatest composer.

Warsaw, like the rest of Poland, has been transformed since the end of the Cold War in 1989, and few signs of the years of communist rule and
domination by the former Soviet Union remain. Notorious buildings from that era were quickly found new uses, for instance the former communist party headquarters in Warsaw became Poland’s Stock Exchange!
However one relic of the Cold War era remains, so huge it is impossible to ignore, and both hated and loved equally by the people of Warsaw – the 
Palace of Culture and Science. This 30-storey ‘gift’from the Soviet Union to the people of Poland dates from the 1950s and was once Europe’s second tallest building at 230 metres
high. The Palace was intended as a monument to ‘inventive spirit and social progress’. Today it remains a cultural centre with two theatres, cinema complex, museum, bookshops, plus other leisure facilities. High up the viewing terrace allows wonderful views of Warsaw, the best views some say because from here the Palace itself cannot be seen!

The historic Bristol Hotel

Since the end of the communist era, famous existing Warsaw hotels, like the historic Bristol and the post-war Victoria, have been brought up to date to meet the highest international standards. These have now have been joined by international brands such as Westin, Sheraton, Hyatt, Marriott, and Hilton, who in 2006 opened a stylish new 27-storey hotel with major conference facilities.


Ice Bar

Warsaw has a vibrant and booming nightlife scene, countless nightclubs and bars have opened since the end of the communist era, drawing party lovers.
One of the city’s most unique attractions is the Ice Bar, which, as its name would suggest, is constructed entirely of ice, what is more vodka shots and other drinks are served at the bar in cups made from solid ice. The bar is open seven days a week and stays open until the last customer leaves. Another popular Warsaw club is Klubokawiarnia located on Czackiego – one of the hippest places in the city, open from 6pm, offering DJ’s, and dancing.

In Warsaw forget the old stereotypes about Eastern European food. The Poles rank amongst the best cooks in Europe and the local cuisine should both surprise and delight. Freshwater fish such as trout and carp from Poland’s countless lakes are to be found on most menus along with sea fish such as the Baltic Herring. Meats including wild boar are often cooked with wild mushrooms from Poland’s vast forests. However for those not tempted by Polish cuisine there are restaurants serving most of the world’s favourites – everything from sushi to pizza to Chinese and Mexican.
Vodka, a Polish invention (as even the Russians admit) is still widely
drunk, but often neat with the mixer (tonic water or coke) in a separate glass. The quality of Polish vodka is usually so good that hangovers are often avoided. Try the unique Bison brand – flavoured with the grass eaten by the European Bison – which still roam wild in the east of Poland. Polish beers – now widely on sale in the UK following the invasion of the Polish plumber – are also excellent in taste and quality, and available on draft in most restaurants, clubs and bars.

Map of Poland


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