It is India’s Republic Day today. I will take this opportunity to take you to the Republic of Poland, a relatively new republic in our world. The word ‘republic’ politically means a country which has chosen to be governed by its own representatives. However, on a personal level, it signifies equality – a state where no one is above another, and all are equally valued. Poland’s story is inspiring for its unwavering spirit of perseverance in the face of multiple wars and public strife.
I was in Warsaw last September, and I was moved by a lot of things I saw. I could not keep it all to myself, so I have decided to share those moments with you. Everywhere I went, the city whispered its secrets into my ear. Today, I will let you in on those secrets through the pictures I captured in this extraordinary city.
Some Gates Open into Warsaw’s Past
Warszawa (as the Polish call Warsaw) has built its entire Old Town from the ground up. From inside the Royal Castle, the Castle Square looks like a page out of a fairy tale. The Baroque architecture is a reminder of its 16th century history. Behind the beauty lies its devastating past – the invasion by the Swedish army in 1655, and later, destruction by the Nazi Germans during World War II. Yet this UNESCO World Heritage Site was reconstructed in the 1970’s, silencing its plunderers.
The Road to Prosperity
Warsaw is an Alpha global city, and the 32nd most livable city in the world (as of 2012)! Zloty, the Polish currency, happened to be one of the few currencies in Europe to retain their worth when the recent economic turmoil plagued most of the continent, especially those in the Eurozone. This central European country’s progress is evident in its express roads that make driving an experience of sheer pleasure and speed.
Tram Cars to Sports Cars
Poland is one foreign country in which I have tried all the modes of transport! 🙂 Most of that was unplanned, but it reinforced my faith in the Polish infrastructure and mass rapid transit system. I spent very few days in this city, and managed to take the tram, the bus, the train, the metro and also a taxi to get from one spot to another (not to forget the plane I took to reenter this city from Prague). I had initially planned to take on Warszawa solely on foot. But the city is HUGE!!! Even a consistent half marathoner like me could not wing it just by brisk walking. I did not want to miss any corner of the city, so I had to swallow my pride and buy tickets to one mode of transport or another. But I’m glad I did that, for Poland charmed me with its speed and environment friendliness. Given the number of cars and other vehicles that throng the busy, wide streets of Warsaw, its air and noise pollution levels are rather low (almost negligible).
The “New” Old Town
Compared to its contemporaries, Warsaw perhaps has one of the youngest Old Towns in Europe. Not because it lacks history, but because everything that you see here is an exact replica of what once stood before its repeated demolition across centuries. With every step you take towards the centre of the Old Town, you come to terms with what the residents must have been through during those disturbing times. You are allured by the spotlessly clean cobbled streets and the groomed horses that draw tastefully upholstered carriages. At the same time, you weep inside at the horror of the Holocaust.
Pedestrians’ Right of Way
If you think Warsaw only has broad roads, think again! The city’s sidewalks are arguably just as wide as the main roads. If you went absolutely nowhere in the city and chose only to walk along its extensive maze of roads, you would still fall in love with Warszawa! The picture above is not that of a park but of a walking lane alongside an important street full of foreign embassies. The main streets are separated from the paved walkways by patches of green grass with deciduous trees shielding from the pedestrians the view of traffic. These promenades are great for rollerblading and skateboarding. For the cyclists, there’s a separate lane. 🙂 There is no dearth of wooden benches to rest those tired feet or if you just decide to sit quietly and meditate on the canopy of arresting greens and browns in the sky.
Streets are Green; Gardens, Greener!
On my first evening in Warsaw, I decided to walk to the Łazienki Park – the largest park in the heart of the capital. The park is 76 acres of paradise! <3 I was in Poland just before autumn could set in, and I was lucky to see the green trees in their full splendour before they would start shedding their leaves and colouring the city in hues of yellows, oranges and browns. Although that would be another sight to die for! Those walks through the gardens did a whole lot of good to my lungs.
Palaces, Guardhouses, Towers and Temples
The Łazienki Park and Palace Complex is an indulgence in grandeur and culture. Labyrinthine tree-lined paths lead to more than a dozen gorgeous structures. There is the Palace on the Isle, a Bath House with a Latin inscription that literally translates to “This house loathes sorrow, loves peace, offers a bath, recommends a happy life and strives to host sincere men.”
Then there’s the Myślewicki Palace which has managed to survive WWII. Łazienki Lake covers a large part of the complex, and a number of bridges connect the monuments scattered all over the park. The Egyptian Temple and the Temple of Sybil were constructed at the behest of the Russian Tsars in 1822. There are still more structures which would serve as guardhouses and observatories and even theatres.
The City of Chopin
Throughout Warsaw, Frédéric Chopin, the famous composer and pianist, has been immortalized through statues, museums and even musical benches! An interesting aspect of the Old Town is the ubiquitous ‘Chopin bench’ – a granite bench which plays different Chopin compositions at the press of a button. These benches also act as maps and location identifiers. Your current location is marked by a brightly coloured stone on the map of Old Town etched on the surface of the bench. The walk through Old Town becomes incredibly romantic in the company of such beautiful music.
Multiple Cultures in a Single Park
Somewhere along the Łazienki Park, you come across a Greco-Roman style amphitheatre, complete with a circular stage bordered with white columns. This stage is still used for live performances. The park is home to more theatres, the Old Orangery and New Orangery being two of them. Most buildings in the palace complex have been converted to museums. But what strikes one the most is how these man-made edifices exist in harmony with nature. One can spot numerous birds, both in the sky and in the lake and ponds, gliding and paddling softly throughout the park. I was in a different world in the middle of palaces with quacks of ducks, honks of swans, cries of peacocks and songs of many airborne birds ringing in the air.
The Museum of War
Poland deserves to be applauded not only for rising from its own ashes as a phoenix would but also for accepting its past. The country has carefully maintained proofs of the holocaust and the wreckage caused by multiple battles. Warsaw does not bury the horror stories that would make the dead turn in their graves. Instead, it displays the pain and pillage of its past. Muzeum Powstania Warszawskiego (The Warsaw Rising Museum) is an experiential museum where you can touch and feel everything you see. You can pick up the phone-receiver to listen to actual conversations in the voices of former political leaders. You can walk into the War Room to hear gun shots and feel what it is to stand in the middle of a battleground. You can touch replicas of bullets and guns that were use to kill millions of innocents. You can also watch short films inside a theatre.
Modern Warszawa at Night
The city that once wept now knows how to celebrate. The skyline of Warsaw is impressive with umpteen skyscrapers that glitter when the sun goes down. Amidst office buildings and hotels, you will find the Palace of Culture and Science – the tallest building here. Nighttime is also perfect to go pub-hopping or shopping at its numerous designer stores. I smiled from ear to ear when I found elegant skirts to fill my bag with.
Don’t Forget to Drink! 😉
One does not just leave Warsaw without having some beer! Or for that matter kvass – the local drink made of fermented rye. I had my best craft beer at Dzik Malina, a nice place with walls decorated with bottles of kvass in different flavours and also flavoured honey. To go with your drink, order a plate of the national dish – pierogi (pronounced pee-row-zhee) stuffed with sauerkraut, mushrooms or anything else you like. You will be surprised to know that bagels originated in Poland, so don’t forget to eat some of that while you are in the country.
Learn to Say ‘Dzięki’
You remain an outsider in any new place until to make the effort of learning their language, or at least a few words. You will be so moved by the graciousness of the Poles that you will want to thank them again and again. On my trip, I discovered how warm and loving these people are. At my hostel (Warsaw Downtown Hostel – the best one in all of Warszawa <3 ), my hosts picked up some Hindi phrases because they wouldn’t teach me Polish without also learning my language from me! 🙂 I also had an interesting situation when a man caught me off guard and proposed to me in front of the giant bronze Chopin Statue in the middle of a park.
Warszawa, I want to say ‘thank you’ for making those days so memorable for me. Dzięki (pronounced jenky) from the core of my heart!