What Warsaw Whispers – A Photoessay

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.

View from the Royal Castle in Warsaw

View from the Royal Castle in Warsaw

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.

These roads are made for speed

These roads are made for speed

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.

Modern trams run noiselessly through the night

Modern trams run noiselessly through the night

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).

How can there not be a horse-drawn carriage in the Old Town!

How can there not be a horse-drawn carriage in the Old Town!

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.

No dearth of walking spaces in Warschawa

No dearth of walking spaces in Warszawa

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.

Gardens that can colour your whole world green

Gardens that can colour your whole world green

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.

Łazienki Palace - a wonder on water

Łazienki Palace – a wonder on water

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.

Chopin is omnipresent in Warsaw

Chopin is omnipresent in Warsaw

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.

Stage of the Roman Theater on the Isle

Stage of the Roman Theater on the Isle

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.

Inside the Uprising Museum - war on the walls

Inside the Uprising Museum – war on the walls

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.

The tall buildings of Warsaw gleam at night

The tall buildings of Warsaw gleam at night

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.

Bottles of kvass and jars of honey beg to be picked off the shelves

Bottles of kvass and jars of honey beg to be picked off the shelves

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.

Ending the day with a party with my Polish hosts

Ending the day with a party with my Polish hosts

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!

What Not to do in Venice

Nothing ever seems straightforward in Venice, least of all its romances.

Roger Ebert probably intended these words for tourists like me who walk starry-eyed into this ‘City of Canals’, expecting to float about without the bustle of crowds clouding their view. All that I knew about Venice came from an old English chapter I had read in school, and a couple of movies that panned across pristine blue waters with a gondola gliding under ornate bridges.

Venice floats on tourism

Venice floats on tourism

While Venezia may not be everything you’ve seen on TV, it is worth a visit! This article does not aim to tell you what you can see and do here. Instead, to make sure you don’t fall into tourist traps or return unimpressed by this Gothic beauty, it tells you WHAT NOT TO DO IN VENICE:-

1.  Don’t let the gondoliers take you for a ride

Riding on a gondola will no doubt be numero uno on your list of things to do in Venice. But if you’re not careful, you might just end up spending 5 times the normal charge! I was in Venice a few years back, and every highly accented Italian gondolier quoted anywhere between 200 and 500 Euros for a ride that would last only a few minutes. A reasonable rate does not cross 150 Euros. If you’re a tourist on a budget, take the group rides on large gondolas and avoid the solo or couple rides.

Gondola rides are better enjoyed with music

Gondola rides are better enjoyed with music

Once you get in, make sure you sing along with the gondolier (yes, they all sing for you! ;-) ) and wave at all the jealous tourists who take your picture!

 2. Venetian masks are not diamonds. Don’t buy those for your girlfriend!

 In Venice, if anything sells more than a gondola-ride, it is the famous Venetian mask! The masks are all exquisite and you won’t mind paying a premium for bringing one back home. But remember that these are fragile. If you don’t know HOW you will pack and carry them across a thousand miles, do not spend your Euros on them. I know quite a few people who’ve returned with broken masks and dented wallets.

Even if you manage to transport a mask safely, think of WHAT you will do with it. It is unlikely you’ll have a masquerade party anytime soon. And if you do, you surely won’t risk losing your precious eye-mask in the dark! Most Venetian masks that make their way across the world, end up in glass-shelves or are forgotten in dusty attics.

 3. Don’t reach Venice at nightfall!

Maybe there isn't enough land for everyone here

Maybe there isn’t enough land for everyone here

Unless you’re a local with your own vaporetto, don’t play ‘risk-taking traveler’ and enter this city at night. Here’s why:

 The water-taxi or vaporetti service stops at 7PM and there’s no other public transport in this ‘City of Water’ to take you anywhere. This is one place where you can’t just flag a cab/catch a bus or hitchhike. If you arrive at night, you might just have to sleep at Stazione di Venezia Santa Lucia. And with so many people crowding up the train-station, I don’t think you’ll find much space to stretch your feet. Venice also gets very dark in the evening and doesn’t have too many street-lights (wherever you find streets, that is).

4. Don’t eat by the famous canals

A date by the canal or in a secret alleyway? You decide!

A date by the canal or in a secret alleyway? You decide!

…unless you’re rich to begin with. The al fresco restaurants and cafes that dot the streets by the canals offer beautiful views of the deep green water (yes, green. All this water is unfortunately dirty), but they charge a bomb for largely ordinary food. If you must eat well, walk further inland and satiate your hunger at small restaurants there.

Also, Venice is no place for pizzas. The classic margherita here is just chewy bread with lots of tomato sauce slathered on top. You must, however, not forget to try some gelato. I’ve tasted the world’s best gelato in Venice!

5. Don’t dress like a backpacker

So, my travel-junkiness was limited to the waist -pouch. But I've dressed much worse, trust me!

So, my travel-junkiness was limited to the waist -pouch. But I’ve dressed much worse, trust me!

The ‘City of Bridges’ receives a lot of rainfall (of course, you must know that, what with all the water flowing about :-P ). But this is no excuse to forget you’re in the world’s most fashion-conscious country! Venice is no place to wear ugly windcheaters and romp about in clunky sneakers. This is where you must show off your exotic derby hats and flowy sundresses.

6. Don’t pose on the Rialto Bridge

...but I couldn't resist posing myself! :-P

…but I couldn’t resist posing myself! 😛

When I asked her for directions to the Rialto Bridge, the Venetian mask-seller looked at me aghast. “You don’t know Rialto! It is the world’s most famous bridge!” she exclaimed in broken English. (Does that put London Bridge on the 2nd position? :-P )

I knew Rialto when I saw it. It was choc a bloc with tourists jostling for space. I wondered what this bridge had that its poor country-cousins didn’t. I got clicked on the Rialto but I’d suggest you give it a miss and look for smaller bridges that are less crowded and therefore, much better for photographs.

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Venice will never cease to delight visitors, even with all its quirks

Venice will never cease to delight visitors, even with all its quirks

I hope the list doesn’t scare you away from Venice. It is a city like no other. It is the land of water! It needs to be explored slowly and mostly on foot as you walk in small alleyways and discover Renaissance facades interspersed with Baroque palazzos. The fragile interconnected structure of the 118 islands has necessitated a ban on new construction, but this does not deter the constant flow of people into this perpetually flooded city. Venice can be discovered only when you lose the crowd and lose yourself in old buildings that still stand tall.

This article was first published on Videsi Traveller. For more pictures and stories, follow my Facebook page – Oindrila Goes Footloose.