With my April vacances having ended just two weeks ago, it’s time to recount what I did and where I did them. This time around, I decided to go to Poland! I’d never been before, and having seen plenty of gorgeous photos of it online and heard nothing but good things from other assistant(e)s and travelers who’d been, I was excited to spend ten days exploring as much of the country as I could.
My first destination was Warsaw, the capital of Poland. It’s situated in the center of the country and is home to about 1.7 million people (the entire country having 38 million). From my two-night visit, I’d come to learn about its history, and let me tell you: it is profoundly sad. Warsaw been almost entirely destroyed by the Germans during World War II, with 80 percent of the city bombed out. It was also the site of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, in which a (failed) rebellion took place by the Polish who refused to submit to German occupation, and later on became a part of the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War. It wasn’t until after the Wall fell in 1989 that Poland started getting back on its feet again, and is slowly progressing (and prospering) today. It’s incredible that Warsaw, let alone Poland, went through so much suffering in the 20th century, but still showed resilience through it all- I suppose it’s that same resilience which has helped it moved forward successfully in these last thirty years.
Having read a bit of Warsaw’s history beforehand, as well as visiting a few of the museums while there, it definitely gave me a better understanding of why and what it is today, in terms of the very-divided architecture and general atmosphere of the city. Whereas one side of Warsaw is heavily urbanized with austere, high-rise buildings which remind me of those I’ve seen from the Communist era, the other side is more colorful and historic (or rather, a reconstruction of it, since it’d been destroyed by the Germans).
Any case, I left my town in France on Friday morning, taking the train to Paris before taking a BlaBlaCar to Beauvais airport (there’s also a shuttle service, but it’s quite expensive. BlaBlaCar was cheaper). I arrived, checked in, went through security, and soon enough, I boarded my 15h45 flight directly to Warsaw-Modlin airport. Lots of rowdy French “bros” on my flight, but otherwise, it was a relatively uneventful journey.
The plane landed in Warsaw-Modlin about two hours later, and from there, I took a shuttle to the city center, since the airport was located quite far away (about 40 kilometers from the center). It was about a 45-minute ride, and it was around 20h00 when we arrived in front of the Palace of Culture and Science, a notable high-rise building for cultural venues and performances. From there, I had to walk about a kilometer to my hostel; after getting a bit lost trying to navigate the underground passage below a massive roundabout, I finally made it to my hostel near 21h00, where I checked in, freshened up, and turned in for the night. I was tired, having traveled for the entire day; I would begin my visit of Warsaw the following day when I was more energetic.
After breakfast the following day (not complementary from the hostel, so I just brought my own food to eat), I set off around 9h00 to explore Warsaw: it would be my only full day there, so I wanted to see as much of it as I could. Again, I got a bit lost trying to find my way to the historic Old Town (about a 30-minute walk from my hostel), but eventually I reoriented myself and set off towards it, passing by and popping into the Holy Cross Church where famed Polish composer Frederic Chopin’s heart is buried. I grew up playing many of his works on the piano and violin, and I enjoyed listening to his works, too, so it was wonderful that I got to be in the church which housed a part of his body (not creepy at all…), even though there was only a plaque to signal that it was there. No actual heart to see!
I also passed by the Presidential Palace, which houses the President of Poland (of course). Tourists are allowed to go inside for organized tours, but I opted not to, instead just taking a photo from the outside.
Finally, I made it to the historic Old Town, where colorful buildings and the Royal Castle greeted me. It was so interesting that Warsaw’s historic Old Town isn’t that old to begin with, just because almost everything had been reconstructed after it was heavily damaged during World War II. Upon closer inspection, you’d see that the buildings are just a bit “too well-preserved,” but all the same, I found it extremely charming, and am glad that it’d been restored to showcase its former glory!
I decided to visit the Royal Castle, the former residency of Polish kings throughout history. It’s especially known for the reign of Stanisław II Augustus in the late 18th century, during which much of the castle was entirely transformed into its rich, opulent self, of which has been replicated today. After paying an admission fee of 20 zloty (5 euros), I spent the next hour or so visiting the various chambers and hallways of the castle. I didn’t expect myself to be impressed with it, but I actually was! In fact, it reminded me very much of the châteaux I’ve visited in France. From the glittering chandeliers to the extravagant ballrooms, the Royal Castle turned out be a worthwhile (and aesthetically-pleasing) visit.
I finished my visit, and upon exiting the castle, I decided to climb the tower of St. Anne’s Church (just adjacent to the Royal Castle) for views of the city. I paid 4 zloty (1 euro), and before I knew it, I was at the top. Granted, it wasn’t that high up, but nevertheless, it was a decently-good view.
Feeling rather hungry as I was descending the tower, I returned to the historic Old Town to find a place to eat. Admittedly, I was craving pierogies, which are Polish dumplings that can be either sweet or savory. There was a small restaurant which was serving them, so I popped in and ordered nine of them, each in three different flavors (cabbage-and-mushroom, blueberry, and “the Russian,” which is essentially cheese and potatoes). Also chose cranberry sauce as my side choice to complement the pierogies, which turned out quite well. My favorite one was the cabbage and mushroom, but all the same, I was filled up afterwards and overall satisfied.
In the afternoon, I chose to head south, back in the general direction of my hostel, but actually to head over to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which is dedicated to the soldiers who’d lost their lives during the wars. I happened to arrive just when the Changing of the Guards was happening, and never had I seen so many people– soldiers, guards, civilians and tourists alike– in the main square. Definitely was a sight to see!
After a quick visit there, I headed over to Łazienki Park, the largest park in Warsaw and home to its eponymous palace located over a lake, which I’d heard to be quite nice. There was also the Chopin Statue to check out, so I headed all the way over to the very south of the city. The walk took about 30 to 40 minutes and along the way, I saw a large protest on the streets- not sure what they were protesting, but there was a lot of chanting and police, so I made sure to step back as far away as possible, to make sure that I didn’t get swept up into it should it turn ugly.
I made it to Łazienki Park, taking a quick lap around the palace and its pond before making my way to the Chopin Statue, abstract and beautiful in its interpretation of the Romantic composer. Sat on the bench to rest my feet a bit (strangely enough, I was developing a bad bunion on my right foot, so I needed a break) before heading back towards my hostel around 15h00. I stopped by a grocery store and a small bakery for beer and bread, respectively, as a light supper to get me through the rest of the day.
Made it back to my hostel around 16h00, and I relaxed for the rest of the day. My hostel had a “Cook with Us” event that night, and I took part to learn how to make pierogies, which was super easy to do (just flour, hot water, filling, and salt). The most fun part was eating them, of course! Also made friends with a French guy from Lille, who talked a million miles a minute, but was super friendly. It was nice to socialize, as well as speak French…on vacation!
I turned in around 22h00, and woke up the next day to check out at 9h00 and head out to see as much as I could before leaving in the early afternoon; I’d remembered some places that I’d forgotten to visit the day before, so I sped over to check them out, taking the tram over. One of them was the Barbican, an old fortress not too far from the historic Old Town, and the other was the Warsaw Uprising monument. The latter was especially profound, just because it showed the Pole’s bravery despite the fact that the rebellion failed. Very touching, to say the least.
Next, I took the metro over to the Warsaw Uprising Museum, where it was free admission (being that it was Sunday). Granted, it was very crowded, because everyone wanted to go when it was free, but in any case, the museum proved to be pretty interesting, very detailed with the events leading up to the tragic 1944 uprising between the Poles and the Germans. Lots of relics, including uniforms, guns, and letters, gave a very tactile impression of what had happened, and if I had more time to visit (and less people), I could’ve appreciated it more.
I finished the museum close to noon, and from there walked to Warszawa Centralna, the main train station where I would be taking the train at 13h30 to my next destination in Poland. Caught a glimpse of the imposing Palace of Culture and Science on my way over; I’d wanted to visit, since it offers views of Warsaw from its 30th floor, but I didn’t have time. It was fine, though, since I’d already gotten views from the St. Anne’s Church tower the day before.
Overall, I would say that I enjoyed Warsaw more than I’d thought, just because I’d heard from other assistant(e)s that they didn’t like it as much as other places in Poland, such as Krakow. Many of them told me that they found Warsaw too industrial, too spread out, and not much to do in the center. While I do agree that you can easily get Warsaw done within a day-and-a-half (as I did), I disagree on the fact that it’s not as interesting as other places. In fact, I found it very informative, at least with the monuments and museums that I checked out- if anything, much of what you discover in Warsaw is its history, evident through the remodeled Old Town and post-World War high-rise buildings. The stark contrast between these two areas was something that I hadn’t seen before, and I found Warsaw to be the ideal place to start off my travels in Poland.
More to come soon! Next up: Gdańsk, Poland!