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Honeymoon in Poland - Part I

An article by Joe Wiebe © All rights reserved.

Riding in a taxi into Warsaw one evening last July, my wife and I marvelled at the straight, wide boulevards flanked by thoroughly modern buildings. One tall spire in particular drew our eyes upwards. The enormous building towered ominously over the heart of the city, nearly twice as tall as any other structure. Though our cab driver spoke no English, we understood the single word he used to identify it: “Stalin.”

In the early 1950s, Stalin ordered the construction of the mammoth Palace of Culture and Science right in the centre of Warsaw, which had been decimated by the Nazis in World War Two. At 231 metres (43 stories), it remains Polands tallest building to this day, and still ranks as Europe’s sixth tallest. Later that week, we rode the elevator to the observation deck on the 30th floor, which, the saying goes, offers the best view in Warsaw because it is the only view that does not include the Palace itself. Since the fall of Communism in 1989, there has been a lot of debate over what to do with the Palace—from tearing it down to building a circle of skyscrapers around it—but nothing has been decided yet.

The area around the tower is the New City Centre, in which the main avenue is Nowy Swiat (New World), a boulevard lined with cafés, restaurants and expensive boutiques that could easily be set in Berlin or London. We felt a buzz on Chmielna, a pedestrian lane broken up by beer terraces set right out on the paving stones; the route was packed with attractive young women and men, showing off the latest fashions, chatting on cell phones, and laughing over coffee or beer. My wife spent a contented afternoon shopping at H&M, buying the same clothes she’d seen in Paris, but for one-third the price.

Our hotel, a grand old dame called the Europejski (which I had booked on the internet for less than half the rack rate), was located halfway between the New City Centre and the Old Town. It was a perfect base for walking tours to almost anywhere in the city.

On one of our evening strolls, we came across Pierogarnia, which offers the best pierogies in Warsaw. Generally, Polish food is hearty and satisfying, similar to Ukrainian or German. Meat, especially pork, is prevalent, although chicken and fish are also on most menus. Eating vegetarian is possible, though going vegan would be difficult. Soups are popular: my wife’s favourite was barszcz, Polish borscht, which is served as a clear, red broth; mine was pink-coloured chlodnik, a cold summer soup made from beets, cucumber, sour cream and dill.

Top end restaurants offer international cuisine with English language menus, and cost the same as here, but there are plenty of local restauracja where you can eat well for $5-$10. The cheapest are bar mleczny—or milk bars—no-frills, self-serve cafeterias, leftover from the Communist era, where the food is good and cheap—$2 or $3 for an entire meal.

Our first visit to a bar mleczny was a fortunate accident. We were window-shopping in the Old Town one afternoon with an eye on ominous thunderclouds building in the sky above us. An ear-splitting crash of thunder sent us running for the nearest open door, which turned out to be the Pod Barbakanem milk bar. The rain poured down like a tropical torrent, and other tourists and locals followed our lead. After comparing the hand-written menu on the wall with our phrasebook, we managed to obtain plates of kotlet schabowy (breaded pork cutlet) with boiled potatoes and cucumbers with sour cream. By the time we finished our lunch, the clouds had rolled past the Old Town and we were free to continue our exploration.

Warsaw’s Old Town was turned into rubble by the Nazis, but standing in the Old Town Square today you wouldn’t know it. Following World War Two, all of the buildings were rebuilt, brick by brick, to match their centuries-old predecessors. Don’t miss the excellent documentary detailing the reconstruction shown in English daily at noon at the Historical Museum at the north end of the square.

The Nazis’ terrible treatment of Polish Jews is unfortunately most evident in the lack of Jewish culture remaining in Warsaw today. Apart from a Monument to the Warsaw Uprising and the Jewish Historical Institute, both located just west of the Old Town, there is tragically little evidence of what was once a thriving part of Polish culture.

As appeared in the Vancouver Sun, April 23, 2005

 Continue to Krakow...

Joe Wiebe is a Vancouver freelance writer. 
For reprint permission contact the author


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