Rajeshwari Prakash, a DLF5 resident, recently shared with us the reasons of her love for Warsaw.
Poland is getting to be a popular travel destination with many visitors rating Warsaw as their favourite place. Yet Poland, to me, was cold war, Communism and Warsaw Pact, and of course, Chopin. My impressions were further chiselled by the stark imagery of movies like The Pianist and Schindler’s List.
I landed in the wee hours of the morning and saw revitalised neighbourhoods, large parks, cobbled streets and glimpses of the Vistula River. Warsaw, I learnt, has more than its fair share of historical museums, churches and cathedrals, parks and palaces, a plethora of simply delicious food and a busy night life. It is a city for everyone, on any budget.
1. Old Town
The Old Town or Rynek Starego Miasta is as charming as any in Europe and unique in that it was completely flattened in the second world war. Painstakingly pieced back together between 1946 and 1980 using as many of the existing bricks and details that could be salvaged, the area is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The cobbled streets lazily meander between pastel-shaded buildings, old merchant houses painted with distinctive motifs, buskers playing folk music at every corner, terrace cafés and restaurants. And yes, there are lots of ice cream stalls, galleries and souvenir shops.
2. Lazienki Park and Chopin’s Monument
Lazienki Park which is a blend of the wild and tended with semi-tame red squirrels and peacocks. I sat on the bench near the imposing memorial to Frederic Chopin remembering that the local legend that his was the first monument the Germans destroyed. Story goes that a handwritten sign was found at the site the very next day that read: “I don’t know who destroyed me, but I know why: so that I won’t play the funeral march for your leader.” Often world-famous pianists, laureates from renowned festivals and professors from leading music academies of music perform his piano solos.
3. The Warsaw Rising Museum
Dedicated to the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 a tragic and largely unknown chapter of World War II, the museum is a brilliant attempt to accurately recreate the realities of life under the Nazis and events of the struggle of 1944. Brave Polish resistance met with annihilation and retribution from the Nazis and manipulated principally by Stalin. The Polish Home Army, despite being small and deplorably ill-equipped resisted the Germans for 63 days. It is a gripping yet disturbing story: “the ultimate futility of Rising, the severe consequences of its failure, the inaction by the Russians, and what many Poles still perceive as the betrayal of Poland by its Western Allies, Great Britain and America”. Sounds of sporadic gunfire and the sounds of a thumping heartbeat accompanied me as I ran through a replica of sewer tunnels that the resistance fighters defending the Old Town escaped through, took a 3D simulated flight over the computer-generated ruins of the city, and listened to recordings of stories by eyewitness.
4. The Royal Castle and the Barbican
The old city wall made from red brick runs around the edge of the Old Town and culminates in the imposing Barbican. This still is the entrance to the Old Town. As I walked on I saw a lot of signposts marking signs of post war damage. The lovingly restored Royal Castle has impressive interiors where everything that could be gilded has been. Magnificent stucco work and tapestries adorn the gaps. It is amazing to see the paintings that survived World War II. In the light of the evening sun, I settled in one of the square’s restaurants to watch the world go by.
5. The Wilanow Castle and Grounds
Often called the Polish Versailles, it is set in 45 hectares of garden and is beautiful Baroque royal residence. The Castle has an impressive collection of paintings, decorative arts and sculptures and is a reminder of the culture of the Polish state before the 18th century. It is one of Poland’s most important monuments and one of the most interesting places I visited. The Palace was the summer residence of Jan III Sobieski, King of Poland during the 1674-1696. The charming palace with its well maintained parks and canals hosts a number of cultural events and concerts. Unfortunately some parts were under renovation during my visit.
6. Nowy Swiat
There are a host of cafes on the pedestrianised Nowy Swiat where I tried the delicately sour-sweet cheesecake, sernik, made with white curd cheese and full of raisins. Deserts and cakes (especially at Blikle) are heavenly. One culinary relic from the old days – the milk bar or bar mleczny – steamy cafeterias where the menus are Polish are a great place for value-for-money Polish food and atmosphere. Don’t leave without trying the ruskie pierogi — ravioli-like dumplings with a potato and cheese filling. They can be boiled or fried, and are sometimes served with sautéed onions.
7. The Panorama Bar at the Marriot
Located on the 40 floor and with a 360 degree panorama, the bar gives you the best views of the city skyline. The tapas-style cuisine is not bad. Try the popular Polish cocktail of Zubrówka (Bison grass vodka) mixed with apple juice or the Zoladkowa, a liqueur-like herb vodka reminiscent of Bénédictine.
8. The Grand Theatre – National Opera
Poland’s representational stage for opera and the ballet, the building was constructed between 1825-1833 according the design by Italian architect Antonio Corazzi . The National Opera continues its legacy of more than two hundred years mounting productions of the works of Polish composers and composers like Beethoven, Bellini, Gounod, Massenet and Mozart. You could catch sight of the rich and famous at the adjoining cafes.
9. The food
There are many restaurants where you can order a plate of Polish dumplings (pierogi), taste fresh Polish cheese and bread, have jam – filled donuts, beer, a potato or cheese cake, and eat some really divine chocolate.
Michelin Star restaurant Signature which is housed in what was once the Soviet embassy. The food is unusual, well portioned and simply divine, Well-preserved decoration of the hammer and sickle from that time,restored chairs from the 50s, l and original photographs of Milton Greene and a burning bar are the other components that make for the magic of this restaurant.
Soho Factory the a 24/7 restaurant and brainchild of Mateusz Gessler that offers both culinary workshops and self cooking options. I not only learned to make pierogi here, I also leant that Polish cooking is much much more than pierogi – it is a great combination of fresh meat and vegetables, full of flavour and is all local. Interestingly, almost all produce is organic and I baffled many locals by asking if it was!
I missed home some where in the midst of all this and headed straight to Bollywood Lounge for some good desi fare and Bollywood music. I wasn’t disappointed. The portions are generous, the food desi and the music Punjabi. It’s famous fr its keema stuffed naan.
I went to Promenada mall that has a lot of designer fashion outlets and a gigantic delicatessen for a supermarket (Alma). The others stores I popped in to are Blikle, a cafe that has some divine cake, the Teddy Bear shop, selling only teddy bears and Traffic Club, a large book, film and music store.
Poland’s designers are bursting with talent. I visited Lilou, a delightful jewellery and gift store. Here you create your own piece of jewellery that can then be engraved from the various charms, trinkets and that the brand has on display. I bought a bag from Goshico, the award winning Polish brand whose products are handmade and available in both felt and leather. The highlight of my shopping trip was visiting the concept store of fashion designer Gosia Baczynska. Located in the Praga district, the collection on display was a bold stunning reflection of the designer’s imagination.
I left with quirky memories of Warsaw firmly etched in my mind: neighbourhoods that have been revitalised, museums that have opened (the little Neon Museum that displays old neon signs), the beautiful rooftop on top of University of Warsaw’s library, droves of international designers who have set up shop, cafe tables that spill out on to pavements, milk bars that have become hip eating joints and the scents and colours of peonies and lilacs that were everywhere.
About the Author
Environmentalist at heart, with a keen interest in Natural Healing Systems I document the social fabric around me, cook, grow my greens and travel. I have edited food, architecture, travel and holistic lifestyle magazines. As a vegetarian who travels all over I document the interconnectedness of our lifestyles, our health, the food we eat and the relationship we share with our environment. I run a boutique communications advisory and I live in Gurgaon.