This morning we are in the hands of Adventure Warsaw to experience their “Off the Beaten Path” tour. An our incredible journey starts in an original Polish van, the Nysa 522, symbol of Polish communist times.
Our guide is Adam, and there are two other guests along for the ride. Given we are already in the area, we start of with the former ghetto area, which is not usually included. Adam tells us we have to listen to the buildings and they will tell us their stories.
Walicow shouts its story loud and clear with bullet holes littering it’s armour. A surviving fragment of the Jewish ghetto.
And the building across the road starred in a scene from Roman Polanski’s film, The Pianist.
People still live in these hulks of memory.
A bit further along, we come back to the spot Mum and I walked yesterday, Chlodna Street. As well as the Footbridge of Memory and a few other sights, we also come across something I had trouble finding yesterday. Etgar Keret’s house. Keret is an author and he lives in a seriously, small, house. It is one of the thinnest homes in the world. Designed by architect Jakub Szczesny, the steel-framed construction is finished with Styrofoam and plywood with its widest point being 152cm and its narrowest just 92cm. The house was built for Keret to use as a home in Warsaw. When he’s out of town, the installation acts as a studio for visiting artists. Found on what was the border between the large and small ghettos of Warsaw, the building can be found perched between a Communist era block and a pre-war tenement which provides the perfect social comment on the neighbourhood’s divided past.
Leaving the area, this is where the trip starts to get funny. Our Nysa has decided that it doesn’t want to run properly. We jerk along for a bit, then stall. Adam gets the van going again, but she is stalling every time we brake, which with the day’s traffic, is quite frequently. And at every set of lights. We name the car’s new mode ‘Eco-mode’, as we coast along each time she decides to konk out.
We visit the Jewish Quarter of Warsaw, taking in the Palace of Science and Culture, and other remnants of the past and points of interest, still rolling along.
We stall along the way into Praga. Praga is famous for all the wrong reasons. For decades she’s worn the stigma of being the most run down, dull and dangerous part of Warsaw with derelict streets ruled by the criminal underworld. But now the artists and musicians have moved in and Praga is cool. It’s also home to Praga zoo and a group of bears living in Praski Park.
Praga was relatively untouched during WWII. My Babcia’s sister tied to travel to the countryside to meet up with the family, but it was too late and she couldn’t get out. She remained in Warsaw for the remainder of the war and lived in Praga until her death a few years ago. She was in her late 90’s. They breed them tough out here.
We park our bright blue van on the footpath and head in to the milk bar for our lunch. Milk bars (or ‘bar mleczny’) served traditional Polish cuisine to an endless stream of tramps, pensioners and students back in the socialist days, all for a meagre sum. Poland’s first milk bar was actually opened in Kraków in 1948. Originally no hot dishes were served because this was a place where you went simply to enjoy milk. They were the the Party’s attempt at popularising milk-drinking due to Poland’s surplus of dairy products. And the food is ok.
When we return to our bright blue van, some bright spark has decided to park behind us, blocking us in on the footpath. No worries, Adam has it covered…
Still sputtering and stalling, Adam creatively manages a 700-point turn in eco-mode to manoeuvre the van 180° to face the footpath in front of us, where will need to make our escape. He deserves the massive round of applause he gets for that trick!
Lastly, we are invited for a shot of typical polish vodka in a communist style apartment, AKA Adventure Warsaw’s museum/office. This is where we get to see all sorts of memorabilia from the era, some of it similar to the apartment in Krakow. This tour was absolutely great, Adam was extremely knowledgeable, and not only in being able to drive the socialist relic of a van. Like the Crazy Guides tour in Krakow, this was an amazing opportunity to see a different side of Poland.
Having had a quick fix while we were busy skulling vodka, the van is now running much better and safely and more promptly, returns us to our hotel, where Waldek is awaiting us, ready to take us to afternoon tea at Stan’s.
I can’t believe our time here is at an end.
When the war ended, the task of tracing family members began. Notes were pinned to trees, electric poles, fence, and buildings as a short of public lost and found. On the fences of all the train stations were hundreds of notices containing addresses of those searching for lost loved ones. Large crowds gathered in front of these ‘forwarding offices’ from morning til night. There were many that would never be found; people like my Dad’s father, Krzstopf.