Baby You Can Drive My Nysa

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.

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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.

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And the building across the road starred in a scene from Roman Polanski’s film, The Pianist.

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People still live in these hulks of memory.

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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.

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Can you see it?

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.

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A close up of post war Warsaw

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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.

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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.

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Compot, juice with stewed fruit in it

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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.

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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.

Warsaw’s Sad Panda

Mum and I are on our own today as Dad has gone down with a cold.  Whilst this is unfortunate for him, we are a bit excited that as well as sightseeing, it means there will also be an opportunity to do some shopping.

On the way to the old town (Stare Miasto), we stop off for some breakfast at a cafe that I read about called Café Zagadka (Zagadka meaning riddle due to the fact the owners didn’t have a name for the café).  It’s a very cool little place, Kings of Leon playing over the speakers.  We order salty (savoury) omelettes and when they arrive at our table they are massive and fluffy.  I’m sure by looking at it I won’t be able to finish it, but when I taste it, it’s incredibly light and delicious.

The meandering walk to the old town is full of graceful old (ah, new) buildings and hidden surprises.  There are lots of monuments, the importance of which I can’t understand (due to a lack of English descriptions), and lots of building going on.  This is the part that doesn’t look liked a communist lego town.

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Finally, we arrive at the old town. Being only 50-odd years old, Warsaw’s Old Town looks to be 200. The most valuable historical monuments were restored to their previous appearance based on original drawings and photographs, and these efforts were mostly concentrated around the Old Town. So complete was the restoration that it was granted the UNESCO Old Town World Heritage status in 1980. The Royal Castle wasn’t rebuilt until 1971 and was completed in 1984.

The old town itself is tiny and doesn’t take long to explore at all.

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The authorities had to build a whole new city from scratch, which unfortunately for many suburbs, and under Stalin, resulted in a city centre of bunker-like structures and prefabricated concrete blocks. New steel and glass towers are starting to break up the skyline though.

Our first stop in the old town is Kamienne Schodki.  These are the famous stone steps where Napoleon walked and for some reason it has caught a twig at the back of my brain as one of those tiny strings of information I recall my grandmother commenting on – not in any important way that meant anything to me – just a line that for some reason stayed buried deep in my brain. Turns out, the stone steps are a special place for all Poles. They are listed as a UNESCO Heritage site even though they are only 60 years old.

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This narrow street lined with a stone staircase, was first mentioned in 1527 when people used to pass through a crack in the defensive walls of the city in order to carry water from the Vistula River. In 1806, Napoleon Bonapart went down to the shore of the Vistula in the company of Prince Jozef Poniatowski via the stone stairs.

Napoloeon Bonaparte spent a great deal of time in Poland, and was revered by the Poles as a potential national saviour. He personally vowed to reverse the Polish partition that had been imposed on the country by Russia.

Not far from the steps, you come across a grassy knoll that offers sweeping views of the River Wisla. Known as Gnojna Gora (Compost Hill to you), this are once served as the town rubbish dump, and at one stage was renowned for its healing properties – this is where the rich would come to be buried up to their necks in rubbish as a supposed cure for syphilis.

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There’s nothing to commemorate the spot, so I’ll assume this is it.

The Barbican and City Walls is just around the corner. Warsaw is one of the few European capitals where a large portion of the old city wall survives. Like most things, the wall was partially destroyed in WWII, and had to be rebuilt in parts and the barbican was restored to its full scale.

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Even further around the corner is Syrena – symbol of Warsaw.  She’s plastered across everything.  Legend dates to the time of Prince Kazimerz, who allegedly got lost while on a hunting expedition in the area that is now Warsaw.  Behold!  A mermaid transpired from the marshland – um, righto – and guided the prince to safety by firing burning arrows.  Me thinks the Prince may have slipped into the forest to finish off a bottle of top quality Belvedere, fallen asleep and had a rip-snorter of a dream! Really!  Mermaids in marshes!

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The Poles are a superstitious bunch believe it or not, and if you come across the junction of Ulica Piekarska and Ulica Rycerska, you’ll find an area that used be home to a small square primarily used for executions. This is where witches and other ragamuffins would be burned at the stake, hung or have their heads chopped off.  I couldn’t find anywhere to commemorate this, but this is the only kind of square in the location, so once again, I will assume this is the area.

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There an abundance of churches in this neighbourhood, but the one we’ve come to see is the Holy Cross Church. Because in a small urn by the second pillar on the left side of the nave, is Frederik Chopin’s heart. Yep, you heard me right. It was bought here from Paris after Chopin’s death, in accordance with his will.  The church unfortunately doesn’t appear to be open.

Poland, or Warsaw in particular, is Chopin-mad! And they have a right to be because it’s here that he was born in 1810.  The city of Warsaw has installed fifteen musical benches, placed at key sites connected with Chopin’s life.  Made of cast iron and polished black stone, these benches feature a button which when pressed are designed to unleash a thirty second torrent of Chopin. Also equipped with a route map and brief explanations of the site, the benches also go techno – each one is encrypted with a special code – take a pic on your phone and send it to the instructed number and you’ll be rewarded with free access to Chopin melodies, facts, figures and photographs!  We managed to stumble upon one.

Leaving the old town, we came across the sad panda.  Head in hands, rollerblades on feet, he sits with a collection tin in front of him, bemoaning his bad luck.  He shakes his head, cries and rubs his pretend tears away.  He just wants your money.  Please help the sad panda out!

For lunch, we indulge in a tasting of pierogi and they are amazing.  There were a lot of different kinds on the menu, and it was hard to narrow it down, but we did well and the pierogi were amazing.  We had Russian pierogi, spinach and feta, wild mushroom, cheese and champignons and cream.  Sooooo good.

Now, it was time to hit the shops.  We didn’t do that much damage, but I managed to pick up some items for my niece and it was nice for a change of pace.  Across the road however, was something I hadn’t planned on investigating, but it was so close it would have been a shame to miss it.  The Palace of Science and Culture.

From below, surrounded by modern age buildings
From below, surrounded by modern age buildings
...and from the 30th floor, this is our hotel (the Hilton) in the background.
…and from the 30th floor, this is our hotel (the Hilton) in the background.

Also known as the white elephant in lacy underwear, it’s another one of those ‘gifts from Stalin’ that the Poles are still paying for, and they don’t like it one bit.  It’s actually one of the most interesting buildings on the skyline, so I think I would be right in understanding that the hatred of the building is based purely on feeling and not on asthetics.  Upon entering the marble clad monstrosity (there are over 3,000 rooms in this building), you can buy a ticket for a ride to the 30th floor, accompanied by a lovey grumpy polish woman on a chair, for the best view of the city around.  Unfortunately, you’ll probably have no idea what you are looking at, because not much is sign posted as with other look outs around the world.

What it did make us realise was exactly how far we had walked today.  So it was a well deserved taxi ride home to enjoy aa relaxing bubble bath and champagne before we think about what to do tonight.

We decide to have a quiet meal at the hotel and then take a stroll around our interesting neighbourhood.  At the intersection of Chlodna and Zelazna, are two giant metal poles connected across Chlodna by wires. This is the location of one of the most recognisable images of the Warsaw ghetto; the footbridge that connected the small and large ghettos. In fact, if you’ve seen the pianist, you’ll probably recognise it.  It is now a memorial called the Footbridge of Memory.

The footbridge as it was - easily recognizable from many WWII movies.
The footbridge as it was – easily recognizable from many WWII movies.
The Footbridge of Memory by day...
The Footbridge of Memory by day…
...and by night.
…and by night.

At night, the wires light up and create a virtual bridge in the exact location of the former ghetto bridge. The poles also have viewing windows where visitors can flip through images of life in the Warsaw ghetto. You’ll also notice the pavement outline that symbolises the ghetto’s borders which are found on the sidewalk along Chlodna.

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As I mentioned, I originally thought I’d made a mistake booking this hotel as it wasn’t in the best location, but in reality, it’s a neighbourhood full of hidden stories about the past.  The streets and buildings tell a million stories of battles won and lost and it’s historically fascinating.  After dinner, we take the opportunity to walk around the streets.  Here are some of its stories…

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Searching for Princes

So last night was our family dinner and I got to meet Stan (who is related by marriage a little way back, so not really a relative), his son Waldek, wife Dorothea and daughter Paulinka, plus the family of Dad’s cousin Graszinka, her daughter Dorota, husband Wyeslaw and daughters Paula, Susie and Maya.  It was an odd feeling to be surrounded by people talking in a language you don’t understand, though both Paula and Paulinka spoke English and Paula’s parents spoke about as much English as I know Polish, but the evening seemed to go fairly well.  It’s hard to form a strong bond with people who have not existed in your life before in such a short amount of time, but who knows what the future will hold.  It wasn’t a really late night, but we still had a late start to the day.

We were only going to visit one palace in Poland.  But whenever I researched the palaces of Poland, the elaborate rooms of Wilanow (vee-lah-noof), keep forcing their way onto the screen.  I didn’t think I could live with myself if I didn’t take the opportunity to walk through its vivid rooms.

About a half hour drive from the centre of Warsaw is where you will find ‘the Polish Versailles’.  Built in the late 17th century, Wilanow is opulent.  The grounds immediately surrounding the palace are filled with colourful flower beds and rose gardens, the larger garden grounds with large shady trees.

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It’s free to visit Wilanow on Sundays, but you still have to line up to get a ticket for 0 zloty’s.  Very Polish.  The tickets are printed with the time at which you are able to enter the palace (limited groups go through at a time), though of course, they don’t tell you this when you ‘buy’ the ticket.  So now you know.

The rooms are painted boldly, paintings adorning the walls en-masse, intricate furniture filling the spaces of its grand rooms.  Royal wallpapers and gold filigree live on the walls, ceilings and doorways.  The palace seems enormous and it feels like hours worth of exploring.

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Now I’m here looking for a Prince, so here are the lucky candidates….

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So I’m thinking I might just stay single for a little while longer.

The remainder of our day is to be spent at Lazienki (wah-zhen-kee) Park.  It is the largest park in Warsaw, weighing in at 76 hectares.   The grounds are a mass of shady trees with squirrels ferreting around the shrubs and tourists.

Lazienki Palace, also known as the Palace on the Water is it’s centrepiece.

In stark contrast to Wilanow, Lazienki Palace is a white elephant.

Where Wilanow’s rooms shout opulence, Lazienki’s whisper.

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Three gondolas adorn the lake, and we board one for a short but relaxing ride.  The sun is out, the park grounds Gondola Ride and Palace on the Water, Island Ampitheatre, White House and Belvedere Palace, with free Chopin concerts at noon and 4pm and ice cream (lody) – which the Poles are apparently mad for!

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Visiting Poland and not attending a Chopin concert is like… going to the Vatican without seeing the Pope, as a certain saying goes. It’s beautiful out this time of year (okay – most of the time), and the Łazienki park is lushly green and soothing and lovely – even more so when you’re listening to masterfully played piano music.  The concerts fittingly take place underneath the Chopin statue, and their tradition goes back to 1959, with the festival changing and evolving over the fifty-five years that followed.  Free admission, what else could you possibly want?  A fantastic way to relax and unwind this is.

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Wyeslav picks us up outside Lazienki and drives us back to his home for a dinner with the family.  A beautiful meal is set out on the table – wonderful sliced tomatoes covered with white and spring onions, hardboiled eggs, salmon, cheeses, glorious grainy bread home made by Dorota, home made butter with herbs in it made by Paula, cold meats and pierogis.  And there’s sparkling wine and vodka – lots of it.  It is a lovely evening even though only Paula speaks English from their side and only Dad speaks Polish from our side, but they are coming to Australia early next year and everyone is excited.