Day 11, 12, & 13: Warsaw, Poland
Warsaw. Poland’s sorrowful capital city. Poland as a whole has had one of the darkest and hardest pasts of any other European country going way beyond WWII and Warsaw alone has an incredibly dreary history. At the same time Poles are patriotic about the fact that they have survived and that their country has remained culturally in tact (just listen/read their national anthem).
We arrived by train to Warsaw at around noon after a six hour trip from Berlin. For an early as hell train ride it was surprisingly pleasant. We had the entire train cabin to ourselves save a Polish gentleman who got on a third of the way and spent the entire ride quietly working on some Polish crosswords. Incidentally Soduko is also quite popular here in Europe.
We arrived at Warsaw Central station with simple directions to get to our hostel that in the end were anything but simple. Western Europe is fairly easy to navigate thanks to language and alphabet similarities and efficient street signing and city planning. For two Americans with no language skill past Spanish, Eastern Europe provides some more obstacles. We started off by walking down a street that took us 15 minutes away in the opposite direction of where we wanted to be. Luckily a nice Polish woman noticed our obvious American tourist confusion while we were fumbling with our lackluster hostel directions and pointed us in the right way.
The Jump In Hostel is located a bit in the middle of nowhere. It’s off a major highway and is about ten minutes walk from the metro stop (Warsaw has one city train line that runs either north or south. It also has very confusing signing issues). We checked in, met a fellow traveler from Bangladesh!!! who was very kind and in the end invited us to join him for dancing at a “nice club down the road with lots of pretty girls.”
After dropping our things we embarked out to explore the city. Since the fall of communism and the Soviet occupation in Warsaw the city has blossomed into quite a nice European gem of a capital. Half of the city is modern, industrial, with an obvious potential for growth. They recently joined the EU and I suppose it’s only a matter of time before they take on the Euro. The other half of the city is the older part, Stare Miaso, which was rebuilt to look like the pre-war Warsaw (the city was almost completely leveled during WWII for those who don’t know. Completely leveled, as in everything you knew was demolished. Sobering to think about). We checked out the old part then headed across the river to Praga, which the guy at the hostel told me had great architecture and some wonderful city parks. He was correct.
What initially struck me about Warsaw is how simple people live their lives. This is true of other parts of Europe but in Eastern Europe you definitely feel it more. Little things like the fact that people will wait at red crosswalk lights even if there aren’t cars in sight, or the fact that people go to parks after work or ride bikes show a real value of the simple things in life. People don’t seem to be in a hurry (unlike the fast paced life of the average American). Then again, I’m used to our fast paced lifestyle so we cross the streets on reds and often get looks from locals. Oh well.
After Praga we ate at a traditional polish restaurant that “Let’s Go Europe” listed as a must eat. 18 PLN (Polish Zloty) will get you a steaming plate of Pierogi (I ordered the Grandma’s and Diavolo style. The latter combining meat and sour cabbage. The other having a spicy sausage of sorts), a large bowl of cabbage and cauliflower soup, and a side salad (coleslaw minus the nasty cream or mayo. Those who know me know that I despise coleslaw, however, loved what this cozy eatery had to offer). The best part is 18 PLN is about $6. Cheap and extremely filling. NOTE: After Dublin and Germany where we lived off either Kebab stands or grocery store bought sandwich fixings, a hot filling meal was a bit of a treat).
Finally there was the Warsaw club that we ventured out to when we returned to the hostel. Our group consisted of our Bangladesh friend, 5 drunk Germans (one of whom was dressed in a tux and carried a bottle of vodka around wherever he went), an Aussie who plays poker for a living online and makes mad money (wicked), and a brash Texan who told me that global warming was a farce and backed up his argument with references from a Michael Crichton (my reply was: “The guy who wrote Jurassic Park about raising Dinosaurs???”)
The night club was definitely European. It was below ground, blasted techno and house music, much of which i recognized from the mid nineties, and had lasers and a strobe light (it’s quite possible that the fog machine was broken that particular night). All in all it was a good time. I look awkward when I dance, especially when I’m the tallest dude around. Still I had fun.
On the second day we explored a couple museums, saw lots of old churches, and ate at a traditional Polish Milk Bar. Milk Bars were created during the Soviet occupation as cheap cafeteria like eateries that served hot food for very little money. The milk names comes from the fact that since meat was scarce or pricey the places served food heavy on dairy and potatoes. The menu was all in Polish, which made ordering a bit difficult. I ordered what i thought was meat but ended up being fish, for desert we picked something completely random, which came out as a mucus like custard pudding served warm with what appeared to be beet juice on top. It surprisingly was pretty good. Tasted like tapioca without the tapioca. Milk bars are dirt cheap and our meal per person was approximately $4.50 with a room temperature Pepsi Cola to boot.
When we returned to the hostel we spent much of the evening chatting with three Poles who worked at the hostel, the Aussie (Chris) and our Bangladesh friend. Sharing a bottle of vodka and a carton of apple juice (vodka and apple juice is a big drink i Poland and apparently Russia as well), we compared our cultural differences, discussed popular music (the Poles impressed me by recognizing/being able to sing The Root’s “You Got Me,” Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice” and Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.” At one point during the evening we all sang “Akuna Matata” from the Lion King in our own native tongues. An experience in its own I must say.
Warsaw is yet another city I would love to explore again and it definitely changed my prior views of Poland as a whole. Next up is Krakow, the former capital of Poland and a city that I’ve heard is a real gem that is not to missed. I wouldn’t be surprised if cities like Warsaw and Krakow become the new Vienna’s or Prague of Europe. Tourism is starting to blossom and no doubt will be flourishing in the next ten years or so.
So the photo of the large building that almost looks like the Empire State building is the Warsaw’s Palc Kultury (Palace of Culture). The massive building is Europe’s tallest structure (the second tallest being that nasty TV tower in Berlin) and was a gift from Stalin much to the dismay of the Polish people. Stalin wanted to build something that would show the Soviet’s power and prosperity but would also reflect the Polish culture. To this day the building is referred to as “Stalin’s Dick” by Poles who find the building to be an eyesore and constant reminder of the Soviet occupation. I personally think it’s an impressive building but it definitely epitomizes Soviet behemoth style architecture. Also check out Bucharest, Romania’s Palace of the Parliament, which is one of the biggest building per square feet in the world but is an ugly mammoth concrete bloc of a building.