Warsaw, Poland – A Holiday Diary


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We checked in to hotel (Hotel Bristol), then walked up the ‘Royal Route’ towards the old town. Got something to eat at a Costa, which felt very foreign. It was also very cheap and surprisingly empty for an inner city Costa.

Warsaw has different sections. We walked through the Old Town, which is…. old. Then walked through the old city gate (the Barbican) into the New Town – which is….. old! However, actually, when you read the guidebook, you discover that ALL of Warsaw was heavily bombed during the war, so 85% has been rebuilt. But it looks old. We saw an old photo, which I hope is clear enough for you to see, (I put a copy at the end) showing how every building in the centre of the old town was a ruin with no roof. After the war they worked very hard to rebuild everything in the same style as before. They succeeded, though I am guessing that due to speed/cost, they were not perhaps built to be as durable as before (a few of the ‘marble’ columns were made of brick and plastered over.) It looks good though, a very pretty city.

It’s actually very nice. Like Krakow, it reminded me of Bruges, with cobbled streets, attractive buildings, street cafes and music – wherever you walked there were musicians busking, from opera singers to cellists. It was lovely. There were also lots of fresh flowers. Every street cafe was decorated with arrangements of flowers and we saw people on bikes, carrying flowers they had bought, in their baskets. I am guessing that Polish homes must use lots of flowers.

We ate dinner in Dolce Vita, a cafe opposite the royal palace. The food was nice, and when I went inside, it was all scrupulously clean.

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The next day there were lots of Chinese people outside the president’s house, waving banners and flags. I used my Mandarin to ask a man why they were there. Had quite a long conversation. Do not have a clue what he said! Husband then asked one of the many security men what was happening and we learnt that the Chinese president was visiting. Spent the rest of the day dodging excited Chinese tourists and people filming news reports and security men who had closed off streets.

IMG_4769I walked to the Palace of Culture and Science in the city centre. All the roads are big, with crossing lights that everyone obeys and no cobbled streets. The buildings were more like I had expected to see in Poland – rather foreboding flat roofed concrete blocks with big blank windows that watched you.

 

 

However, they were still interspersed with pretty historical ones with sculptures and decorations. It is a relatively low rise city, so the Palace of Culture and Science looms above everything. It looks like something from a Ghost Busters set. There is something sinister about it, though I couldn’t quite work out why.

I also couldn’t quite work out what it was used for. I went inside and there were cafes and toilets and ticket kiosks. You could buy tickets to the viewing platform ( this would only appeal if you were male I feel) and to see several reconstructed rooms. I picked up a leaflet and it looked like it was something to do with the previous communist rule. But what exactly was rather vague. My guidebook was also unhelpful – it told me useful facts like that it had been made from 40 million bricks (like, when you see a building, your first thought is always, “Gosh, I wonder how many bricks they used to build that,”) and it was a gift in 1952 from the USSR. And that Polish people would now like to demolish it.

Google told me it was an exhibition centre and cinema, and apparently the Rolling Stones played there in the sixties. I think not knowing and making up my own ideas was more interesting.

IMG_4756 Palace of Science and Culture

Walked to the Chopin Museum. On the way I passed a bench, opposite the house where his sister used to live. The bench played music, which I thought was rather cool! The museum was a pretty building, previously a palace, built above the road. There was a park, with the institute of music next door, so people were walking their dogs to the sound of piano playing. The museum was shut. I was quite pleased actually, as generally museums are boring, but I sort of feel obligated to go sometimes.
Walked back to hotel. Went into the Church of St Joseph. It was dark, with oil paintings, candles and icons. There were people praying, so I thought I had better not take photos. Though it was tempting as apparently the organ was previously played by Chopin each Sunday.

IMG_4766 Chopin Museum

Food in Poland seems to be okay – a bit like in Germany (sausages and cabbage) but with more taste. Lots of places sell pierogi (sort of like Chinese dumplings, stuffed with sauerkraut, meat or potatoes or with fruit or cheese.) Tall ice cream cones also seem popular, and breads and pretzels and pastries. And of course vodka (spelt ‘wodka’!) We also saw lots of people buying glasses of beer, with a red drink in a wine glass which they poured into the beer. I assumed they were adding shots, but apparently it was just fruit juice. (I was told this by a waiter, not one of my sons, so it is probably true.) They also eat pickled herring. The signs for the lifts are: WINDY/ELEVATOR – I am hoping the ‘windy’ bit is a translation and not an adjective.

In the afternoon it rained. Grey and damp, like English rain, but still warm, too hot for a coat. I walked through a big park, Ogrod Saski. I walked past a giant cross and the tomb to an unknown soldier, which had a fire pit burning, flowers and two soldiers on guard. The park was nice, with statues and a fountain and paths through flower beds. However, the paths did not lead to where I wanted to go, it was like being in Ikea, walking miles when you know that where you want to be is just in front of you. Part of the problem was the tram line, which ran down the side of the park, so you couldn’t leave in the corner you wanted to. Walked a long detour, made it out eventually.

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Walked up to Plac Bankowy (Bank Square). Previously, this had a statue of the founder of the Soviet security service and the square was named after him. When Poland left the Soviet Union, they got rid of the statue and returned the square to its original name.

I feel this sums up Poland. They have had their identity snatched from them so many times – when heavily bombed during WW2, when the Jews were killed, when it was joined to the Soviet Union. Each time, afterwards, they have rebuilt the things that were important to them, held on to their history. I think that to start again so completely means they are probably a very strong nation, one to admire.

In the evening, we ate again in the square opposite the royal palace. There was lots of excitement as the Chinese president was arriving. The square was full of Chinese dancers, people waving flags and security men.

IMG_4784 The security men were easy to spot as they wore black suits with white shirts and sunglasses (even though it was evening.) Like the cast from Men in Black.

 

 

 

 

Some Chinese girls were also eating in the restaurant, so I chatted to them. They said that coming to wave flags was compulsory – they had been told they had to. It was interesting to watch how the crowd was managed. Some protestors arrived and they weren’t removed, but their banners were quickly hidden by people with giant Chinese flags who stood in front. When Xi arrived, his car came in a cavalcade of security vehicles and whisked quickly into the palace. The people who had stood for hours didn’t even see him.

Poland has been fun to visit and is very different to how I had expected it to be. It is clean, attractive and has good summer weather. Definitely a good destination for a weekend away – and much cheaper than Paris!

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IMG_4789 IMG_4794IMG_4749 Excited Chinese people

IMG_4772 Fountain in the rain

 

 

 

 

 

Old photos showing the level of destruction in the war.

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IMG_4730 A crucifix, which is partly the old one,

then a modern repair post war.

 

 

 

 

IMG_4727 IMG_4722 Marie Curie lived in Warsaw

before moving to France.

(Clever lady.)

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_4717 The city gate.

IMG_4715 There were lots of these ice cream cones.

I was dying to try one,

but wasn’t sure if they would be made with local water.

 

 

IMG_4741 Local beer. Very nice.

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Krakow, Poland – A Holiday Diary


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Poland was unexpected. Why has no one ever told me what it is like? Husband had a work trip in Warsaw, so we decided to come to Krakow the weekend before, have a romantic weekend. Before I came, I had this image of post Soviet Union countries all being very similar – lots of flat roofed concrete buildings, all very ugly and sinister. I came to Poland for the experience, to see with my own eyes what I had imagined. It turns out I had imagined wrong!

First we flew to Kraków. We flew with easyJet, which I quite like actually. Check-in was quick (you did it yourself but there were people to help if you got stuck) and you didn’t pay for anything you wouldn’t use. I paid £6 on board for a cheese roll and a drink. It was a nice cheese roll.

We arrived in Kraków and got a taxi to the hotel. I was interested to watch the city through the taxi window – was more Bruges than Tower Hamlets. There was a river with floating restaurants, a castle, cobbled streets, lots of cyclists.

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The following day we walked around the city. I wanted to go to see where Schindler’s factory was (as in Oskar Schindler, who saved so many Jews in the war.) We walked through the Jewish Quarter- saw lots of old buildings, houses with window boxes of flowers, synagogues, Torah schools. Before the war, a quarter of Poland’s population was Jewish.

You could then walk across the bridge, over the river – the same route that the Jews would have had to walk when they were told to leave the Jewish area, their homes, and go to live in the ghetto.

There were about 20,000 Jews squashed into a few streets. Obviously the fences had gone, but many of the streets were still named Getta and you could see the old chemist shop, which is now a museum. The square, where people were sorted – allocated into houses or trains to the camps – now has statues of giant metal chairs. Empty chairs to show the lives that were stolen. Some of the chairs were normal sized and near the tram stop. Husband sat on one. I worried this was disrespectful, but apparently the sculptures were planned like that, to show that anyone could have been taken.

Schindler’s factory, a few minutes walk away, was just a factory. Here there were lots of concrete buildings. There were photos in the factory windows of the Jews who had worked there and the inside is now a museum and an art gallery, which I didn’t fancy looking at (not very keen on museums.) I picked up a leaflet about a tour to Oswiecim (which is better known by its German name of Auschwitz.) Decided visit would be traumatic, not really the right thing for romantic weekend away with husband, better to go as a separate trip in the future.

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Went to old part of Kraków. This is beautiful. Cobbled streets (glad I wasn’t wearing heels), horse and carriages, ornate churches, weddings (with the bride and groom wearing very synthetic clothes which looked almost like costumes), Prussian architecture, trams, sunshine. There were little markets full of breads and pickles and crafts. Really, it was SO like going to Bruges at Christmas time, but with sunshine!

The churches were dark, full of candles and gilt and oil paintings. I’m not sure what they were used for during the communist reign, when religion was outlawed.

There were street entertainers, ice creams, people with designer dogs. And always, just under the surface, in the back of your mind, the city’s troubled history. So much suffering. I don’t know how long it takes to forget things like that.

anneethompson.com

Thank you for reading.

IMG_4591 You could go on a ‘Communist Tour’!

IMG_4612 This dog waited a year for his owner (who had died.)

IMG_4648 People-watching in one of the squares.

IMG_4677 IMG_4675 IMG_4674 IMG_4672 IMG_4671 Wonderful markets

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Cloth hall – which didn’t sell cushion covers….

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Helpful Europe train advice at:  http://www.seat61.com/

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I have always written a diary on holiday, so last Christmas, I decided to find all my old diaries and blogs, and make a book for my children. However, several other people also asked for a copy, so I have written a public version – it’s available on Amazon and has been described as “The Durrells meet Bill Bryson”!

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