It doesn’t always get the greatest of publicity, but the bustling Polish capital
makes a deep impression on Bernard O’Shea.
It seems appropriate that in English the word “war” is in Warsaw. The city was so ravaged and ruined in the Second World War, and its residents were subjected to terrible atrocities, so in many ways the Polish capital can be a grim reminder of just how vile human beings can be. And yet, at the same time, the Warsaw of today is bright, uplifting, vivacious, a testament to humanity’s redeeming features.
Poland is a popular tourist destination, travel agents tell me, but it’s never really been high on my wish list. Pure luck and a little bit of intelligence (a little is all I can muster) took me there. Discover Central Europe was doing a presentation in Australia, and my name came out of the hat for the top prize – one air ticket to Prague, Rail Europe passes and two nights’ accommodation in each of the capitals of the “European Quartet” – the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland. But to win the prize, I had to name those capitals, otherwise I would forfeit it and there would be a redraw. Luckily, my brain had these snippets of information somewhere in the midst of its vast emptiness.
So, out of the blue, I was off to Poland, a country I knew very little about. Luckily I had a friend in Warsaw, Ania, whom I had met a few years previously when we were both doing a summer language course in Portugal, and she was keen to show us around (I was taking my 14-year-old niece with me).
Our first stop, once we had checked into our hotel and were ready to start exploring, was the Gestapo Headquarters museum, in the lower levels of what is now part of the Ministry of Education offices at number 25 Szucha street. These were the Nazis’ interrogation and torture cells, as stark and confronting as they were 70 years ago. According to the museum’s introductory documentary, more than 5000 kilograms of human ashes were found in the building after the Nazis were ousted. That tells you, really, all you need to know. I thought the museum would give my niece nightmares – some of the sound effects replicate the cries and screams of those being tortured – but, like me, she found it fascinating.
Previously, I had often wondered why people, tourists especially, would go out of their way to visit the grimmest sites such as the Auschwitz concentration camp and other places where the worst of human atrocities have been committed. Now I think it is imperative that we do so. If you have been lucky enough never to have experienced or witnessed atrocities in life, to immerse yourself in the world of those who have is a very sobering lesson. It’s a reminder for us to be always vigilant and to never take anything – peace, love, decency, normality, freedom, mercy – for granted; a reminder that life is precious and can be easily and brutally snatched away; that human rights have to be defended. You will learn more here at Gestapo Headquarters than you ever will at a Hollywood adventure theme park.
Next, though, we were thrust into a totally different Warsaw – the glorious surrounds of the Lazienki Park, where the last king of Poland, Stanisław II August – he ruled for 11 years before abdicating in 1795 – built his summer residence (now a museum). I had been warned that Warsaw was a messy concrete jungle, so this enormous park, with its beautiful lakes, gardens, pavilions and historic buildings, was a complete surprise. And over the next couple of days, the city would throw up even more eye-openers.
The logical starting point of any visit is the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Old Town, meticulously rebuilt after the war. The cafes and restaurants in the colourful central square are great places to dine or just relax and take in the atmosphere, and with buildings nearby such as the Royal Castle, the Cathedral of St John and other beautiful churches, the Barbican and city walls (some of which date back to the 14th century), plus lots of interesting little alleyways, you can loiter for hours. It’s a place you take in both during the day and at night, to sample the different ambience. The adjacent so-called “New Town” (which came into being in 1408) is almost as appealing as the “Old”.
There is a lot to see in Warsaw but if you are centrally located, much of it can be covered by foot if you plan your excursions (but allow room for spontaneity). Most of the sights are in secluded, pedestrian areas, away from the noisiest roads, so exploring is a tranquil, pleasant experience. Ania suggested we venture into the grounds of the university, where there is a rooftop garden with great views over the Vistula River. In glorious autumnal sunlight, the city seemed like a sparkling, happy place. Even so, the shadows of war and horror are never far away: The Monument to the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, The Monument to the Heroes of the Ghetto; The Monument to Those Fallen and Murdered in the East, The Warsaw Rising Museum, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the beautiful Saxon Gardens.
The Holocaust and the appalling fate of the many thousands of Jews crammed into the Warsaw Ghetto is bad enough, but what makes the Warsaw story so poignant is that its residents didn’t just suffer at the hands of their enemies, they were badly let down by their allies too. The Warsaw Uprising, which was carried out by the Polish Home Army resistance (many of them unarmed) with the aim of wresting control of the city from the Nazis, was meant to coincide with a push from the east by the Soviet Red Army; but the Soviets inexplicably stopped short on the eastern fringes of the city, and the Poles were left to fend for themselves. The casualties were horrendous (a good account of the uprising is to be found here).
It is no wonder then, that the Poles have very mixed feelings about the one sight in Warsaw that you can’t miss – the tallest building in the city, the 44-floor Palace of Culture and Science. A “gift from the Soviet people/Josef Stalin”, it is in some ways a towering communist monstrosity and to this day some people feel it has sinister “Big brother is watching you” overtones and should be torn down. During the day it is a cold grey, but at night when it is lit up in changing colours, it has a different personality altogether.
The Palace houses theatres, museums, concert halls, libraries, and even basketball courts and an ice skating ring. The main attraction for tourists, though, is the viewing platform on the 30th floor, with 360 degree views of the city. From high up here, the city doesn’t look particularly attractive – its many appealing bits are dwarfed by more modern office or apartment blocks – but like Sao Paulo in Brazil, aerial impressions can be deceiving. This is a city that is best sampled from the ground to be truly appreciated.
Still, Warsaw always seems to suffer in comparison to Poland’s former capital, Krakow (sometimes anglicised as Cracow), which fortunately suffered little damage during the wars. And sure, Krakow is more picturesque, but Warsaw, for all its mish-mash of architectural styles and its traffic, buzzes with all the energy and dynamism that you’d expect from a vibrant capital city, and a people who over the years have shown a lot of pluck.
There is another vital word in “Warsaw” – “saw”. I feel privileged to have seen it, and wish I had stayed longer. If you haven’t done so already, put it high up on your “to see” list. TTW
Bernard O’Shea travelled to Poland with some assistance from Emirates and Rail Europe. In Warsaw he was a guest of the Polish Tourist Organisation and the Polonia Palace Hotel. Photos © Bernard O’Shea.