We entered Warsaw via a smaller regional airport where we disembarked on the tarmac and walked about 200 meters to the terminal. The surroundings were extremely green and smelled like spring. It set the tone for our visit.
Prior to Warsaw, we had been in Italy for a few weeks. We were lucky to share some fun experiences with Hannah’s cousin Claire, and Claire’s extended family including her Polish cousin Jan. Jan lives in Poland and teaches English there. He was staying in Warsaw for an extra day when we arrived. We met up and he showed us around Old Town Warsaw and taught us how to use the public bike share. Then we all enjoyed a delightful dinner of pirogi. We bid Jan goodbye that evening, happy to have reconvened for an afternoon and hoping to see each other again soon.
Warsaw provided a stark contrast to the previous city we had visited, Naples. Naples’ streets were compact, bustling, and gritty. Warsaw was sprawling, spotless, and full of flowing greenery. My expectations of Warsaw were little, but typically not positive. I knew a small amount of its history, surrounding World War 2 and post war Soviet influence. My expectation was to find a city akin to some I had seen in Eastern Europe, working on development and reinvention. I was wrong. Warsaw was every bit of a western city not far off from some in the United States, but with a far-reaching culture and intricate history. It quickly moved to the top of my list for favorite city in the world.
The reasons for that new age western look were much less glamorous, however. We visited the highly recommended Warsaw Uprising Museum. It is a must see if you are visiting. It was very well done and gave a spectacular amount of detail around the grassroot insurgency within the city during German occupation. It also highlighted the details of Soviet apathy and Allied paralysis as it tried to fight off the German threat on its own.
The reality of why the city was so “new”, is that it was completely obliterated during World War 2 and post-war Communism, and then rebuilt. Though Communism fell after 1989, the stark reminders of its reality can be found throughout the city in the grey socialist-realism architecture. Warsaw’s “Old Town” was rebuilt to resemble much of what the city would have looked like prior to the devastation and sequential decades of communism. As we walked through parts of the city, the textured metal tract of the Jewish ghetto border would pop up from time to time. It was a consistent reminder of the plight suffered by the Polish and Jewish communities during World War 2.
Despite the unfortunate reality of its destruction and renewal, Warsaw was lovely. The Old Town featured rows of 3 to 4 story buildings of light green, mustard yellow, granite grey, and brick red among other colors. The cobblestone streets reverberated the click-clack of horse hooves as wagons pulled tourists alongside soundless Lime Scooters. It was a fitting analogy, as the Old Town represented the historical representation of Warsaw, while 1 mile or so away, glass covered skyscrapers adorned with logos of “McDonald’s” and “Coca-Cola” reminded the visitor of the modern evolution Warsaw undertook through the 1990’s and 2000’s. Regardless of this dichotomy, the city was just as charming, if not more so once I understood its historic revival and cataclysmic past.
During our final evening, I was moved with a measure of sadness at the prospect of departing the next morning. I took one last look at the colored caricatures of Old Town’s buildings. The sun dropped lower, inch by inch passing its warmth from one level of the building to the next. I felt Hannah squeeze my hand, she recognized I was walking slower than normal. I asked her to promise me that we would make it back some day in the winter, because I think the magic and allure would only be magnified.
Note: I would be remiss if I did not dedicate a paragraph (at least) to Polish food. If history, charm, safety, and greenery were not alluring enough, look no further. Eat all of it, often.
Pierogi- many different kinds. Dumplings filled with meat, cheese, potatoes, sauerkraut, mushroom, fruits, etc. Wonderful, eat them all. The dressings are typically gravy (onions and bacon), sour cream, or butter. Each to their own, I like it all the ways.
Bigos- hunter’s stew. Made of mainly sauerkraut, mushrooms and kielbasa sausage.
Sour rye soup- Exactly what it sounds like. Sometimes it comes with a hardboiled egg and horseradish. Toss them in or a eat it bite by bite. This was hands down the most surprising find that I went back for multiple times.
Beetroot soup (borscht)- A soup made of boiled apples and beetroot. It looks translucent red. Hannah loved it. It has a savory, sweet, sour taste all at once and is served very hot. Excellent on a cool day.
Potato Pancakes- thin hashbrown with some herbs and small amount of flour. It can be served alone or with creamy mushroom gravy or a pork red sauce ganash. My dad makes these back home in St. Louis out of a very old recipe book that my mother’s side has handed down. It has always been one of my favorites.
Zapiekanka- a fast food pizza.. It has a sort of herby, mushroom-y spread covered in cheese on a baguette. It has a tie back to the Polish Communist era and more difficult times.