At some point, I stopped counting the number of times I heard or read “destroyed and rebuilt” during my visit of Warsaw.
Between the 16th century castle (actually reconstructed from scratch in the 1970s as an almost exact replica of the original) and very modern sky-scrapers, with a healthy batch of soviet-times leftover buildings, Warsaw is now an impressive city, a tribute to extraordinary European resilience if I’ve ever seen any.
I only had a few days, but I took the opportunity to maximise my investment in the Warsaw Pass card and fill as much as I could in little time. Thanks to the hop-on hop-off bus lines, I was able to see quite a bit of the architecture and neighbourhoods. In a heated space. It was cold: couldn’t walk around as much as I normally would!
I went to the top of the Palace of Culture and Science for very nice views of the city. That building is incredibly impressive (and controversial) as well: the most unapologetic, massive structural leftover of communism in the city. I also went to the Old Town, which predictably very pretty, but as for most of the city, not that old in reality. Context in broad strokes: Warsaw was basically completely destroyed following an Uprising in 1944. When the war ended and Poland came under Soviet rule, the rebuilding-with-communist-vibe started. That also meant that some historical buildings and sites were “dismantled” (focus on religious monuments).
The jewel of the Old Town is the Royal Castle, which has been rebuilt as close to the original as possible, and incorporating as many elements as possible that had been saved from destruction. It’s a beautiful building, worth the tour. One of my favourite rooms: the Canaletto Room, displaying a series of 22 townscapes of Warsaw by the painter Bernardo Bellotto in the 18th century. It took quite a bit of international effort to get all 22 paintings back in their original room: the result is breath-taking and humbling.
Another incredible tribute to history in Warsaw is the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Yes, I was a bit reluctant to re-visit that horrifying WWII-part, but the POLIN is a modern, state-of-the-art museum made to educate and celebrate the contribution of the Jewish community in Poland throughout history. It is built to take visitors through a journey: a brilliant construction. I must thank my Polish friend Ania for highly recommending it.
Warsaw is also home to a very cool Planetarium and Science museum: although I didn’t have time to visit the museum part of it, I attended a “concert under the stars” that was taking place on Friday evening in the dome. A perfect blend of music (live solo pianist playing Japanese music and Chopin) and relaxing images of stars, galaxies and planets… A truly wonderful concept. Another thank you to Ania for ordering the ticket online for me!! (Ticket site in Polish only)
I still had a bit of hop-on hop-off bus line to cover on the second day, but I also went to the Praga neighbourhood to (try to) find a communist-Poland “museum”. Turned into a bit of an adventure, because Praga is not the most flashy or touristy part of town and it took me a good 20 minutes to find the shadiest museum you can imagine (try back-alley, barely-marked back-door of shady building), all of this to enter an 80-square-meter, two-room flat filled with a great quantity of memorabilia (otherwise known as communist-style junk). Not. A. Museum.
After a good two hours of warming up with coffee and lunch at a Starbucks, I headed back into town to tour the Zachęta, the National Gallery of Art. Highlight: the Jerzy Jarnuszkiewicz exhibition, an unfairly unknown sculptor with a wide body of work, including the Little Insurgent figurine displayed in the Old Town. Much stronger symbolism than the Manneken Pis in Brussels, if you ask me, but don’t get me started on Brussels’ quirky inconsistencies…
I very much enjoyed Warsaw: I love being pleasantly surprised on a trip I didn’t have time to plan much ahead of time. I know that because of the time of the year, I missed on pretty fantastic summer highlights: the huge, beautiful parks, the botanical garden, the fountain show in one of those parks, the famous Warsaw University Library roof gardens, as well as the vibrant beach atmosphere along the Vistula river. Among many other things, I’m sure! And I didn’t mention my stuffing my face with all the Polish food delights I could come across: pierogi in unhealthy quantities, cup after cup of beet root soup, etc. Thank god I finally got to see (and taste!) a piece of Poland!! After more than six years in Europe, I was shamefully due. And it was worth the wait.