Our expectations of Poland had been conditioned by images of our youth. For me that included monochrome news footage from the Soviet era with everything in shades of grey. For Majella that impression had been reinforced because some of her school friends had parents who had emigrated from Poland which must therefore have been a grim place. We really hoped for a bright sunny day to dispel those childhood impressions. Instead we had heavy cloud cover and rain through most of the day.
We were up and eating breakfast before 8:00 am. Soon after that I ducked out to feed the parking machine. Once I was back we prepared for our day and headed out just before 9:00 am, planning to catch the sightseeing bus at a nearby stop on its first round sometime after 10:00 am. Despite its somewhat foreboding exterior appearance, our apartment is very comfortable and in a main street with restaurants and an easy walk to the old town.
Along the way to the old town we passed a street display associated with an exhibition about Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a Polish hero who is commemorated in the name of Australia’s highest mountain. Unfortunately we did not have time to get back and visit the exhibition when it was open later. We visited the tourist information office at the old town and confirmed times for the sightseeing bus. It would not be past until about 10:30 am so we had some time to explore first.
We walked into the central market square which is surrounded by colourfully decorated buildings and has many restaurants with outdoor spaces in the square. As we learned later in the day, the entire area was razed to the ground toward the end of World War 2 and has been rebuilt since. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and well worth seeing. Majella succumbed to the charms of a restaurateur and assured him we would be back after our walk around. We explored a few more streets and then went back for coffee as promised.
By 10:20 am we were back at the bus stop and looking for a spot to wait out of the rain that continued to fall. When the bus arrived we got aboard, bought our tickets, and enjoyed sitting in the dry out of the wind while watching the city go by through a very wet and foggy windscreen. Majella used her map of the city to wipe away some of the fog. We rode the bus around its full circuit, listening to the recorded commentary which included several corny attempts at humour. It was informative and allowed us to get an overview of some key features of the city and its history.
Majella had already put the Chopin museum on her list so we rode the bus a stop beyond our original starting point and walked to the museum. It has a variety of interactive media displays, not all of which were working, and it would not be difficult to spend an entire day there. There were opportunities to listen to a range of music by Chopin as well as explore the history of his life and times. He was a musical genius but suffered ill health from childhood and died young. We spent more than 90 minutes there and could have spent longer if we had the time.
It was time for lunch when we exited the museum and Majella was on a mission to find sweet dumplings. A little way from the museum she was tempted by a cafe but it did not seem to offer what she wanted. A young man sitting there asked if he could help us and gave us excellent directions to Zapiecek where we found what she was looking for. Majella ordered dunplings with apple, raisins and cinnamon with sweet cream accompanied by a cup of the dried fruit compote, which was like mulled wine without the wine. I ordered the Polish sour rye soup with sausage, bread, and egg with horseradish sauce accompanied by beer. The server was happy to provide extra plates so we could share. Both meals were excellent and very filling.
After lunch we walked down the street and caught the bus on the second route to the Warsaw Rising Museum which is housed in a disused power station. We spent most of an hour there learning something of the sad history of the Nazi and Soviet occupations and the struggle of Polish people for freedom. Perhaps because it recalled the efforts of people to rise against tyranny, it was not as depressing as the experience in Berlin but it was a sobering experience. Part of the exhibition was a 6 minute 3D movie showing the condition of Warsaw, especially the old town, after the war. By that time only about 1000 people were living in the ruins of Warsaw compared to a population of more than a million before the war.
We rode the bus back to our starting point and then spent another hour to visit the Royal Castle, which is just down the street from our apartment. There has been a building on that site for centuries but it has been destroyed more than once and various treasures have been carried off by occupying armies including the Russians and the Germans. Early in World War 2 some parts of the interior decoration were removed and hidden. The building was set to be destroyed early but that was delayed because the Nazis feared its destruction might also destabilise the nearby bridge which was their main supply route into the city. The explosives were eventually detonated after the Warsaw Rising. The castle was destroyed but has been rebuilt and pieces have been returned where possible or replicated from records. It is an impressive building and the sumptuous interiors attest to the power and wealth of previous rulers. It has been reopened to the public since the 1990s.
Lunch had been such a feast that neither of us needed a big dinner. On the way back to the apartment we picked up some bread, cheese, salami and tomato along with a ‘biscuit’ covered in nuts and caramel. That, along with some beer and wine, was more than enough for dinner.
Our day in Warsaw was marred by dull weather but our fresh impressions have overwritten our earlier expectations. Far from being dull and grey, the city is vibrant and colourful. The old buildings that have been restored are lively and there are impressive new buildings around the city. There is a great deal of pride evident in the history of the city, especially in its cultural contributions and its resilience in the face of devastation. The people we have met have been friendly and cheerful. The decor and dress in restaurants is colourful. Warsaw has been a great palce to visit, there is much more to see and do than we have managed in a day, and we still wish the weather had been kinder.