Friday, August 26, 2011

Poland, Day 2: Warsaw

I liked Warsaw. I formed my first impression of it while walking around the center of the city, looking for my hostel (I had written the address down incorrectly). An hour and a half later, I arrived, tanned from so much sun, and itching to get started with some real sight-seeing. An hour later I had showered, changed, and found a castle open on a Monday. Off I went.

One neat feature of the city I had to get used to was the underground pedestrian passages. Instead of having to cross large streets and deal with the traffic, pedestrians go down some stairs, along a hallway, and up again to re-emerge on the next corner. Some of the tram stops are accessed this way. Meanwhile, the passages are lined with shops for computer parts, books, baked goods, etc.

I figured Warsaw was too big and cheap to resign myself to walking everywhere--not mention the blisters from legging it around Poznan--so my first day I rode a streetcar and a bus to the Old City and took the subway home at night. The public transit system seems pretty extensive, and the website comes in English. But there are few ticket automats, so I ended up riding schwarz (black, i.e. illegally) on the first leg of my journey, because I couldn't figure out where to buy a ticket. (It turns out most of the sidewalk newspaper and cigarette kiosks sell them.) There are no maps or schedules or signs or announcements in the buses or streetcars, so I nearly missed my stop once. And riding on a weekday at rush hour meant squeezing into a bus with a LOT of Poles. But I got where I was going:

I took a tour of the castle in the Old City. After the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 (not to be confused with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943), the Nazis leveled what was left of the city and blew up the castle in retribution. It has since been rebuilt in its original style and grandeur. I marveled as I always do at the money and effort that went into the artwork and decorations--like the beautiful ceiling painting above--that only a small percentage of the population ever got to enjoy. All of the signage here also came in English, as it is a popular tourist spot.

I wandered around the Old City, looked at the Vistula River, and treated myself to a traditional Polish meal of summer soup and compott (water in which prunes and other dried fruits have been steeped). I drank my compott cold, but it also makes a tasty warm drink for cold days. For some reason it reminded me of apple butter.

Warsaw is a big, busy, international metropolis. From the viewing platform on the 30th floor of the Palace of Culture and Science the next morning, I could see signs on buildings for Coca-Cola, Siemens, Peugeot, and other foreign companies.

Stalin gifted this enormous building (first photo above) to the Polish people in 1955, and it is still the tallest building in the country (42 stories). Its several wings house a cinema, a museum, a conference hall, and even a university. The techno mermaid to the right wields her sword outside the Museum of Science and Technology. I was really looking forward to seeing their Glass Woman, but the ticket lady in her limited English didn't offer an explanation for why I couldn't buy a ticket for that. Instead, I looked at a charming set of sometimes witty model train vignettes; at some mining equipment; and at their collections of phones, computers, cars and motorcycles, washing machines. Maybe half of the labels were also available in English, so I had an even more extreme reaction of glassy-eyed wonder/stupor to these context-less objets d'science. They did translate a couple of paragraphs about the Enigma machine the Poles used to break the Nazi's code during WWII, which was cool. And I got to bid farewell to the United States' space-travel program at the museum's display on the Apollo missions. In one room, an elderly gentleman explained hands-on physics experiments to me (in Polish).

My last stop was to the Frederic Chopin house and museum. It opened at noon that day, but it was free, so I figured it was worth trying to spend an hour or so there before picking up my luggage from the train station and heading to the airport. Unfortunately, they only had spots left from 4pm (my plane took off at 4:30!). Thankfully, the girl working the ticket counter took pity on me and gave me a pass anyway. Like the Museum of Science and Technology, the Chopin Museum stakes its claim to fame on its collection of objects and memorabilia. Unlike the MST, however, the Chopin institution recently reopened with a glitzy, new, high-tech exhibition. You can see a draft manuscript of an etude and then touch your pass to the nearby computer screen for a video about Warsaw or Paris when the composer lived there (with subtitles in your language, too). It was pretty neat. Dear Husband would have loved the room in the basement on Chopin as a composer. Soon it was time to go.

A woman from Barcelona and I snapped each other's photograph on the observation deck of the Palace of Science and Culture.

I'll spare you the details, but suffice it to say I had frustrating and sweaty experiences traveling from Berlin to Poznan, from Poznan to Warsaw, and then to the airport for my return journey. The two days I spent in the capital of Poland were warmer than I had expected, and my luggage really was quite heavy. So more than once I found myself in a bathroom, taking a sponge bath so as not to offend my fellow travelers. Good thing I remembered to pack my towel!

1 comment:

  1. Nifty!!! It brings back so many memories-- the little kiosks with the tickets, the East Bloc underpasses (handy things, those!) and the Palace of Science and Culture. Of course, the view was probably better before the Warsawians started to build stuff all around it to try to hide it from view, but it remains the icon of the city, whatever they try to do. Glad you had such a good time! I'll have to go back soon. . .


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