Beat of…Warsaw

Warsaw has been the subject of attention in a lot of media reports lately, partly due to the fact the city is co-hosting the UEFA Euro 2012 championships, but also because a BBC report brought to the attention of the world the rampant racism and anti-semitism in Poland. Having been to the country just over a month ago, how did I as a black person fare on? Is there more to the country than xenophobia?

The National Stadium, Warsaw. Photo by Cynthia Wamwayi

It turns out there is.  Granted I could count the number of non-caucasian people I saw in the course of the three days I was there on one hand, and I the tourist invariably turned into a tourist attraction in places frequented by children. I was asked to pose for pictures with so many giggling school-age children I suppose I now know how it feels like to be a Z-list celebrity. The city itself was on the receiving end of unwanted attention three years ago when it was voted by Tripadvisor users as the city with the ugliest architecture in Europe.

Unwanted attention notwithstanding, Warsaw has quite a few sights on offer.

What to do

The secret to sightseeing in Warsaw is to plot your movements with the precision of a military general. This is because noteworthy sights are grouped together in several blocks or streets, and then the next area of interest is all the way across the city and sometimes, across the river.

The Old Town: Start at the Old Town, which is any first-time visitor’s ground zero. It is sometimes referred to as the newest old town in the world because 90% of it was completely destroyed during World War II. Using everything from postcards to oil paintings to news photos and old family albums, it was painstakingly restored to exactly how it was before the war, earning it a UNESCO World Heritage title in 1980 in the process. The Royal Castle, which was originally built in the 13th century, was one of the buildings in the Old Town that were renovated. It’s clock tower segment signalises the entrance to the Old Town, while the Old Town Market Square is one of the most picturesque places in the city.

The Downtown Area: The downtown area of Warsaw has undoubtedly gained more than just a few shiny skyscrapers since the country joined the EU in 2004, but when it comes to tourist attractions, one structure stands head and shoulder above the rest: The Palace of Culture and Science, which is the tallest building in Warsaw. The Big Brother structure was commissioned by Stalin as ”a gift from the Soviet people”, and at 234.5 meters and with a terrace on the 30th floor, is the place to go to for an unrivalled 360 degrees panorama view of the capital.

Other notable places of interest this side of the river include the Copernicus Science Centre where mostly children but also adults can marvel at the wonders of modern science, and The Warsaw University Library, whose green roof with views over the Vistula river is a popular public space for the city’s locals.

The Warsaw Rising Museum

The Warsaw (Up)Rising Museum: Warsaw was the first city Hitler bombed (his unprovoked Nazi blitzkrieg ignited World War II on Sept. 1, 1939) and the last city he destroyed five years later. An estimated six million Poles – roughly half of them Jewish – were killed in the course of the war. With an area of over 3,000 meters, nearly 1,000 exhibits and 1,500 photographs and films, the Warsaw (Up)Rising Museum is a tribute to those who died in the holocaust and those who died fighting for a free Poland. Opened in 2004 on the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of war in the city, it is one of the most visited places in Warsaw.

Frederic Chopin’s Warsaw: Along with Nicolaus Copernicus, Frederic Chopin is one of Poland’s most famous sons. His music has become a symbol of Polish national culture and all over the country’s capital, there are odes and shrines to the famous composer. Start at the Minor Basilica of the Holy Cross where the urn containing the remains of his heart rest in a pillar on the far left side of the nave. Proceed to the Frederic Chopin Museum,  before paying your respects at the Frederic Chopin Monument which standing near the main entrance to Łazienki Park is one of the most recognisable and most often photographed places in Warsaw.

Praga: Once the seedy part of Warsaw on the wrong side of the river, Praga has enjoyed a revival in recent years. Now, it’s one of the coolest, most bohemian places to eat and drink in Poland. Here, bullet-riddled tenement houses (a relic from WWII) and undamaged pre-war streets and lamp posts compete for attention with the last remaining milk bars, which are no-frills, Communist-era canteens that serve Polish staples like pirogies and borscht. Guidebooks often caution that Praga is dangerous and should be avoided at night, which, in my opinion, is a shame because it is now home to some of Warsaw’s coolest and artsiest cafes, bars and restaurants.

Where to eat

I’ll be brutally honest here; Polish food didn’t exactly have me jumping for joy. The stodgy meat, potatoes and wheat flour that forms the basis of Polish cuisine is especially not attractive in the warmer spring and summer months.  There are, however, several places worth visiting. Places such as the Bistro a la Fourchette, whose ironic nod to the country’s communist past will have you smiling a few seconds after getting there, and not just because it’s a24-hour vodka bar. Typical Polish snacks such as herring with a side of onions are served here, paired with solid vodka doses.

Head to Cafe Blikle, which is said to have been Charles de Gaulle’s favourite cafe in Warsaw, for something a bit less lush. A cafe in the classic Viennese mould, it oozes traditional charm and suave elegance, having served what some say are the best cakes in Warsaw since 1869.  Blikle’s cakes, desserts and ice-creams are famous nationwide in Poland so it is well worth a visit.

Where to stay

Warsaw packs a lot of punch for a city its size when it comes to five and four-star hotels. A lot of the world’s most recognised international chains have outposts in the city, including but not limited to the Hilton, Marriot, Hyatt Regency, Sheraton and Radisson Blu chains.

The city’s grand dame is undoubtedly the Le Meridien Bristol, which is within spitting distance of the Old Town and the Royal Castle. Luxury Travel Beat, however, stayed at the Polonia Palace, which with it’s location right smack in the middle of the city and very favourable rates is the perfect base from which to explore Warsaw.

The lowdown

Luxury Travel Beat travelled to Warsaw from London in close collaboration with the Polish National Tourist Office in London. Flights to Warsaw from various locations are available via the national carrier Lot Polish Airlines, among others.

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