“Fancy a trip to India?” my university pal Mohammed asked, as we sat in the back of a friend’s car on the way to a Punjabi pizzeria next to Heathrow airport. I hesitated for a moment. “Yeah, alright then”. Fanatic traveller that I am, it didn’t require much thought. Fast forward three years, and our flights were booked. Owing to the fact we’re cheapskates, we went for the lowest-priced option; one that had a 24 hour stopover in the Polish capital, Warsaw.
Seems random, but withhold your scoffs for a moment. The flight from the UK to Poland is 2 hours, and it’s on the flight path to Delhi, so the long-haul leg the next day would be reduced to 7 hours. Plus, we’d get to spend time in a city neither of us have been to before, and because it’s a cheap place we could afford to treat ourselves to a nice airport hotel. Win-win.
I was a bit sceptical about flying LOT, the Polish flag carrier, because post-Soviet airlines don’t exactly have a great reputation for safety (or, indeed, service) here in the UK. But Polish friends and colleagues said they were nice, so I went with it. They were indeed – free exit row seats (on Ryanair you pay at least £15pp), tea and coffee, plus a couple of snacks to keep you going. I’m very happy to have been proven wrong about LOT.
Everyone, meet Mohammed. He’s a very dear friend, and as it turns out, great travel buddy.
In what has to be one of the quickest airport-hotel transfer times ever, we crossed the car park at Warsaw Chopin and were immediately embraced by the warm, glittery glow of the airport Marriott. It was Boxing Day, the Christmas lights were still up, and we felt fancier than our wallets usually allow. Our room looked out onto the airport tarmac, too, so we could watch the planes take off from the comfort of our double-glazing. Bliss.
Unfortunately, flight anxiety continued to get the better of me (and my sleeping pattern), so I can’t say I woke up the next morning feeling particularly refreshed. After stuffing our faces – and bags – with whatever fine foods we could fit in at breakfast, we hopped on the bus to get to the city centre. Mohammed headed for a mosque so he could attend Friday prayers, but I went to a pilgrimage site of my own – Warsaw’s iconic Palace of Culture and Science.
I’ve been obsessed with Soviet ‘Wedding Cake’ buildings like the PKIN (as it’s known locally) since secondary school. These buildings are towering monuments to Communism, and more specifically, to the glory of Stalin – they project his delusions of grandeur onto entire cities, and look like no other skyscrapers you’ve seen before. A mix of Gothic style and Manhattan scale, they’re just as ‘wow’ on the inside as they are on the outside. Most Soviet constructions are austere, but not these – they’re meant to be impressive to foreign powers, and weren’t built for everyday citizens to use.
The Palace of Culture and Science is the tallest building in Poland, and the 6th-tallest in the EU. It’ll probably be the 5th once Brexit happens – sorry The Shard.
This mammoth homage to Stalinism was constructed in just three years, from 1952 from 1955. Polish labourers worked round the clock – no doubt under the watchful eye of their Russian foremen – to make Stalin’s dream a reality. It was built as a function space for high-flying Soviets, and housed exhibitions that ordinary people were occasionally allowed to attend.
I entered via what I thought was the main door, which actually turned out to be a cinema. Inside the complex, there are theatres, cinemas, sports facilities, libraries, and the Polish Academy of Sciences, which explains its name. The cinema lobby was old-fashioned and warmly-lit, just the way I like them. So much so that I was tempted to spend my day watching Polish movies instead of exploring, as I was exhausted. However, I pressed on to the other entrance to join a tour of the building, which is the only way you can see the brilliant interior.
So many chandeliers, and each room is completely different from the last.
The guide was young, had lived in Bristol like me, and wasn’t afraid to share his political views. Thankfully, they were the same as mine, so we got on swimmingly. He took us round the grand ballrooms and meeting rooms, which are used for the same purpose for which they were built – you can still rent meeting rooms and ballrooms for events. It’ll probably cost you more than it did back in the days of Communism, though.
The inside of the PKIN is very atmospheric, and you can even detect the lingering scent of cigar smoke from the days Poland was behind the Iron Curtain. There are little details, too, like hidden holes for listening in and not-so-subtle Soviet imagery. Our guide was full of interesting stories, too. At one point, he opened a heavy, wooden door into a small, multi-level room. Deftly closing it behind him, he said “This is the Brezhnev room. Do you know why we call it the Brezhnev room?” We shook our heads, and he told us why.
Leonid Brezhnev (the Soviet premier at the time, whose eyebrows predicted the #instabrows trend before the internet was even invented) was a man who liked a drink. At one particularly wild party, he had adjourned to this soundproofed meeting room, and fallen asleep at a table. His advisors wanted to wake him, but this was the man who carried the big red button around with him at all times – a grouchy, hungover Brezhnev could start a nuclear war on a whim. The advisors decided it was best to leave him be, and they walked away, safe in the knowledge they hadn’t caused the end of life as we know it.
Our guide took us through more hallways, stairwells and oversized rooms, telling us interesting snippets as we went. He spoke about everything from the plight of Polish youth who decide to stay in their home nation (compared to the issues faced by young Poles migrating to countries like the UK) to the rightwing nature of the current Polish government. I was enthralled – it’s one of the best tours I’ve been on in a long time. It felt very personal to our guide, and he clearly felt connected to history – apparently, his grandfather was in the Polish resistance. I thought of my own grandfather back home, whose bravery in World War 2 also saved many lives.
Sadly, my fascinating new friend dropped us off at the lifts to the observation deck, and that was the last I saw of him. The viewing terrace on the 30th floor looks over the entire city, and offers great views and panorama shots. You can see how the old town contrasts with the new city, and even how the new city contrasts with itself – the Soviet apartment buildings don’t quite mix with the towers of wealth that are rapidly springing up.
Deloitte didn’t take long to make its mark on the skyline. See how the skyscrapers juxtapose with the Soviet apartment blocks on the right.
There’s also a cafe, gift shop and telescope to check out, but it was too cold to do any of that today. It even started snowing. I stared into the wind and remembered why I love travel so much, even though it causes me a day or so of anxiety – it’s the exhilarating feeling of being somewhere completely new, with nothing to do but explore. It’s truly wonderful, and the best thing is, it never goes away.
By the time I’d finished musing about how lucky I was, Mohammed had finished prayers and wanted to know where to meet. Warsaw Central train station was next door, so we met up there, and continued our adventure through the city.
We ambled towards the old town in search of lunch and photographs. The legacy of the USSR still looms large over Warsaw’s city plan, as the main roads were wide and straight – perfect for military parades, and for getting tanks to crush uprisings down them. Our route happened to be very photogenic, so every couple of seconds one of us would turn round to take a picture.
The Palace of Culture and Science looks great from all angles.
And in the car park of the PKIN, look what we found…
That’s right. For a price, you too can drive round the streets of Warsaw in a dodgy Lada, just as they did in 1975.
A half-hour walk had turned into an hour by the time we’d finished. We knew we’d reached the edge of the old city when we reached the Museum of Vodka, which looked like fun. Not because I like alcohol, but I genuinely find the socio-economic aspects of vodka drinking fascinating. However, it was cold and I was tired, so I definitely wouldn’t have said no to a free shot. Drinking vodka straight without pulling a face is also my party trick, but I don’t think Mohammed would have been impressed.
Mohammed seems to have been less affected by the cold (or hanger) than I was, so we wandered slowly through the streets, really taking in the vibe. The entire place was destroyed in World War 2 and the concurrent Warsaw Uprising, so the old district was meticulously rebuilt in the mid-20th century. That seems to be something European cities did, and Britain didn’t. In the place of our destroyed Medieval towns and cities, we built 1960s brutalist monoliths, but Europe understood the value of its history and kept things exactly as they were.
This means the vibrant colours, aesthetic value and atmosphere of the old districts is restored. Walking around the Palace Square, the heart of Warsaw’s old town, you can really feel that old world charm – music emanated from different corners, the sound of feet hitting cobbles was ever-present, and the Christmas lights twinkled from old churches and shops.
The red building on the right is the reconstructed castle, and to the left, you’ll find narrow alleys and cute shops aplenty.
There are hoardes of museums in Warsaw that look like they could be worthwhile. There’s also lots of art galleries and music venues, which I confess were of more interest to Mohammed than they were to me, because he’s far more into high culture than I am. I was just on the hunt for some squatting Slavs in tracksuits, and was very disappointed not to see any. I would have recreated the pose for you myself, but I was too embarrassed, and risked getting beaten up by Warsaw’s toughest gopniks.
We strolled through some chilly alleyways on the way to Zapiecek, a franchise famed for its pierogi (Polish steamed dumplings with a variety of fillings). Yes, I know it’s touristy. Yes, I know it’s busy. Yes, I know we could probably find better pierogi if we caught a bus to the arse end of nowhere. But I wanted pierogi, I wanted to eat them in Warsaw old town, and most importantly, I wanted them now. Plus, Zapiecek caters for vegetarians, unlike many Polish restaurants which serve an awful lot of pork (not great for Mohammed). So it was decided – we’d have our touristy pierogi at Zapiecek, and goddammit we’d enjoy them.
Perhaps we enjoyed them too much. Neither of us thought to take a picture of the unusual delicacy we were eating, but check out their menu to see the kind of things we eagerly munched on. All washed down with a mulled wine (for me) and hot hibiscus drink (for Mohammed), plus a piece of apple cake and custard. The setting, too, was enjoyable – the waitresses were dressed in faux-traditional clothing, the tables were laid with a gingham table cloth and rustic candle, and the whole place felt very cosy indeed on this cold December day.
By the time we’d eaten, I was feeling very groggy indeed, but Mohammed had enough energy for the both of us. We strolled over to the delightful doughnut-shaped (or bagel-shaped, since we’re in Poland) ice rink in the Old Market Square. Usually, I would be desperate to have a go, and Mohammed even wanted to learn how to ice skate. We went once before at university, flanked by my friend Amy, whose Canadian heritage means she rocks a pair of hockey skates. We watched the skaters elegantly whizz round and round, but due to travel insurance and upcoming adventure in India, decided it was probably not worth the risk of injury.
Imagine how those lights look at night, webbed across the square – absolutely gorgeous.
We stepped inside St. John’s Archcathedral for a moment of peace, quiet, and shelter from the cold. Rebuilt in its original 14th century style, the cathedral looks a bit different to all the other European cathedrals I’ve been in, although the interior was much the same. The altar was grand, and it had that frankincense-mixed-with-wood scent all churches seem to have. There were, however, models of the Nativity and other scenes from the Bible made by local schoolkids, so that was quite sweet to see.
The streets of Warsaw old town are so narrow, this is the best shot I could get. I was across the road.
As we departed the church and passed under the city walls, the sun began to set. My tiredness had started to take over, but Mohammed still wanted to do some sightseeing. He hopped on a bus to a different part of town to visit the Warsaw Uprising Museum, which commemorates the revolt of the citizens against their German occupiers in 1944. Inside, you’ll learn about the courageous actions of the Polish resistance, how the kids of the city coped with the dangerous state of affairs, and how the Soviets and the Nazis ultimately treated the civilians with the same contempt.
According to Mohammed, highlights of the museum include an entire B-24 plane hanging from the ceiling, many contraband guns, and damaged clothes worn by the insurgents. You can also see stone remains from the original Royal Castle, which was blown to smithereens in the war. He says there’s a mix of general political history and personal anecdotes, including emotive letters written by members of the Resistance. To round off your visit, there’s a 1940s-themed cafe. Mohammed loved it, and it sounds like the sort of thing I’d really enjoy – I loved the House of Terror in Budapest – but not when I was in that state.
I’d retreated to the shopping centre near Warsaw Central, because I needed to stock up on sleep-related paraphernalia. I’d misplaced my earplugs and eye mask, so bought some replacements, and sourced some Polish sleeping pills. I thought they wouldn’t work because they were largely herbal, but when I finally got round to using them, I discovered Polish pills are not to be underestimated. Don’t mess with Eastern European drugs.
Warsaw looks like a great place for shopping. There’s a mall on every corner, and plenty of boutiques to browse. But I was fast running out of złoty, and too whacked to do any more walking. I slumped in the corner of a coffee shop as I waited for Mohammed to meet me, and drag me to the airport.
The Polish capital had been a pleasant surprise. We came with no particular impressions, only knowing that Kraków had more historic value, and the mountains in the South were more beautiful. But Warsaw has its own character – it’s rough around the edges, but there’s beauty in its struggle. Now, it’s thriving, and not only that – it’s reborn. It has a great respect for its past, but it looks firmly into the future.
We didn’t have much energy to really discuss this, and we had run out of sightseeing time, so Mohammed and I headed to the airport. We left Warsaw behind as we boarded our shiny new LOT Dreamliner to Delhi, and took off into the night.