I arrived in Poland by way Budapest, Hungary. I got to spend a little over 3 hours in Warsaw. It was a ‘layover’ on my way to Berlin. Warsaw is the capitol of Poland and architecturally it was the least European city I visited. This is because Warsaw was all but leveled during WWII and the city had to be rebuilt from the ground up.
Some buildings in the city remain in their post bombing ruins, many as landmarks to the past. There were quite a few building though that were in ruins but had no plaque or sign and were surrounded by building that looked fine. I wondered if someone had just forgotten to fix them.
I was visiting my friend, Bart, who had a family event in Warsaw that morning and I took the opportunity to explore the city. After he and his brothers dropped me off in the middle of the city, I walked towards the city center and hoped to run into a free walking tour. I dropped in behind a group of people that were clearly being given a tour and soon after a girl came up behind me and asked if it was a free walking tour. I responded that I wasn’t sure and one lady in the tour quickly clarified saying “um, actually, this is a private tour so if you could please….”
Ok lady no problem.
The girl that had come up behind me was with two other friends. I just decided to tag along with them: they too were only in Warsaw for the day. We made our way through the biting cold to the Palace of Science and Culture, the tallest building in Poland and a ‘gift’ from the Soviet Union.
It was a huge building and it took us quite some time to find the small office that was the tourist information center. After grabbing some maps and a fun sticker book about the Warsaw mermaid we were back in the cold.
We decided to do a walking tour of the Jewish district which proved to be a really interesting walk. Warsaw did a great job of highlighting the horrors perpetuated against the Jews and seamlessly integrating that memory into the city.
Warsaw held the largest Jewish ghetto in Nazi-occupied Europe. From April 19, 1943 to May 16, 1943 Jews in the ghetto organized an uprising that slowed the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto and inspired other uprisings in ghettos and killing centers. During the month long resistance, German military leveled the buildings in the ghetto, including the Great Synagogue on Tlomacki Street.
One part of the wall still stood near a high school and that was where the self-guided walking tour began. We wound our way around the left bank of the river, walking past the Jewish hospitals, buildings that used to be part of the ghetto and a frame of the bridge that connected the two parts of the Ghetto. Chlonda Street in Warsaw was quite important for the Nazi’s war operation as it was used for transport, communication and other necessities and so they built the ghetto around either side of the street and Jews would have to walk across the bridge to see friends and family on the other side. They were not allowed in the rest of the city and others weren’t allowed into the ghetto.
In addition, throughout the city, there were bricks laid on the ground to signify where the ghetto walls once stood.
At the end of our tour, we made our way back to the Old Town. Architecturally, this area felt much more European with its narrow cobble stone streets and colorful buildings. After the war, the Soviets decided to rebuild the rest of Warsaw in the style of communist architecture but decided to revive Old Town to its original look. But rather than an exact replica, they used realistic but slightly varied paintings of Italian painter Bernado Bellotto.
We looked for food in Old Town, but Bart soon returned and we had to get on the road to Berlin. I said my hasty goodbyes to my three hour travel buddies, the bright, lively streets of Old Town and the cold, structured and historically alive streets of the rest of Warsaw.
My initial impression of Warsaw was that it was a boring city. And that could very well hold through considering it’s the business center of Poland (think Milan in Italy). But underneath the drab architecture and hurrying residents, lies a powerful and fascinating history.
So if you have a chance to visit Warsaw, even for three hours, make sure you take some time to do a walking tour: guided and self-guided. And make sure you stop in Old Town to be reminded of what the city once looked like.
Have you been to Warsaw? What were your impressions of it?
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