Oh Warsaw, we love you! We just left this amazing city and had the best time there. The hosts, the food, the Old Town, this history…it was a great visit and we definitely would have loved to stay for much longer. We learned that Warsaw and Krakow are in a never-ending competition for best city in Poland, and let me just say, Krakow is going to have its work cut out for it!
Since Warsaw is not at all close to Cologne, we took a night train there. I love the convenience of the night train - you go to sleep in one country and wake up in another! Sure, it's not the most comfortable accommodations, but it sure is worth it to not have to waste time traveling during the day! This train was the first one that I slept on the top bunk - a big step for me since I tend to get claustrophobic panic attacks in small sleeping areas and usually need to retreat quickly to an open space (much easier to do from the bottom). The beds are assigned, though, so there wasn't much I could do about it. I was happy to see that one bed in our compartment of 4 was free for the night, and it was on the bottom, so I told Jake that I'd start in my assigned bed on the top bunk, but he may find me on the bottom by morning. I'm happy to report that I slept soundly for a solid 9 hours on the top!
We arrived in Warsaw around noon and headed to our apartment, about a 10 minute walk from the giant train station. As we walked, we noticed graffiti, grime, and filth…the telltale signs that we were back in a big city. We hoped the whole experience wasn't going to be this…gritty. As we got closer to our neighborhood, the scenery changed a bit - there was less filth, more people in suits, nice wide bike lanes, and gorgeous modern office buildings that reached towards the sky. We realized that we had come out of the train station on the far side of the station, not through the main entrance (which was actually really nice), and that no city can be judged based on the area next to the main transportation hub. We looked around the busy city and took it all in. Our apartment was right in the middle of dozens of restaurants, across the street from the Palace of Culture and Science (a beautiful building built in the 50s and given to the Polish people as a gift from the Soviets), near a pristine mall, and opposite a lively and luscious park. The dramatic Palace next to the impressive modern sky scrapers created a wonderful mixture of old and new architecture. Somehow, the starkly different styles worked well together, neither seeming out of place, both harmonizing with the buzz of the capital city. To me, the park acted like a curtain - on one side - the modern business world, on the other - the historical Old Town. When we entered the park, the sounds of the downtown area died away. When we emerged out the other side, we were met with fascinatingly detailed buildings, beautiful statues, and clean streets. We later learned that the entire city was demolished in the war, very few buildings actually withstood the bombings by the Allies, or the destruction of the Jewish Ghetto by the Nazis. But these buildings looked so old, so beautifully original. After the war, the people of Warsaw rebuilt the Old Town and other important buildings and monuments to look exactly like they did before the war. Every painted design, every detailed piece of concrete, every brick of the old city wall was laid with purpose and pride. Our first impression of this city - the people here take great pride in their city by keeping it clean, making it beautiful, and paying homage to its history. We were excited to explore.
We got to our apartment and met our hosts, Nelly and Lukasz, and their big dog Pixel and beautiful cat Luna (who took an instant liking to Jake, and he "tolerated" her - at this point, I'm not surprised anymore!). The moment I saw Pixel, I felt like I was transported home - he looks exactly like Potato, the puppy belonging to our friends Beth and Tom! And being two years old, he was rambunctious and loud! I get to play with a puppy for the next three days?? SWEET! Nelly showed us around the apartment, her welcoming and communicative nature instantly making us feel at home. Both Nelly and Lukasz were so easy to talk to and interact with - from the moment we arrived we knew it was going to be a perfect stay. This hilarious couple is getting married in July 2016 and they are paying for their dream wedding with all of the money they make on Airbnb. Since the apartment is just one bedroom, they rent out their own bedroom and sleep on the sofa bed when they have guests! We really admire that they are doing whatever they need/want to do in order to have the dream wedding that they desire, and we are happy to help contribute to the wedding fund! Over the course of our stay, Nelly and Lukasz became more than just hosts to us, they became good friends who we enjoyed getting beers with, staying up late chatting with, talking about weddings and hopes and dreams with, and learning about what we each fight about with our significant others. We had so much fun getting to know this energetic and happy couple, and I like to think they liked us too. They did invite us to their wedding, after all! ;) That's two European weddings! We're on a roll!
We spent our first afternoon in Warsaw doing what we love to do to get acclimated to any new city - taking a free walking tour. We met our host, Bart, at the statue of the Polish king, Sigismund's Column. Bart explained what a controversial figure he was since he was not Polish. The king, originally from Sweden, left his Swedish throne and was elected to rule. As I said previously, most everything was destroyed during the war, including the statue. The original column was recovered and now lies on its side, in pieces, next to the royal palace. The palace was meant to be King Sigismund's temporary home while his palace in Krakow was being restored after a fire. The king fell in love with Warsaw and made the move permanent, moving the Polish capital from Krakow to Warsaw. One wall of the palace's interior courtyard survived the war, so the palace needed to be rebuilt.
This building was one of the few in the Old Town that was not restored to its original state. Instead, the architects decided to pay homage to the various architectural styles of Poland's past by building three new walls in different styles. Bart then took us to a square where an old bronze church bell sat in the middle of a square. Legend has it that, if you place your hand on the top of the bell and walk around it while making a wish, your wish will be granted. Bart instructed that, if one has an especially large wish, that she should hop on one leg around in instead of simply walk. He invited our group to make their wishes, and no one moved a muscle. No one wanted to embarrass themselves by giving in to the old legend, or look silly as they hopped around a giant bell. No one but me, of course! I made sure it as a great big wish, and hopped happily on one foot, giving our guide and Jake's camera a big thumbs up as I went. No, I cannot tell you what I wished for! We wandered through the rest of Old Town with Bart, passing by Marie Curie's birthplace, through the old gate, the Mermaid of Warsaw (who knew that Warsaw had a mermaid?), and many other sights. The most powerful of all of the sights we saw, though, were those in the old Jewish Ghetto. Bart took us to a small memorial comprised of the old wall that enclosed the ghetto. He pointed out a line in the ground, where the wall used to stand. The boundary line, that says "MUR GETTA 1940 GHETTO WALL 1943" can be seen in many parts of the city, outlining the largest Jewish Ghetto of the Holocaust. We didn’t realize until that moment that our apartment building is in the old Ghetto, and I couldn't help but think about the people who walked on the ground I walked on, who were forced to live there in squalor and hunger just 73 years ago. Bart then led us around the corner to Warsaw Uprising Monument that commemorates the two month stand that the Polish people took against the Nazis. On August 1, 1944, the Polish people decided to fight back, they decided to fight the Nazis with everything they had. They knew they would not win, they knew they would all probably die, but they refused to go down without a fight. They wanted to be a vision of strength for their people and people around the world. The Uprising came to an end on October 2, 1944, with the destruction of the Ghetto, and 90% of Warsaw, when the Nazis blew it up. It was the biggest rebellion against Nazi occupation during the war, and over 200,000 people died. The bronze monument shows a group of people engaged in combat, and several pieces of concrete slab above them, illustrating the buildings crumbling around them, and/or the crushing and deadly power of the Nazi regime that would ultimately kill the brave fighters. Later, we told Nelly what we had seen and how impactful we felt the monument was. She showed us a video on YouTube that shows just how much respect the people of Warsaw pay to the memory of the Uprising - every year, on August 1, the alarms around the city sound, cars stop, buses stop, people stop walking, talking, and eating. For one minute, everyone stands up, stops talking, and listens to the siren, and pays respect to the Uprising. It's really an emotional thing to see. The people here have so much respect for their history and their spirit. We often can't even get people to take their hats of during the National Anthem, and here every single person stops what they're doing to honor those lost. It's incredibly powerful to see. We really enjoyed learning about the Old Town and enjoyed Bart's tour.
The next morning was administrative - with Nelly's help, Jake and I needed to figure out our transportation for our upcoming trip from Krakow to Prague, and needed to go to the train station to speak with someone about tickets. The only problem - we don't speak Polish. "Why not just book it online?" I'm sure you're asking. Well, we can't. For reasons unknown, the Polish rail system is incredible difficult and you cannot book tickets online - you must go to a ticket counter at a station and buy them in person. Nelly generously gave up her morning to come with us to the station to try to get it all sorted. All we needed to know was how much a night train from Krakow to Prague would cost. That's it! It only took two hours, 4 different ticket windows, and one very cranky ticket lady who was apparently having a terrible day who yelled at Nelly for asking her to repeat something for us to determine that the tickets were far too expensive and we did not want them. Sheesh! Maybe put that info online somewhere and Cranky Lady wouldn't be so exasperated! Thanks, Nelly, for your help!
Nelly headed off to work (she teaches English), and Jake and I headed off to find pierogi! We took Nelly's suggestion and found ourselves at an adorable restaurant that looks like a Polish grandmother's kitchen, Zapiecek. The servers, all young women, were dressed in traditional Polish outfits, tended to us at our little table covered with a lace doily. We perused the menu and read about the dozens of different kinds of Polish dumplings we could try. How are we supposed to make a decision with all of these choices?! I know how to settle this - one of everything please? Well, not really, but really, really close to that! Jake and I ended up getting 27 pierogi (9 at a time), and loving each one. In the savory category, the winners were Black Forest Mushroom, Meat and Mushroom, and Camembert (well, I loved the camembert, Jake not so much). In the sweet category, apple and raisin take the cake! We preferred all of them boiled over fried, but tried both just to make sure. If you're in Warsaw, we highly recommend stuffing your belly at Zapiecek!
We were so full from our late lunch at Zapiecek, we barely ate dinner. Instead, we jumped straight to beers with Nelly and Lukasz! After hearing Bart talk about the craft beer craze in Warsaw (craft beers seem to be taking off just about everywhere!), we decided we couldn't pass up the chance to taste them ourselves. Bart had recommended we check out what he called "Beer Heaven", a bar called Piw Paw (pronounced piv pahv). Little did we know that Piv Paw is what Nelly and Lukasz wanted to show us, as well! We walked in and were instantly excited about the place - the walls were covered from floor to ceiling in bottle caps, and the long bar had, what seemed to be, over 100 taps. Sure, I've been to multitap bars before, but the only thing that comes close to Piw Pav for me is The Yardhouse, a big production of a place where the beers and the booths are gigantic. Piw Paw was laid back, casual, and calm. The four of us belled up to the bar and ordered - we knew we truly found "our people" when Lukasz and Nelly both ordered wheat beers. Sure, Lukasz's was a wheat stout, but it was still a wheat! A couple after our own hearts! Jake and I each tried something new - I tried a Polish wheat IPA by Sawa, and Jake had a Polish white hef by Baltas. Jake's wins - that Baltas has taken the top spot for favorite beer for us both! As we chatted with the bartender, I realized he looked really familiar and I tried to place him. I realized it looked like he had a fresh haircut and I realized we saw him at Haircut Express earlier that day! After lunch at Zapiecek, Jake and I sought out Haircut Express to get a trim. I was a bit nervous about getting my hair cut by someone new, especially in a place that looked like Polish Supercuts. But I was desperate for a teeny tiny trim, and I figured they couldn't do much damage when only chopping off a 1/4 inch. Clearly we both survived, my hair looks nice and healthy, and my cut only cost $6. Win! But back to the bartender - "Nice haircut," I said to him. He looked at me for a minute, and then at Jake, and then placed our faces. "Oh yeah! You too!" I love recognizing people, it makes me feel like a strange place is more familiar. We enjoyed our beers in "Beer Heaven" and then headed off to find another spot. The place Lukasz wanted to take us next was closed, so we popped into the Made-For-Americans bar next door, Jack's something-or-other, decorated with empty Jack Daniels bottles on the ceiling and tended by servers and barkeeps wearing Jack Daniels t-shirts. When the "Who Let the Dogs Out" music video came on the TVs around the bar, we knew we were in the right place for us (hahaha). We enjoyed a few more rounds of Polish hef and chatted about life. Nelly gave us a lesson in how to properly say our last name, "Vee-sotz-key", and told us that Wysocki means "tall" (appropriate!). Jake explained to them both the strange feeling of familiarity he gets as we walk around and see people, "They look like me!" This is the first place we've been where I really feel like everyone looks like me, like we could be related," he discussed. "Well it's because you're Polish!" they said, "You look Polish!" "Yes, I'm starting to realize that. What do you think Noelle looks like?" he asked. Nelly and Lukasz both look at me and definitively state, "American." Well I guess that's true. I can claim my Irish heritage all I want, but at the end of the day, while I might burn in the sun like the rest of the Irishmen, I look simply American. I'm good with that.
Soon we realized that 9pm had turned into 1am, and it was time for bed! We poured ourselves into bed when we got home, a little bit buzzed and a lot bit happy that we got to hang out with our new friends.
After a slow start the next morning, and drinking a lot of water, Jake and I were ready for another day of exploring. This time we went south to Lazienki Park, the largest park in Warsaw and home to an old royal complex and bath (lazienki actually means "baths"). The big green space is beautiful and peaceful. Large lush trees shade the wide dirt paths, beautiful ponds and fountains full of big carp ripple next to perfectly manicured lawns and clean white palaces. It's a pretty place to walk around and enjoy the day, even though you're not allowed to walk on the grass or bring dogs (sorry Pixel). We took our time strolling through the park and made sure to stop at the Chopin Monument before heading back to our neighborhood. Chopin was from Warsaw, and the city commemorates him not only by having a beautiful statue in the park, but also by installing park benches around town that, at the push of a button, play music by Chopin, and that contain small bits about his life written on the surface. We loved coming across these benches and pushed play every time we found one. Like most important monuments and buildings in Warsaw, the statue was destroyed in the war - it was actually the first monument that the Nazis occupying Warsaw destroyed. Luckily, the original mold for the bronze statue did survive the war, and the replica could be made.
We capped off our leisurely park day with a treat. Well, it was supposed to be a treat. During our walking tour a couple days prior, when Bart told us about Piw Paw, he also recommended we head to another bar, Hoppiness, to try their unique beer flavored ice cream. Jake and I have been on a roll with ice cream lately (as I'm sure you are aware), and couldn't pass up the opportunity to try something new! We arrived at Hoppiness, excited about the new culinary experience we were about to have, and ordered our cones - two scoops for each of us so we could both try their best two flavors without having to share. We settled into some shady chairs on the patio with our cones and took a good lick. GROSS GROSS GROSS! What IS that? I hated it! It was bitter. It was icey. It was…just not good. I can't even explain the flavors. I've never really hated ice cream before; sure I might prefer certain flavors over others, but I can't think of any flavor that I would refuse to eat. Pretty much all ice cream is delicious. Except this. This was gross. I couldn’t even finish my cone, so Jake took one for the team and finished it for me.
Disappointed and still hungry, we decided to go grab a cheap and quick meal at North Fish, aka Nord Sea, a fast food fish place we kept seeing all over Hungary, Austria, Germany, and now Poland. Nelly said it wasn't bad, and relatively inexpensive, so we gave it a whirl. It was just about what we expected - not great, but not bad, and it was a pretty good value. What was interesting about our time there was our interaction with a fellow diner. As we waited to pay, a man behind me needed to reach around me to get something. He said something to me in Polish which I assumed was "excuse me", so I jumped out of the way, looked at him and smiled. He smiled back at me and said , "You do not speak polish?" (How do they always know to speak English to me? I guess I really DO look American.) "No, I don’t," I replied. "Don't worry, I didn't say anything rude." he told me. And so began our conversation with Robert. Robert is Polish and living in Warsaw for school, he is getting his Masters in political science, and will be moving to Chicago in a couple of months to finish his degree at the University of Chicago. The three of us sat chatting about American politics, and Robert taught us that Poland really likes the US because Woodrow Wilson is basically the reason Poland exists (which Jake and I had no idea about.) I found it fascinating that we were talking about politics with a stranger in a fast food place, and it made me chuckle after we all said goodbye. Back at home, would we be as open to talking to strangers, to inviting them to sit with us to talk and share a meal together? No, probably not. I love that we are now open to meeting people, and talking about anything and everything with them. We are learning so much about how other people think and go about their day, and we're seeing that most of us are so, so similar. Travel has already opened our eyes so much, and has already made us more open to new people and new situations. I'm so excited to see how much more we learn about ourselves and other people we meet on our journey.
On our last night, Jake wanted to take some night shots of the Old Town, and Nelly wanted to show us a few more places that Bart didn’t take us to in our tour, so Nelly, Jake, Pixel, and I all headed out for a two hour jaunt while Lukasz finished up work. Our first stop was actually mere steps from the apartment - an Orthodox synagogue, the only one to survive the war. Next, we wandered around a nearby park and around a small pond that led us to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We'd been by the tomb before, but in the middle of the day. I had yet to see the illuminated line that the soldiers march all the way through the giant square from the Presidential Palace to the tomb. The beautiful memorial and the everlasting flames are always guarded by two soldiers, day and night. Our next stop - the Multimedia Fountain Park! This spectacular water fountain was installed just a few years ago, and puts on an impressive light show every night. I don't know why watching water colored with lights shoot into the air is so fun, but we loved it! We ended our walk back with a somber stop at the Little Insurgent Monument, a small statue that commemorates the child soldiers who fought and died in the Uprising. The little boy's helmet is too large for his head, but his submachine gun fits him just right, making the impact for me that much stronger - the ill-fitting helmet showing what a little boy he was, and the perfectly fitting gun showing what responsibility he had to take on.
It being our last night, we had to go out one last time with our new friends. I don't even know the name of the place, but we ended up at a pub near the apartment that reminded both me and Jake of bars in the Mission in SF - a small space with a stage for local musicians or poets to perform, couches that don't match, books and records in shelves that line the walls…I love when we find places that feel like home! The four of us chatted and laughed over Baltas beers (our new favorite beer) and chocolate cake. What a perfectly sweet way to end our stay. Before we all went to sleep, we were able to capture Nelly and Lukasz on camera - I can't wait to see the video journal footage we got of them someday! (Whenever it is that we actually get around to editing it)! Jake and I gushed about them to the camera, and said "We will definitely see each other again!" to which they replied, "Yes, next summer at our wedding!" I don’t think they're joking. :)