Under four hours of sleep in preparation for this trip, I end up anxious and tired on approach. The early flights seem like such a good idea, two months before the fact. But, no regrets and only minor complaints. A quick coffee with a free chocolate in an attempt to kick start myself into some resemblance of action. Wandering casually down to gate 302, it’s the first time my name has been called out over the P.A. “Just waiting on you lads now!” Even with the airline having to wait a few minutes for us and a little fog slowing us down, we’re in the air before 8am.
Our first introduction to Warsaw is a man attempting to rip us off with an extremely expensive quote for a taxi to our hotel, telling us he is offering quite the bargain at around the equivalent of €80. It turns out this is about four times the price we are actually charged by the gentleman operating a proper taxi who steps in, chasing off the swindler.
Our hotel has an interesting shower set up. A viewing window from the bedroom right into the shower with only a curtain, bedroom side, giving the person not in the shower the option of whether to have the curtain open or not. Not really sure who was thinking what when they installed that.
We stroll, at length, toward the old town. Taking the scenic route using my map application which really only gives you a direction to walk in, which means crossing seriously busy roads, a lot of looking for some sort of reference point and, my favourite side effect, stumbling upon things to come back to later. We finally arrive upon the old town, and it appears in front of us from the Krakowskie Przedmieście like some image from a chocolate box. Perfectly picturesque in the sun. My first introduction to Polish food on Polish soil is Zurek, a Polish soup comprising of white sausage and a boiled egg in a bread bowl. It’s a little salty, which in hindsight makes a lot of sense and really I should have seen it coming. On the up side, I’ve tried some Polish cuisine and can now order freely without the feeling of guilt to order something local.
At lunch our table angles our gaze directly at The Royal Castle, which we decide would probably make a good choice for our first place to visit. We attempt to sneak some freebie snaps of the knight standing outside in full battle garb, sweating, and probably not exactly loving his job right now in the beautiful heat in the old town but he’s way too experienced and somehow we only manage blurry and useless photos. Inside, at the ticket desk, there are three or four queues all leading to the one woman behind a single window. I’m not sure if I’m the only one confused by the situation but I’m definitely not the one who should be making any decisions here. Suddenly, and through no action of mine, we’re in! We get the audio guide after being a little confused by the options, again, a breakdown in communications between the girl pushing the product and us. Briefly we hold the Spanish version in our hands, how this happened I have no idea but we rectify and opt for the language we’re more familiar with.
Press the number, and then play to get that part of the audio tour. I follow like a good little boy. About 10 minutes later I’m still being fed information about point 1. I saw the number 300 used as an example at the ticket desk. I start to hope this is not reflective of how many points there are. My audio guide will be feeling very ignored if it is!
By number 4 I’m struggling. So much information. It’s hard to focus! All that’s sticking is that at some point the castle was on fire. I think literally. I suddenly arrive at audio point 8. I can only assume I blacked out for points 5 to 7. I spot Mick, distracted by the interface of the audio guide, accidentally kicking the leg of an antique table. There’s a very noticeable sound of a table leg dragging on a marble floor. We catch each other’s eyes and just laugh. We say nothing as the lady security guard enters to investigate what the bang was. Heads down.
There’s a fascinating room full of Bernardo Bellotto (Canaletto) paintings. Mostly cityscape views of Warsaw during the 18th Century. One in particular grabs my attention, where he has hidden a depiction of himself within the painting. A painting where there is no significant roles or obvious main event as such. Great stuff. A little like a 1770 version of ‘Where’s Wally!’
The Castle is interesting, though I’m not sure how interested I am in hundreds of portraits of royalty and illegitimate children. The audio guide spending altogether too much time on the history and circumstance of each portrait, I once again zone out and just admire the rooms and space of it all.
Later we meet in the bar, back at the hotel, for a drink, where we bump into Gok Wan. He’s friendly and has absolutely no problem posing for a quick photo for the girls back home. We leave him alone and go in search of some food. To my surprise a Mexican Restaurant called Frida is the general consensus, where every hour diners are treated to a little Mexican folk dancing. It’s a nice touch and doesn’t take over, though access to the very colourful toilets is restricted while the show is in full swing. My choice is the pork, chicken and bacon fajitas. Holy shit! A whole meal of food, and absolutely delicious. I leave nothing behind and I definitely suffer for that later.
We indulge in a few local beers, which are only alright, nothing to wow just yet but there is always day 2. We wander around and end up visiting a few establishments. A beer hall, a craft beer pub and another bar which looked more from the outside than it had to offer inside. I thought it was called Zywiec, but it turns out that’s the name of a brand of beer. So, in reality, I haven’t a clue what it’s called but when will I ever need that information again.
In the beer hall, Mick gets a litre of the weissbeer. A crazy amount of drink in a single glass. He instantly regrets it. I go for the more modest 400ml serving. The waitress mocks my decision and implies I’m ordering the ‘girls’ portion. It’s tasty enough, but it’s no Lemke.
We head out toward the Old Town in the hopes of getting on a walking tour or something. Of course we get a little lost, which if I’m honest I’m delighted by. I love aimlessly wandering around somewhere I’ve never been. We stumble upon the Palace of Culture and Science. This is why you wander. It’s hard to miss really as it towers above the surrounding area at 237m of height. Completed in 1955 as a gift from the Soviet people to Poland and referred to lovingly as ‘Stalin’s Syringe’ by locals.
Later we find ourselves at The Jewish Ghetto Memorial which stands, reminding, next to the Polish Jew Museum. An honest portrayal of how Polish Jews were brutally treated up to, during and after World War I. A sad reminder of how cruel people can be and how the twisted views of a few can be a manipulating factor for the mass mind, some of the images are hard to reconcile with reality.
The Polish-Soviet War (1919 – 1921) propaganda proved that the hatred never really left Poland after World War I with posters portraying Jews as bloodthirsty Bolsheviks. These are relatively recent events that seem outrageously impossible, hard to imagine a mind being twisted into believing things so extreme.
Warsaw is pretty reasonable in terms of costs for entry etc. It’s even better value when you’re gaining access for the price of two seniors and a student. None of us satisfying any of that criteria but sure when you chance it and get it, do it. Both Mick and Tony being highly amused by the fact that they could chance it and amazingly, get away with it, neither having the look of an OAP.
We finally manage our way to the Old Town, a little later than expected and we’ve decided to give the walking tour a miss. Instead opting to sit down and enjoy Batida for lunch. I’m presented with a great broccoli quiche with a side-salad. After a coffee and a slice of decent apple pie, which was a little disappointing after the quiche and having judged the place by it’s incredible array of sweet treats. The Old Town Market Square is a beautiful place. There are plenty of people around and a real buzz about. A great location to enjoy some beers and coffees in the sun. The decision is made to return to the square for dinner. You can only really get a taste for a place from a couple of days there, but I really like Warsaw. That said when the sun is out it would be hard to outright hate anywhere.
I take some free time in the afternoon; make my first stop in a Café Nero, standard stuff. The reason being, opposite the place there’s a guy setting up to play some guitar. I’m hopeful. About five minutes in, listening to a broken guitar and a man trying too hard, the headphones come out. I leave my Nero loyalty card on the table when I leave. I’ll never need that again.
Warsaw is much busier today than yesterday. Which makes sense I guess, it’s a Saturday and the weather is great. I stroll around a bit and pop into E. Wedel to pick up some gifts and wish I had found this place earlier for a coffee. So far away from the pre-pack look of Café Nero. An old style café and chocolatier with a great big chandelier hanging from the ceiling.
Later, back in the Old Town Market Square, we look around at the options for dinner. It’s heaving with people and we’re told by the host at Latem Restaurant that it will be about a 45 minute wait until he has a decent table for us but we can sit down, order a drink and peruse the menu. We’re in no rush so we settle in with a few Polish beers. Within a couple of minutes I know what I will be ordering and relax. Porcini mushroom soup to start, followed by pork tenderloin stuffed with asparagus served with potato cakes and a mushroom sauce. When it does arrive, it feels like it’s been a long time since we were looking at the menus and we dive in. Beautiful food. The chef was previously employed in The Green Door in London. I don’t really know anything about that, or give a shit but the food is ridiculously good.
There are two ladies to our right who have nothing to say to each other staring all night at the English man, clearly with a Polish escort at the table to our left. The place holds an interesting atmosphere but we managed to ignore it and enjoy ourselves. Surprisingly good food for an old market square, the expectation being sub-standard tourist fare, but that is certainly not the case here.
We head to the ‘Irish Pub’ (literally the name) for a pint of Guinness. It’s absolutely horrendous. For a start it just looks wrong and when you dip in it simply refuses to go down. There are also some bad covers of Alanis Morissette blaring from the live band on stage. The term ‘band’ being applied liberally.
Next up is BroWarmia. I feel like I’ve been struck with vertigo when nature calls as two songs play at the same time from the same speaker in the toilet. I feel slightly dizzy. They have no weissbeer either. Around us people are drinking tubes of beer. Three or five litres in each, and between more than one individual. You pour your own from a tap at the base of the tube. Not really a lot of class to it, and everyone seems to end up with mostly head in the glass, but it’s an interesting novelty I guess. I end up ordering some Tennessee Honey as a night cap (in the absence of any Jameson).
It’s a seriously foggy start to the day. Looking out the hotel window I can just about make out the street below. We don’t have much time to do anything today so I walk down to the Old Town before breakfast for one more glimpse. You can’t see Sigismund’s Column on approach with the fog. It’s before 8am and very quiet. Mostly those walking the walk of shame really and the drunks, and those who tick both those boxes. A fair few fallers and stumblers clumsily finding their way home from the Saturday night before. There are off-licenses which open for 24 hours here and the one near our hotel has a man beyond saving being dragged to his feet by some, presumably, friends. He is in need of no more drink. Probably a good signal for an exit.