The train ride from Krakow to Warsaw was easy and uneventful. One difference was that unlike the forward facing seats on my train to Krakow, this train had the more conventional six seat compartments. My compartment mates included a German couple and a Polish businessman, but none of them were particularly chatty so I spent most of it on my laptop.
Once again, I thought the Polish farmland was quite pretty. Once again, almost all of my attempts to photograph it turned out worthless, given my camera issues and the speed of the train. At least it was once again a bright clear day, and the good weather continued all the way into Warsaw.
Warsaw is a funny city. Many tourists never make it here, even though it is Poland’s capital. Krakow has more historic charm, and is part of the Prague/Budapest tourist circle. By contrast, Warsaw was almost entirely destroyed during World War II. So even though they have an “Old Town”, for example, almost all of it consists of buildings that were rebuilt post war. So much for historic significance. This city of 2 million people remains important from a commerce standpoint, but gets the short shrift from a tourism angle.
I knew almost none of this when I originally made my flight schedule. After reading a bit about the city, however, I set fairly low expectations for my two day stay here. I looked forward most to staying at a “real” international hotel for the first time in this trip and enjoying the attendant modern conveniences. I had booked myself into the Westin. I looked forward to a real work out in a real gym, sleeping in a real luxurious bed, taking a real shower in a well-appointed real bathroom, drinking a proper cocktail in a real hotel bar, etc.
On that front, the Westin was a bit of a letdown. It had many of the modern amenities, of course, but the level of service and infrastructure (whether the rooms, the gym, or the bar area) failed to measure up to the standard Westin hotel. By contrast, I ended up enjoying Warsaw much more than expected.
Based on what I read, the three “touristy” things to do were Lazienki Park, Old Town, and the Warsaw Uprising Museum. It was a gorgeous day, and I was tempted to go to Lazienki Park, but decided to save that for tomorrow. Warsaw has many parks, and I noticed that several were on the way to Old Town, so decided to walk there instead and kill two birds on my first day.
The parks were not particularly impressive, but the weather was nice and people were about enjoying themselves.
Old Town, as I mentioned, really isn’t that old since it was entirely rebuilt after the war. Still, if you can ignore that particular piece of truth, the area actually has lots of charm, complete with rebuilt city walls and a castle. Perhaps appropriately, it merges into “New Town” to the north, and the architectural changes are subtle. I walked the entire area just enjoying the nice day.
As the day went on, the crowds kept getting larger, especially with families milling about. There were several stages set up in one of the squares, but the only performers were children. I thought that strange, even though they were good.
I later discovered that Poles were celebrating International Childrens’ Day. Ahhh, now it all makes sense. Old Town was clearly the touristy highlight of my short Warsaw soujourn.
I stopped at Bazpliszek for lunch. Located in the heart of Market Square in Old Town, I picked this place because it was crowded and because it had an interesting dragon (?) at the restaurant entrance. Given the weather, I chose to sit outside and asked for a “good traditional Polish dish.”
The waitress, who was dressed in costume, suggested the breaded pork chops. Like much of the Polish food I ate, I found it OK. I mean, I can’t really complain, but the food was basically too bland for my taste. For example, everything basically tasted like boiled food, even the fried pork chops! I concluded that Polish food, at least traditional Polish food, really wasn’t my thing. I ate mostly other stuff during the remainder of my stay.
I roamed the area a bit more after lunch. Did I learn in school that Marie Curie was a Pole? It sounds right, but I wasn’t sure. There is a museum dedicated to her regardless.
As I continued to wander the city, I was struck by how swiftly Warsaw was changing. While most of the city is “new” from a post war sense, there is ugliness in the communist era buildings or the sculptures that make no sense.
By contrast, sleek new skyscrapers dominate the skyline and there is new construction everywhere.
I went back to the hotel afterwards until dinner time. Checking on the Internet, many recommended an Italian place nearby. The reviews kept emphasizing how it was owned by an “Italian.” I don’t think that should make a difference, but wandered over.
L’Olive was crowded, and I think I was actually seated next to the owner’s family as they ate. I ordered a large salad with cheese and pears, and a seafood pasta dish. The good news was that the squid ink pasta was cooked perfectly el dente. I was disappointed in everything else. The food was OK, but hardly qualifies as “good” Italian. The salad was chunky and unbalanced, while the seafood was overcooked and oversalted. The bill was about $30, so not expensive but not worth it either.
I walked back to my hotel, planning to catch up on work for the remainder of the evening. I decided to buy some beer to drink in my room. I walked inside the local grocery store. The interior of the two doors wouldn’t open, even though I could see people inside shopping. I must have had a puzzled (or stupid) expression on my face because a young woman looked at me and explained in fluent, but accented English: “They just closed.” I explained that I had just wanted to buy a beer. It turned out that she just got shut out of buying milk as well. She said she was going to another store a few blocks away and I could buy beer there.
We walked over. It turned out that she wasn’t Polish, but a Ukrainian student attending university here. We had quite an interesting, and surprisingly serious, conversation about world politics on the short walk over. I was impressed by her rather strong (and well thought out) views about international affairs for someone still in college. When we got to the second store, it too was closed! Ahh, she explained it must be due to International Childrens’ Day. That’s how I discovered why Old Town had been so festive today.
I was still in the mood for a beer, so we went to the bar right across the street and carried on our conversation. It turned out that she is also supporting herself by being the hostess at one of the largest restaurants in Old Town, thanks to her multilingual language abilities. In fact, she was still in uniform as she had just gotten out of work. She impressed me with her maturity and drive. After a long and interesting conversation about many things, we left the bar and said goodbye.
I guess Asia isn’t the only place where strangers can be nice. I hadn’t had many meaningful adult conversations during my journey. It was a pleasant surprise having one with a random thoughtful student of all people, and in Warsaw of all places. I have no doubt that she will go on to a successful career.
When I awoke the next morning, the weather had changed. Warsaw had changed back to the gloomy and dark city I first encountered. I cancelled my plans to go to Lazienki Park and headed instead for the Warsaw Uprising Museum, which was only a short walk from the hotel.
I encountered a pleasant surprise on the way. As I was I consulting my map, I saw a familiar face walking towards me, in a deep conversation with his colleague. I shouted out his name. Bobby and I had a summer job together while I was in grad school, and then started working together after graduation. We had been great friends, but had drifted apart over the years. I hadn’t seem him in a very long time.
We chatted on the streets. He was in Warsaw on business and on his way to a meeting. We exchanged contact info and promised to get reacquainted soon either in London or New York. Like most things, however, other things will likely take priority and it will take another random encounter for us to reconnect. Still, it was good to see him, on a small side street in Warsaw of all places. What a small world.
I found the museum to be OK, but not great. I gained little new information, and many of the original documents and the like were not translated. The museum is purposefully noisy, to recreate the ambience of an uprising. I didn’t find this particularly helpful. If you are into weapons, however, they do have a nice collection of rifles, pistols, and other weapons used during the uprising.
For lunch, I tried Restro based on some web recommendations. Finally! Awesome food! Local business people favor this place for lunch, and their set menu choices are both delicious and cheap. I had the set of tomato bisque soup, and asparagus ravioli. The bisque had the perfect amount of tang and creaminess, while the ravioli was fresh and had greater textural contrast with the crunchy asparagus. This restaurant would succeed in New York. Together with a Coke, the lunch set me back less than $10 including a healthy tip for very friendly service.
I spent the rainy afternoon back in the hotel. I finally got I that proper gym workout and did some work. For dinner, I headed back to Restro. Unlike lunch time, the place was fairly empty. Still feeling carnivorous, I ordered the steak. The quality of the meat could have been better, but it was perfectly cooked medium-rare, and served with mushrooms and a side zesty salad. The talented chef definitely has a creative flair, and I enjoyed this meal again very much, all for about $13. I recommend this restaurant most highly.
I debated going to a bar for a drink afterwards, but I suddenly felt pretty tired. Instead, I sat outside and smoked a cigar before heading to bed. Warsaw proved that much of travel is about expectations. I had a pleasant short stay here, but when I thought about the reasons why, I couldn’t quite pinpoint what made it so good. Ultimately, I think my low expectations made everything a positive surprise, from the quaint Old Town, to meeting the random student and Bobby, to discovering Restro. I am not sure that I want to return to Warsaw, but I am surely glad that I came.
The next misty morning, I headed to the airport for Munich. I walked over to the Warsaw train station to catch the train to the airport.
Along the way, a waddling older Polish lady hogged the sidewalk. I shouted excuse me, but she wouldn't move, so in typical NYC fashion I brushed past her. When she caught up to me at the corner, she gave me some kind of lecture in Polish, which I couldn’t understand. So I had a few choice words for her as well, which I am sure she found indecipherable. I felt like I was back in NYC.
The city was a bit of a mess as Obama was coming into Warsaw this morning. I faced tight security everywhere, including at the train station. At the airport, I was given the most thorough body search ever. I felt like cracking a joke, but knew that wasn’t wise and the burly guard probably wouldn’t understand it anyway.
The Presidents plane landed right before I was to take off. Predictably, he delayed everyone else at the airport, and my flight left 30 minutes late. How inconsiderate.
After buying a quick breakfast snack at the airport, I left Poland with less than 20 cents worth of Polish money. I patted myself on the back for not being stranded with local currency. So far on this trip, I had been very efficient. While Cambodia is dollar based, I left Vietnam, Nepal, India, and Poland with less than $10 cumulatively of unused local currency. I’m not sure why I felt so good about this accomplishment, but I did.
Most of all, however, I felt good about this trip. I was approaching the half-way point in my journey, and overall this trip had exceeded my expectations. The only downside was a bit of sensory overload. For example, Halong Bay was only a few weeks ago but I felt I went there a long time ago. But maybe this is part of the point of this blog. Between jotting my thoughts in real time and having a good photo log, I feel like I can relive those pleasant memories. For the time being, however, there are plenty of new exciting memories to create.
Photo links: https://plus.google.com/photos/116304646499310395693/albums/6021937589075498449?authkey=CJfM-uvb97vzHw