While visiting Khao Yai National Park in Thailand, we met a couple, Adam and Ania, with their two young daughters, from Warsaw. After randomly running into them again in a coastal town – a couple weeks later and several hundred miles away – we exchanged email addresses and they made us promise to reach out if and when we made it to their hometown. While chatting with Adam several weeks before arriving in Poland, he mentioned that accommodation might be difficult to come by since we’d be visiting just before the start of World Youth Days – a Catholic gathering of millions of people of all ages, put on every 2–3 years and attended by the sitting Pope. While the location for the event itself was Krakow, many were taking the opportunity to see other parts of Poland, pouring into cities around the country. Between arriving in Thailand for their new year (Songkran), Mongolia for their Independence Day celebration (Naadam), and now this, it sure seems like we are good at (inadvertently) timing our travels.
On our first day of exploration, we saw that Adam had been correct – the main squares of Old Town were packed with cheering and singing groups from all over the world, many bearing the national flag from their country as a cape, a hat, a shirt, or as an accessory on their backpacks. Group leaders walked with huge flags waving on poles, leading their followers in songs and dances in the squares. While it was certainly chaotic, the good nature and politeness of the revelers made it easier to shrug off the crowds and enjoy our sightseeing.
Warsaw’s “Old Town” is actually not very old. During WWII, Hitler planned to destroy Warsaw utterly – physically, socially, and economically – to ensure it would never again rise as a political power. Under the German occupation of the city, an underground movement began to unify, with the goal of returning Warsaw to independence. This movement organized into what would later be referred to as the Warsaw Uprising. The Warsaw Uprising spanned 2 months and 1 day, from August 1 to October 2, 1944, during which time the Polish citizens waged small-scale battles against the German occupation, eventually taking and holding small sections of the city despite heavy casualties. Unfortunately, they received no help from the Allies, so the Uprising eventually depleted its supplies and, not wanting further civilians to die in vain, the movement signed a ceasefire agreement. After the Uprising, Hitler ordered Warsaw to be vacated and his troops set about razing the city; blowing up monuments, burning churches and schools, and destroying priceless collections of artwork, literature and historic documents. Nearly 30% of city’s architecture was demolished by Nazi troops following the evacuation of the city. At the close of WWII in 1945, it’s estimated that more than 85% of Warsaw’s architecture was in ruins; some 700 years of history spanning the 13th to 20th centuries had been completely destroyed. Today, the historic district has been impeccably reconstructed with careful attention to maintaining the capital’s cultural integrity and, for this reason, is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The reconstructed Old Town is very beautiful, with classical architecture and a wonderful variety of colorful buildings and churches. Just on the edge of Old Town, overlooking the Vistula River, is the Royal Castle, whose origin traces back to the 14th century but, like much of the city, had to be mostly reconstructed following WWII. Walking back towards the city, Krasinski Palace – now part of the Polish National Library – is amusingly full of colorful flying horse sculptures on the front lawn, backing up to a pleasant park where Jenn, of course, found a swing to entertain herself for a few minutes. Further towards the city center, we visited Pilsudski Square, one of the largest squares in Poland, which houses a monument to Polish-born Pope, John Paul II. The square is also the site of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which lies beneath the only portion of the Saxon Palace that survived the Nazi destruction campaign.
A celebrated figure in Poland, classical composer Frederic Chopin grew up in Warsaw and is commemorated throughout the city with parks, sculptures, a museum, and streets and businesses named in his honor. Each Sunday, in Warsaw’s largest park, a Chopin concert is free to attend, and is performed around a sculpture of the icon in front of a large reflecting pool. The park itself, Lazienki Park, is a great way to spend a day – the sprawling green space incorporates a number of historic buildings, small ponds, footpaths, an open-air stage, and a few restaurants.
During our visit to Warsaw, we were also fortunate to meet up with Adam and Ania for dinner. One of the most enjoyable aspects of this trip, and of our past travels, has been the people we’ve met – especially on the few occasions where we’ve been able to meet up again further down the road. It was great to spend an evening out chatting and making new friends; thanks, guys, we really loved seeing you again, and hope to see you in the U.S. someday!
Musings with Jenn:
Sorry, guys… I had to highjack Stephan’s blog to share one quick, Warsaw favorite of mine:
One of the numerous items on my ‘life list’ was to feed chickadees out of my hand. Yeah, I know… skydive, SCUBA, do aerobatics in a biplane… feed the songbirds. When I was growing up, my grandfather (‘Stoney’) used to take me outside to feed the feathered friends in his backyard in New Hampshire. After filling the feeder, he’d take a handful of sunflower seeds in his palm, extend his arm outward, and chuckle as the chickadees would swoop down from the row of lofty pine trees at the edge of the woods, landing on his hand for a quick meal. I watched with awe as the friendly birds so trustingly came in for a landing, and I longed to hold the little friends in my own hand. Unfortunately, I was a bit high-strung (oh how little has changed since age seven), and every time a chickadee’s flightpath routed in my direction, my hand would abruptly lurch upward, propelling seeds skyward and sending the poor, stunned bird back to the safety of the evergreen branches. Ashamed of my failure, I swore that one day I’d find a chickadee to feed just like Stoney did.
As we enjoyed a lovely afternoon at Lazienki Park, Stephan spotted a cluster of Eurasian red squirrels scampering gleefully around the greenspace. With my undying love for the fuzzy creatures, I went over and sat in the grass, hoping they’d hop over and enjoy a bite of cracker from my hand. As I readied a few small pieces, with supinate hand suspended above the ground, a songbird – quite reminiscent of a chickadee – dove down and snatched a morsel. Stunned, I sat there for a moment before shrieking at Stephan, ‘I fed a chickadee out of my hand!’ With a quest to satisfy more birdie friends, I wandered from shrub to shrub across the park for a good hour or two, palm outstretched and filled with cracker, as the songbirds continually landed and perched briefly to eat. Although we later learned that the petite birds were actually ‘great tits,’ a cousin of the chickadees we have in the U.S., I enthusiastically checked the mission off my list. I felt just like Belle, feeding the birds in my provincial backyard – a disheveled, tomboyish, spandex-wearing version of Belle… but a so-called princess nonetheless.