PROUD CITY ONCE AGAIN A MAJOR TOURIST ATTRACTION
Warsaw, soon to be connected to Belfast by a new air route is revisited by ROBIN NOWACKI…
ON THE 1st of September 1939 when Nazi Germany launched the Blitzkrieg on Poland my father was in Warsaw and witnessed the first civilian carnage of what was to become World War Two.
As a newly commissioned pilot in the Polish Air Force – with no aircraft to fight the invaders - he escaped - ultimately to serve with distinction for Britain both in the RAF and SOE.
So Warsaw has a special place in my heart and when I recently returned there I found Poland’s capital, despite suffering more tragedy and turmoil than perhaps any other European city in history, now stands proud, rebuilt, rejuvenated - once more attractive and sophisticated.
Like an old oil painting magically restored - recapturing the romance of bygone days - this is the essence of Warsaw today.
Sadly many of Europe’s old cities destroyed during World War Two were then reconstructed in the concrete and glass tower blocks fashion of the late Twentieth Century.
However the Old Town of Warsaw was restored to its original 17th/18th century appearance - painstakingly rebuilt from debris that remained, this remarkable work of restoration has been recognized by the (new) Old Town of Warsaw achieving World Heritage Site status.
Now visitors to Warsaw can see once more the city shaped by the Kings of Poland and walk the same streets as some of the Warsaw's most famous émigrés - such as Marie (Sklodowska) Curie, Joseph (Korzeniowski) Conrad, and Frederic Chopin.
>Warsaw Uprising Museum
Since my last visit to the Polish Capital a new major attraction has opened, the Warsaw Rising Museum dedicated to the time during World War Two when the citizens of Warsaw in August 1944 rose up and fought the occupying German Army, initially using the old sewer system to emerge from manholes in the streets with deadly surprises for Hitler’s cruel and ruthless oppressors
Using a large array of weapons hidden away during the occupation what was known as the Polish Home Army had soon taken large parts of Warsaw back under their control and fought full scale battles with the Germans in the streets.
They were hoping help would come from the Allies fighting in the west or even from the Soviet Union’s Red Army just a few miles away to the east, but none came, and inevitably they were forced to surrender in October 1944.
Churchill had pleaded with the Americans and Soviets to give help, but Britain alone flew 200 airdrop missions from Bari in Italy – my father flying one in a Liberator, but this was not enough to counter the well supplied Germans.
The Warsaw Rising Museum, in a splendidly atmospheric setting captures the lives, times, and even the loves of those who took part in the Uprising - weapons, letters, photographs, even an actual sewer visitors can walk through, though thankfully beautifully clean and no longer in use!
Rynek - Old Market Square
At the centre of the Old Town is the picturesque Old Market Square (Rynek), the perfect place to start a Warsaw tour.
Here, beneath the colourful Baroque and Renaissance facades of the restored burgher's houses, the tables and chairs of numerous busy restaurants and bars spill out into the square, where portrait painters and the drivers of traditional horse drawn carriages ply their trade, the clattering of the horse's hooves mingling with the sounds of music and song from buskers and groups of roaming street musicians.
At one end of the Rynek is the History Museum of Warsaw, crammed with fascinating exhibits reflecting the city's rich, and at one time very dark past. This includes film footage shot by the Nazi's during their five terrible years of occupation during World War Two.
The Royal Castle
A five-minute walk from the Rynek down cobbled streets past art galleries and the beautiful Gothic St John's Cathedral, lies the imposing Royal Castle, once the home of the Polish Kings.
Within are magnificent rooms with high ceilings and a museum displaying fine tapestries, furniture, and paintings, some dating from mediaeval times.
These are genuine original treasures, which, along with many others on display in Warsaw, were removed and kept hidden deep in the vast Polish countryside during the Nazi occupation.
On the edges of the Old Town some of the original medieval walls of the City of Warsaw still survive intact, the best preserved to be seen at the Barbican, where ramparts and watchtowers stand next to narrow streets.
The Royal Route
The Royal Route, a four-kilometre long thoroughfare, bisects the centre of Warsaw, and runs from the Castle Square in the Old Town to the magnificent baroque Wilanow Palace on the outskirts of the city.
This is the former summer residence of King Jan III Sobieski, perhaps Poland's greatest - famous for defeating the Turks in a major battle at Vienna in 1693. Catholic Poland, then at the height of its power, was once at war with the Muslim Ottoman Empire for 150 years!
The Wilanow Palace today houses a famous collection of portraits by Polish artists from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries Along the Royal Route there are many other historic places of interest, including St Anna's Church, with 16th century murals by Walenty Zabrowski, and monuments to Nicholas Copernicus (Poland's famous astronomer) and Adam Mickiewicz, the nation's greatest romantic poet.
Nearby the Lazienki Park is to be found, created by King Stanislaw Poniatowski in the late 18th century, with the fabulous neoclassical Palace on the Water (Lazienki Palace) at its centre, surrounded by beautiful lakes and gardens.
Concerts of the music of Chopin regularly take place here, both within the elegant Palace, and outside on the lawns during the summer months - close to a monument of interesting design celebrating Poland's greatest composer.
Gift from the Soviet Union
Thankfully little now remains to remind Poles of their time on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War.
However one relic of this era remains, so huge it is impossible to ignore, and both hated and loved equally by the people of Warsaw - the Palace of Culture and Science.
This 30-storey 'gift' from the Soviet Union to the people of Poland dates from the 1950s and was once Europe's second tallest building at 230 metres high. The Palace was intended as a monument to 'inventive spirit and social progress'. Today it remains and a visit is recommend to the high viewing terrace allowing wonderful views of Warsaw, the best the people of Warsaw say because from here the Palace itself cannot be seen!
Since the end of the communist era, famous existing Warsaw hotels, like the historic Bristol and the post-war Victoria, have been brought up to date to meet the highest international standards.
These have now have been joined by international brands such as Westin, Sheraton, Hyatt, Marriott, and Hilton, who in 2006 opened a stylish new 27-storey hotel with major conference facilities.
Food and Drink
In Warsaw forget the old stereotypes about Eastern European food, I have travelled extensively and readers might think I am biased, but the Poles are good cooks and the local cuisine should both surprise and delight.
Freshwater fish such as trout and carp from Poland’s countless lakes are to be found on most menus along with sea fish such as Baltic Herring. Meats including wild boar are often cooked with wild mushrooms from Poland’s vast forests.
Vodka, a Polish invention (as even the Russians admit) is still widely drunk, but often neat with the mixer (tonic water or coke) in a separate glass. The quality of Polish vodka is usually so good that hangovers are often avoided.
Try the unique Bison brand - flavoured with the grass eaten by the European Bison – which still roam wild in the east of Poland.
Polish beers - now widely on sale in the UK following the invasion of the Polish plumber - are also excellent in taste and quality, and available on draught in most restaurants, clubs and bars.