July 28 – August 11, 2016 (Summer)
Greeting: Dzień dobry
Currency: Złoty (zł)
Cost of living: Medium
We didn’t know what to expect from Poland, just that we wanted to go and see if there was some sort of a personal connection. The name Tarchenski is a bit of a mouthful for folks in Northern Illinois, despite the sizable Polish population. So it was nothing short of mindblowing when we got to Warsaw and our name was not only understood, it was plastered on billboards.
Everyone told us to go to Kraków, and we wanted to, but World Youth Day and a visit by the Pope ate up all the Airbnbs and left us looking for another place to start our stay. Warsaw was an obvious choice: capital and largest city, indomitable history and booming 21st century comeback. Plenty to do, see, eat, and drink. We hoped it would be a good place to spend a couple of weeks, but it surprised us after all. It felt a lot like home.
Where we stayed
Our Airbnb↗ was a healthy distance from the main tourist areas, the Old Town and the Downtown (centered around the Palace of Culture and Science). Instead, we were neighbors with Arkadia Mall and Powązkowski Cemetery. The apartment complex seemed new, or at least recently renovated. In fact, the whole neighborhood appeared to be in the middle of a housing boom. Several other high-rise apartments and mixed-use developments were under construction nearby. Thankfully without any construction noise reaching us this time.
Being so far from downtown tested the limits of our usual “walk everywhere” policy. We made it back and forth a few times, but sometimes resorted to the nearby trams (departing from the nearby roundabout park) or Uber. Still, strolling along the wide sidewalks and through the beautiful parks closer to the river was always a pleasure.
Our home had everything we needed for a two week stay. It was way more spacious than we anticipated, and even came with plenty of closet room (a rare and overlooked treat). A westward-facing deck looked out on some greenspace next door and made catching sunsets easy. The kitchen was spotless and decked out with some pretty fancy gear. Even the bathroom boasted a bit of swanky finish.
It was our second stop in a row without any kind of curtain or door on the shower. This turned out to be a common occurrence in Central and Eastern Europe. It’s a bit of a drag, being unable to stand without inviting cold chills or splashing all over the floor. We learned to work around it, but it definitely made us appreciate the simple dividers we’d never given much thought to before.
There were a few small grocery stores nearby, but the Carrefour hypermarket in the mall had pretty much everything we needed. The bakery around the corner and a couple of wine merchants further cemented this neighborhood in our hearts as the right choice for this stay.
Almost a year later, we spent a couple more days in Warsaw to break up the long bus rides from Prague↗ to Vilnius. This time we opted for a smaller studio closer to the action. It was the perfect setting to see some stuff we missed on our first pass and recharge before packing up for another long day of travel.
What we did
We arrived in Warsaw just before the annual commemoration of the Uprising. For a full minute on 1 August, the city’s sirens blare and the population comes to a stop► to remember the resistance and the hundreds of thousands killed. Polish flags across the city are replaced by the Uprising flag, left in place for the entire 63 days the city fought. The Warsaw Uprising Museum tells the remarkable story of the rebellion and the impossible odds they faced. The operation (the largest military effort of any European resistance in WWII) was timed to coincide with the arrival of the Red Army, but the Soviet forces stopped short and waited out the two-month battle, content to watch as German forces crushed the insurrection, massacred civilians, and leveled the city. Despite the huge crowds, we took our time absorbing as much of the information and first-hand testimony as we could. The most telling parts were the lengths that people went to maintain some feeling of normalcy as the world burned around them, even operating their own postal service and theater productions. Seeing images of the city’s total destruction and then walking out into a bustling metropolis is an incredible testament to the resilience of Varsovians and of Poland.
Memorials and plaques are scattered thickly across the city, and none is more heart-wrenching than the markings outlining the Jewish Ghetto. The ghetto was massive, more than a square mile, and hundreds of thousands of people that passed through its walls perished. Its confines ran from near our apartment all the way downtown; walking the full length drove home its vastness and barbarity. It was also home to an uprising of its own. More than a year before the citywide insurrection, residents fought back Nazi attempts to liquidate the ghetto in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, holding out for months before being massacred or shipped to death camps. The Museum of the History of Polish Jews provides a deep historical look at the rich history of the Jewish people in Poland, and what was lost. It did a great job of focusing on the centuries of gains in acceptance and tolerance that all came crashing down with the Nazi Regime. There was even a recreation of a Synagogue and much more about day-to-day life that gets lost in the statistics and tragedy of the war and concentration camps.
A few kilometers outside the city center is the strikingly beautiful Wilanów Palace. Set along a canal off the Vistula, it was built in the late 1600s and escaped the destruction that ravaged so much of the city during World War II. The bright yellow facade seems an odd choice at first, but fits in perfectly with the forested and flowered atmosphere. We wandered the gardens while waiting for our entry time for the museum interior. Then we spent a couple of hours admiring the spacious rooms and ornate halls, each filled to bursting with paintings, articles of clothing, and the occasional bizarre sculpture.
Powązkowski Cemetery, the most famous in the city, was just a block from our apartment. The grounds cover a staggering 100 acres and are the final resting place of as many as one million people. We visited often. It may seem strange, but the dense canopy, wandering paths, and yes, ornate mausoleums made this one of the most tranquil and elegant parks we’ve ever seen. The cemetery holds the tombs of some of Warsaw’s most famous citizens – scientists, artists, aviators, politicians. We admired the opulent statues and structures, and noticed many familiar family names (even a Tarczyński or two). Some headstones still appear to show bullet and shrapnel damage from the war over 70 years later.
Looming over the center of the city, the Palace of Science and Culture is one of the more identifiable buildings in the skyline and still the tallest in Poland after more than half a century. A gift from the Soviet Union, Varsovians originally considered the building an eyesore (some still do) or saw it as a symbol of Soviet control. It has redeemed itself somewhat – today, it houses multiple museums, theaters, offices, and a 30th floor observation deck. We missed it during our initial stay, first by putting it off and then bad weather got in the way. So when we swung through town again the following year we made visiting a priority. The cool stone walls and slight breeze at altitude were a welcome relief from the heat of the summer day. Coupled with the impressive views – Old Town in the distance, Świętokrzyski Park below – we found it difficult to leave.
Food & Drink
Probably nowhere else offers the highest echelons of kielbasa and pierogi you’d expect from the capital of Poland, plus the diverse ethnic foods of an international and world-class city. While we enjoyed our tubed meats and cold cuts for what they were (phenomenal, by the way), the piquancy level was a bit low for our tastes. Which is exactly why we focused our limited dining out budget on getting our spice fix.
First we made the small mistake of getting Thai food at the mall. We were warned it would be “really, really spicy.” Maybe by Central European standards, but compared to Chiang Mai it was about as hot as white bread. Itch not scratched. Next we tried Mizu Sushi, highly rated on TripAdvisor and just a ten minute walk from our apartment. To our astonishment, the Polish guys running the place had incredible fish-handling skills. We devoured dragon, rainbow, and seasonal rolls and even quality tamago. We hadn’t had sushi since we left the US, and this stuff was incredible! Itch very much scratched. After that, the most unexpectedly good meal may have been the egg and shrimp sandwich at the National Museum of Art. Their cafe was in a cute garden setting at the back of the museum, and the menu was way classier and tastier than it had any right to be.
The local eats were good too, though. The smoked sausages and deli meats were the highlight. Even though we became aware of the brand earlier in our travels, there was something deeply entertaining about seeing Tarczyński meat with our own eyes in almost every store. Their kabanos looked like jerky, but with a distinct flavor and texture that we really enjoyed. The most ubiquitous product were the meat ropes with exotic flavors like chili, garlic, or onion. We gave them a couple chances, but they were really not our cup of tea. Continuing down the snack aisle, we had our first run-in with dill chips (very nice) and tried a few more regional flavors, like kebab and onion. Both were good choices, but the best flavor by far was Chakalaka. Poland also had the most unusual instant noodles of any stop so far. Instant borscht? Yep. Three minutes to from brick to fluorescent pink soup. What a time to be alive.
Polish food was good, but where they really hit it out of the park was with alcohol. Beer and vodka were the clear stars of the show here. Poland is solidly in the vodka belt, and it showed. A single aisle in any grocery store or mini mart held more varieties of vodka than we’d seen in our entire lives. When we tried a couple, they blew away all our preconceptions of the stuff. Every one was luscious and smooth beyond belief; the fact that “vodka” means “little water” finally made sense. The best surprise was discovering Żubrówka bison grass vodka. The grass infusion imparted a silky, sweet flavor that reminded us of vanilla or even hay. The stuff is apparently illegal in the US due to a negligible level of toxicity in a key ingredient, but in truth it was probably just banned for being too damn good.
The beer though… no words. They should have sent a poet. Where to even begin? Variety? Every brewery big or small takes a swing at every style under the sun. Miłosław had a great wheat, wit, and pilsner, while Komes and Kormoran brewed exceptional baltics. It wasn’t even a micro vs. macro thing – Żywiec is one of the biggest in the country and still knocked our socks off with their bock and porter. Cost? Beer here is cheap, from 2 to 6 zł ($0.50 to $1.50 US) per half liter in supermarkets and not much more out on the town. Quality? This was simply the best beer we’d ever had, across the board. Maybe the lowest tiers are up for debate – the average Czech or German lager beats a plain Warka or Tyskie – but the rest of the bench is so deep it doesn’t matter. And that’s before we even get into craft beers, like Czarny Kot or the eclectic lineup at Same Crafty. Prague may get most of the press, but for our money, Warsaw is the underrated beer capital of the world.
In all the local wine shops, we only found a single one willing to sell us Polish wine, a modest solitary riesling. It was… something we tried.
Warsaw may be a sprawling city, but it was easy to navigate. We used Uber↗ to get from the airport to our apartment, and several more times after that. The local bus system made it easy to get to the remote Wilanów Palace, and the streetcars came in handy anytime we were too tired to make the trek downtown ourselves. Machines vended the same long, skinny single-use ticked we were introduced to in Budapest. Another box onboard validated the tickets by printing a timestamp on them, good for a ride or a reasonable amount of time.
Our apartment host left us a pair of bicycles, which is always a nice gesture. We never did use them, but on our walks we noticed that the cycling infrastructure in the city was actually quite nice. We worry a bit about using something like that (what if it got stolen on our watch?), but we probably should have taken advantage.
For intercity travel, we finally got around to our first train ride on this trip by riding the rails to Kraków. Later, during our second short stay, we arrived from Prague via PolskiBus. The ride was nice enough, but unfortunately the bus dumped us several kilometers from the city center, on the outskirts of town. The ride out to Vilnius was much more convenient. Lux Express↗ left from right downtown, just outside of Warsaw Central Station.
Stuff of interest
We chose Play for our mobile provider↗. $5 got us SIMs with 3 gigs of data for the month and a huge bonus for the first few days we were there.
One of the most interesting things about Warsaw was the modern architecture on display. After the war, the Old Town was rebuilt as authentically as possible. But the rest of the city showcases an interesting mix of styles, from the brutalist boxes of the Soviet era to the glassy, swooping skyscrapers of today. Some of these buildings are among the tallest and most unusual on the continent.
Did you know Poland has an American football league? There are currently 7 top-league teams scattered throughout the country. Warsaw’s team is the Eagles (boring), Gdynia has the Seahawks (awesome), and Wrocław’s Panthers are sponsored by none other than Tarczyński! Fan for life.
Our visit coincided with the Summer Olympics, so we got to enjoy watching how another country covers the games. Not only did we get to see a lot more obscure events, how it was presented (from what we could tell, not speaking Polish) was much less nationalistic. I don’t think we could go back to the US version, where everything is draped the language of rivalries and metal races at the expense of international camaraderie.
What the heck is this, Poland? I thought we were friends.
What we learned
The strangest thing about Warsaw was realizing how much was familiar – not because Poland was like our home, but because our home was like Poland. It reminded us that what we considered “Midwest American” was really an assimilation of cultures from distinct immigrant communities. Just looking at the countryside, it was easy to see why Poles made Chicago their home, and why Warsaw felt like ours.