Warsaw is Poland’s cosmopolitan city of the future

The rough diamond has evocative views, an epic history, and low prices.

By Rick Steves, Tribune Content Agency

Warsaw, the capital of Poland, does not appear at the top of the wish lists of many European travelers. But that’s just one of the reasons you might want to visit. With evocative sights, an epic history and low prices, Warsaw is a diamond in the rough.

If you’re looking for Old World charm, head to Krakow. If the spiers and domes tickle you, head to Prague. But if you want to experience a true 21st century city, Warsaw is your place. Huge, famous and important, Warsaw is the country’s cosmopolitan business center.

Warsaw has good reasons to be a city of the future: the past has not been very good. Since becoming the capital of Poland in 1596, Warsaw has seen successive waves of foreign rulers and invasions, especially over the past hundred years.

But in this horrible melting pot, the lasting spirit of the Polish people was forged. As one proud local told me, “Warsaw is ugly because its history is so beautiful.

The city’s darkest days came during the Nazi occupation of WWII. First, its Jewish residents were forced to take refuge in a small ghetto. They rose up… and were slaughtered. Then its Polish inhabitants rose up… and were slaughtered. In retaliation, Hitler ordered the block-by-block destruction of the city.

As the Nazis destroyed the city, the approaching Soviets sat across the river, watching and waiting. As the smoke cleared and the Nazis retreated, the Red Army entered and claimed the rubble pile that was once Warsaw. It will be another 45 years before the Soviets leave and the Poles can freely rule their capital and their country.

After the war, they almost gave up on recreating old Warsaw, but eventually the Poles decided to rebuild, building a city of contrasts, with carefully restored medieval alleys, pedestrian-friendly parks and elegant skyscrapers.

Warsaw today is safer, richer and happier than ever (they even dodged the Great Recession). You’ll meet smartly dressed locals, sophisticated shopping boulevards, and thoughtful museums spanning WWII, Jewish history, hometown composer Frederic Chopin, and Polish art.

The city has two historic districts: the old town from the 13th century and the new town from the 15th century. Both are almost complete reconstructions of the 20th century, down to the jumbled charm of colorful buildings. Barely two generations after the war, it is amazing to see Germans and Russians on vacation strolling the Old Town Square joking, tasting ice cream cones and taking photos.

The countless restaurants in the historic district offer a good introduction to Polish cuisine and the national drink, vodka. Many traditional dishes – herring, cold meats, pickles, steak tartare – go naturally with chilled vodka. I learned that the Poles don’t drink their vodka. It’s from the bottom up (that way it only stings once on the way down).

For me, the pleasure of Warsaw is simply to connect with its inhabitants of the big cities, as warm and charming as the inhabitants of the small towns. Poles love Americans – they see us as big brothers and sisters across the Atlantic. When the Communist government gave the people a shot at representative government in 1989, the “Take out the Vote” poster showed Gary Cooper from “High Noon” – holding not a gun, but a voting card.

Remnants of Warsaw’s former magnificence appear in the immense and idyllic Lazienki Park. It is dotted with neoclassical buildings, peacocks and young Poles in love. The very last king of Poland built the park in the 18th century for his summer residence and as a place of relaxation for its citizens.

A monument to Chopin, the great romantic composer and favorite son of Poland, adorns the park’s rose garden. Even though Chopin left Warsaw for Paris, his last wish was to bring his heart back to his native Poland. And so it was after his death in 1849. He now rests in a pillar of the Holy Cross Church in Warsaw (the rest of him is buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris).

The locals always proudly celebrate the composer’s music. On a recent visit, I attended an informal Chopin Lounge – an intimate evening of beautiful music, wine and cheese hosted by my bed and breakfast. Joining a group gathered around a brilliant grand piano, listening to young artists perform Chopin’s studies, it was “very Warsaw”.

Besides listening to Chopin, eating apples has become a patriotic act here. In response to international sanctions triggered by the conflict in Ukraine, Russia has suspended imports of fresh produce from the European Union, including Poland. Today Poland is full of apples grown for export to Russia. Standing in Warsaw’s Old Town Square, knowing how the Red Army looked across the river as the Nazis razed the city, it’s especially poignant to see fiery Poles eating apples to irritate Putin.

The resilience of Polish culture and the warmth of its people inspire me. Fortunately, these are good times in Poland, a nation with a rich past and an exciting future.

IF YOU ARE GOING TO

SLEEPING:Hotel Le Regina offers tempting luxury in the quiet and charming new town (splurge, leregina.com). Chopin Boutique B&B has more comfort and class than hotels twice its price (moderate, bedandbreakfast.pl).

TO EAT: A. Blikle, Poland’s most famous pastry shop, serves delicious “paczki”, the quintessential Polish donut (Nowy Swiat 35). Pierogarnia na Bednarskiej boasts that “only our grandmothers make better pierogi” – the classic Polish dumpling (near the old town in Bednarska 28-30).

MOVE : It seems to take forever to walk a few “short” blocks in Warsaw. It is worth getting acquainted with public transport (ztm.waw.pl).

MORE INFORMATION: warsawtour.pl.

Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com), based in Edmonds, writes European travel guides and hosts travel shows on public television and radio. His column appears weekly on seattletimes.com/travel.


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