Warsaw, Poland and the Baltic Sea

Warsaw just plain flat-out blew me away: one incredibly beautiful, impressive city.

*****

I think this reaction and positive impression stems from the fact that my expectations of Warsaw were far and away exceeded… and then some. See, I had just visited Krakow – indisputably the most beautiful city in Poland; one of the most celebrated cities in Eastern Europe and among the most beautiful cities in the world thanks to its old-world charm. I was very impressed with Krakow and loved seeing the ancient architecture that escaped WWII destruction. 

The thing about Krakow is that it *met* my expectations: absolutely everyone I spoke with said “oh, you’re going to love Krakow; it’s so beautiful; such a great city.” On the flip side, not one person said anything nice about Warsaw: “It’s old, just a big city, nothing special, not like Krakow.” I thought that it would be neat to see Poland’s modern capital and largest city… but didn’t expect too much.

Well, let me be the first person to say that Warsaw was absolutely amazing! Maybe it is the nature of being completely pleasantly surprised and having my expectations exceeded that gives the impression extra points. I liked Warsaw from a tourist perspective; and from simply looking at the city, it seemed like a very nice place to be.

*****

Mercifully, the train ride from Krakow to Warsaw was only three hours versus the 10-hour marathon of discomfort we endured to get to Krakow. I even got to put my feet! Maryla said Warsaw station was nothing to be proud of: I thought it looked great. Maybe not as historic as some other stations, but it was actually in a better state of repair than Toronto’s run-down Union Station.

Setting out into the city itself, I was amazed at how alive and busy it felt. The immediate impression was of a world-class business metropolis: it felt a lot like downtown Toronto. Busy traffic on the wide streets, tonnes of pedestrian traffic, huge skyscrapers everywhere, and many cranes dotting the skyline signaling new growth. Warsaw seemed to pulse with life – certainly Poland has seen a lot of growth, and the growth is particularly noticeable in comparison to how things were during the Communist-era economic meltdown. When Poland joined the E.U., even more prosperity trickled in and Warsaw experienced a boom. Granted, not all of this prosperity has spread out across the country: Warsaw’s doing better than many other cities. But, compared to the dreary soviet-industrial impression that I got when first entering Poland, Warsaw felt fresh. I was definitely impressed.

*****

I think I became smitten with the city when we started venturing down Nowy Swiat (New World) Street. This is the most beautiful street in Warsaw; and I did not expect there to be anything so nice in a city that people described so negatively. During WWII, more than 85% of the city was completely leveled: I expected that it would have been rebuilt to a dreary Soviet-industrial modern look. Not so… amazingly, the streetscape along Nowy Swiat was meticulously restored to its original 19th-century appearance. It’s now a beautiful old-world European street with sidewalk cafes, nice storefronts and lots of activity.

All this is kicked up a notch when you reach the end of the street: Old Town Warsaw. The entire quarter was rebuilt after WWII to its original 13th-century appearance using plans and surveys from pre-WWII architecture students. The original bricks were used and items found in the ruble were returned to their original spots. I can only imagine how labourous the process must have been – but the results are stunning. You’d have no idea that this part of the city was reconstructed: it looks just like (maybe even better) than the old parts of Krakow. The reconstruction is so perfect that Old Town Warsaw was given UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

Curious fact: I knew Poland is extremely religious, and I saw churches everywhere. I did not expect to see two Catholic churches literally side by side, but I did in Old Town Warsaw.

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Beside the ancient defensive wall around Old Town Warsaw, I saw a famous statue that broke my heart: “The Little Insurgent.” It’s a statue of a little boy wearing army boots and helmet hopelessly too big for him. He represents the many child soldiers who fought in the Warsaw Uprising, the heroic battle against the occupying Nazis by underground Polish insurgents.

We also visited the new Warsaw Uprising museum that tells the history of how the underground Polish resistance tried to overtake the city from the Nazis. The Poles claimed much of he city, but after 63 days they were outnumbered and surrendered – with many lives were lost. Learning about the history, I was fascinated by the underground resistance and the fact that so much was organized against the Nazis despite the fact that the country was occupied. I learned about the Polish government-in-exile that helped plan the resistance, and I learned about how exiled Poles around the world were organized into a Polish Army that fought alongside the Allies in numerous WWII battles. I didn’t realize the full extent of how the Poles fought back despite their country being controlled by the Nazis… it was  a great lesson in history and pride for my ancestry. (I won’t go into much more of a history lesson here; I give a few more details of the Warsaw Uprising museum in my photo gallery).

I left Warsaw thoroughly impressed.

*****

After a shorter train ride back to Chojna (Chojna is closer to Warsaw than to Krakow), we rested a little bit and then went to the beach. Chojna is not too far from Poland’s northern Baltic Coast… and the beach was beautiful. We spent a nice day relaxing in sunny, warm weather. It was a great time of year to be in Poland; but the water was ice-cold! I enjoyed seeing some of the famous Baltic fishing activity and the many fish-smoking entrepreneurs all along the shore. Fresh smoked fish right at the beach…. mmm.

*****

This concluded my first visit to Poland: a vastly eye-opening and pride-inspiring learning experience to be sure. I’m amazed with all I saw and did, and indebted to my gracious hosts Maryla and Anna for opening their home and hearts to me. Though I’m not too much of a detailed history buff, seeing so much first-hand really gave me a big-picture appreciation for Poland’s remarkable past and exciting future… and how that all forms a part of my own identity.

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