The city that rose from the ashes
Trip Start Oct 08, 2010
12Trip End Nov 09, 2010
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We had a near full day journey from Vilnius, Lithuania to Warsaw, the capital of Poland, with a train to the Lithuanian-Polish border, bus to the next train station, then another train to Warsaw (Lithuania and Poland use different track gauges, hence, the need to change trains). We arrived at the Hotel Hetman about 9pm, and after depositing our bags, it was off to the restaurant across the road for a fantastic Chienese meal of pick-your-own ingredients and sauces, and then watch them being cooked up into a delicious meal.
Following WWII, Poland endured decades of Soviet oppression. In 1978, the archbishop of Krakow in Poland was elected as Pope John Paul II, who soon after visited his homeland which was then behind the Iron Curtain. This event, along with the formation of the Solidarity trade union and ensuing strikes, led to the fall of communism and in 1990, the first democratically-elected Polish President, Lech Walesa.
Warsaw comprises the UNESCO World Heritage Old Town (which was virtually completely destroyed by the Germans towards the end of WWII), and a sprawling mass of drab Soviet-era buildings surrounding this. It is a large city and you could easily spend a week here, visiting the many buildings, museums, palaces and parks. There is a rich history behind the city and country to be discovered, as well as a cultural and artistic heritage.
The next day (Friday), we went on all day walking tour of the city seeing amongst others, the following:
In the market square stands the Warsaw Mermaid, the symbol of Warsaw which has been on the coat of arms for over 600 years.
Kanonia, a small square which houses the narrowest building in Warsaw (in medieval times, the amount of land taxes to be paid depended on the width of the external facade of a house), and a 17th century bell which has been reconstructed from cracked fragments and represents good luck if you circle it three times.
We visited the Warsaw Uprising Museum (a rather confusingly arranged musuem which has a wealth of material on the Uprising, including photographs, exhibits and audiovisual displays) and the striking Uprising Monument.
Following five years of Nazi occupation, Warsaw rose up in what would go on to be recorded as the largest ever uprising in the German occupied territories. Towards the end of WWII, with German morale in ribbons, a retreat from Warsaw in full swing, and the Russian Army on the east bank of the River Wisla (which separates Warsaw in two), Poland's Home Army launched a military strike with the aim of liberating Warsaw. In the event, the Red Army made no attempt to help the Poles and promises of Allied support proved largely empty. The Nazis reacted with rage to this Polish insolence, leading to an epic 63 day struggle during which the Home Army faced the full wrath of Hitler and the eventual razing to the ground of virtually all of Warsaw, which was left as the city of corpses and smouldering ruins. Following the eventual defeat of the Nazis, the Russians claimed the devastated Warsaw for their own, any resistance to their occupation having been wiped out during the Uprising.
Jewish Ghettoes: In 1940, the Ghetto Walls went up, 3.4m high and covering over 300 hectares, ~360,000 Jews from Poland and ~90.000 from surrounding areas were imprisoned within them. Out of these, ~300,000 were sent to Treblinka death camp and another 100,000 died of starvation within the walls. In 1943, the Nazis began a "final liquidation" of the Ghetto, resulting in an uprising by some of the residents. This uprising was violently suppressed by the Germans. Nearly all survivors were killed on the spot and the Jewish quarter of the entire area bulldozed to the ground. Plaques are dotted around former points of Ghetto wall and iron plates in the ground mark the wall.
Prozna Street: The only remaining Ghetto street still featuring all the tenement houses. Pictures of former inhabitants now adorn the walls.
On Friday evening, we had a meal at Podwale - Kompania Piwna and it was the final meal for another of our brethren as Sandra was leaving the next morning. It was a meat lover's feast and I had a mixed grill, the size of which would put anything back home to shame. Peter's eyes proved too big for his stomach (which is surprising considering the size of the latter) as he ordered 1kg of pork knuckle and appeared to have half a pig left over on his plate.
A free day on Saturday and it was a beautiful sunny day so me and Peter headed off to the Old Town to visit a few more sights and had a beer in a cafe by the main square:
Chopin is Warsaw's most famous former inhabitant. His heart is preserved in one of the pillars in the Church of the Holy Cross, he died in Paris where the rest of his body is buried.
Palace of Science and Culture: Was given by Stalin as a gift from the Soviet Union to Poland. It is the tallest building in Warsaw and also is the highest clock tower in the world. Looks like the "Ghostbusters" building to me.
It was across the road in the evening for another Chinese make-your-meal buffet. We also had 5 new people joining us for this portion of the trip - an Australian couple (Marcus and Georgina), Hannah from Scotland, Margie from Australia, and Dr. Thomas from England. Oh, we managed to book the 5 litre lager tower, cool!
An early start the next morning at 8am with a 3 hour train ride to Krakow.