Tag Archives: tips & tricks

Inside Warsaw: V-Ż

V is for VISTULA (Wisła) – The Wisła runs straight through Warsaw, south to north, heading for Gdansk. Whilst it is a significant feature of the city, it is more of an obstacle than an attraction. There is nothing especially pretty about it, there are no interesting developments on its banks and as the land is flat on both sides the river does not open up wide and interesting vistas from strategic vantage points. There is almost nothing to do ‘on’ the river either. No ferry rides or nice restaurants or tourist’s scenic tours, as far as I can see. You have to realise that this is most definitely NOT the Thames, Seine, Danube or any of the more worthwhile rivers flowing through the capitals of Europe. Not by a long chalk. In general terms, the west side of the river is where all the action is to be found. The east has some interesting parts but is generally seen as being poorer and a little bit smelly! For me, the most significant news item related to the Wisła has been the replacement of the old Syrena bridge with the new Most Świętokrzyski. The old bridge was erected by the army in 1985 supposedly only for use while the Poniatowski bridge was renovated. In fact, it lasted until the new bridge in that location was opened in 2000. I struggled to find pictures of the old army bridge, it was not very pretty so that’s perhaps why, but I did find a couple taken at time when the new bridge was built but the army bridge had not been demolished. (If anyone does have a good picture of the old army bridge, without the new bridge, would you let me know please).

Here follows the usual blurb about the Vistula: The largest river of Poland and of the Baltic sea drainage basin. Its branches include the Bug, Wieprz, San, Narew, Nida, Pilica, Brda, and Wierzyca rivers. It is 1,047km long and has a drainage basin of 194,500 square km. The source is found south of Bielsko-Biała on the northern slopes of the western Beskid range, in southern Poland, at an altitude of 1,106 metres. The average elevation of the Vistula basin is 590 feet above sea level; the mean river gradient is 0.10 percent, and the mean velocity is 2.6 feet per second. Climatic variations in the Vistula basin cause marked oscillations in the water level of the river, which averages 12 feet in the upper, 25 feet in the middle, and up to 33 feet in the lower reaches. Exceptionally heavy floods occurred in 1924, 1934, 1947, 1960, 1962, and 1970. Usually ice forms on the surface of the Vistula in the first half of January, breaking up toward the end of February. (not this year though) The mean annual temperature of the Vistula water is 46° F (8° C) in the upper reaches and 49° F (9° C). In winter the water temperature is 36° to 37° F (2° to 3° C); in summer it varies from 54° to 59° F (12° to 15° C). More than 40 kinds of fish exist in the Vistula. In the upper reach, turbot is the most common, with bream in the middle and lower reaches, and, in the waters of the estuary, salmon trout and vimba vimba. Despite the Vistula’s potential role as a transport link between the heavy industrial centres of southern Poland and the Baltic ports, navigational hazards have restricted its traffic.

W is for WARSAW GHETTO – Clearly, this is a topic for a few hundred books and not for this post, however, I should give it a mention as it is what many people visiting the city will have on their agenda. The ghetto was huge, the image below is a very helpful map for locating parts of the ghetto, click for large size. Some of the road layouts have changed since this time but you can work it out.

I didn’t know until looking at this map that what is now the Chinese Embassy is build on what used to be a brush factory (B). As far as I can tell, this factory was run by Walther Tobbens, a man who had been busy busy exploiting the plight of the Jews in Germany since 1933 and started operations here in 1941. At its height, Tobbens factories in the ghetto employed 6-8,000 people. As well a brushes, furs (Fritz Shultz company of Danzig (Gdansk)) & textiles were also produced in the ghetto. A days wages did not cover the cost of half a loaf of bread. Anyone with an eye on Chinese human rights issues will appreciate the irony of its Warsaw Embassy location.

I’ve actually spent a fair bit of my time in Warsaw in or very close to what was the old ghetto area. My in-laws actually live inside its boundaries, two of my offices have also been within the old ghetto area. One of the first things I did when I arrived was to try and find some remains of the ghetto. I followed the guide books carefully but was never really sure if I’d found something or not. Apparently there are remains of the old ghetto walls but I found them very hard to find.

X is for X MARKS THE SPOT – As the majority of the city was completely demolished during the war, especially the ghetto area above, this is the only way you are going to find what you’re looking for – “Here stood the yadda yadda” or “Here, in 1941, blah blah”. There are plaques and monuments scattered all over the city. For the Jewish history there is the “Path of Remembrance” that takes in such things as the location of the rail terminal for trains leaving to Auschwitz and many memorial stones discussing the events and heroes of the time. From a more Polish viewpoint there are memorial plaques all over the city usually commenting on who Hitler’s troops killed at this place and on what date. The one pictured below is a different style and content in that it talks about the immediate post-war period (1945-1954) and the thousands of Poles imprisoned, tortured and killed in this building by the “Ministry of Public Safety”, AKA communists stamping their authority on the city.

The sheer number of memorials really does give you a feeling for the history, in terms of the war and afterwards, of the city and the magnitude of personal suffering endured by the people of Warsaw. It is nice to see that most of them are well cared for, cleaned, repainted and have fresh flowers, flags and ribbons.

Y is for YOOF – There are a lot of young people in Warsaw, either for studying or for working. It is, in fact, hard to find people who were actually born and raised in Warsaw. The majority of people you talk to will have parents in far flung parts of Poland who they visit at times like Easter and Christmas or in the case of men, every two weeks to get their washing done! What’s nice about young people in Warsaw is that they don’t appear to be at all threatening. They drink, they take drugs, they have issues, but none of this seems to make them want to stab you with a screwdriver or give you any bother at all. I feel considerably safer here than I would do at home in the UK.

Z is for Z, Ź, Ż – What can I say? Polish is a strange language and with the letter Z being so popular they decided that they needed three of them! The first is a bit like a normal Z, the last sounds a bit like the “je” in the French “je ne sais quoi”, often confused in Polish with the letter combination RZ. The one in the middle is a kind of higher pitched version of the last one but has more of an “i” (as in igloo) going on at the end. Impossible for me to explain really! All you need to know is that every word, person, street or thing you are likely to encounter will have one of these letters at the beginning, a few in the middle and one at the end. Warsaw examples: I live in Żoliborz (similar sound at the beginning and end but one’s a Z and the others RZ, tricky eh?), I like to visit Łazienki park (bringing in another wild card with the ZI combination!), I often drive down Żelazna street (this one actually has a normally pronounced Z in the middle). I could go on all night, but I won’t.

Well, that’s the end of the alphabet, I hope you enjoyed it. When I’ve done a little research I’ll be back with “Warsaw by Numbers”. Stay tuned!

Personal blog’s here by the way.

Tagged , , ,

Inside Warsaw: Q-U

Q is for Q – You have to feel sorry for the letter Q. Not terribly popular in the English language, it is pretty much completely ignored po polsku. It is in the Polish alphabet but it’s one of those strange letters you might not even bother saying on your way from A-Ż. My “Great Polish-English Dictionary” goes directly from “pyzaty” (chubby, full-faced) to “rab” (servant, slave). It doesn’t even have a ‘Q’ title with “nie ma” written underneath. Looking at the index of my DK Eyewitness guide to Warsaw, there is only one entry for ‘Q’ and that is “Qchnia Artystychnia”, which is a restaurant I mentioned earlier as being a good place for kaszanka, or indeed anything. The restaurant can be found at the rear (possibly originally the front?) of the Ujazdowski Palace which any taxi driver will be able to find for you. When you end up in the car park, make your way round to the other side (facing you in the picture below), it is not exactly well signposted. Just to give you a clue, it is about 15 minutes walk from the Sheraton Hotel and right across the street from Łazienki park. More on this general area can be found below under ‘U’.

The palace today is primarily given over to the Warsaw Museum of Modern Art. We have wandered around the museum a few times and, although some of the exhibits leave me cold, it is generally a rewarding experience and gives more evidence of the artistic talent that can be found in Poland. There is a shop where you can buy things of a ‘modern’ verging on weird nature made by students and artists. In browsing for this article, I found this article about the new Modern Art Museum to be built next to the Pałac Kultury as part of the master plan to revitalise the centre of Warsaw. [pause while I laugh my arse off] Well, reading this article is very enlightening. Firstly in the way that it shows exactly the kind of development that is badly needed around the PK. Secondly because it gives in the last paragraphs an insight into the political nonsense that stops any development happening and is still happening – start year 2006-2007 – yeah, right! I know it is easy and popular to have a go at politicians, but Warsaw really does need to get its act together on all this stuff, and fast.

R is for RAJEWSKI, Czesław – who, as he was one of the architects, I am using as a lame excuse to talk about “Stadion Dziesieciolecia”, “Tenth Anniversary Stadium” or as everyone in Warsaw knows it, “The Russian Bazaar”. This was built in 1954-5 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the end of the war, or more likely, 10 years of soviet rule. It has been little used in its lifetime, most notably perhaps being the opening ceremony of the World Festival of Youth in 1955. After that it gradually fell into disrepair until in around 1989 when it became Europe’s largest open-air market. Today it remains as a marketplace, the sleaziest in town and indisputably the place to go if you’re looking to pick up a second hand AK-47. It might also be a good place to buy software at surprisingly low prices, but I wouldn’t know about that. You can find the stadium on the other side of the river in the Saska Kępa area.

S is for STREET MARKET– These pop up all over Warsaw but the one I’m best acquainted with is close to Hala Mirowksa on Al. Jana Pawła II, just the other side of Elektoralna. It is not a daily occurrence and I’m afraid I don’t know on which days it does occur so you’ll just have to go every day and hope for the best! The general idea is to spread a blanket on the pavement, or if you’re a rich trader you can set up a little folding table. On this you spread your wares and wait for the punters. It is a bit like a garage or boot sale but for people who can’t afford garages or boots. The range of items on sale is what you expect to find when poor people sell whatever they can find to other poor people.

T is for TYLMAN van Gameren – Another architect but this time one who was instrumental in the design of numerous, mostly Baroque and Neo-Classical, buildings, primarily palaces and churches in Warsaw and throughout Poland. As the name suggests, he was Dutch, born in Utrecht and then fell in with the Polish hoity toity of the time, mainly Prince Lubomirski. The list of his works is impressive. The ones I am most familiar with in Warsaw are St Casimir’s Church in the new town square, Krasinski Palace close to the monument for the Heroes of the Uprising, which now contains antique prints and manuscripts for the National Library and the small hermitage building at Łazienki park.

U is for UJAZDOWSKIE – This whole area is a good one to take a walk around. The street itself is home to numerous government buildings, embassies & palaces. There is also Ujazdowskie park on this street which is my second favourite after Łazienki (which is accessible from further down the street). There is a very nice walk to be had from Łazienki park, past Ujazdowskie Palace and then winding your way around the back of the Sejm (Parliament) and then further, behind the Sheraton Hotel all the way to Aleja 3ego Maja from where you can cut up to Nowy Swiat and continue along to the old and new town squares. One of, if not the, nicest walks in Warsaw. Probably about an hour one way.

Tagged , , ,

Inside Warsaw: L-P

L is for LOOKOUT – If you want to get a panoramic view of Warsaw, the only place to go is to the viewing floor of the Pałac Kultury, at 238m high remains the tallest building in the city. On a good day the view is excellent. The day I took the photo below was not a good day but you can get the general idea. The picture is a link to a gallery with more of these and also some better ones taken from the roof of the Rondo 1 office block, which is not somewhere you can get to but is close to the Pałac K. There is another small viewing tower close to Ziggy’s column in the old town. You don’t have the height of PK but it still gives a good view of the surrounding area, especially the old town.

M is for MARIENSZTAT – a rather strange part of Warsaw that always has a sort of ‘deserted’ feel about it. It lies at the northern end of the ‘Powiśle’ district, which is the low-level area that lies between the Wisła-Strada highway (next to the river) and the higher ground where you will find the old town and indeed the rest of Warsaw. Mariensztat is bounded by “Most Śląsko-Dąbrowski” to the north, the river to the east, Krakowskie Przedmieście up the hill to the west and either Bednarska or Karowa streets to the south. The street Ulica Mariensztat runs right through the middle and was originally formed as a route from the Cistercian (or Bernardine) monastery on Krakowskie Przedmieście to Ulica Dobra. The area dates back to the 18th century and is named after Maria Kątstka as her husband got the land as part of her dowry. The rather German “sztat” was added to please the Saxon king. Rumour has it that this area was notorious for bordellos and bare-knuckle boxing matches. To be honest, I think that’s what it needs right now because it’s pretty boring as it is! It has a small square from the mid 19th century when it was the main market square of Powiśle, but it’s not used for anything today as far as I have seen. There are a few pubs looking onto the square that do decent enough drink and grub but sitting by the exit/entrance ramps for the bridge don’t help the outdoor ambiance. The area was completely demolished in the war but rebuilt immediately afterwards in the original 18th century style and was, in 1948, the very first housing complex to be built post-war and held up as a shining example of socialism at work. It features in a film “Przygoda Na Mariensztacie”. Very close to this area you can find a good hospital in which to have a baby, a good school, a strange new building supposedly very secret and something to do with security of the nation (at the bottom of the 100+ year old viaduct of Stanisław Markiewicz) and a little further down Ul. Dobra, the new Warsaw University library. Most famous of all, of course, is my sister-in-law’s accountancy office! However, if you find yourself stranded in this area, the best thing you can do is walk up the steep and cobbled street Bednarska, which has a few interesting shops and restaurants, and get yourself back to civilisation!

N is for NEVSKY – the Nevsky Cathedral is my most amazing find in terms of architectural mysteries of Warsaw. Built between 1894 and 1912 by the Imperial Russian authorities, slap bang in the middle of Saski Place, now Plac Piłsudskiego. Talk about going out of your way to piss another nation off! When it was completed, it was 70m high and the tallest building in Warsaw. Shortly after Poland gained independence as a result of the end of WWI, the Nevsky was demolished. It had stood there for less than 15 years! I know its demolition was sort if inevitable, but I think it’s a shame it happened. As far as I can work out, when Pope JPII did his thing in Plac Piłsudskiego in 1979, he was right above the foundations of Nevsky.

O is for OLD TOWN – I can’t take Warsaw’s old town seriously I’m afraid. To me, an “old town” needs to be “old” and Warsaw’s was built in the 1950s. Fair enough, it’s nobody’s fault but the Germans who razed the place and the Russians who stood and watched while they did it but nevertheless, it’s not old. On the plus side, it was built precisely according to the original plans and so it does look like it once looked but the current state of repair suggests that the materials available in the 50s were clearly not up to the same standard as those used when it was first established in the 13th century. Remember that Warsaw Old Town is really two places – the old old town and the new old town. The new old town is not quite as old as the old old town, it was built in the 15th century, but in my opinion it is a nicer area to walk around. If you wander enough around the new town area, you’ll be sure to bump into the church where I got married and also my in-law’s apartment. In fact, we got married in the new old town and had the reception in the old old town! You get to the new old town by walking through the Barbican gate and along Ulica Freta. Watch out for the morons dressed up and pretending to want to chop your head off on the way. They are a pain in the pupa but have been there for a few years now and show no signs of going away. Must be good business. Just behind where they hang out is the restaurant I mentioned as being good for herrings and stuff. Click the picture for a gallery of old town (old and new) shots.

P is for PAWIAK – a famous prison in Warsaw built by the tsarist authorities between 1829 and 1835. It was operational until 1939. During the January Uprising it was used as a transfer camp for Poles sentenced to forced resettlement to Siberia. After Poland regained independence in 1918 it became the main prison for male criminals in Warsaw. After the German invasion of Poland in 1939 it was turned into a German Gestapo prison and then part of the Warsaw concentration camp. Approximately 100 000 men and 20 000 women passed through the prison, mostly members of the Armia Krajowa, political prisoners and civilians taken as hostages in łapankas. Approximately 37 000 of them were shot while further 60 000 were sent to German death and concentration camps. The final transport of prisoners took place shortly before the Warsaw Uprising, on July 30, 1944. 2 000 men and the remaining 400 women were sent to Gross-Rosen and Ravensbrück. After the area was secured during the Warsaw Uprising and subsequently again lost to German forces, on August 21 an unknown number of remaining prisoners was shot and the buildings burnt and blown up. The exact number of victims is unknown since the archives were never found. The building was not rebuilt after the war. Today it is a museum and you can find it at the junction of Jana Pawła II and Dzielna. For various reasons, the power of the Jewish lobby amongst them, most visitors to Warsaw will be aware of the Jewish ghetto and go in search of it. This place is an example of the non-Jewish suffering that was just as terrible although far less publicised.

This tree “of remembrance” is an exact replica of the original one that stood in the same spot but became too weak to maintain.

Tagged , , ,

Inside Warsaw: G-K

G is for GOD – In Warsaw, almost all of God’s real estate is Catholic. No big surprise there then. Walk in any direction for about 10 minutes and you should see a church. They’ll be the buildings that are too big for the situation they find themselves in. The modern ones come in a variety of architectural styles that could best be grouped under the category of “Oops my pencil slipped”. If you’re planning on going to church, book early to avoid disappointment. If you happen to be of some other persuasion, I’m sure you can find a place to visit but I wouldn’t expect you to have a big choice. The only one I’ve visited that was not Catholic is the big Russian Orthodox one in Praga, close to the Carrefour junction where we attended a wedding. I like the idea of standing up the whole time, saves you the embarrassment of dropping off and snoring mid service! G is also for GREY & GREEN. The two colours of Warsaw, six months each. Green from May to October, grey November to April. Broadly speaking.

H is for HERRING – the almighty śledź! These are definitely an acquired taste. Before coming to Poland I wouldn’t touch them with a very long bargepole but now I love them to death. They are served as cold fillets that have been soaked in oil and with a variety of “sauces” ranging from simple oil & onions to creamy yoghurt sauces. They are not usually rolled, as in the Scandinavian roll-mops. Common as an appetiser in many restaurants, particularly those with a Polish or Germanic twist but they also nearly always make an appearance on the table at home. Watch out though, if anyone suggests you try a pastry with a śledź inside, politely decline. They are disgusting! A good place to get a plate full of herring is the Kompania Piwna restaurant near the old town. Our daughter is bestest friends with the owner’s daughter, not that this has resulted in any discounts yet, but it is a good place to eat especially if you’re hungry as the portions are immense!

I is for Island 1 – Polandian’s very own ‘Island’ lives in Kraków. So for most people from Warsaw he would be a “jerk” who can’t get over the fact that Ziggy moved the capital from Kraków to Warsaw and keeps banging on about his university and town square and stuff. Fact is that Warsaw is where it’s at, unless you’re a tourist, or part of a British stag party. ;)

J is for JULY – July is the beginning of “holiday season” which lasts until September. People in Warsaw take their holiday season seriously. The hardest part of it is working out how you can keep your kids occupied and in the great outdoors for three months while you both still have to go to work. Yes, in the same way the children of Britain were evacuated during the war, the kids of Warsaw do this every year for three months. They are packed off to stay with little known relatives who live in the woods and then moved around the country’s ozone rich places until September comes and they can come back home and go to school. All very healthy stuff, you know. When I first arrived here, Warsaw would be a ghost town on any weekend during holiday season. I mean you had the place to yourself. Nowadays the pressure of the evolving rat-race means that it is a lot busier than back then, but it is still considerably quieter than other times. The weather is usually glorious with plenty of sunshine and temperatures up in the 20’s (often 30’s) for weeks on end. As the sun beats down relentlessly the housing blocks warm up and everyone goes in search of an electric fan and wonders why they haven’t installed A/C yet. J is also for JAZZ. Poles like jazz and are very good at playing it too. July & August is the regular time for the Warsaw open air jazz festival. Well worth a visit.

K is for KRZYŻY – famous for the completely unpronounceable Plac Trzech Krzyży (or Three Crosses Square) in Warsaw. British mouths were simply not made to say such words. It is a square I have found myself walking or driving across thousands of times as it is at the junction of so many places or directions I need to head in. Lots to do around here. If you enjoy skateboarding there’s a regular gang that hangs around outside the Sheraton. I even took a picture of them once (click for larger), I messed around with it in Photoshop.

More Warsaw stuff can be found at 20 east.

Tagged , , ,

Inside Warsaw: A-F

This will be A-Z, but in stages.

A is for APTEKA – An Apteka is a Chemist / Pharmacy. Poles are hypochondriacs so it won’t take you long to find one but when you do there will be a big queue. Drugs are fun, so expect most people in the queue to wish to hold a conversation about what’s new and sexy on the drug scene. Those who don’t want to do that will wish to have a conversation about how to get the same things for half the price or about why their prescription has a bad date on it. They sell everything you could possibly want. They like selling new drugs imported from Switzerland, which cost a fortune. The staff generally do a pretty decent job.

B is for BOLEKBolek was Lolek’s mate. They are cartoon characters. There’s a good bar named after them in “Pole Mokotowskie”, which is not a great park but is a big green thing near the centre of town. The bar is far better in spring or summer as it is mostly open air. They do decent food and have a BBQ going most of the time. You can approach it by car from Zwirki i Wigury (the road that goes to the airport). The entrance is where they have recently built a “Jeffs” restaurant.

C is for CATS – if you like cats there are plenty of wild ones to be found. Most of them live in the basement rooms of the apartment blocks but the name they are known by has something more to do with living under roofs as far as I can tell (dachowiec?). It also stands for KOTY (Cats) the musical at Teatr Roma. This theatre does a great job with all its productions so its well worth popping along. The best place to buy tickets is the theatre box office to the left of the theatre on Nowogrodzka. Lastly, C is for Cheese. Polish cheese is easy to spot, it is all square, yellow and rubbery but has 25 different names. Unless you need it to glue together a toasted sandwich, leave it alone! I’m being unfair on Polish cheese in general, but most of the good stuff is hard to find in Warsaw. There’s a good shop just across the street from Popiełuszko’s church in Żoliborż that sells country cheese as well as meats and stuff. I’ll leave you to explore and find it!

D is for DONKEYS – if you like donkeys, don’t come to Warsaw. I’ve never seen one here, not even in the zoo. The zoo is on the other side of the river in bandit country. If you want a day at the zoo when in Warsaw, get up early and catch a train to either Gdansk or Berlin.

E is for ERRATIC – you will notice that drivers in Warsaw become very much this when; 1/ it rains or snows, 2/ it is the weekend, 3/ it is a bank holiday. The rest of the time the driving is poor, but predictably so. It is also for EAR BASHING, which is what you’ll get if you visit any government department, post office, 25% of shops or try to take your child out for a walk without three layers more clothing than you though was appropriate for the weather conditions.

F is for FLOWERS – the people of Warsaw love flowers. They are a part of every occasion – life, death, birthdays, name days, whatever. You can find them everywhere from shops to kiosks, street markets, outside graveyards. They tend to be quite a lot more expensive in the florist shops than other places but they do make good bouquets. I buy most of mine on the street outside Hala Mirowska on Jana Pawła II which is the closest you can get to wholesale and so you get a lot for your money and there’s a very good choice. Apart from bunches, there are many options for made up arrangements in baskets, which are also very popular. You need to be a little careful with the choice of flowers though. Red carnations (any carnations really) are communist flowers and there’s a whole bunch of others that are really only good for funerals or for old women. Also very quaint are the people selling home made small bouquets of what look like flowers they hand picked in the forest glades that morning, and might very well be exactly that! They generally hang out down the side of Hala Mirowska and might also have a few 1950s broken electrical items, old socks, dolls with the head missing, to flog as well as the flowers. Whatever they managed to scrabble together before catching the bus for Warsaw basically. The variety of these wild flowers is amazing. Watch out for the sunflowers as they tend to come complete with bees! Obviously the spring / summer is the best time and much lower prices but you can buy all year round.

Tagged , , ,