Warsaw: A City on the Rise
By Kent E. St. John
Senior Travel Editor
Ever since communism bowed out of the Eastern European equation, the triangle of Budapest, Vienna and Prague has attracted visitors in numbers. After a recent visit to Warsaw, Poland I suggest that the triangle be made into a square.
Warsaw is gearing up and doing it in the right way. It’s a beguiling city with a sense of humor, and after all of the trials and tribulations of the last world war it is also a miracle.
Warsaw’s old city was completely devastated during WWII but has been carefully rebuilt exactly as it was. Unlike many cities that have been rebuilt, there is no Disneyland feel, it seems as it should, real.
On my arrival on a Sunday I couldn’t help but notice the throngs entering the many churches in the city. Polish traditions were an enigma to party higher-ups in the Soviet Union. Stalin claimed that getting Poland to go communist was like saddling a cow.
It is perhaps tradition that makes Warsaw a wonderful place to visit. Sunday afternoon concerts are invariably focused on Chopin, and ice cream is a must on a sunny afternoon.
Vodka is the drink of the masses and still made the traditional way, clean and crisp. Warsaw just may make visiting the city a tradition in itself.
Old Time Charm
Though only technically a bit over 40 years old, the Old Town was rebuilt so perfectly that UNESCO granted it World Heritage status in 1980, and it is best seen from the central square.
The square is surrounded with buildings that represent a blend of Renaissance, Gothic and Baroque styles and is anchored with the Mermaid statue symbolizing Warsaw’s founding from the Vistula River.
The Historical Museum of Warsaw on the northern side is a great place to learn about the city’s turbulent past and its miraculous recovery.
Lively restaurants and shops make the old town a pleasure to explore.
Nearby is the Royal Castle that was also totally rebuilt and refurbished to exacting standards. The Nazis destroyed the original. In the mid 17th century it was one of Europe’s most splendid royal residences.
The two floors opened to the public are astounding in content and information on Poland’s royal past.
New Town, Old Feel
Just past the Barbican (old tower) is what is called the New Town, strange since it dates from the 14th century; its feel is much like the Old Town and its buildings are as historically accurate. In deference to Poland’s Catholic heritage six magnificent churches fill the area.
As you walk down the Main Street or Ul Freta you will see the birthplace of Maria Sklowowska, better know as Madame Marie Curie, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize for chemistry.
One landmark in the New Town just happened to be my hotel, the MaMaison Le Regina an 18th century style palace that also happened to be the US Embassy at one time. The hotel today is a perfect example of just what Warsaw is undertaking, building quality while keeping tradition. Its location also put me right in the heart of Warsaw’s best sections.
A Royal Walk
There is a three-mile stretch that begins in front of the Royal Castle that will take you past some of Warsaw’s must see places. Better yet, much of the walk is pedestrian-only and filled with shopping and dinning options.
The Krakowski Predmiecie is the first part of the Royal Way and is where the majority of churches and the Warsaw University can be found.
The pillar of the Holy Cross Church is where Frederic Chopin’s heart is entombed. This section ends with the statue of Nicolaus Copernicus and the Academy of Science.
Nowy Swiat section is one of Warsaw’s busiest commercial areas and its buildings date from the 19th century. Nearby is the National Museum and Polish Army Museum. The blocking of traffic has allowed for outdoor cafes and restaurants.
A Royal End
Lazienki Park is the end of the Royal Way and where Polish royalty had their summer palaces. Perhaps the most picturesque is the Palace on the Water, or the Palac na Wyspie, done in the neoclassical style.
There is also a memorial to Chopin, and in season concerts are done in an amphitheater. The park is well laid out with paths and reservoirs and Warsaw’s citizens take full advantage of its beauty.
One very special spot in the park is the Belvedere Palace, once a presidential residence and now a fine restaurant complete with strolling musicians. It makes for a fantastic place for a Polish lunch and people watching. Best of all, the entire park is open to complete access and the tradition of family is on parade.
Comparatively, Warsaw had some of the worst of times in WWII out of all Europe’s cities. Two places to best get a feeling for those tough times is the Ghetto Heroes Monument and the Warsaw Rising Museum.
The museum documents the heartbreak for Warsaw’s Jewish population from the Ghetto’s inception in 1939. In 1943, when only 50,000 people were left in the ghetto, a desperate act of defiance against the Nazis took place. The monument is in dedication to those brave souls.
In an ironic twist it was partially built from Swedish granite that the Nazis imported for their own victory monument.
A lesser known tragic history was the Uprising in which the Nazis destroyed and killed thousands of the city’s population and destroyed all but 15% of the city.
Perhaps the saddest fact of all is that Stalin ordered his Army to watch from the other side of the Vistula River as the extermination raged.
For that reason it wasn’t until recently that the Warsaw Rising Museum came to fruition, after the collapse of Russia’s grip on Poland. The museum is a fascinating look into that period.
As I sat in the beautiful courtyard of the MaMaison Le Regina over a superb meal of venison and delicious local wine I had a chance to reflect on Warsaw and what it represented to me.
A city that has risen like a phoenix, yet resolute to not let the past disappear. Determination is the key word, and from the great service at the hotel to the man on the street it is used to make any visitor’s trip a pleasure.
I found the same pride displayed throughout the city. Walks among the people of Warsaw brought smiles and friendly greetings. I wished that my time in Warsaw could have lasted longer, the best compliment I could give.
Warsaw is vying for the title of European Capital of Culture in 2014. It surely has my vote!
Kent E. St John, GoNOMAD’s Senior Travel Editor, has circled the globe many times to report on exotic destinations. He is a correspondent for Around the World Radio which broadcasts in California and Australia. He frequently writes for Travel International, MSNBC, PreviewMA magazine. as well as several other media outlets. When he’s not traveling, he spends his time in Cottekill, New York, with his wife Lisa and his son Chance.
My stay at the MaMasion Le Regina was my second hotel from the MaMaision Group and was fantastic. My other stay was at the MaMaison Andrassy in Budapest, and both were perfect.
The hotel was stunning in detail yet comfortable. The effort used in rebuilding the one-time US Embassy into an oasis was evident and every one of its five stars is well deserved.
Its location was unsurpassed in Warsaw and I wouldn’t hesitate to check into any of their properties.
For more information about MaMaison Le Regina and its other properties throughout Eastern Europe check out their website.
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