10 January 2011

Our Honeymoon Daytrip in Warsaw-Warszawa

Photo by Mike McHolm

On our honeymoon, my husband and I flew from the US to Warsaw.  From Warsaw, we planned to drive to my hometown.  But first, we all walked a bit through Warsaw after leaving the airport. 

I will be very honest right now.  When I thought of Warsaw prior to this trip, I thought of a city which frankly left me puzzled and a bit angry.  Yes, angry.  You see, Warsaw is Poland's current capital, prior to Warsaw the capital was magical Krakow and before that it was the legendary "birthplace" of Poland and later, the site where Poland and her country became irrevokably Catholic, Gniezno (literally, meaning "The Nest", as in an eagle's nest).

By comparison, Warsaw is new.  New buildings, roads, everything.  It's all steel, concrete, metal, glass.  At least, that was all I ever saw going from the airport to the car and driving straight out in the afternoon, jet lagged and not interested in exploring.  I just couldn't understand why the Polish people would want their capital to be so, capitalistic, in appearance.  Sure the buildings are beautiful in their modern architecture but I'm personally not "into" modern architecture but rather, prefer historic.

Warsaw Trade Tower
Photo by Adam Fagen 

But, when you consider it's history, you get a sense of the bigger picture.  For 200 years, Poland was occupied by Austria, Prussia and Russia, then thrust into the middle, literally, of the Great War as the three nations battled over their borders and territories, between one another and against the Allies.  Following that, only briefly was Poland given back what was rightly Poland's, before the Nazis marched in.  World War II saw Warsaw being ripped apart, with 80% of it's buildings destroyed.  After the War, Poland was handed over to Soviet Russia and the Soviets did what they wanted with rebuilding Poland.  That included the metal, glass, and concrete.  Because that was what Socialist Realism and Communist Architecture is, after all.

But, apparently, I owe Warsaw an apology, because...

We peeled back the top layer of Warsaw and found it's heart.  Warsaw can be for lovers.  It's romantic.  It's filled with amazing and inspiring history and architecture.  It is also filled with sad, profoundly sad history and monuments.

I can tell you about the various sights in no particular order simply because I was so taken by surprise by Warsaw that it was a fantastic blur, with my memory recalling it all but not in chronological order.

We stopped to look at the King Zygmunt III Waza Column (Kolumna Zygmunta III Wazy) and my Wujek explained it's history to us, with my translation lacking dates because I am terrible at Polish numbers and months, no matter how hard I try.

Warsaw sqaure
Photo by Alan Light

Inside the Warsaw Royal Palace, we wandered from room to room, my Wujek and cousins telling us about the history around us, myself feeling like I should know all of it as well as they do, but I don't.  We came upon a group of elementary school students who were on a school field trip and were sittng on the floor in a magnificent room listening to their teacher.  They were saying the names of the various kings and rulers of Poland as the teacher held up pictures of them.  I looked at my husband and whispered "I can't tell you all of the U.S. Presidents, can you?"  He shook his head. 

He was particularly fascinated, while walking through the museum, by a suit of armor worn by the famous Hussari (pronounced Hoo-Sahr-ih, in English Hussars).  To this day, that was one of his favorite highlights of his trip.  I believe he may actually one day get a tattoo of their wings on his back, which would be fantastic.

We walked around to a church where Pope John Paul II had prayed.

Through a doorway in what was the defensive wall of Old Warsaw, we strolled hand in hand and I translated as best I could (after all, I am terrible with translating dates), his eyes changed their perspective.  He saw that Poland was full of beauty, culture, history, amazing things to see and absorb.  And, I hope, he started to understand who I am, where I come from, and why this was so important to me that we made this trip.

We walked around the Barbican, or Barbakan, which is a gatehouse of red brick dating from the 16th century and which separates the Old Town from the New Town.  At the time, some maintenance was being performed on it and what I believe was the moat area around it.  He commented that it looked like out of a movie, which I can understand, it does have a feel of "Robin Hood" or other end of the Medieval Era buildings about it.

The Warsaw Barbican - Barbakan Warszawski
Photo by Iwona Erskine-Kellie 

After walking through a gateway with sections of Warsaw's 14th century defensive walls visible, which to me is one of the thrilling charms of Poland, the constant peek-a-boo with history, we browsed through an antique store charmingly tucked into a corner and filled with items which could easily have been up to two centuries old. 

Overlooking several residential buildings on a light stone terrace,we stopped for a time to absorb one of many views while my cousin tossed a bit of bread to some bickering and well-fed sparrows and we discussed the drive to my hometown. 

We stopped to pay quiet homage to the famous statue A Boy Insurgent, and I thought about how my grandfather must have suffered mentally to have lived through World War II as a young boy in Poland.  I didn't have the words to say to my husband but I could only think "What lucky times we live in now to know that our future children in, hopefully, not suffer so much as those poor children did then".  I guess that's a part of being Polish, going about your daily existence and, here and there, being reminded of sadder times.

My Wujek told my husband that the symbol of Warsaw was a mermaid, which confused him as we were "not by the water".  However, my Wujek pointed out the River Vistula, or Wisla, and said "Yes, we are, that river goes to the Baltic Sea and there is a legend about this mermaid.  Some say her sister went to Copenhagen while she swam to Gdansk and eventually up the Wisla to what was then the village of Warsaw.  She was eventually captured by a greedy merchant but set free by Wars (the mermaid's name being Sawa) and vowed to always protect the village from harm.  Another legend, a prince was directed to a hut on the Wisla by the mermaid, where she blessed the area and vowed to protect it, and from there the city of Warsaw began.  Either way, she is said to protect Warsaw forever."  I love that story.  We saw the symbol of the mermaid all over Warsaw in our travels.

Warsaw Siren
Photo by s3k

As we drove through Warsaw to leave, he commented that Warsaw to him in many areas seemed very similar to New York, in the style of the buildings, the dress and manner of it's people all looking as though they had important business to attend to, it's traffic, and general feeling.  It is how I felt about Warsaw until that day trip. 

He also saw his first Eastern bloc residential buildings.  To him, it seemed very different from what someone would expect in an ancient country like Poland.  To be honest, they do as well to me, however, they are a part of Polish history, beautiful or not.

We drove past Warsaw's Palace of Culture and Science.  I pointed it out to my husband and my Wujek stated that many called it "Stalin's Penis".  I have to laugh at the name, because some don't like to use that word for it, but if you understood at the time how people felt about Stalin, Communism, and it's affect on Poland, it was a true example of Polish humor regarding Communism at the time. 

I do caution you, it isn't as common but occasionally a Pole will ask a foreigner what they think of the Palace of Culture and Science.  Some Poles think it's beautiful or a symbol of Polish history, like it or not, others hate it.  Your best answer is to say something like "I'm not sure what to make of it" or "It's different" or something like that.  You can't go wrong with vague and polite.

Photo by Huzhead

When we left Warsaw, I was so thankful to my Wujek and cousins for allowing me to see that city through different eyes than ever before.  Without their knowledge of the sights, I would never have explored Warsaw to find out what it truly was.  I suppose now, Warsaw seems a tremendously appropriate representation of what it is to be Polish.  After all, it is known as the "Phoenix City" for it's remarkable recovery, and to me, that is a great way to describe Polish people.

If you enjoyed this, please feel free to read about My Husband's First Polish meal.

Also, please check out our trip Mushroom Picking in the Polish Mountains.

And the funny story about my husband's experience at a well known restaurant in Poland.

The photos used in this post are not my own as all of our pictures of Warsaw include myself, my husband, Wujek and cousins, and I don't have permission by them to share their pictures. 

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