Over the last couple of weeks we have seen quite a few of the 'Old Town' centres and done walks through them as well as a couple of guided tours. So we are looking for something a little different to do and Warsaw seems the place to do it.
We had enquired at the reception here at the Castle Inn about the tours available. We were handed a couple of brochures - and then saw a poster advertising
Do you want to see the real Warsaw?
Do you want to feel the socialist atmosphere of the City?
Experience an adventure in an amazing trip!"
See places regular tourist never go to. From an old vodka factory to a pre-war bazaar, from the Praga district to a socialistic flat . . .experience the relicts (sic) of socialism and feel the atmosphere of a pre-war city. Relax in an old milk bar enjoying the best Polish cuisine. Explore Warsaw in an original Socialistic car!"
Sounded great! A 10 am departure is within our limits and a 3 hour tour sounds just perfect, so we ask them to book us tickets. 300 PLN poorer later (€37.50 each) we have our ticket in hand. They will collect you at the hotel we are told.
And so this morning is a little cooler and an earlier start. We need to set the alarm to wake us at 7:30 am - lol, lately we don't rise for at least another hour (and excuse me, why should we? After all, we are on holidays!) The hotel breakfast is limited to say the least so we decide that Subway just down the street might be a better option. The sign on the window says they open at 9 am, but today, everything is a little sluggish and Michael is told "another 15 minutes!" Finally around 9:30 am we have sandwiches in hand and sit in the square outside the hotel to eat in case the tour guide is early. The only other life at this moment are the numerous sparrows and two of the horse and carriage rides who have just pulled in to the square. And gosh, I just love the light at this hour of the day - it is great for photos. Oh, and breakfast for the day for others wandering around seems to be - ice cream! HUGE ones in cones that are filled to the base with the ice cream towering 5 inches over the top of the cone!
After waiting until 10:15 am and still no sign of the tour guide, Michael goes back in to the hotel to get them to phone him. Bugger - he is waiting for us over near the monument. We hurry over and guess that our guide is the dude in the funny looking old leather flying helmet. And yes, for sure, it is Rafał, owner and operator of these tours. He has parked his car at the base of the castle in Mariensztat. We walk down the stairs and sloping path, as though walking back in time. This area (which we had not previously explored) was the first to be re-built after the war. Most of the construction was undertaken by volunteer labour, and most of the area was re-built in the style of what had been there previously. We finally get to the car, a typical Polish NYSA 522. These were made in Poland from the late 1950s to the 1990s. Once we are in, no mean feat for me when the step up is 2½ feet off the ground the back, we are seated inside the back on original seats that line the walls.
Rafał tells us that he has just finished 5 years of study in Urban Planning and could not believe that no-one else was doing these tours. So he saved and then searched for a car like this one in good condition and took the plunge. We are first on our way to the area of Praga across the Vistula River to collect another two passengers. Small world it turns out to be as we stop outside the Krokodyl Hostel and collect Matthew and Julie, two nurses from RBH who live at Herston! Rafał explains that we will come back here later in the day to see examples of socialist flats, but we see our first example on the way to the hostel.
Rafał is proud of his car and gives us all the low down. His vehicle is from the last production in 1994, but still resembles the first ones ever made in 1958. You see, improvments and refinements were never part of the socialist way - function before form! Turns out that the only modification ever made was to move the gear shift from the column to the floor - but they continued to make the column fitting with the hole for the gear shift - right to the end of its production!
We begin our tour proper in Plac Konstytucji (Constitution Square) and get our first real explanantion of socialism as it impacted the Polish people. This square had earlier housed the elite of the Polish society, and in an effort to demonstrate to the people that socialism would mean that they were all equal, many of the former buildings were demolished and in their place, a uniform row of unit buildings were constructed that they showed to the people that they too could live here. Of course they never became home to anyone that was not a party official. The square was widened to provide an area for military parades, but as these were only held once or twice a year, became nothing more than a central car park. But of course the buildings were decorated with the emblems of socialism - statues of the workers for whom the system supposedly turned, so all was supposed to be OK. The buildings were even constructed in such a way as to hide the local churches as they knew to pull them down would only incite the population.
But in a back block, behind all this shining example of the socialist order, one building escaped both the devestation visited upon Warsaw during WWII, and the ravages of the socialists afterwards. We see the beauty that was once the capital of Poland through the picture of this one graceful block, reminiscent of a better time when art deco was the order of the day.
From here it is then around to the legacy from "Uncle Stalin" as Rafał refers to him. We can see the 'landmark' building from across the city - in fact Rafał explains that the rationale was to build something that towered over the rest of the city as a sign of the might of socialism. En-route we pass a photographic wall that commemorates the latest uprising by the Polish people in their endeavour for self rule and independence - erected by a the national bank. But, as impressive as it is, it struggles for recognition itself in the face of the larger, brighter, capitalist advertising banners.
And now back to that landmark. The Palace of Culture and Science (Palac Kultury i Nauki / PKiN) was the 'gift' by Stalin to the Polish people for 'embracing' socialism and used to go by the name of Joseph Stalin Palace of Culture and Science. It was completed in 1955, after a mere three years of major construction work. But the people of Warsaw hated this structure of their oppression almost from the start and just a few years ago, in 1992, managed to change the focus of the building by adding a clock to the top of the tower!
Yes, today was very definitely turning out to be a different style and it was to continue in this manner! We sit in the 'shadows' so that the passionate young Rafał can elaborate on the history of Warsaw and the place that socialism played. Studying for his thesis gave him a good understanding of the mechanics of the socialist regime in building a new Warsaw after the war. Because much of the city was shelled and at least partially destroyed, it provided them with a unique canvas on which to stamp their mark - and he even agrees that some of their planning principles were better than what was before, or to come later even. e hear of the hardships of every day life where it was not uncommon to queue for days for necessitites such as toilet paper. In fact, one of the best jobs was to be paid to stand in line for someone else. He shares photos along with his knowledge.
Then we are off to see the remnants of the Warsaw ghetto while we are en-route to see the city from a very different perspective! There are just a few remnant buildings of what once stood here. Sad, forlorn reminders of a time that for many was not good - shephered into a confined area before greater attrocities were visited up on them. Most of this area that housed the local Jewish population that at the time was the largest concentration in Europe, was bombed during WWII. And the horrifying thought for us is that the buildings constructed after the war, were placed directly over the rubble that was once a whole people's former lives. Thats right - the sites were not even cleared, but rather, formed the foundations for the new buildings.
And that different perspective? Well, we are off to the beach! Yes, that is right, to the beach in the centre of Warsaw. One the bank of the Vistula River is a remnant beach being gleefully enjoyed by the locals on a warm and sunny Sunday. Down we go, esky in Rafał's hands. He sits us on towels as we gaze across the river to a clear view of the Old City skyline from a very different perspective. Out comes some local delicacies for us to try - bread, lard with crisp bacon crackling bits through it, salted cucumbers and of course vodka! Gosh, it was good - and who cared what it might be doing to our arteries!!! And we are having such a good time, that no-one even gets a photo.
Back to the Nysa we head. And off to Praga we go. On the other side of the river from the City proper, Rafał refers to this as the forgotten area. After the war, the socialists moved the poor and the criminals into this area that is somewhere between slum and ghetto. In fact, there are still buildings with the bullet holes that were inflicted during the war still plainly visible. It is only in recent times that there is an effort being made to clean the area up. There are a growing number of artists moving in to this affordable area, lending parts of it a bohemian air. One element though that has been there all along is that of the Praga Orchestra. This monument was erected to honour the members of a street band who used to wander the streets of the Praga district playing not the socialist music, but keeping alive the traditional Polish music. Normally you can SMS a message and the edifice plays some of their tunes, but today it won't work and when Rafał goes to the nearby kiosk to ask why, turns out it has broken over this weekend! He is so disappointed for us that he even sings for us!! Kinda liked that more than any recording!
And then there is the bazaar where anything could be purchased from household needs to guns to passports - all on the black market. And while it is more mainstream today although closed because it is Sunday), Rafał tells us that some locals still insist that this is the same today if you know someone.
Finally he takes us to a traditional Polish milk bar where we sit with the locals and try good local Polish cuisine just like babcia (grandma) makes. There is no milk in this milk bar, and I guess it is the equivalent of our cafes. We sample
Ziemniaczane i pierogi z serem (Pierogi with Potato and Cheese)
Pierogi "rosyjski" z kapustą i serem (Pierogi "Russian" with cabbage and cheese)
Kiełbasa i pikantne Kapusta kwaszona (Savoury Sausage and Sauerkraut)
Kluski śląskie (Silesian dumplings filled with ground meat)
and a form of gnocchi.
All washed down with glasses of delicious home-made cordial based on berries and cherries. A great culinary delight that showed us that it doesn't matter how fancy the restaurant is, you still can't beat grandma's cooking!
Yes a very enlightening and ever-so-cool day.
Tonight we ventured into the Old Town Square for dinner where we could not have been more disappointed. We sat at one of the busier restaurants and drinks orders were taken. Some time later they came for our food order and we got our starters and from then we were ignored. No drink refills, no mains came, and no waitress seemed to want to come near us. So 1½ hours after we sat down we walked out in disgust. And the explanation? Oh sorry, my friend does not speak Engligh and did not understand what you wanted. Do you want to order a main now? - yeah, right - NOT - she had told us in English that there were no ribs left and that the chicken was good. Not a good advertisement. If you want to know which restaurant to avoid, email me, I am not even going to give them the benefit of a mention.
On the other hand, we cannot recommend The Castle Inn highly enough.
Fabulous location - especially Room 11, great service with the friendliest and most obliging of staff. We would come back here if in Warsaw any day!