November 11, 2010
We were leaving Hitler’s bunker behind today and heading for something we hoped would be closer to civilization – that being Warszawa (Warsaw), Poland’s capital. Getting there wasn’t going to be overly easy though, although I had found details of a supposed direct train but given the language barrier we’d experienced so far I wasn’t overly confident of anything running smoothly. We got up and went for breakfast first, the restaurant actually being open in the mornings! In fact, the breakfasts we’ve had have almost been a highlight of our time here! Even the attempt at conversing with the waitress in Pol-Deutsch-lish has been interesting! After packing we called a taxi and headed back into Kętrzyn, which we now know is the centre of the universe, at least here in Northern Poland!
At the train station we did indeed find a direct train in existence and we sat and waited for it to arrive. Eventually the ticket window opened and we bought tickets and confirmed the train was direct and the time it was due to arrive. The journey was supposed to be around 6.5 hours so we had ensured we were stocked with food for the journey. Amazingly, the train arrived on time and we set off, hoping that it was the right train! All seemed to be going well (apart from a dog trying to attack first Elizabeth and then me as we went to the toilet!) until we came to the edge of Bialystok. An announcement was made in Polish over the intercom system and an old lady opposite us told us we had to get off. A young girl behind her told us we were OK and didn’t need to. We were a little confused but it turned out there had been an accident on the line in Bialystok and our train was being diverted. All the passengers for Bialystok had to disembark but everyone else would reach their destinations as planned, including us, apparently! We sat at this tiny station for around an hour waiting for the train to move and when it did we were quite relieved. However, given it was now dark we had no idea where we were going and if the train was still going in the right direction! It wasn’t until an hour or so later that a ticket conductor came around and we were able to ask when the train was due into Warszawa Centralna. She told us, using the international communication device of holding your fingers up, that we were due in around 7pm, which was later than expected but reasonable given the hour stop in Bialystok. We eventually reached the termination of our train journey at 7.20pm, a full 7+ hours after we embarked in Kętrzyn. We might as well get used to it – we have a couple of even longer journeys coming up in the next couple of weeks!
A 15 minute walk later, via one wrong turn, and we were at the hostel and were greeted by our best friend, stairs! Two flights later and we were at reception and we got checked in and climbed another to our dorm rooms. Thankfully we were speedy enough that we were able to hit the bar 3 minutes before happy hour ended and I was quick enough of thought, too, to buy two drinks each rather than just one! We’d bloody earned them I reckon!
For dinner we found a restaurant called Sphinx. It sounded Egyptian but the menu looked more local so we decided to give it a go. It did, of course, turn out to be Egyptian but we managed to get two great shish kebabs with pita and chips and some lovely spicy sauce to go with it. Not wanting to waste the beer rush we’d obtained at the happy hour at the hostel, we ordered a pitcher of Okocim beer to accompany dinner. By the end we were stuffed and tired and were soon at the hostel and in bed.
November 12, 2010
Today was a real non-event. I know I often use similar words or phrases to describe a day we did nothing or lazed in bed hung-over but today we actually tried to do something but just weren’t able to.
OK, so here is some background:
I’m British (well, English, but for the purposes of the forthcoming I’m British; got that?) which means I can stay in Europe and come and go as I please. Elizabeth is American which means she is allowed 90 days visa free in the Schengen area of Europe. Are you still with me? No, didn’t think so. The Schengen Agreement was made between about 20 different European countries allowing border crossings without the requirement for time-consuming and mostly pointless immigration checks. Under this agreement if you spend 90 days here visa free, you need to leave for 90 days before you can return to the area again or you can apply for an extension. We recently worked out that Elizabeth has over-stayed her welcome in Europe and so we had been exploring the possibilities. We had made an appointment at the Polish Embassy in Kyiv for next week but we were both wondering what would happen if the request for an extended visa was refused once we were outside the Schengen area as we wouldn’t be able to get back in (Ukraine is not a Schengen country but Poland is). Anyone completely confused yet?
Today we decided to try and resolve the situation now as in theory Elizabeth is illegally in Poland. I thought the easiest way was to pick an embassy of another country and apply for a visa through them. I picked the German one as it is a place we are heading back to and a place where I thought we might get someone who spoke English. We called them and the woman was really helpful but told us that we needed to visit Polish immigration as we were already in the Schengen area and were just after an extension. We looked up the Polish immigration office and quickly got ourselves ready and headed out. We got to one building and were told to go to another. When we got there the woman didn’t speak English but gave us a ticket to join a queue upstairs. There were 12 people ahead of us but over an hour later we were still waiting and when we were called the woman didn’t speak English either so we had to wait a little longer for her colleague. Her colleague then didn’t really seem to understand the situation and just told us we couldn’t do anything here, despite the fact we told her that Elizabeth was currently here illegally. This strategy was a little risky as the room next to the one we were in was for deportations! She still claimed we couldn’t do anything here and told us to apply in Kyiv.
Having spent the entire morning and then some trying to make Elizabeth legal, we found out nothing, achieved nothing but had built up quite an appetite! We were close to the old town by this point and once we had gone through the gates to it we were hit by a lovely aroma and we followed our noses into the restaurant. The place was really busy and was serving something unknown to us. Even the translations hadn’t translated what this thing actually was but I guessed it could be dumplings and we just ordered some sausage ones with a mustard sauce and some broccoli and cheese ones with a garlic sauce. Our order turned out to be baked “pierogi”, a sort of mini pastry filled parcel, similar to those we’d had in Trakai but with more filling and tasty sauce coverings! Boy, did they hit the spot! We were glad we went for the baked ones rather than the boiled, too, as those did look more like dumplings!
By this time we had to get back to the hostel so we could check our appointment time and date for the visa application in Kyiv – I wanted to get back before 3pm in case we needed to call Kyiv which is an hour ahead of Warszawa. We did get to see some more of the old town walking back and we’ll definitely be popping back through when I have my camera with me! We made a brief stop in the main square to get a couple of magnets, one each of the city seals for Warszawa and Krakow. When we got back to the hostel we checked the application form for the visa and we found that it stated a time and date on it and found a list of required documents we need so hopefully that is all taken care of for now. The remainder of the afternoon was spent reading some stuff we picked up from the tourist information office and trying to decide what we wanted to do here, given we’d wasted the day today.
Back at the hostel we hung out and chatted and when Happy Hour started we made the most of the cheap beers! We were chatting with four English guys, one of whom lived in Poland and the others visiting him. They had only left university a year or so ago so they were very much still in student mode which meant lots of nights out and drinking! They were going out tonight and we decided we’d join them for a bit but thought we’d best grab some food first. Wanting something quick, we just went to McDonald’s for dinner despite the fact I really wanted a curry! That would have to wait! We went to a bar called Lemon which was really busy and after a couple of drinks there both of us were ready to leave. Many of the bars here still allow smoking inside and it just doesn’t make for a nice atmosphere when people are packed in so tightly and waving cigarettes around. We soon headed back to the hostel, reeking of smoke, and got our heads down for some sleep.
November 13, 2010
We didn’t get back that early last night so we had a bit of a lie in. The weather was not too bad so we didn’t want to hang around in bed too long but by the time we got up, showered and left the dorm room, the rain was beginning to fall a little. Our first stop was the Muzeum Karykatury, or the Museum of Caricature and Cartoon Art. The museum was free on Saturdays and we thought it was a good place to see something a bit different to the regular museums you end up in. We were really glad we stopped by as the displays were very amusing and interesting. They have a large collection of works but only a small space and as a result they rotate the collection. We were lucky enough to see the entrants and prize winners of an international satirical cartoon competition and some of the entries were very funny, some were very thought-provoking and others were just, well, weird! Of the ones that caught our eye, I particularly like a depiction of global warming which showed mountains and fields but rather than a river flowing down the middle, there was a queue of traffic and the build-up of cars led way back up the mountain slopes. We enjoyed the exhibit so much that we bought a book about it at the end and it turns out the piece I liked, actually named “Global Warming”, was the grand prize winner! Other funny pictures included a mirror which was surrounded by icons from the computer program “paint”, alluding to the time and effort people spend making themselves look like something else combined with the time and effort they spend wishing they were someone else and a series of pictures of heads which showed a brain decreasing in size and as it did the person became happier, perhaps symbolic that we should just get on with enjoying life and taking time to smile rather than thinking about everything quite so deeply?
After we left the museum the rain was falling a little heavier but we ventured on into the old town for some lunch, not getting very far before the rain got heavier and we ducked into the first decent looking, reasonably priced eatery! They had mutton goulash and beef stroganoff so we ordered those and, thankfully, a side order of potatoes. The portions we’ve had elsewhere have been pretty decent but these weren’t so much so the extra starch came in handy! By the time we were ready to leave it was really raining hard and we had quite a walk to the next thing we wanted to go and see. Way back beyond where our hostel was, only in reality about a 20 minute walk but seemingly much further in the rain, we arrived a little damp at the Chopin Museum. We had asked at our hostel yesterday about pre-booking tickets as it told you to on the website but the guy at reception laughed at Elizabeth and told her it never sold out, making her feel stupid for even asking. Well, whaddayaknow? The tickets for today were completely sold out. We were there around 2pm and the museum is open until 8pm and they sell 70 tickets for each hourly slot. Even getting there part way through the day everything had gone and we only had the option of tomorrow to visit the museum. We asked about availability and even then they only had one time slot left at 7pm, just an hour before closing. With little other option we bought those tickets and traipsed back to the hostel to dry off.
After lazing around and doing nothing but being in a foul mood from the wasted effort and being annoyed with the hostel, we eventually ventured out for some dinner. We were going to go to the football match tonight but the rain was pouring down and we decided to skip it. We instead found a nice curry place called Buddha and I finally got to feed my curry craving. The menu was a little funky and didn’t have all your regular Indian staples on there but we both ordered different dishes and they were both excellent. My was a chicken and spinach dish and Elizabeth had a spicy chicken and tomato curry which both had a bit of a kick to them and with a couple of naan breads were just the tonic to the crappy afternoon we’d had.
November 14, 2010
A lot of things in Warszawa are free on Sundays but not wanting to pack too much stuff in we chose just a couple. The first of these was The Royal Castle, right on the edge of the old town and so we got ourselves ready for another walk in that direction. Thankfully today the rain had ceased and not only that but the sun was actually shining! It is so much nice wandering around when the sun is out and I actually felt like I could take some pictures of the beautiful old town without my camera getting soaked! The castle itself is a massive building which was completely destroyed by the Nazis in WWII and has been painstakingly reconstructed by the Poles using as much as possible of the rubble from the original building. It was only finished in 1988 and in fact the majority of the old town has been rebuilt in a similar fashion. Inside the castle it was reminiscent of many other palaces and such like that we’ve visited with over-decorated rooms and gaudy wall-coverings, chandeliers and stuff-lined-in-gold! However, it was free and the sun was out so we certainly weren’t complaining!
For lunch we decided to return for more baked pierogi. They had such a wide selection of different fillings that we easily picked two more types to try, this time going for the bacon, cheese and green pea and cheddar, mozzarella, tomato and pumpkin seed variations. Elizabeth went for the veggie option and I went for the meaty one but we switched over so we could try them both. Elizabeth’s were really cheesy and I was glad I’d gone for something which a less strong flavour!
We walked around the old town after lunch, crossing the main square and seeing the monument of the Warsaw Mermaid, a symbol which has adorned the city’s coat of arms for over 600 years. Like many other old towns, Warsaw’s is a UNESCO World Heritage site and given that around 90% of it was destroyed in WWII, this designation is a great reward for the hard work put in by the Poles to bring back the former glory. We’ve seen many places which haven’t deserved such a lofty recommendation but this old town certainly deserves the high praise it receives.
After the old town we walked right the way back through the city, heading to Łazienki Królewskie, described by our little brochure as one of the most beautiful palace/park complexes in Europe. After a very long walk we arrived in the pretty park and tried to imagine how lovely it would’ve looked a month or so ago before the leaves fell. Inside the park is a statue of Frederik Chopin and so we looked for that first before heading down the hill to the palace. The statue was set by a pleasant pool and there were lots of people enjoying the weather and just sitting around. It was certainly a good day to be outside! The name Łazienki Królewskie means The Royal Baths and the palace was named this by the last Polish king despite the complex dating back to the 17th Century. The setting was stunning but to call it one of the most beautiful in Europe is stretching the imagination just a little. The palace itself, set on a lake, looked in dire need of a lick of paint but at least from further away it looked better!
After walking around the park and dodging the old people old for a Sunday afternoon stroll and the maniac children (and adults!) on their bicycles, we trotted slowly back into the centre and to the hostel. We were both feeling a bit tired but we didn’t have too long to rest at the hostel as we had tickets for the Chopin museum. We were both quite excited about going to the museum. Even though I’m not a fan of classical music, the website for the museum made it look really modernistic with lots of interactive displays amongst many of the original pieces held by the museum. We arrived a bit early, hoping to sneak a few extra minutes on top of the hour we were limited to and we were pleased they let us in early. We did have to go back to the ticket office though as the interactive cards they gave us were in Polish despite us requesting English! Inside were some really amazing things including Chopin’s last piano from his Paris studio, a cast of his left hand, lots of original manuscripts and even a copy of his death mask, made in the hours after his death in 1849. However, the museum was not as good as we imagined as although lots of displays were interactive there weren’t enough places for people to view them as the museum was busy. This meant we were either waiting around for a place to become free or just skipping them completely. Many of the interactive displays weren’t that great, either, merely being descriptions of items which were already described in the showcases or someone translating the plethora of letters he wrote to all and sundry across Europe. There was a display on some of the women in Chopin’s life but the exhibits didn’t explain who these women were and how they affected his life and without being able to get close to the interactive displays, we left none the wiser. We did get some chances to listen to his music with the most interesting being a series of compositions he wrote and played when he was in his early teens. As a musical idiot it was funny listening to these amazing pieces while reading a display saying how basic they were and how he’d learn better depth and structure as he matured! Yep, sounded basic to me! Overall, there were good and bad things about the museum and we could have spent longer here if we’d listened to everything but with the amount of people that just wouldn’t have been possible.
We were quite hungry when we left the museum so we went round the corner to the Bierhalle, an almost German-style beer hall. They brewed their own beers so we tried the wheat beer and the amber and they were both good. We’ve had so much beer here but it is difficult not to – the price of a 200ml bottle of Coca-Cola in a bar is around 4 or 5 zloty whereas a 500ml beer is around 7 or 8 zloty. It just doesn’t make sense to drink soft drinks with your meal! Talking of the meal itself, I went for the Polish sausage and Elizabeth had the beer stew with a massive potato pancake. Like many nights before this one, we went home stuffed and relaxed at the hostel.
November 15, 2010
This morning was the start of our last day in Warszawa and we had one main place we wanted to visit today. We wanted to go and see the Warsaw Rising Museum which we had been told was really worthwhile even though it was a bit of a walk from the centre. We headed out reasonably early (by that I mean about 10.30am!) and were there just after 11. There were lots of school groups there and at the start they were a bit of a nuisance but eventually their route around the museum departed from ours and we got some peace and quiet!
The museum talked about the Polish resistance against the Nazis across the country and finally in Warsaw, including many Jews from the Warsaw ghetto. It spoke a lot too about how they often asked for Stalin’s help but how he wouldn’t, relying on other Allied Forces to make drops into Warsaw of food, weapons, etc to help them fight the Nazis. Many Poles based outside of Poland when the war started joined other Allied Forces and many of these men were involved in the airdrops made into the country, with planes leaving airbases in Southern Italy and running the gauntlet over occupied territory to make their deliveries. To be fair to Stalin, the Russians did make one airdrop into Poland but they dropped the goods without parachutes so the result was next to useless. The Americans also made just one drop into Poland but the drop consisted of hundreds of tons of food and weapons and other provisions – much more helpful than the Russians! Of course, at the end of uprising, Stalin was able to claim that he had not “interfered” in the war between Poland and Germany and went on to claim Poland for himself before turning against the very same Poles who had helped “him” defeat the retreating Nazis. The museum didn’t put Stalin in a very good light and even included one incident where he invited 16 of the Polish freedom fighters to meet with him in Moscow where upon arrival they were arrested, sentenced and imprisoned in the harsh Soviet work camps. He was obviously scared they would do to him what they had helped do to the Germans.
The museum had a lot of detail on the history of the city and the occupation of the entire country and it was really well laid out – just enough reading to tell you everything but not too much as to make your eyes cross and bore you! It talked about all aspects of life in the city including how they administered themselves, the provisions of food and water and religious and cultural lifestyles.
One of the worst things about the museums was how it showed that the Nazis didn’t care who they killed and how they didn’t distinguish between any different sectors of society. They also ignored any provisions made in the Geneva Convention for prisoners of war and would routinely shoot soldiers who had laid down their arms. One incident spoke of the Nazis entering a hospital in Warsaw and murdering everyone inside – from the injured soldiers to the old and infirm to the children and also all the nurses, some as young as 16 and 17 who were merely there just to try and do their part to help. These things aren’t so much as shocking because we all know of the general atrocities carried out by the Nazis but when you read specific examples it always makes it seem that bit more realistic, particularly with some of the graphic photos shown around the museum. Most of the photos were taken by the Germans themselves which is a pretty good way of incriminating yourself.
Despite having seen a few similar things to this lately, this was really well set out and presented and told a very difficult passage in Poland’s history with great dignity and thought. It was well worth the trek out here and after a slow start in Warszawa with our rainy day we were slowly beginning to appreciate more of the city, particularly when you consider that most if has been rebuilt since the 1980s!
Walking back into the centre we passed the Palac Kultury i Nauki (the Palace of Culture and Science). This building had been described by a couple of things we’d read as some kind of hangover from the Soviet times, a building that the Soviets wanted to build as a “gift” to Warszawa but one which they didn’t really want to receive. The descriptions made the building sound, well, horrific and typical of the grey, bland, boring Soviet-era tower blocks we’d seen in other places. However, this building was quite impressive and quite modern-Gothic in design. It is still one of the largest buildings in Eastern Europe and it certainly dominated the skyline here. We’d seen it almost every day as we walked around and we even saw it brightly lit on our first night in the city and I certainly wouldn’t describe it as the eyesore that the reviews we’ve read seem to make it out to be!
We went for some lunch at a beer hall type place called Browarmia Królewska. Having had a load of German sausages last night I decided to go for the Polish version today, ordering a side of potato wedges to accompany whilst Elizabeth went for the chicken skewers. None of the food was described in much detail in the menu so when the massive portions turned up we were very surprised, especially as everything we’d ordered had come from the appetizers section! On top of the bonus of massive portions, the lovely wheat beers we’d ordered were on special offer so we got 2 for the price of 1! Had they told us before of this offer, we’d have just ordered one but as they didn’t we ended up having two each! With a full stomach and a couple of beers inside us, we knew that this afternoon wasn’t going to be very productive!
After dumping my camera back at the hostel we headed out to the supermarket to get some groceries for our long bus ride tomorrow and then we went back to the hostel and hung out, deciding to go for the delivered pizza option for dinner! To get delivery we had to order the large pizza but with the discount we got from the hostel it was actually cheaper to get the large through them than it would’ve been to have ordered a small one by ourselves! Now that is what I call a tasty bargain!