I’ll preface this by saying day 1 was really day 2.5. On the previous Friday, I drove from St. Louis to Evansville in the late afternoon, slept about 4 hours, and the next morning got on a plane from EVV to ATL at 06.00. I got the TSA precheck for the first time in my life on this flight, but this is the smallest airport I’ve ever gone through, and it was at 05.00, plus I didn’t board until group 2, so it didn’t really matter. What it came down to was I got to leave my shoes on when I went through the fake doorway scanner thingy. There was enough time during the layover at ATL to get a questionable greasy breakfast burrito and down a coffee before I headed to JFK. There, we had a slightly longer layover after a terminal change and going through security for the second time in the young day. The flight to Helsinki was smooth. Not too crowded, and their planes are actually “nice.” I say “nice” in quotes because I’m describing an airplane. I mean for all it provides us and the amazing technological advancement it is, what it feels like when you’re on one is competely different. Louis CK wouldn’t allow me that argument, but I’m still going to make it. Nonetheless, it was the quietest plane I’ve ever flown on. The exterior noise was noticeably quieter than a standard flight, and I believe FinnAir claimed something like 20-30% noise reduction. On the flip side, FinnAir’s in-flight videos are creepy. Well, I should say their spokes persons and models are creepy. I get that it may just be a cultural thing, but it’s still weird. In one there’s a young man with a very blonde Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg haircut, which on its own is quite enough to constitute creepy, and with his accompanying over-enthusiastic smile, he narrated a short introductory / thank you video from the airline. In another there’s an advertisement for a Helsinki fashion show where two quite malnourished young women, one in a blindingly silver jumpsuit and the other in an amalgamation of varying lengths of red ribbons flailing in the fabricated wind, strut their robotic model stuff down an airport runway while a commercial jet takes off in their immediate derrière. And at the end it says something to the effect of “Meet in Hel,” or “Only in Hel.” It appeared to be quite the alternative fashion show, and since I have no interest in fashion, I don’t quite understand what the point is. Anyway, we arrived in Helsinki a little less than 8 hours later, which was early Sunday morning, so about 25-26 hours o’ the clock after leaving Evansville, but several less in hours passed. I managed to sort of sleep almost the entire flight, so I felt fairly free of jetlag, which was nice since we’d be arriving in Warsaw around lunch time with a full day ahead of us.
Helsinki airport is relatively small. I really appreciated the background noise in the restrooms – birds chirping. So it feels like pissing in the woods, which really facilitates pissing with someone right next to you. Add a quiet stream in there, and it’d be golden. No pun intended. We had the easiest customs checkpoint ever and got to our gate about 15 minutes before we boarded for the final leg of the outbound journey. This flight would arrive about two hours later in Warsaw. It was one of the shortest feeling two hour flights I’ve had, which was excellent considering my anticipation. We had our luggage, met our guide, Renata, and were on the bus to the hotel by 11.30. The hotel for the following two nights was the Intercontinental on Emilii Plater. No complaints at all about the outbound journey. The only thing I’ll say is all other airlines should just adopt the boarding process of Southwest, or maybe find some nice middle ground. The only good thing about booking through other airlines is that you may have some say in where you sit, which we did. But the boarding groups make no sense. It’s mundane, but I place some value in it.
The hotel in Warsaw was the nicest of the entire trip. Everything was comfortable, modern, and the view looked south over the Palace of Culture and Science and Złota 44. The Palace of Culture and Science is the tallest building in the city, and one of the 20 tallest in Europe, at 778’. Part of it reminded me of Dana Barrett’s apartment tower in Ghostbusters. And I suppose, tangentially, you could connect it with a Zuul-like figure. It was designed, built, and “donated” by the Russians in the ‘50s. And they were total dicks. More on that later. Złota 44 is a residential building, which we were told was intended to be as tall or taller than the Freedom Tower, but there were issues with financiers, and apparently it pissed off a bunch of the inhabitants of the surrounding buildings. I suppose I could see why. The building is one of only a hand full that stand that high in the area, plus it’s very modern in a sea of older facades. The surrounding buildings are all generally uniform in height. Our hotel was around 40 stories too, and it stuck out like a sore thumb. On the city treks, it was always easy to find the way back since the hotel stood so high. We always looked for one of these three buildings – the Palace, Złota 44, or the Intercontinental. From there it was just walking in the general direction of the target, since European streets rarely run in a true direction. You always branch off on a side street or alley here and there thinking it’ll be a shortcut, only to find out you ended up walking a few extra blocks. Or on occasion you may find a really neat little park or other hidden gem (more to come on that too).
After a quick clean up and change of clothes, we met up with Renata and took a leisurely stroll in the general direction of Old Town. In reality there’s not much “old” about Warsaw. Starting with the Warsaw Uprising in the latter half of ‘44, the city was virtually destroyed. Figures range from 80-98% destruction, but the bottom line is that nearly all of current Warsaw is new. Nonetheless, Old Town Warsaw really stands out in my mind, and I’d love to go back. What’s neat are these little placards around the city depicting the city as it appeared in its golden age, close to 300 years ago. The pictures in them are all reproductions of works from an artist living in that period named Bernardo Bellotto, and it was his surviving art which was used to rebuild the city after WWII. Rather than rebuild it as it had been when the war began, it was decided to instead recreate the Warsaw of the mid- to late-1700s. The entire city was not reconstructed in this manner; rather, efforts at 18th century reconstruction focused on Old Town and the Royal Way.
The walk took us past Kościół Wszystkich Świętych (a church), and subsequently through Saxon Garden, the “oldest” park in Warsaw, which was founded in 1727. In the middle of the park, there’s a cool sundial that I had no clue how to read, but I found it picture worthy anyway.
And just 50 or so yards to the east of that is the Polish Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It’s a very small memorial built into a short remaining section of the old Saxon Palace; the only part that survived WWII. Facing the Tomb, if you turn 180 degrees, you face Piłsudski Square, named after Jozef Piłsudski, the sort of “Father” of the Second Polish Republic after WWI. After crossing the square, we walked a short block further to Krakowskie Przedmiescie and headed north toward Old Town. I should mention that about an hour has passed, and our guide has been talking the entire time. And that is not intended to be read as a complaint. Rather, she was filling us in on the significance and history of certain things along the way, and we also got a Polish government and civics lesson. Though a beautiful city and country, Warsaw and Poland are not immune to political strife, even in 2016. I am not familiar with Poland’s current ruling class, but it sounds backwards. Not to get too tangential here, we walked past the Presidential Palace shortly after turning on Krakowskie Przedmiescie, and saw some protest / rally tents across the street that appeared quite anti-Duda (current Pres). Walking further up the street, it begins to open up slightly, and all kinds of street performers are there panhandling. It never ceases to amaze me what people will think of to earn easy money “entertaining” people. I can’t remember which city I saw which “performers” in, but two come to mind: one was dressed in a suit of tiny mirrors, and another was one of the most slothful “performers” I have ever been so blessed to see. He was standing on the street dressed shoddily as some Victorian era oddity, and his little dog was lying on a blanket in front of him. I believe he was just standing there carrying on a conversation with his friend. So really all he appeared to have done to earn any of anyone’s money was to haphazardly throw some old looking clothes on, slap some white powder on his face, sort of put on a wig, and walk out to a common thoroughfare. If anything, I’d like to think folks were giving him coins for the dog.
Eventually, the street opens up into Plac Zamkowy, the Square, with the Royal Castle on the right, and shops and restaurants line each street from here to New Town. It was already late afternoon, but I knew there was a good bar close by. I had done my research for the best pubs and taphouses in each city I was scheduled to visit. The place I was looking for was up one of these funky side streets. I just had to put some effort into navigating them. I had originally planned on approaching it from a different direction than the one we came in, but we started from the castle instead of following the old city wall. Eventually, I saw the sign I’d seen on the interwebz – Same Krafty. I knew it was a good spot; out in front was a non-functioning 10-tap display. Inside was one of the most intimate (interpret: cramped) layouts I’ve seen. It was just a narrow long room leading to a tiny hallway which then led to a little squarish bar. They’d filled it with every beer they could, though. Everything was in Polish, but a few bartenders spoke English. I apologized for not speaking Polish in shitty Polish and ordered a beer for myself and my two squadmates: my grandpa and a fun female beer nerd named Debby, who we had just met a few hours earlier. I haven’t mentioned it yet, but I was travelling with my grandpa and 9 others from the States on a guided tour. Each of the beers was quite smaczny (Polish for “tasty”), and surprisingly affordable compared to American taphouses. We had the introductory “where ya from?” conversations over said pints and started our trek back to the hotel, about 45 minutes away.
We took a different route back, and along the way I saw a McDonald’s with their accompanying arches, and above it was a gym called McFit. Having no previously acquired knowledge of McFit, I thought it was a McDonald’s-sponsored gym, which seemed highly contradictory to me. I thought it was some elaborate piece of propaganda the Polish government was allowing to be sold to their people with the conspiracy to later have a population so obese and unhealthy that they’d become dependent on the government for healthcare and…wait, I’m talking about the U.S. now. Nevermind. McFit is actually a gym that isn’t associated with McDonald’s at all from what I’ve read since.
We had our first group dinner to get to, so we all cleaned up when we got back to the hotel and met at the restaurant on the first floor, which was actually the second floor. Almost all of the hotels we stayed in started counting floors at 0 – ground, 1 – first non-ground floor, etc. I like a lot of European ways of doing things, and I’ve adopted several, but this is not one of them. It’s confusing, and I don’t care for it. We had a three course dinner and a few drinks, which weren’t bad. I was so hungry that I didn’t really notice the quality of the food, which most people didn’t seem to care for. I just ate everything in front of me while I admired the view looking east toward the Palace of Culture and Science as the skies began to darken and I felt the fatigue set in. Shortly after we called it a night and hit the fart sack.