One thing that was great most days on this trip, at least on the non-inter-city-travel days, was our wake-up times. Breakfast started around 06.00, but we didn’t have to be on the bus to wherever our morning tours were until 09.00. Not a lot of crowds at that time either, since most places in Europe don’t get going until 10.00 or later. The breakfast at the Intercontinental was probably the best of any hotel on the trip. Huge spread and the quality was definitely better than the average chain hotel breakfast. Side note: the best hotel breakfast I’ve ever had was at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, CO; specifically, the lodge. There’s one chef there running the whole kitchen, and damn…she can cook!
The tour, guided by Ana, a local, took us south from the hotel past Trzech Krzyzy (Church of Three Crosses), followed by a stop at Łazienki Park. This was one of the most beautiful city parks I’ve had the pleasure of visiting, and we found it very empty since it was so early. There were some school children walking out as we entered, and I remember one had a Batman hat, and another had a storm trooper hat, so high fives to those kiddos! This park is home to a few notable landmarks, including the Belvedere Palace, Ujazdowski Castle, and the Łazienki Palace. There are also several statues and monuments for Jozef Piłsudski, Franz Liszt, and Frederic Chopin. One thing I noticed was how seriously the Poles take their classical composers. Each European country has its own national treasure as far as composers go, but they really seemed to appreciate the hell out of them in Poland. The Chopin monument was really a cool sight and a perfect example of this appreciation. It’s enormous, and in front of it sits an equally enormous fountain, which wasn’t operating that day since it was too early in the season. I was also able to get a few good tree photos. I am a sucker for a good tree photo.
We hopped back on the bus and drove north along the park’s western edge, which is quite the famous street – Aleja Ujazdowskie. This was originally part of the Royal Route in Warsaw during its origins in the 1720s. Since then, if I remember correctly, the Nazis welcoming / invasion “parade” took place on this street in 1939. They even subsquently renamed it a few times, and the Soviets did the same when they moved in after WWII. Many embassies are located in this area too. We passed by a half dozen or so, including U.S., Canada, and France, then crossed through the eastern side of the park, with a stop at the Łazienki Palace. This place was the epitome of picturesque. It was originally constructed (ordered) by Stanisław Herakliusz Lubomirski, a 17th century Polish prince, as a bath house on the grounds of Ujazdowski Palace, located just to the north. In the late 1700s, King Stanisław II Augustus decided to convert it into his summer residence. Then the Germans intended to destroy it during WWII, and even went so far as to drill holes in the walls. But they never did get around to putting the dynamite in. The palace has since served as a military barracks. Quite an eventful history for a place I probably wouldn’t have otherwise known about. It’s sort of off the beaten path and understated for what we typically think of when we hear “Palace.”
The next leg of the tour briefly took us across the Vistula River and past the National Stadium, which resembles a gigantic red and white (Poland’s national colors) woven basket. Crossing back to the west side of the Vistula, we could see the Royal Castle in the distance to the north. We were taken down some of the really expensive shopping streets, Warsaw’s Champs Elysees, then we went back to Old Town for a short guided tour with Ana. It took us along the same route we walked the previous night, but we stopped at the Cathedral of John the Baptist. This church was destroyed during WWII, and its facade was one that was not rebuilt to its WWII specs. There’s a Black Madonna replica here behind a heavy iron gate. As is tradition with European churches and cathedrals, there are several chambers along each side, each with its own theme and purpose.
Back on the streets of Old Town, we made a stop at Old Town Square and had some free time to explore. We walked back up a street to find some coffee, and I stopped in a souvenir shop to buy a shirt that said WARSAW in the style of STAR WARS. Could not resist.
About 30 or so minutes later, we met back up in the square and walked through the northern entrance to Old Town, which is built into the old city walls. Turning left and heading south down Długa, we made a short stop at the Warsaw Monument to Insurgents, a tribute to the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. This area was formerly the Warsaw Ghetto, which was burned to the ground toward the end of WWII. There were two uprisings in quick succession in Warsaw, and this was devoted to the latter, which began on August 1, 1944, and ended October 2, 1944. So although it’s located in the old Ghetto area, it’s not the monument to the Ghetto Uprising of a year earlier. The Polish Home Army had long planned a resistance against the occupying Germans to take back their city, and at this point in the war, the Germans were on the defensive, beginning their rapid retreat back auf Deutschland!
The Allies were punching through France on the western front, while the Red Army was literally on Warsaw’s back porch on the eastern side of the Vistula. The story goes that the Home Army had planned for the uprising to coincide with the Red Army moving into the city, which would have significanty increased their chances of success. But the Soviets stopped short of the city limits and apparently ignored the Home Army’s attempt to establish radio contact (the Home Army had seized control of the city’s radio communications). The Home Army would fight unaided for two months, but they would eventually fall short of their goal. Lack of military support, starvation (food supplies were cut off, water systems were out of order, and conduits were filled with corpses), disease, and the Germans’ destruction of the city were too much. Between 150- 200,000 civilians died, and another 700,000 had to leave the city.
A few short blocks away was the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, located in front of the Polin museum, which was dedicated to Jewish history in Poland. The 1943 Ghetto Uprising was predicated by the mass deportation and subsequent extermination of hundreds of thousands of Polish Jews. The Germans had concentrated between 300-400,000 Jews in an area just slightly over 2 square miles. This was the largest of the German-established Jewish ghettos in Poland. In 1942, when the Germans’ extermination process was peaking, approximately 300,000 Jews were sent to Treblinka from the Warsaw Ghetto during operationg Grossaktion Warschaw. Try to imagine 1 – living in utter squalor, and 2 – several thousand to upwards of 13 or 14,000 of your neighbors being sent to their deaths daily. The Germans kept records of these figures, and even seeing those documents is disgusting enough.
In February 1943, Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler visited the Polish camps, and having been pleased with the “success” of killing over 1.25 million people between four camps (not including Auschwitz-Birkenau) the previous year, ordered the Warsaw Ghetto liquidated. This is how the Nazis would word things so as not to say clearly and precisely what they were doing, although everyone was fully aware of their systematic executions. They weren’t “deporting” them either; they were merely being “resettled.” When the people in the Warsaw Ghetto got word of this, they weren’t having it. For nearly a month (19 April – 16 May), the Jewish and Polish resistance, outnumber by over 2:1, would fight a daily onslaught from the Wehrmacht, SS, and Gestapo. The Germans moved in, ready to deport the Jews by force, but did not expect armed resistance. Initially, the German advance was slowed, but the goal of the resistance may not necessarily have been to defeat the Germans so much as it was for honor, to make a stand of their own. But the Germans would eventually level the Ghetto, their casualties remaining minimal, as thousands more Jews were either killed as a result of the destruction, or survived only to be shipped off to a camp anyway.
We finished off the afternoon with a visit to the Polin museum. Not everyone went. We had the option to go back to the hotel by bus or venture about on our own. Either way we split with Ana, our local guide, and some folks went back to the hotel to rest, while others chose to explore. Polin is a museum dedicated to the history of the Polish Jews. Prior to the Holocaust, there were over 3.3 million Jews living in Poland, and we are all familiar with the history of that event. This museum covers the other 99% of Jewish history in Poland, which I found very interesting. It took about three hours to get through it all, and I really slowed down when the theme changed to WWII and the Communist years. But there are seven different sections, dating back to the 10th century, when the first Jewish merchants arrived in Poland as the Dark Ages were on the way out. I should mention that the next two beers were consumed in the museum café, both Polish brews from Browar Jagiełło. I had somewhere near 50 unique beers on the trip, and at this point I believe I was at number 3, which is in fact a magic number.
The five in our museum group walked back to the hotel, which took about an hour, and we were all getting fairly hangry. I had written down the address to a few good pubs, so we asked the concierge at the hotel how to get to them, and he recommended a few others. We got a cab and headed to a very intimate little pub called Gorączka Złota, where I had one of the best burgers ever. The owner was the bartender and server, and there appeared to be just one person in the kitchen. There was seating for maybe 20-25 people in the whole place, which I kind of dig, and they had a great little beer selection. The owner didn’t speak much English; maybe equivalent to the amount of Polish I speak or slightly more, but not much. We found a way to communicate, though, and really enjoyed our experience there. The owner said the burger was amazing, so I took her up on it, and I had to agree. It was enormous and delicious, and I washed it down with a solid Irish stout called Turbo Geezer. One thing I noticed while dining with a view of a few unremarkable side streets was how many drunks were on the street. Alcoholism is apparently quite the problem in a lot of eastern Europe. We walked leisurely back to the hotel, where the showers and beds were sorely needed. Several of the people on the tour wore fitbits, and I occasionally overheard the number of steps we were at. All I know is that before we started our trek back from the Polin museum, we were well over 10,000, so I’d guess we came close to doubling that for the first full day of the trip. The only remaining item to check off the day’s list was a shower, then sleep would be required.