Monday, July 9, 2012

My first foray East - Warsaw, Poland

marker showing the placement of the former Jewish Ghetto Wall
I've always though Eastern Europe was more interesting than the West, but seeing as I prefer crashing with friends over forking out for accomodation, I hadn't yet ventured further east than Berlin. But Doug, a NZer AFS returnee friend headed to Warsaw for a semestre-long university exchange, and I booked tickets to go over and see him for a weekend around May 10th.

Soviet-era buildings lining a wide avenue
I took the night train, at 16 hour journey over about 1300km. Id never taken a night train before, and had heard horror stories about them, of things going wrong, of the dodgy people who take them, and of luggage being stolen while you sleep, but the network is pretty big, you can start at Amsterdam and go all the way to Moscow, or branch off to Copenhagen or Munich, and probably a few others I'm not aware of. Its cheap, and seemed like it would be an interesting experience, but they stories I'd heard seemed true when the train pulled up missing half its carriages, and in typical Dutch problem-solving style, the conductors ordered all of us going to Warsaw (i.e. sitting in the four missing carriages) to cram into one carriage until we would switch in Germany. This led to six very uncomfortable hours with far too many people crammed into a very hot small space with the choice of crap air conditioning or an open window with rain coming in. But, in Dortmund we changed into a really comfortable carriage with reclining sleeper chairs, and I belted my handbag to my middle, popped a sleeping pill, and woke up eight hours later as we neared Warsaw.

Me and Doug at the Warsaw University festival
Then another issue surfaced. Unbeknownst to me, and unlike the half-dozen other European simcards I've owned, my Dutch simcard didn't work outside of the border, and I had stupidly not written down Doug's number, thinking that he would just call me. All I could do was hope that he was waiting for me at the station, but after arriving and walking around for a while, and then sitting in the main hall, I decided I would have to be a bit more proactive about the situation. After failing to find an internet cafe, payphone, or currency exchange in the station, I got directions to a payphone in a nearby shopping mall, and headed there. I withdrew money from a NZ account, and then went to a little kiosk to break the note - the woman was not willing to give me change in coins at all, so I threw another chocolate bar at her with another banknote, waited for my change, threw another chocolate bar and banknote at her...and so on. I managed to get hold of Rogier back in Amsterdam, but had to wait for him to head back to the house, then rang again to instruct him in logging into my computor to find Doug's number...but my change ran out, and I had to go back to the ATM, back to the kiosk, and buy another three chocolate bars...Poland was not proving an easy place, but eventually Doug and I found each other!

Warsaw Old Town
Warsaw was hot! It was around 28 degrees and quite humid when I arrived, definitely a change from grey Amsterdam. Doug is living in a university residence hall, where the majority come from former Soviet block countries, people sleep 2-4 to a room, and students stand around the linoleum hallways smoking ciggarettes well into the night. Not really similar to a NZ hall of residence at all! We dumped my stuff and headed out.

View of Warsaw from the Palace of Sci & Culture
With nearly 2 million inhabitants in the city proper, Warsaw is the 7th biggest city in the EU. We walked down past Doug's university to the centre of the city. It does feel very different to other european cities. 80% of the buildings were destroyed in WWII and had to be rebuilt, and most of this rebuilting was done in the basic blockish style typical of eastern europe. In the centre, the streets are really wide and seem well planned, with huge square apartment buildings and offices. It was also notable how clean Warsaw was - the trash I normally associate with big European cities was absent. Also, people wait for traffic lights even when there's no traffic, apparently you get big fines for jaywalking there! I think both of these differences are a hangover from the Soviet police state.

Warsaw Castle
We walked through a nice shopping district and after stopping in a bar/cafe that was one of Doug's locals for some kind of unmemorable polish dish, we sat in a park to drink a couple of beers and then went to a big free musical festival at Warsaw University. There, we met a bunch of Doug's fellow exchange students, watched a whole heap of random Polish bands perform, and consumed a number of cheap beers and food. After we called it a night, four of us walked into the Old Town for a bit, the historic centre that was razed to the ground during WWII, but meticulously rebuilt afterwards using as many of the original elements as possible.

The next day we headed back to the Old Town, and had a quick look at the Warsaw Castle, which was also totally destroyed and rebuilt. Its a strange building, we didn't go inside, but walked into the central courtyard, which showcases the way the different wings are made in different building materials and styles - it looks at bit like the piecemeal parliament buildings in Wellington. In the centre of the Old Town is the Market Square, one of, if not the most impressive Market Square I've seen in Europe. The reconstructed buildings all around it are based on the 17th century Gothic and Renaissance originals, and look vastly different from the buildings surrounding the main squares in more western countries. Part of the Old Town is lined by a section of the medieval city walls, brick walls that were originally built in the 13th century.

Building in Praga district
We then headed out to the Praga district, on the other side of the river from central Warsaw and the Old Town. Praga was originally an independent town, only being linked by bridge to Warsaw in the 1790s. The buildings there mostly date back to the 18th and 19th centuries, but mostly survived WWII. Now most of those still standing are in a state of disrepair, but the area has been taken over buy young musicians and artists, and it has a really cool feel to it. Several Poles who we spoke to later wondered why we'd been out there - all claimed it was a really dangerous area, and many had never been there themselves despite living in Warsaw, but I really liked seeing a different side to the city. I had hungarian goulash for lunch and fell in love with the dish, and then we popped our heads into a beautiful Orthodox church, watching women in skirts and headscarfs enter for service.

Orthodox church in Praga
Finally, we headed up the Palace of Science and Culture. This 231m skyscraper was build in the 1950s and was a gift from Soviet Russia - Doug said Poland was offered that, or a metro system, but picked the first as they didn't have the money to maintain a metro system once it was build. The building apparently looks like a lot of other Soviet era skyscrapers, and currently is housed by offices, museums, theatres and cinemas, shops, a conference centre, a university, and restaurants and bars. It's a pretty impressive building, as is the view from the terrace! Looking out over Warsaw you can definitely note the difference between the reconstructed old town, the huge Soviet era blocks, and the modern western style towers.

Palace of Science and Culture
After a dinner of polish dumplings back at the hostel, we went to see the Multimedia Fountain, the biggest such display in Europe. It uses water, light and sounds, with fountains shooting 25m high light up by different coloured lights to a soundtrack, and lighted pictures projected onto a screen of fog. It was really cool, I don't think I've ever seen anything like it. We then headed to a 'bad taste' themed party hosted by one of the other exchange students, in their tiny one-bedroom apartment. I had to think how many people were crammed into that place, it was so packed that trying to move around felt like being in one of those puzzle games where you can only have space to move one square at a time! Everyone was loud and enthusiastic and consuming a lot of polish vodka, until the rather threatening polish police turned up and gave us five minutes to evacuate the place. We then headed into town, but as it was so late got turned away from all of the clubs, and ended up just going to bed.

Warsaw Old Town Market Square
Sunday saw us head to the former Jewish Ghetto. There, you can trace where the wall once stood - its amazing to see what a small area of Warsaw it occupied, considering the number who lived within it. You can see a memorial representing where the bridge crossed over the tram lines, from the 'big' ghetto to the 'small' ghetto. Most amazing was sections of the wall that still stand, and a ruined apartment building that also survived the war.

Multimedia Fountain
We ended the day at the Warsaw Fotoplastikon. This was one of my favourite experiences in Warsaw. A Fotoplastikon was a viewer for three-dimensional photos, used to show people who could not travel sights of the world before film was invented. This fotoplastikon was installed in about 1905, and has survived ever since, showing shots of Paris, London and prewar Poland throughout the Nazi occupation and Soviet communist era to people from all walks of life, who went to view the photos and listen to jazz music as we go to the movies. People can enter the theatre and sit at one of the viewers around the circular contraption, and the photos flip over as you look in. It makes you really appreciate both how easy it is for us to travel nowdays and see things for ourselves, and how easy it is to immortalize our memories with photography.

Apartment building in the former Ghetto
Then it was time to eat a bit more, blow the last of my polish Zloty currency, and head to the train station. Using the Zloty instead of the Euro was amazing, everything was so much cheaper - I spent about 80euros ($120NZD) over the weekend, impossible to achieve in other european cities, and really felt like I was living it up! It was a great first foray into Eastern Europe, and left me itching to head back  in that direction again soon!

More photos are here.

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