Day 15: Down the Heart of Warsaw

The stately Royal Way

The stately Royal Way

We started our morning a little late and headed out by 9:30.  Our plan was to first walk south down the busy Royal Way to the roundabout that had a life-sized fake palm tree in it, before doubling back north to take in the rest of the sights.  At the roundabout we also found a statue of Charles de Gaulle, which was a gift from the French government.  We both thought it funny the French government felt a monument to one of their own was an appropriate gift, in kind of an enough-about-you-sort-of-way, but the Poles graciously installed it and even went one step further and named the roundabout for him.  After putting eyes on the palm tree we backtracked north along the Royal Way but our will to sightsee was a bit hampered by the fact we hadn’t had coffee or anything to eat yet.  To rectify that issue we stopped by a café called So! Coffee, where a super friendly barista hooked us up.

And therein lies the rest of him.  We think.

And therein lies the rest of him. We think.

Now we were ready for more sightseeing.  We wandered north on the Royal Way, making a quick stop to take a self-portrait with a giant statue of Copernicus.  That guy is a national treasure.  Not far from Copernicus was the Church of the Holy Cross, which ordinarily we probably would have given a miss were it not for one thing:  Polish-born composer Fryderyk Chopin’s heart was inside.  Yes, just his heart.  In brief, Chopin lived a large part of his life self-exiled in France due to some sort of Polish uprising against the Russians that made life in Poland unpleasant.  However, his wish upon death was that his heart would be brought back to Poland.  And it was, left right here in the Church of the Holy Cross, interred inside one of the main pillars (preserved in alcohol, to boot).  And why, you may wonder, did we feel it so imperative to pay a visit?  You see, several years ago we saw Chopin’s grave at Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.  It was naturally assumed that all of Chopin was inside.  But, unbeknownst to us, the grave did not contain his heart so we especially needed to swing by the Church of the Holy Cross to fully complete having “seen Fryderyk Chopin’s grave.”  Listen, Chopin, we love your piano tunes, dude, but if you left an errant kidney or spleen scattered about I can’t say we’d be as tenacious in tracking them down.  Oh, who are we kidding?  Of course we would but nothing says we have to be happy about it.

Completely rebuilt Old Town Square

Completely rebuilt Old Town Square

Now is a good time to mention a few key things about Warsaw:  Warsaw suffered much tragedy and was just about leveled during WWII.  There is so much information available “out there” that I won’t go into too much detail, but Warsaw had two significant uprisings during the war, the Jewish Ghetto Uprising and the Warsaw Uprising.  Both Uprisings were incredibly brave and hard fought, but both ended extremely badly and tragically for the local population.  They also infuriated the Nazis and provoked Hitler to wage a special war against Warsaw and its inhabitants in the form of systematically destroying each and every building, historically significant or not, and all the occupants inside.  The city was literally left as a pile of rubble and 800,000 residents were killed (60% of the population).  Remarkably, after the war the Varsovians decided to rebuild it, all of it, and they wanted to rebuild it just as it had been before.  To achieve this, they had to rely on old photographs and, most notably, paintings by the Italian painter Canaletto.  All details of these photographs and paintings were studied intensely and the end result is a Warsaw that is practically brand new but looks impossibly old.  And to showcase the incredible workmanship and attention to detail of post-war reconstruction, the city has installed copies of the Canaletto paintings in view of the associated completely reconstructed building.  The rebuilding of Warsaw is truly an astonishing and extraordinary feat.  (The two pictures below show the Canaletto paintings in the foreground with the reconstructed building in the background.)

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P1080906

Memorial to the kind-hearted friend of our feathered neighbors

Memorial to the kind-hearted friend of our feathered neighbors

We continued north along the Royal Way, passing Warsaw University, the Radziwill Palace, and a couple of important-looking statues of Poles, until we reached the new-ish-ly rebuilt Old Town that is centered around Castle Square because…  the Royal Castle is there.  We didn’t go inside this castle because, well, we weren’t compelled to do so, and besides, there was a more-interesting-and-dearer-to-me sight not far from it.  That sight consisted of only a doorway with stone pigeons adorning it, but it is dedicated to an old woman who survived the Nazi’s razing of Warsaw and fed the birds amidst the rubble of Old Town.  How sweet is that?

Warsaw Uprising Monument

Warsaw Uprising Monument

Continuing on our route, we put eyes on the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist and meandered through Old Town Market Square before veering off to pay our respects at the Warsaw Uprising Monument.  As you can see, this city is rife with historic spots to visit and we hadn’t yet scratched the surface.

Umschlagplatz Monument

Umschlagplatz Monument

A little farther afield, we found ourselves at the brand new Museum of the History of Polish Jews that was built on the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto.  Before we’d left on this trip I had noted the Museum would be opening to the public on April 19th, but it turns out the exhibits weren’t open yet, just the building itself.  That was kind of a bummer but we wish them well.  Nearby the Museum is the site of Ghetto Heroes Square, which used to be the heart of the Jewish ghetto, and a bunker in which the organizers of the Jewish Ghetto Uprising hid (and subsequently committed suicide as the Nazis neared).  There is now a lovely memorial there, in part that reads, “Here they rest, buried where they fell, to remind us that the whole Earth is their grave.”  A little ways away from the bunker is the Umschlagplatz monument, which memorializes the spot Jewish families were brought to be loaded onto trains heading to Treblinka or Auschwitz-Birkenau.  I would like to note that sites like these are very somber reminders of the past, and one thing we gratefully noticed at all of the WWII and Holocaust remembrance sites throughout our travels were the absence of graffiti or defacement of any kind.

More rebuilt streets.  Incredible, isn't it?

More rebuilt streets. Incredible, isn’t it?

As we’d walked several kilometers by this point, we decided to head east into New Town Square for a refreshment stop.  The walk took us past the home stadium of the local Polonia Warszawa football team (one of two Warsaw teams), and while we knew they were playing a home game the following night it would have been imprudent for us to go, you know, given we were fan card carrying Lechia Gdansk fans now.  We didn’t want to be turncoats so quickly, or worse, labeled as band wagon fans.

We found a cafe on the square and sat for a bit, enjoying both the weather, the square, and being seated.  We’d been pounding the pavement over 7 hours by this point, and therefore decided to table the late afternoon sightseeing in favor of resting our eyes and bodies at the hotel.

Around 19:00 we rallied to go for dinner at an Indian restaurant aptly named Buddha Indian Restaurant.  I have not eaten much Indian food in my lifetime, but that will change now after eating at Buddha.  Dinner was fantastic and I’m a little disappointed in myself for never really giving Indian food a fair shake before.  Thank you, Buddha!

Since we were near Jerusalem Street, a main east-west thoroughfare that goes across the river, we got a wild hare of an idea to try to find a spot along the river for an after dinner drink.  After all, this was the same Vistula River we’d seen running through almost every town we’d been on this trip and felt we needed to pay the old gal a visit.  We walked east along Jerusalem Street, part way across the bridge, found some stairs to go down, wound up on a train platform, walked that to the end and found more stairs going down before being spit out on a street near – but not on – the river.  We walked that street north for quite a while, and while we passed a few bars, none of them were on the river and they were full of very young university students.  We felt conspicuously old and decided to abandon the river mission and just head back up to the vicinity of our hotel.  After all those stairs going down it should have come as no surprise that now we needed to go back up, and somehow we found a giant park built into the hillside that had trails leading up to the streets of Old Town.  Once back up top, and for reasons unknown to even us, we eschewed each and every one of the zillion suitable, charming, and quaint bar options in search of “the right one.”  Geemaneez, this was turning into the bar version of our Dinner Strolls.  After walking 17 miles since dinner, the best we came up with was to plop down at the outdoor terrace of a sushi restaurant that had a view of nothing but the back of the National Theater, which was covered in scaffolding and undergoing reconstruction.  The good news is they had beer.

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