Warsaw, Poland 2007

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4/18/07

Arrived in Warsaw after a rather uneventful flight.  Bought a 3 day metro pass at the Ruch kiosk in the airport terminal 1. These kiosks are everywhere around the city and they are where you can buy all of your public transportation tickets.  It is next to tourist information where we get our instructions for where to get the bus.
Took bus 175 from the airport to the hotel (Novotel Centrum).  On the bus we meet up a woman who was on holiday from San Francisco.  It was easy to see what makes El and I good travel partners.  This woman was on a bus, but did not know where to get off, what the address of her hotel was, and had no maps at all.  She kept running up to the driver and asking him to tell her when to get off the bus.  She quickly befriended El since we had a map (and an address of our hotel, and knew what stop we were looking for!) I suppose it is traveling like this woman (and her friend who just sat in the front with no input on their journey) that makes for tough getting around which I would think could make for a lousy vacation.  Maybe El and I aren’t the best travelers, but we never go home thinking that we didn’t do enough, see enough etc).  I think traveling like these women, I would go home saying how I didn't see much and wouldn't want to return.
El uses a guidebook that turns out to be quite outdated in which she finds an appealing looking restaurant called Soma in the neighborhood of the hotel.  It is located on Foksal Street at #19.  We are on the lookout, but pass the address twice before trying the door to the address with a different name.  We go in to find a very nice eatery and ask our waitress where Soma is.  She tells us that it has been gone for years.  The restaurant is now called Foksal 19 (the namesake of the address) it is a pleasant surprise.  I order a Caesar salad with shrimp which is decent, though lacking in saltiness and fresh ground pepper.  Entree is pappardelle pasta with olives and parmesan which is also a little bland as I don’t eat olives generally, but the rest of the sauce is fine.  A bottle of Heineken rounds out the meal.
El had started her meal with a good cosmopolitan.  Then came a mixed salad with vinaigrette.  It was very big with a lot of veggies and good croutons.  The salad was served with toasted breadstick wedges.  After the salad, she got onion soup- (not french onion soup, just onion soup).  A nice sized portion served with 3 small slices of crusty bread in the center and cheese was sprinkled on the bread.  Onions were sweet and well cooked; the soup broth was not salty as is often the case with french onion soup.  107zl ($35) With a recommendation from our waitress and the guidebook we head to A. Blikle for dessert.  The guidebook says they are a bakery known for their house specialty which I get: Glazed doughnut with orange sauce and rose petal jam with a latte macchiato.  I order two doughnuts, but am told they only have one left for the night.  It is good, but does not taste fresh- more like it has been sitting in the case for awhile.  I would think they would treat their “house specialty” with a little more respect.  It’s nice, not thrilling, but nice.  El gets: warm apple charlotte which is recommended as a Polish specialty.  The plate arrives with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a dollop of whipped cream.  The charlotte itself was not too sweet, and was complimented by the ice cream.  Overall dessert was very good.  44 Zl ($15) Walking back to hotel we stop at the Chado Tea Cafe where I try warm tea grog (hot tea, orange juice, rum, and cloves) decent, but probably better with more rum and when you are sick. El gets a cup of meade spiced with cloves.  It was served warm in a small cup over a tea candle to keep it warm.  It was sweet and the cloves kept getting in her mouth. 26 Zl ($8) Then we capped the evening off at a place called Pub, just Pub.  It was across the street from the hotel and we were sort of beat by then.  The doorman lets us in despite our ultra casual dress.  We each ordered a Lech Beer, which is a little too bitter for my tastes. Thumping dance music from the downstairs prevented us from staying longer. 15 Zl ($5)

4/19/07
We get up and go to the breakfast buffet in the hotel.  It is a really substantial spread, for a hotel.  Great, fresh offerings with good turnover. 
Today’s first stop -bus  180 to Palac Wilanowa     (16 Zl/$5.30 entrance) if you go I recommend renting the English audio self guided tour (6 Zl).  You won’t know any of the people and can’t pronounce any of the names properly, but at least it gives some perspective on who the paintings are of in this former royal summer palace that is now a national landmark.
There is an interesting tomb on the grounds with intricate Gothic architecture.  We pass it on our way out. 

 We take the bus 180 back to the old town square looking for St. John’s church. We find the central plaza and take some pictures. A lot of the buildings have frescos painted on them.  There is a fountain in the squares center of the mermaid that is the symbol of the city. You see the figure frequently and this fountain made for a nice picture.

                                                           
Then we look for a place to get lunch.  We eat at a place called The Pierogieria.  It is a small unassuming place with only a few tables.  The pierogies we get are baked and look like mini calzones.  With all of the filling choices, you probably could have some fun with the combinations.  I didn’t, I have kielbasa, mushroom, and juniper pierogies with a side of horseradish cream sauce.  Very nice.  43 Zl ($15) After lunch we find St. John's church and a landmark of a church bell set in the center of a small square.  I take a picture of the bell with El in front of some blooming tulips. 
We work our way around the corner to the front of the church.  El goes in while I wait outside.  I see the beautiful stained glass, but it’s not enough to pique my interest.  
She is not long and I remain outside.  Next stop is a pub to get beer and digest lunch.  I try another Polish beer called Zywiec.  It too is a little bitter, like the Lech from last night. El got a Strongbow cider.  One of the few places we find it.  El will drink beer, but she prefers hard cider.  Some countries that we have gone to it seems like every place carries it, like Spain and England, while others seem never to have heard of it, like Hungary.  The place is called Irlandzki Pub- and how can you go wrong with an Irish Pub?  
It turns out to be nothing special (except the Lynyrd Skynyrd catalog playing the whole time).  We will leave soon. One of the funny challenges we face sometimes is figuring out the difference between the mens and ladies rooms due to the words being foreign.  While some rooms have the stick figures and after the first time you see the words written you are usually OK.  This time meska (mens) and damska (ladies) were the names to look out for.  However this pub had some quasi universal symbols of a triangle and a circle.  No words, just symbols.  I went first and guessed right, but I don’t know what the significance was there (we later hit a place that had a circle and a triangle which turned out to be a unisex toilet).  Anecdotally, another funny experience I had was a urinal that played Beethoven's 9th symphony while you stood and did your business and then went silent and flushed itself as you turned away!  We walk back to hotel and decide a dinner plan.  El picks all the way. We take the metro to a restaurant called Carpe Diem.  We like the menu which is mid-range traditional Polish offerings.  I get a Caesar salad for starters and opt for pork chops with sauerkraut and fried potatoes.  The food is good and hearty.  Pork arrives schnitzel style, potatoes are french fried.  I start to feel very full, very quickly so I eat what I can and forego the rest. 123 Zl ($41) After dinner we take a leisurely walk past the Palace of Culture and Science, which is a Warsaw landmark, to a dessert place she read about.  A chocolatier called E. Wedel.  It is a confectionery in the front and a café in the rear.  The menu looks wonderful and we order.  I get a thick and velvety chocolate mousse and an espresso macchiato.  Oops, I realize it’s the latte macchiato I like, not the espresso version.  Live and learn.  We agree that this is a great dessert place and think we may try to come back. We decide to head for a nightcap and then call it a night.  I notice for the first time that where other European cities have the beer medallians hanging outside above the door so you can spot a pub a block away, I am not seeing many at all here. These come in handy when you need a bathroom or it starts to rain and you need to duck in quickly you can easily spot the beer brand and head straight for the door. We don’t see many here, so we have to really walk up to the place to determine its offerings.  We wind up at what El calls the Polish version of TGI Fridays called Sphinx Restauracja, as they seem to be everywhere.  I try an Okocim beer.  Best local brew so far, although nothing too special.

4/20/07
We eat breakfast again at the hotel.  We plan to make our first stop of the day the Warsaw Ghetto.  There are three metro stops in the section.  We decide to take the train to the farthest stop and walk back leisurely.  One note about the metro, there is only one subway line and even that is incomplete.  The stations are very clean and smell nice.  The way it works is that the first time you get on public transportation you validate your ticket.  We had a 3 day pass, so we only had to validate once and then carry the validated ticket as proof of receipt.  We saw three instances of transit police checking people’s tickets.  It appeared to me that one guy did not have a valid ticket, so he was being fined on the spot.  For $1.33 per day it just doesn’t seem worth getting caught without a ticket.  We fancy ourselves very good to excellent map readers, but the scale of our map and the crookedness of the streets and the name changes of the streets make navigation in the area quite challenging. (We will run into this problem several times during our stay).  Luckily we don’t have to be anywhere fast, so we take it easy and eventually make our way through the "path of remembrance".  There are several monuments and memorials throughout the area for stopping and reflecting.  I think I reflect a lot faster than El does, so she usually sets the pace at these kinds of places.  It turns out that we walk the path chronologically backwards.  We see it on our map and the monuments have no numbers on them, but you still get the gist of what is being memorialized.  We end the path technically at the beginning, but we are now closer to the Metro and it turns out that we saw the most poignant memorial as the culmination, so I do not regret our inverted path. At the memorial, El remarks at the amount of fresh flowers and candles set at the base.  It makes the memorial that much more remarkable.
    
Afterwards we head down to the metro stop Politechnika in order to walk back towards the hotel and try to find a used record shop El had read about.  We need to use the WC so we duck into a nice looking cafe.  We are told they are having some sort of "emergency" and can not order coffee for 10 minutes.  We use the facilities and leave without ordering.  As we continue, we see a sign for a place called Pub 7.  They advertise beer and food.  We stop.  No cider for El.  I order bigos which I have been looking for and try a Krolewskie beer.  Bigos is a traditional hunter’s stew made with sweet and sour cabbage and sausages.  I like savoy cabbage and I like sauerkraut- the mix is quite excellent- sweeter than sauerkraut, but more sour than savoy.  The sausages are cut up into bits and flavor the plate well.  It is served with rye bread wedges.  I get little butter and the lunch really hits the spot.  The place is small and has a lot of smoke.  We will press on. 28 Zl ($9)
Got lost several times trying to walk to the used record store that El found in a guide book.  For all of the aggravation this place better be good.  El decides we need a cup of cappuccino.  We look up to see a place called "cafe-bar-szpilka".  We head in for our regulars...cappuccino for her, macchiato for me.  The wait staff is friendly and offers us English version menus (jeez, is it that obvious??) other than "jenkoo-yea" (thank you) and "toalety" (bathroom) our command of the Polish language is somewhat incomplete.  We finish our drinks, hit the totality, and get ready to check out the record store. Wow, more disastrous navigation results.  The streets just tend to end, change name, or dog leg with no apparent rhyme or reason.  It was really difficult to find this shop.  It turns out to be more like a Barnes and Noble than a second hand shop. They have cd's but none used and the ones on sale look to be that way for a reason.  I am looking forward to seeing Saxon in Budapest.  El will join me, but is unfamiliar with their music.  I look for Kiss and Saxon cd's.  Nothing of interest at these prices (around $25-$30 per disc).  I’ll save my money for another pub stop.  I was going to suggest taking a tram aimlessly for an hour or so, but its getting on rush hour so the trams and buses are looking a little jammed.  I don’t know our next stop, but El is looking for travel info for Prague or Budapest in the English section.  I update my journal.  We find that this store has a full scale bar upstairs.  Since the store is a wireless hotspot we head up to the bar to try to check email and grab a beer.  The beer Tyskie is good, but the internet is spotty at best.  We finish up and decide to head back to the E. Wedel chocolate shop for dessert and El does some gift shopping.  I try the chocolate sponge cake with hazelnut crunch and ganache.  It was very dense and very good once again.  We recommend this as a stop if you’re ever in the area. Then we decide to hit a bar and get a beer and finish a scrabble game (I get a bingo on a triple word space and connect that to a word with a "Q" in it an 84 point word and its lights out for El.  I did not see a name on the bar (although it probably did have one).  We finish our beers and head back towards the hotel for the night.  Our flight is off at 7:30 tomorrow and we have to catch the bus to the airport at 4:59 am.  We decide to try to get to bed early.  Walking back El thinks she wants something salty like french fries.  We decide to head to the Centrum metro station and get some vendor food.  I get a falafel sandwich and a Coke.  I bring it back to the room to eat and get started on the packing for the morning.  The falafel is very spicy hot and pretty decent (especially for 9.5 Zl ($3)).  A nice day to end our time in Warsaw.

4/21/07
As we wait for the bus to the airport I talk to El about my impressions of this city.  I have spent three days here and I am still not sure what I think.  One of the travel features that we find very convenient is the option to spend three days in each city.  We have done several trips this way and it’s great.  Basically, if the city is great, you see enough to know that you want to go back, but if the city is not to your fancy, it’s not so long that the vacation drags on.  This being the furthest east in Europe that we've traveled, we wanted to make the most of our time.  The original trip was three days in Prague and three days in Budapest.  I made a last minute decision to add a third city onto the trip.  The third was Warsaw at the beginning.  I am admittedly horrible when it comes to world history.  What seems obvious to others eluded me in my education.  To find that Warsaw was 83% leveled during what they refer to here only as "historical turmoil" in the 1940’s means that a significant portion of this city is younger than 70 years.  I did not find the city to be as "grey and dreary" as I was led to believe.  There are plenty of modern buildings in the downtown area with plain looking construction elsewhere.  I think the city reminds me of Rochester, NY.  It’s thoroughly modern with some heavy industry around.  Nothing to distinguish it from other cities in developed countries.  It was nice, but a city that, to me, was more about the experience of interacting with the people and eating the food that make it up than the sites and various “tourist destinations” it has to offer.  Maybe El will fill in some of her thoughts here, but we discussed the fact that we had seen some historical churches in other cities like Paris, Vienna, and even Reykjavik had a church dating back to the 1100's.  The churches which can usually be admired for their architecture, here tended to be rather plain looking.  I attribute this to the rebuilding of the city in the not so distant past.  We have seen churches built in the Baroque and Gothic styles, and it is painfully obvious that these historical periods cannot be recreated no matter what.  It makes me appreciate the ones that have survived all the more.  I think that we had some nice interaction with some wonderful people.  Everyone was genuinely friendly and once they learned we were American (obvious) they would go out of their way to communicate in English.  Of non-English speaking countries we found Poland to be surprisingly easy to get around in.  Some of the countries we have visited were impossibly easy like Iceland where virtually every single person we met spoke English fluently.  As opposed to my personal experience with Italy where I had a difficult time even with native speaking travel companions.  Of course this does not have any bearing on my interest in traveling to foreign lands, it just has to do with whether it takes 2 minutes to procure a one way bus ticket that will cover the trip from the city center to the airport or having to pull out the maps, do a lot of pointing (and then hoping you got the right tickets) (our upcoming post office episode in Budapest illustrates this challenge well).  All in all I think we both agree that Warsaw was a nice beginning to our trip.  Not necessarily a place we need to come back to, and we leave not needing more.  I always have fun traveling with El and this city was no exception.  The one thing that was rather lousy was the weather.  Although it did not rain on us, it was rather chilly.  Everyday was a high around 50 degrees.  Nights were mid-30's-40's.  There were also some gusty winds that made walking around a little unpleasant. 
We take the 4:59am bus from the hotel to the Fryderyk Chopina Airport.  We are checked in and through customs in no time.  We sit at an airport café using the last of our zlotys that become even more worthless the minute we step off the soil.  We are on to Prague...wait...crap, turns out our flight has been cancelled.  We need to reclaim our baggage, get reticketed on a different airline and make our way through customs and security again.  It takes a little longer than earlier, but it’s a small airport so the worst isn’t all that bad.  We were scheduled to arrive in Prague at 9:30 now that’s been pushed to 10:55.  Once off the ground we make it to Prague without incident.  

sim