Exploring the Baltic, Part 2: Warsaw Rises
By Monique Burns
My 11-day Baltic odyssey took me to five cities, from the port of Hamburg, Germany’s second-largest city, as far east as St. Petersburg, Russia’s incomparable cultural capital. For the second leg of my journey, I hopped an hour-and-a-half flight aboard LOT Polish Airlines from Hamburg to Warsaw. There, in Poland’s phoenix-like capital, the Vistula River meanders placidly to the Baltic through a charmed city of medieval, Renaissance and neoclassical landmarks.
But Warsaw wasn’t always so peaceful.
In 1943, three years after the Nazis herded over 300,000 Jewish citizens into the tiny Warsaw Ghetto, Jewish resistance forces rebelled, bravely holding off heavily armed Nazi troops for nearly a month. On that hallowed site, opposite the 1948 Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews—housed in a stunning contemporary building designed by Finnish architects—recounts that community’s long, illustrious and, sometimes, tragic saga.
Not far away, at Magat Restaurant, celebrate the Jewish community’s contributions to Poland with local kosher fare. Start with heaping platters of appetizers—hummus, smoked salmon, pickled herring and other delicacies—followed by hearty żurek soup, made with sausages, smoked turkey, potatoes and hard-boiled eggs, and finally grilled chicken, meat and fish entrees. After lunch, visit the nearby Warsaw Rising Museum, where fascinating interactive exhibits recount the story of Polish resistance forces who, only a little over a year after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, also challenged the Nazis.
In Warsaw, beauty has always triumphed over turbulence. During World War II, the Nazis destroyed 90 percent of Stare Miasto, the Old Town. But this enclave—including the art-filled 15th-century Royal Castle—was completely reconstructed, stone for stone, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Sit on the umbrella-shaded terrace of Bazyliszek restaurant on the Market Square and lunch on traditional Polish specialties like pierogies—delicate dumplings stuffed with meat, cheese or cabbage—as passers-by saunter past narrow pastel-colored Renaissance houses and swirl around Warsaw’s symbol: a statue of a mermaid holding a sword and shield. Just south, in Łazienki Królewskie Park, stroll through a bucolic landscape of palaces, statues and ponds on leafy walks shared by strutting peacocks.
Along the banks of the Vistula River, you can join locals sunbathing on arena-style stone steps. Or join local sailors for a river cruise in long, shallow wooden boats with big square sails like those Varsovian fishermen used centuries ago. From the water, you can make out medieval, neoclassical and Art Nouveau landmarks that share the skyline with contemporary structures and construction cranes. Razed by the Nazis, who bombed 85 percent of the city, then dominated by the Communists until 1989, Warsaw not only survived but thrived, recently emerging as one of Europe’s fastest-growing economies.
In the center city, in a former pre-war Soviet embassy, stylish Hotel H15 has luxurious apartment-suites, with kitchenettes and marble baths, whose rates start, incredibly, at less than $100 a night. In the dining room, decorated with black-and-white photographs of Andy Warhol, Marilyn Monroe and other American celebrities, look for the Soviet hammer-and-sickle symbol carved into the capitals of Ionic columns.
Just north rises another reminder of Poland’s sojourn in the Soviet bloc. Built in 1955 and often referred to as “Stalin’s wedding cake,” the 778-foot-high Palace of Culture and Science provides panoramic city views from its 30th-floor viewing platform. Take in the sights, then head east to the original E. Wedel chocolate shop, opened in 1851 and the first in what would become a country-wide confectionary empire. Amid crystal chandeliers, pastel-colored walls and small polished wood tables, sip hot chocolate—so dense it stands up to a spoon—while savoring house specialties like cheesecake with plump local cherries, and discus-sized chocolate-covered waffles that you can decorate with white icing.
For dinner, choose Stary Dom, and feast on Wiener schnitzel, roast pork or salmon as strains of Chopin waft through old-world dining rooms with oak paneling, beamed ceilings, country-chic chandeliers and bouquets of fresh flowers. Another night, savor updated Polish cuisine—like chilled cherry soup with nasturtium capers and deer sirloin with cauliflower and green almonds—at Concept 13, where floor-to-ceiling glass windows and a wraparound terrace offer fabulous views. Then follow crowds of fun-loving Varsovians to Foksal Street for a farewell drink in one of Warsaw’s many cocktail bars or high-energy dance clubs.
IF YOU GO
LOT Polish Airlines, Poland’s national carrier, has regular connections between Hamburg, Germany, and Warsaw, Poland, as well as flights throughout Europe and direct flights from the U.S. to Poland. Log on to www.lot.com
Warsaw Pass, good for 72 hours, offers a free hop on, hop off city bus tour, free admission to major museums, and discounts on tours, restaurants and accommodations. Visit www.warsawpass.com.
Among Warsaw’s many hotels, choose this centrally located hotel for luxurious rooms at amazingly low prices:
Hotel H15, Poznańska 15, (48) 22-55-38-700, 00-680 Warsaw, Poland. Stylish apartment-style suites, with kitchenettes and marble baths, and a sleek restaurant, in Warsaw’s center city. www.h15boutiqueapartments.com
Sample both classic and innovative Polish dishes at:
Bazliszek, Old Town Square 1/3, (48) 22-831-18-41, 00-281 Warsaw, Poland. Feast on pierogies and other local fare inside or outside on the sunny terrace facing the Old Town’s Market Square. www.bazyliszek.waw.pl
Magat, Grzegorz Tomala Pl., Grzybowski 12/16, (48) 22-624-99-24. 00-104 Warsaw, Poland. A simple but cozy setting for traditional Polish kosher food. www.restauracjamagat.pl
E. Wedel Chocolate Shop, Szpitalna 8, (48) 22-827-29-16, 00-031 Warsaw, Poland. Opened in 1851, the Wedel chocolate empire’s original shop and café. www.wedelpijalnie.pl/en
Stary Dom, Puławska 104/106, (48) 22-646-42-08, 02-620 Warsaw, Poland. Traditional Polish specialties like roast pork or salmon served in a gracious old-world setting. www.restauracjastarydom.pl
Concept 13, Bracka 9, (48) 22-310-73-73, 00-501 Warsaw, Poland. Wraparound glass windows and minimalist decor set the stage for innovative dining on local foodstuffs. www.likushoteleirestauracje.pl/eng/Concept_13_Restaurant
Cruise Warsaw’s watery link to the Baltic Sea:
Discover Wisła River (email email@example.com or call (48) 606-777-154). Join local sailors for a two-hour cruise along the unspoiled Vistula River aboard replicas of centuries-old Varsovian fishing boats. Longer 4 to 5-hour cruises, multi-day cruises and sailing classes are also available.
Don’t miss these museums:
Museum of the History of Polish Jews, 6 Anielewicsa St., (48) 22-47-10-301, 00-157 Warsaw, Poland. In the former Warsaw Ghetto, the city’s newest museum traces the thousand-year-long saga of Poland’s Jewish community. www.jewishmuseum.org.pl/en
Warsaw Rising Museum, Grzybowska St. 79, (48) 22-539-79-05. 00-844 Warsaw, Poland. One of Europe’s finest, this multimedia museum debuted in 2004 on the 60th anniversary of the 1944 Warsaw Rising. www.1944.pl/history
For more information on the Baltic Sea Region, visit http://onebsr.eu/tourists/one-bsr-destination-guide.