Warsaw, Poland

(Reconstructed Presidential Palace)

So what do I know about Poland? Not much. It's a slavic country wedged between the Germans and the Tsars. And its history is intertwined with both of them.

After ten years living in Europe, it's only now that I've come to visit this country. Much of my travelling in Europe has been related to business, and until now, my business hasn't taken me here. But I have travelled in Eastern Europe. I've been to Hungary, the Czech Republic, Romania, but never to Poland. It's been on my list for a while.

So here I am, in Warsaw. I should have been here on business also. But business is bad, and my trip was cancelled. But it was cancelled after I had already paid for the two nights I'd planned to add to the end of my business trip. I looked for a way to save this trip without paying a lot of money and I found one, my frequent flyer miles. Not to say that I got my flight for free, mind you, as the days of free flighs are long over, but nevertheless far less than any other option.

I'm staying in the district in the center of the city near the central train station. There are many international hotels located here, around the huge, Stalinist, Palace of Science and Culture. Seeing this monstrosity is one of the reasons I've come to Warsaw.

The Polish language is much less influenced by Latin than French, German or English. But as a tourist, the unfamiliarity of the language is not much of a problem. Many Poles one runs into as a tourist speak enough English to make getting around easy enough. A little travelling savvy helps as well, of course.

So what is my impression of Warsaw? Well, my expectations had already been informed by a wealth of information on the internet. It was mostly detroyed in World War II and therefore, it's not that impressive in the aesthetic area. Lots of either very modern architecture or Stalinist era buildings, but with a UNESCO World Heritage site in the restored old city as an exception to prove the rule. I have to admit that on the internet, I wasn't that impressed by the photos I saw of the old city, but after seeing it, I would add this to the list of sites for which photos don't do justice. The weather has not helped to cheer up the city but what can one expect in November?

I was interested in the history of the city during World War II, which is why I made a point to visit the relatively new Warsaw Uprising Museum. In the waning months of the Third Reich, the Russian army was closing in on Warsaw. The Allies had invaded Western Europe and were advancing eastward. The people of Warsaw, seeing the endgame, decided this was the time to revolt against the Nazi occupation they had endured since 1939 in hopes of gaining some kind of independence. But I guess the die had already been cast for Poland at the Tehran conference in which Britain, the U.S. and the Soviet Union had agreed to various spheres of influence and none of them were too keen on the Poles having their own opinion about it. Support for the uprising from them was lukewarm at best and downright cynical on the part of the Russians if the Polish interpretation is to be believed. It is curious after all that the Russians didn't go allout to assist the Poles against the Nazis in Warsaw when their troops had advanced to within a stone's throw of the city. There is a wealth information and documentation here about this event including propaganda films and countless objects and interviews with the participants. If one is relatively new to the subject, it can be a little overwhelming.

The Uprising lasted a few months before being crushed by the Nazis. Having planned all along to reduce the stature of the city to a provincial outpost, they took the vengeful opportunity to level what parts of the city hadn't already been destroyed by the ravages of war and deport the remaining inhabitants. In the midst of taking in all of the information don't forget to feel the catharsis of the Nazi reprisal only months before the end of the Third Reich.

As information about the city's public transportation options on the net are a little sketchy, I opted to forgo all but the most necessary transport (airport to city center) and walk to the different sites. After making a loop from the center, to the Uprising Museum on the west side of town, and then on to the Jewish Uprising memorial and the Old Town and back, by evening, I was exhausted. But I was able to cover everything I had planned to see.

All in all, I guess a full day in Warsaw was about right. Tomorrow morning I'll finish up by exploring the Palace of Science and Culture before heading to the airport. By then I'll have added another chapter to my understanding of Europe, another culture, another history, another point of view. When I hear of Warsaw in the future, it will be more than just an abstract and unknown city. I'll have a frame of reference, a mental picture to refer to which can help, perhaps, to explain events which go on in this Union of 27 nations.
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