The story so far…
Born in Zawady, a small village in Central Poland, Dad was separated from his family at age 15, and was only reunited with them 4 years ago. Since then, I’ve shared 3 weddings, and sang, danced and drank more vodka than I would ever have deemed possible! The secret appears to be to eat hugely- the tables were groaning with food before the main courses were even brought out. And the courses kept on coming, throughout the night.
I’m getting ahead of myself. Tradition plays a wonderful part in Polish weddings. Before the ceremony, the bride and groom meet at the bride’s home for a blessing from the parents. They travel together to the church, in a car beautifully decorated with paper flowers. The guests follow in convoy, and at intervals along the way the whole procession halts- “road worker” friends have erected barriers across the road, which can only be removed for payment of a bottle or two of vodka, amid good-natured banter from the guests.
After the church service, the celebration begins. Romantically a heart shape is created on the reception hall floor, either with flower bouquets or tealights. With the newly-weds in the centre, the guests join hands, and sing and dance around them.
Food comes next, accompanied by toasts, then dancing. More food, more toasts, increasingly vigorous dancing. At midnight the cake is brought out- and what a cake! The lights are dimmed and a tiered trolley rolled out, bearing the cakes, resplendent with fireworks. The bride and groom light them, to a chorus of oohs and aahs! Presents change hands, then we eat and we drink and we dance, until daybreak, or our legs give out. Just time for a quick snooze and then back to the festivities again, around 4pm. And- you’ve guessed it!- we eat, we drink and we dance some more, this time with a few boisterous party games for younger family members and friends. Yes, you could certainly say that the Poles know how to enjoy themselves!
But for many years, there wasn’t much to celebrate. Witness Warsaw!
Razed to the ground by Hitler in the Second World War, Stare Miasto, the Old Town, has been reproduced by the Poles in all its multi-coloured glory. Working from old photographs and paintings, over a 30 year period, the Old Town has been painstakingly reconstructed. Standing, as I did, in Plac Zamkowy, Castle Square, it’s impossible to believe that you are looking at anything other than the original buildings. Until you look at the billboards showing the 85% devastation.
It’s a huge testament to the Polish people, and a joy to explore. The Royal Castle, home to kings of Poland since 17th century, dominates the huge, open space. It’s open for tours Tues- Saturday, 10-4pm and Sunday, 11-4pm (normally 22 zlotys but free on Sundays) +48 22 355 5170. Cafes and restaurants line the square, and you might want to take some time to eat outdoors in this majestic setting. By Polish standards it won’t be cheap, but it certainly competes with any capital city I know.
The Tourist Information office occupies a grand “old” building in the square too, and you can collect a map and lots of suggestions for things to see and do. (Pick these up before you eat and you can browse through them while you wait- if you can take your eyes from the scenery)
Dad, now 83 and not so good on his legs, was with me on his first ever trip to Warsaw, and didn’t want to miss a thing. Luckily a mini tourist train departs from Plac Zamkowy on a short tour of the old Town, and a little of the new. There’s a commentary in Polish but it’s difficult to hear as you rattle across the cobbles- easier to keep track on your map.
We strolled a little of the route, Polish ice cream clasped greedily in hand. The “must see” for me was beautiful Rynek Starego Miasta, old Market Square, with Syrena, the mermaid statue, at its heart. It’s a place to watch all of life bustle past. Buy some fruit and occupy a bench for a while. In Summer, artists stalls and easels jostle for space. Winter might see you take to the rambling Historical Museum of Warsaw at no.42, for the entire story of the city’s rebuild- but you'll need plenty of time.
St John’s Cathedral, occupied by German tanks during the war and so badly damaged that only the Gothic exterior is true to its original form. Behind it, Kanonia, with views along seemingly endless River Vistula. On Ulica Podwale, the bronze statue of a small boy in a gigantic helmet- symbol of the children fighting alongside their parents in the Warsaw Ghetto. And the impressive defensive walls of the Barbican. Returning to the main square, be sure to climb to the observation tower of St Anne’s Church, on Krakowskie Przedmiescie, for Warsaw’s finest view. Splendid itself, it was one of the few churches to withstand the devastation.
With just one day in Warsaw and differing agendas, our party split. The tranquil setting of Lazienki Palace appealed to me. The 4km Royal Way leads directly there from the Old Town, so we hopped a 180 bus and were soon sharing the beautiful grounds with frolicking red squirrels and peacocks. The Palace was the Summer residence of Poland’s last monarch, King Stanislaw Poniatowski , the surrounding park awash with canals, pavilions and statuary. The Chopin Monument is the setting for concerts of the maestros music on Sunday afternoons in Summer. Unexpectedly we discovered a rock band tuning up in an amphitheatre as we wandered.
The rest of the family had gone to the Palace of Culture and Science, said to be unmissable, and so it proved. Built in the Communist era, at 231metres, it towers over modern Warsaw, and is cram-packed with exhibitions, shops and galleries. A bit of an ugly duckling from the outside, the 30th floor viewing deck provides a mighty panorama of the city.
Arriving at Warsawa Centralna by train, we found modern Warsaw a bit of a shock to the system. You are literally hurled into a seething mass of traffic, the Palace of Culture a highly visible landmark just opposite. I had any number of maps but still did not find the transport system easy to get to grips with, so we taxied to the Old Town, 20 zloty well spent. With more time available I’m sure it would be possible to navigate the huge spaces successfully. There’s a one ticket system for trams, metro and local buses, a range of options which can be cheaply purchased from newsagent’s kiosks and ticket machines (with an English menu available). Warsaw City Tours are another easy, though relatively expensive, choice.
www.warsawtour.pl will give you all the information you need. Click EN at the top for English version and Warsaw Essentials for transport details and tour operators. www.e-warsaw.pl is useful too.
There was no shortage of good looking shops and our attention was immediately captured by a huge glass edifice alongside Warsawa Centralna- Zlote Tarasy. We had little time to do more than capture a snack before returning to the station, but I had the distinct impression that Warsaw could provide shopping heaven.
Although I personally didn’t stay in Warsaw, a good friend whose opinion I value has stayed at both Polonia Palace and Sofitel Victoria and found the food exceptional in both. The Polonia has a remarkable history, coming unscathed through World War 2, despite its central location beside the Palace of Culture. (Al Jerozolimskie 45, tel. +48 22 31 82 800) Sofitel Victoria is near the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior (Krolewska 11, tel +48 22 657 8011)
I was certainly surprised at what a bustling modern city Warsaw turned out to be, and the contrast with sleepy Zawady couldn’t have been greater. My only regret was that I didn’t have time to see more, but I have plenty of ideas for whenever I get to make that return trip.