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Two Years & Twice Around the World...  
Old Town, Warsaw, Poland
COUNTRY FACTS Pop: 38,536,869 Area: 312,685 km2 Gov't: Republic Religion: 89.8% Roman Catholic, 1.3% Eastern Orthodox, 0.3% Protestant View Map
Old Town, Warsaw, Poland, September 16-18, 2003  

Polish Flag POLAND


September 16. WARSAW  Our bus to Warsaw wasn't the nicest bus that we had been on but there were only a handful of people on it with us.  It made the border check go really quick.  We had to pass through both border patrol stations and they even gave a cursory look at our luggage and we were still into Poland in no time.  I had to laugh at the fact that the Polish border guard stamped my passport upside down.  The landscape didn't make any dramatic change but we started to see some more horse draw carts and many more roadside mushroom vendors.  The bus driver played Russian music most of the way, until his reception turned bad.  That actually wasn't bad since the music was one thing that I could actually appreciate from Russia.  When we arrived in Warsaw we weren't sure which station to get off at but the driver was kind enough to make sure we got off at the right stop in Central Warsaw. 

The main train station, oddly enough with a subterranean tracks, was pretty much an eye sore and the area around the station didn't give Warsaw much of an inviting feeling.  It was a big grimy and littered.  In the background a Stalin wedding cake towered over the city.  Riga had had one as well, reminding us that this was all once under Soviet rule.  However, even Stalin himself was reported to have said that trying to convert Poland to communism was much like trying to put a saddle on a donkey.  This dominantly Catholic country lost little of its faith during those days, reinforced by the appointment of a Polish Pope.

We entered the train station and sought out the tourist information booth.  Lodging, it appeared, was more difficult in Warsaw then any place we had been so far.  They called a couple of places and came up with nothing.  They then proceed to direct us to a kind of ship hotel that was some distance from the center.  Lonely Planet have given it a very cool review so we were feeling encouraged.  We also asked the tourist office to tell us where we could find the In Your Pocket Guide for Warsaw but even with a copy in their window they said they didn't know, pushing a IYP rip-off on us.  We found in IYP at the Relay kiosk only twenty feet away.  So, the credibility of the tourist office was now in question.  It would seem that they were been "incentivized" to promote certain places and publications.

Walking to our boat hotel we decided to check one of the hostels anyway, not trusting the tourist office.  It was a good four flights of stairs up and we arrived to find out that it was, in fact, full, unless we wanted to separate into sex segregated dorms.  The receptionist tried to direct us to another hostel but Rob went out in search of it and could find anything, not even the neighborhood residents knew what he was talking about.  I stayed with our bags in the lobby and watched some guy from Colorado verbally bludgeon a pair from Sweden.  I kept my head low and just hoped that he didn't turn his incessant talking towards me.  He was an expert on everything, especially on Sweden, even more than the two Swedes apparently.  He started to talk to me just as Rob arrived - saved by the bell.  I commented that we had seen few Americans in our travels but he assured me that he had seen many in his weeks of travels.  Perhaps it was the areas where where we were traveling that made the difference, I suggested, but he seemed not to believe me.  After all he had been traveling several weeks so I told him we had been traveling for six months and he finally shut up. This was my first introduction to a new breed of traveler that we would encounter more of as we got closer to Western Europe - the hard core partiers whose main ravings about any city they visited were the bars they got drunk in.  Partying is a valid reason for taking a holiday for sure but I knew then and there that dorms wouldn't be our best lodging option going forward.

After Rob returned rather fuming, the receptionist agreed to make a phone call to a campground/hotel and see if they had room.  She had agreed that rumors about the boat hotel were rather unsavory, in terms of clientele, and a campground seemed a bit more on the up and up.  It was already dark so we caught a cab to the campground but in the darkness there wasn't much to see.  The receptionist had no record of a reservation so either the hostel receptionist hadn't really called or these people didn't write it down. At this point we didn't feel like we could trust anyone.  She showed us to our bungalow, a sort of cabin duplex in the middle of a grassy, shaded area.  It was about as big as large closet and the two beds just barely fit but it looked tolerably clean.  The light was poor anyway, which was probably for the better. 

Stumbling our way back out of our unlit campground we looked for a place to eat.  The receptionist assured us that there weren't any fast food places nearby so we settled for an Italian restaurant attached to the bowling alley next door.  It was actually surprisingly nice, a whole new take on the bowling date, but was priced accordingly.  After dinner we took a walk over to the major intersection to find the grocery store we'd been given directions for and immediately saw a McDonald's.  It was a bit of a Twilight Zone feeling at that point.  The shopping mall with the grocery store, an enormous Carrefour's, was well equipped and we set ourselves up with some yoghurt, pastries and juice for breakfast.

September 17. WARSAW Our "campsite" was some distance from the center of the city but buses got us there quickly.  We stopped first at the train station and got our train tickets for the next day to Krakow.  We were already sure that one full day was going to be enough in Warsaw.  From there it was a quick walk to the mint.  With those errands out of the way we caught a trolley that took us directly into Warsaw's old town.

The old town wasn't actually very old.  It had been extensively restored, or more accurately, rebuilt, in 1953, after WWII but it was so well done that it was hard to tell.  Even UNESCO included the area on their list of Heritage Sites.  And, rebuilt or not, it was immediately evident that this place was a big tourist attraction.  We encountered the largest population of tourists that we had seen so far in our travels.   The old town area was chock full o' them.  It definitely gave the town a that amusement park atmosphere.  Even more than in Tallinn, everyone was employed to make the tourist experience more "enjoyable" including fast food stands and industrious youth playing the role of the Grim Reaper, standing motionless until they scared the bejesus out of someone when the moved.  So what the impressively restored historical area regained it then compromised in cheesy antics. 

We came into the old town from the Castle Square, Plac Zamkowy and were greeted by the 22 meter high King Sigismund's column (1664, rebuilt since war), who made Warsaw the capital of Poland. The nearby St. Anne's Church offered some wonderful views of old town and no other tourist as a bonus.  These occasional jaunts up tower steps were also some the best exercise we got in our travels.

Walking through old town, dodging massive tour groups, made it difficult to get the historical feel of the old town.  The architecture was fantastic with all of the detail - lions leaning out of the corner of a building, sun dials on another wall, etc., but the Old Town Square, Rynek Starego Miasta, was packed with cafe chairs and vendors selling kitschy tourist stuff.  One odd point of interest was the smallest house in Poland, wedged in a row of houses on Kanonia street.  I measured just a meter wide!  We passed through the old town and headed north, beyond the large barbican that once protected the bridge.  Another industrious duo were offering to pretend to cut your head off with their very convincing executioners sword so you could get a photo.  Rob declined and we moved on to visit the Madame Marie Sclodwaska-Curie Museum on 16 Freta Street, in the house where she was born. 

More commonly known by her married name, Madam Curie, she was one of the world's greatest scientists, women and Poles.  In order to get the education not allowed to women under Russian controlled Poland she left her country and later married the French scientist, Pierre Curie.  In 1903, along with her husband and their colleague, Henri Becquerel, she was awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery of the radioactive elements polonium (derived from the word Poland) and radium.   She was the first women to receive a Nobel Prize in science.  In 1906 Pierre Curie was offered the position of Director of the Physics Laboratory at the Sorbonne.  Killed in a carriage accident before he could take the position, Madame Curie was offered and accepted it to become the first women to be director of a research laboratory.  In 1911 she received a second Nobel Prize in Chemistry.  The museum was modest but covered the importance of her work.  She died of leukemia in 1934 due to her research with radium.

Heading back into old town Rob again dodged the executioners and we found a kebab restaurant to eat lunch.  After months of hot dogs and piroshigis the kebab sandwiches were a welcomed change and fortunately a popular fast food in Poland. 

Walking from Old Town down the major boulevard of Krakowskie Przedmiescie, the start of the Royal Mile,  we reached the Radzwiłł Palace where the Warsaw Pact was signed in 1955.  A soldier standing guard at the entrance gave us permission to take a photo of the current residence of Poland's President.  Opposite stood the older Połoski Palace.   Further down we found the Church of the Holy Cross, where Chopin's heart is entombed in one the massive pillars.  It was returned to Poland from Paris at his request when he died of tuberculosis.  His parents were French and Polish but he was born in Poland.

As the afternoon got late we decided that we needed to expedite our tour of Warsaw and caught a bus to visit the Łazienki Park and Palace.  The vast grounds of the Poland's last monarch, who was ousted in 1792, made for a peaceful getaway from metropolitan Warsaw.  At the center of the park stood the 18th century Palace upon the Water, appropriately named because it was surrounded on the front and back by lakes, allowing the white palace to be reflected in the water.  A Greek style theater stood along one of the lakes and it was there that we finally sat down and just watched the people.  Kids were running around and an old man was feeding the peacocks. 

As we walked back to the bus stop we noticed pathways in the park lined with small candle lanterns.  They gave the wooded park such a romantic and warm feeling on what was becoming a wet and cold night.  Back in central Warsaw we found another kebab restaurant for dinner before returning to our camp ground.

POLAND Warsaw Sept 16-17 Krakow Sept 18 Sept 19 Sept 20 Sept 21-22

CZECH REPUBLIC Prague Sept 23 Sept 24-25 Cesky Krumlov Sept 26 Sept 27-30

AUSTRIA Vienna Oct 1 Oct 2

HUNGARY Budapest Oct 3 Oct 4 Oct 5-6