Wednesday, August 01, 2012

A Few Days in Warsaw, Poland

After a fun week spent road tripping through the Netherlands with Mark, we next headed to Poland, where Romy attended the International Combustion Symposium, a huge scientific conference on combustion (the science of burning things). I was looking forward to it (especially since I didn't have to attend the conference) because we got to stay at a nice hotel very close to downtown and old-town Warsaw.

Stare Miasto Warsaw
This old town market place was completely restored (after it was blown to pieces in WWII) according to old photographs only!

Warsaw is the capitol of Poland, and its history goes very very far back in time. It was first settled as a small fortified town in the 9th century! Today, it is a survivor of many wars, including WWII, where roughly 85% of its buildings were destroyed. This is the reason that a lot of people prefer to visit other Polish cities instead, such as Krakov, because many of the historic buildings are now gone. But Warsaw still has a really nice old town district. While we were visiting, there was a public exhibit installed on the streets of the old town, showing how every single building was either completely or partially rebuilt and restored to its original pre-war condition. The amount of work and effort must have been incredible!

Warsaw 1945 Old Town Market
Scanned photographs from Marek TuszyƄski's collection of WWII prints, showing the old town market square completely destroyed!

In my opinion, the most dramatic restoration occurred at the old town market place, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site (along with the rest of old-town Warsaw). The whole square was restored to what it looked like before the war, using only a few photographs that somehow survived! I really wish I snapped a few pictures of the exhibit, which showed the restoration project that went on (in the 60s I think) and the photographs they had to go off of.

Stare Miasto Warsaw
A warm summer night in Warsaw, Poland.

The metro system in Warsaw is very convenient to use and pretty cheap if you buy a three day pass to ride unlimited. When the conference was over in the early afternoons, we hopped aboard the subway lines and explored the city. We went out for dinner in a new place each night, trying all the cuisine. The first night we got cow stomach soup (mmmmmm so good!) at a cafe on the square in old town.

Warsaw and Moscow
The Palace of Fine Arts in Warsaw looks a lot like one of the Seven Sisters in Moscow, Russia (inset)!

In the new modern downtown section of Warsaw, there stands the most gigantic, impressive, and tallest building in town. Its the Warsaw Palace of Fine Arts. When we first saw it, the building reminded us of the Seven Sisters in Moscow, Soviet skyscrapers built by Stalin. The architecture, in my opinion, is very beautiful, but also seems to imply power and control, almost evil in a way. After our visit, I learned that the Palace of Fine Arts was actually designed in the same Stalinist architecture as the Seven Sisters when Poland was under communist control. Looking at a drawing of what the lost 8th Sister was supposed to look like, the resemblance is uncanny, and in fact, I just learned that it is the 8th Sister! After Stalin died, plans to build the 8th Sister in Moscow were scrapped, and they decided to build it in Warsaw instead. Woah!

Jenn 7.29.2012
Who ever invented mixing beer with juice, and then drinking it with a straw? POLISH PEOPLE!

One of the hot afternoons, we took a walk through the Royal Gardens, where we stopped at a small cafe for a refreshing beverage. We ordered a cold beer, but the waitress asked us if we ever tried it "Polish style." We looked at each other, and then decided, what the heck, we'll try it "Polish style." When she came back with the beer, it was actually pink and had a soda straw! She explained to us that when it's really hot outside, the afternoon beverage is beer with sweet juice syrup, drank through a straw. It wasn't bad (but really sweet), since the beer was really light. Certainly refreshing! We relaxed with our beers for quite a while as summer thunderstorms rolled by us.

Chopin Letterboxing
We found a letterbox in the Royal Gardens!

As you might know, I recently got into letterboxing (see previous post here). Before the trip, I learned that letterboxing is an international phenomenon, and there were a few letterboxes hidden around Warsaw that we would be able to find. The one we tried for first was near the Chopin statue in the Royal Gardens. It was hidden in a bush, and Romy found it!

Romy 7.31.2012
Mmmmmm, pierogi, filled dumplings of goodness.

During lunch on one of the conference days, I lured Romy into trying some pierogi at a Bar Mleczny. These are cafeteria-style cheap eateries offering homemade fast food. Historically, they used to be operated and subsidized by the state, offering cheap milk-based food, but eventually expanded to serve regular stuff too. Many closed down, but there is a recent revival. We found one not too far from the university where the conference was being held, and we ordered cheese pierogi and Russian-style pierogi. The cheese ones were stuffed with semi-sweet cheese. They were soooooo good! The Russian ones were very fatty (but so delicious), stuffed with bits of fried lard, bacon, and caramelized onions. OMG! I don't think we ate dinner that night.

Warsaw, Poland
A lit up water fountain danced in sync with classical music along the banks of the river near old-town Warsaw.

Fresh out of spending the summer in Norway, we had forgot that there was a such thing as hot weather. One of the things we realized we missed were the hot summer nights. I am so used to taking a sweater with me everywhere I go, especially if its the evening. In Warsaw, it was hot during the day and hot during the night. We found a really cool fountain one of the evenings that was lit up and the fountain danced to music that was played on a huge PA system. It was refreshing when the wind blew the mist off the fountain your way. While we were sitting watching the fountain, next to the banks of the large river that runs through the city, we also noticed a bus that ran along the road next to the river. The next day, we tried getting on that bus to see where it would take us.

Warsaw, Poland
Trying out the exercise equipment near the walls of a large fort and dry moat.

The bus took us a little farther out in the city where most tourists probably don't go. We found an old fort, with the moat (mostly dry now) still there, and attempted to take a walk all the way around it. The moat area was turned into a park, and there was random exercise and fitness equipment placed all around. Finally, we found what looked like the entrance to get inside the fort. It was open, so we walked in. There was nobody at the huge gate, so we kept walking. Our crappy tourist map showed we could walk through the fort, back towards old town, so we decided to try that out.

The sun was starting to set, and the road through the fort took us past old bunkers, and other military buildings in various states of decay. The place was totally deserted. We poked around, but then realized that the road that looked like it went through was blockaded by a high fence, complete with constantine wire. So we started to turn around, but were still kind of looking at all the old stuff. Out of nowhere, a fat old man walked out between some buildings, and started yelling at us. I guess he realized we didn't speak Polish, so he started saying, "Closed! Closed!" and pointed us back towards the old door. Oops! We hurried back out the large gate, and by now it was getting dark. He slammed the gigantic door behind us as we left. To this day, we wonder how we would of got out of there if he didn't see us on his way to lock the gate! It was a fort, after all.

Romy 8.2.2012
I came with Romy to see what this International Combustion Conference was all about.

On our last day in Poland, I wanted to go with Romy to the conference to see what it was like. The university was very old, and the lecture halls were huge and tall. The room was pretty full by the time we arrived, so we walked all the way to the top row of seats, and sat down. It was soooo hot! We stayed for one talk, and that was it!