Warsaw - The rise of the phoenix
Written by Roberto Galea
Despite just a few hours of sunshine per day in December, Warsaw’s warmth and hospitality embraces every visitor with a ray of sunshine.
The Polish phoenix
The present-day Polish capital is a vibrant, exciting city where old and new co-exist side by side. A casual visitor would not realise the hardships that Warsaw had to go through to be where it is today. The most significant, the Second World War – seen by modern historians as the most widespread battle in history – was started by an attack on Poland, with troops moving towards Warsaw. Much of the city was razed, but now gleaming glass monoliths pepper the landscape, belying the country’s grey communist history. Warsaw is at the heart of a fast-moving economy on the edge of the European Union, developing both socially and economically.
Visitors are well catered for. Central Station, a stone’s throw away from the Palace of Culture and Science (itself a present from Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to the people of Poland), is the starting point for the city’s many young travellers, while business people are whisked away to one of several world-class hotels where they can conduct their affairs, then relax in luxurious surrounds.
No visitor to the city can avoid visiting the city’s Old Town, which is in fact a 1:1 replica of the original destroyed in the war. It is a colourful hub of city life, with a bronze mermaid (Warsaw’s mascot) at its heart. The restaurants that envelop the square offer delicious traditional fare for an international palate. Try the carp at “u Fukiera”, a quaint little restaurant with tons of atmosphere.
Music to your ears
Warsaw is also the centre of a vibrant music scene, with jazz sessions being held on an almost daily basis. But for a special experience, watch a performance at the neoclassical Grand Theatre (http://teatrwielki.pl). Works playing in December include Puccini’s Madame Butterfly (until Dec 4), Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, and a ballet by Polish choreographer Robert Bondara, Persona.
For those interested in music, a day trip to Zelazowa Wola is a must. Situated just 46 km west of the city, this was the birthplace of Poland’s most revered musician – Frédéric Chopin. The quaint village now includes a newly refurbished museum in the composer’s house. When back in Warsaw, you can pop into the Holy Cross Church on Krakowskie Przedmiescie to see the final resting place of the composer’s heart.
When it comes to food, Warsaw is becoming very diverse, with cuisines from all corners of the world being offered. Perhaps not surprisingly, Polish flavours feature prominently in the local eating landscape. One of the most innovative players is Wojciech Modest Amaro and his Atelier Amaro, the first Polish restaurant to be in the running for a Michelin star. The up-and-coming chef combines traditional Polish ingredients with cutting-edge techniques.
For something more down to earth, there are many other options to choose from. Stop at one of several eateries specialising in one of the icons of the country's staples, pierogi. The stuffed dough treats are filled with anything from potatoes and cheese, meat (usually a pork mix) to sweet cottage cheese and forest berries. Ask your server if they offer some unfiltered Polish beer. Poland is also arguably the birthplace of wódka (for centuries a bone of contention with Russia). Brands to sip are Zubrówka, flavoured with bison grass, and Zolàdkowa Gorzka, a herbal liqueur with a sweet aftertaste.
For the culturally inclined, there are a number of interesting cultural events happening around the city in December. The Watch Docs film festival (December 7–16) has a pedigree of showing top-notch documentaries from around the globe. The National Museum of Warsaw is organising an exhibition on art and culture in Central Europe during the reign of the Jagiellonian dynasty (1386–1572). For fans of more modern design, the Poster Museum highlights the world-famous art of Polish posters – ranging from film, to theatre, to social issues.
The night is young
Unlike other European metropolises, Warsaw does not have a distinct area with bars and nightclubs, although there are a few notable addresses that one should visit. For decades, Tygmont jazz club has offered regular jazz jam sessions by international artists in a dimly lit location chock-full of character.
Another option for more adventurous folk would be to go to the open-air ice-skating rink at the foot of the Palace of Culture and Science. If you are new to this, you can hold on to rails, but you could also impress your friends (or your date) with a couple of pirouettes right on the open ice!
Warsaw manages to capture the essence of Polish people: very down to earth, and once you get to know them they will become friends for life.
By the numbers
Warsaw is the 9th largest European city by population, which in July 2012 stood at 1,716,855.
The approximate date Prince Boleslaw II of Masovia established the city.
The number of metro lines in Warsaw, running from north to south. A second line is under construction.
The height of the Palace of Culture and Science, the tallest building in Poland.
Historically, Poland was part of a major spice route between east and west Europe. This has introduced a number of herbs and spices to traditional dishes.
The country’s chilly climate has also forced Poles to include pickled vegetables in their daily diets, especially in the long winter months. Even today, bigos (slow-cooked sauerkraut with sausage and spices) and pickled gherkins are staples in every Polish house. When eating out, be aware that most dishes include pork in some form or another. One component of the famed ‘Russian pierogi’, which appear vegetarian, is fried in pork lard. A number of ‘vegetarian’ soups, including tomato, are also built upon a bouillon of meat. Always ask your server about pork in your dish.
There are a few hotels of note in Warsaw; one is the Rialto. Situated just a short distance from most places of interest in the Polish capital, the Rialto is a boutique hotel in the style of the roaring twenties. The original furniture in the hotel’s 44 unique rooms is from the period and has been collected from all around the world, exclusively for this particular project. The restaurant’s rich and diverse menu includes old dishes of pre-war Warsaw inspired by recipes from the beginning of the 20th century.