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Warsaw has been the capital of Poland since 1596 and is by some distance the largest city in Poland. As a result of World War II Warsaw is a city of extremes. The city was badly damaged by the Nazi invasion of 1939, and suffered even more during the unsuccessful Warsaw Uprising in 1944. The Nazis went as far as systematically dynamiting the remains of already ruined buildings in attempt to ensure that the city of Warsaw ceased to exist. That they failed was entirely down to the post-war determination of the Poles to rebuild the city. Basically a huge city and its infrastructure was rebuilt from scratch, which they did with remarkable speed but at the cost of appearance; huge stretches of the city are typical communist style high rise concrete blocks, like Milton Keynes but without the soul. It's not all doom and gloom however; the post war planners took the decision to rebuild the city's historic core to its pre-war appearance. It was an extraordinary tasks, hundreds of buildings being rebuilt from the foundations up, brick-by-brick. The results were astonishing, and now Warsaw's Old Town looks almost exactly as it would have 200 years ago; looking at the area today it's almost inconceivable that most of these buildings were rebuilt less than 60 years ago.
As well the restored Old Town Warsaw's attractions include a young, lively atmosphere; by the standard of other Polish cities Warsaw, reckoned to be around 710 years old, is still in short trousers.
Warsaw rewards deep investigation; when I left I got the impression that I had just begun to scratch the surface of this intriguing and contradictory city.
Flying to Warsaw from the UK is a straightforward affair. Both British Airways and LOT have a couple of direct flights a day between Heathrow and Warsaw. There are also a couple of code-share flights, which means that one airline (usually LOT) provide the plane but both airlines sell seats on it. It can be worth paying attention when booking your seats; we paid £5 less by booking LOT seats than we would have for booking BA, even though we would have been on exactly the same plane.
LOT are one of those Eastern European airlines that suffer from a somewhat unfortunate reputation, albeit one that's at least 10 years out of date. Since the fall of the communist regime the airline has been thoroughly modernised and it now uses new Boeing aircraft in place of the Soviet produced rust-buckets it was previously obliged to buy. The flight time from Heathrow is about 2 and a half hours, flight prices vary but apex returns (on Expedia) start from around £170. LOT also has direct flights to Manchester 6 times a week.
.Air Polonia, the Polish low-cost carrier, went tits-up in December 2004. Stepping into the breach are CentralWings, a new low cost airline partly owned by LOT. They fly from London Gatwick to Warsaw and Krakow. Other budget options are SkyEurope, who fly from London Stansed and Manchester, or EasyJet from London Luton.
Warsaw's airport (named after Frederic Chopin) is small and stretched to capacity, which is why a major enlargement is being planned. There are direct flights to most capital cities in Eastern and Western Europe, as well as to most major cities in Germany. Further afield there are regular direct flights to New York, Chicago, and Tel Aviv.
Warsaw is at the centre of Poland's domestic air system. Apart from a service between Gdansk and Krakow all Polish internal flights are to or from Warsaw. Within Poland there are daily flights to and from Bydgoszcz, Gdansk, Katowice, Krakow, Lodz, Poznan, Scczecin and Wroclaw.
Poland's distance from the UK makes it unlikely that you're going to want to come here any other way than by air, unless you're combining it with a trip to another country. Warsaw's position between east and west Europe means that it has pretty extensive rail links. There are direct trains to an from, among others, Berlin, Dresden, Bratislava, Budapest, Prague, Vienna, Moscow and St Petersburg. Warsaw is also the hub of the Polish domestic railway system. Polish railways are inexpensive, comfortable, reasonably reliable, but very slow. Try and get on an Intercity or Express if you can manage it; the name is somewhat misleading, but they're certainly less slow than regular services.
Warsaw's main railway station is the hideous 1960s Warszawa Centralna on al. Jerozolimskie, but many long distances start and terminate at Warsaw Wschodnia (Warsaw East) station, some distance from the city centre in the Praga suburb. Just bare in mind that you don't have all day to get off when your train pulls into Warsaw Central.
Unless your journey to Warsaw is a really short one, it's not really worth going by coach. Coaches tend to be less comfortable, more expensive, and take longer than the train. There is a direct Eurolines coach service between London and Warsaw, but it takes around 30 hours and I'm too old for that kind of shit now.
The river Vistula runs through Warsaw, running roughly southeast to northwest. Just about everything of interest and most hotels are on the west side of the river, the eastern side is mainly housing estates.
The main commercial roads, and two of the busiest for traffic, are the east-west running al Jerozolimske and the north-south running Marszalkowska, which are the at the heart of the modern city and which also "boast" numerous examples of Warsaw's pretty hideous post-war architecture. Quite possibly the most hideous of the lot is the main railway station (Dworec Centralny), a 1960s monstrosity, which is at al Jerozolimskie 54. Although some local buses run from outside the central station the main long-distance bus station is at Warsaw West railway station (Warszawa Zachodnia), also on Jerozolimskie, a mile and a half or so to the west at number 144. There are regular buses and suburban trains from here to the Central Station. You won't be surprised to hear that there's also a Warsaw East station (Warszawa Wschodnia), 2 and a half miles to the east, over the Vistula. Many long distance trains pass through Warsaw Central but then go on to terminate at Warsaw East.
The main areas of interest for tourists are the Old Town (Stare Miasto) and the New Town (Nowe Miasto) which, confusingly, is actually pretty old. These are next to each other along the bank of the Vistula about a mile and a quarter north of the central railway station. To get to the Old Town from Jerozolimskie head north up Nowy Swiat (which becomes Krakowskie Przedmiescie), or go up Marszalkowska, cut through the Saxon Gardens (Ogrod Saski), which will also bring you out on Krakowskie Przedmiescie. Krakowskie Przedmiescie comes to an end when it reaches the Castle Square (Plac Zamkowy), the start of the Old Town, a hundred metres or so to the north of which is the Old Town Square (Rynek Starego Miasta), the heart of the Old Town. If you carry on going north you'll come to the picturesque Freta, the main route through the New Town, which passes by the New Town Square (Rynek Nowego Miasta).
Also full of attractions for tourists (and anyone else, I suppose) is the Royal Way (Trakt Krolewski), which starts off from Plac Zamkowy, goes south down Krakowskie Przedmiescie (I'm getting pretty fed up of typing that), Nowy Swiat, and ul Ujazdowski, passing by numerous palaces, churches and statues before finishing up at the Lazienkowski Park, where Poland's Kings used to hang out in the summer. It's about 2 and a half miles in length and there are numerous bars along the way.
We had the good fortune to be staying in a hotel close to the Palace of Culture and Science, which is not only by some considerable distance the tallest building in Warsaw but is also lit up at night making it an impossible-to-miss beacon in our attempts to navigate our way back to the hotel, which we had no problems doing no matter how much of a skin-full we'd had. Of course if your hotel is nowhere near the Palace of Culture and Science then the fact that it's so bloody big and impossible-to-miss will be a matter of supreme indifference, but the Palace is visible from just about everywhere in the city centre so you should be able to work out where you are in relation to it, which may or may not help. Similarly, one of the high-rise banks on Marszalkowska has laser beams shining from its roof at night, which might help you navigate your way home, or at least to a cash-point.
A good street map is always a good idea, although after a couple of days we had enough of an idea about the city's layout to get by without one. Most big hotels will have free tourist guides that have perfectly serviceable maps in them. And take care when crossing the road; many of Warsaw's roads are extremely busy and Warsaw's drivers tend to share the approach of their counterparts in Rome to pedestrian crossings. There are subways under most major roads, but we kept getting lost in the huge one under the Rondo im Dmowskiego (the roundabout at the junction of Marszalkowska and Jerozolimskie. Luckily roads become considerably quieter and safer after midnight, which was when we were at our most vulnerable.
OK then, as for getting around, you'll probably spend most of your time in Warsaw in the Old and New Towns which are compact, close to each other, and also pedestrianised, so the best (and practically only) way to see those in on foot. Unfortunately Warsaw is a pretty big place, and it's possible that your hotel will be nowhere near the Old or New Towns. They're probably walkable from most places in the city centre; our hotel was at the junction of Marszalkowska and Jerozolimskie and it took us about 20 minutes to walk to Plac Zamkowy (cutting through the Saxon Gardens). However, Warsaw is certainly big enough that at some point you might have to go by public transport. The good news is that this shouldn't be too much of a hassle.
Warsaw, in common with everywhere I've ever been apart from the UK and Cuba, has a cheap, reliable and fairly well integrated public transport system. It has a stretch of underground (not really a system as there's only one line), as well as extensive tram and bus networks. Centrum Metro Station is a 5 minute walk to the east of the Central Railway station, but the Underground manages to by-pass most of the main tourist areas, although Ratusk station (the northern terminus) is fairly close to the Old Town. Many buses and trams serve Warsaw's extensive suburbs, where there's absolutely no reason for you to go.
Although you can buy tickets from the bus or tram driver it's easier (and cheaper) to buy them in advance from kiosks or ticket machines near bus or tram stops. You can buy a wide range of tickets, for a single journey, 1 or 2 hour tickets, daily and weekly passes or books of 10 tickets. The ticket is validated by punching it in the machine when you get on the bus or tram, or by the entrance to the underground. Any bulky baggage you're carrying requires a separate ticket, as do any animals you have with you. Beer-guts travel free. Animals in bulky baggage probably need only one ticket, but I'm not sure what the situation is with bulky baggage being carried by animals. Try getting on the underground with all your suitcases loaded on a donkey and see if they let you get away with only one extra ticket, it could save you a fortune. Be warned that this is eastern Europe, ticket inspectors are on the prowl; if you haven't got a ticket, or it's not been validated, or you haven't got one for your luggage, expect a fine.
Warsaw Airport, Okecie, is about 5 miles to the south of the city. The number 175 bus runs regularly between the airport and the central railway station, with the 611 running the same route at night. Bearing this in mind there's no reason other than total and utter idleness why you need to take a taxi to and from the airport. Going from the airport our taxi cost 50zl; basically we agreed the fare in advance with a tout. Going back to the airport we took a metered taxi, and this also came to just about 50zl.
You won't need warning that in common with taxi drivers the world over the Warsaw community is a bunch of thieving bastards who exist only to extort cash from innocent tourists. Actually many of Warsaw's taxi drivers really do have links to organized crime. If you pick up a taxi in the street from outside a major hotel, a tourist spot, or the airport or train station the chances are that you're going to get ripped off. You can try and combat this by making sure the meter is switched on (although there are several different meter settings and a common trick is to set the meter during the day time to the rate that taxi drivers are legally allowed to charge at night, which is how I think our ride to the airport came to 50zl). Asking for a receipt might help, but I doubt it as not only are they thieving bastards they're shameless thieving bastards. Whatever you do don't tip a taxi driver as he's already managed to over-charge you by far, far more than you'd ever consider giving as a tip. If you really do need to take a taxi try and get your hotel to call one for you rather than picking one up in the street; you'll still get ripped off, but perhaps not to as great an extent. Bastards.
In common with most modern, large European cities Warsaw has a wide range of hotels, from cheap converted former worker's hotels to high rise international chains.
We stayed at the Hotel Syrena Metropol at the junction of Marszalkowska and Jerozolimskie. It has its good and its bad points. Starting with the bad points, it's housed in a hideously ugly modern high-rise building, the rooms, although clean, are a little shabby. The late 70's brown decor and colour scheme is definitely in need of an overhaul; while they're at it they could put proper showers in too, at the moment all they have is a bath with one of those sets of taps that has a shower attachment running off it. Finally, its location at the junction of 2 of Warsaw's busiest roads means that some might find it a little noisy. It didn't bother us, we kept the window and balcony door open all night and we weren't disturbed, but then we were on the 8th floor. And we were drunk. OK then, the good points. Its location is pretty good, about a 10 minute walk from the central train station, which was very handy for us, and only 20 minute's wander from the Old Town. The views from the 8th floor balcony were pretty cool. Perverts can try spying on the rooms in the adjacent high-rise Forum Hotel, although you'll need more powerful binoculars than the Scotsman's to make the most of this. They had automatic shoe-polishing machines on all the landings, and satellite TV in the rooms (no porn, not that we looked or anything....) Finally, the breakfast was impressive; as well as the standard bread, cheese, cold meats, cereals and yoghurts they had fish, fried egg, sausages and best of all strips of fatty, smoked bacon.
Basically I'd say that it was fine for a short stay, but if you had to spend a long time there you'd probably start reliving the film Barton Fink. The chain that owns the Metropol has a few other hotels in Warsaw, and a website.
We booked the hotel through the excellent HotelsPoland, which I recommend most highly, and it worked out as £50 a night for a double room (although if you stay for only one night it's a higher rate). I don't think that this was exceptional value for money, but I've stayed in worse and more expensive places. It's proximity to the railway station was the deciding factor for us.
Warsaw has restaurants catering to the variety of cuisines that you would expect in a city of its size and history. As well as traditional Polish food you'll find just about everything else you could possibly want, from pizzas and pastas, through Chinese, Indian and Mexican to some slightly more unusual places; Cuban, Lebanese and Bulgarian restaurants can all be found in Warsaw. There's even a "British-style" London Steak House, although whether it comes with a complimentary dose of BSE is not clear. Despite the Pole's fondness for meat veggies are fairly well catered for (boom, boom!); most restaurants have a vegetarian section on their menus, the Poles are also big fish-eaters, and several exclusively veggie places have opened recently.
As usual, to keep track of the constantly changing restaurant (and bar) scene, I highly recommed that you get hold of a copy of Warsaw In Your Pocket, a practically essential guidebook that comes out every two months. It costs only 10zl but if you're too cheap for that make sure you have a look at their website (also regularly updated) before you go.
The Scotman and I spent most of our time in Warsaw around the Old Town, so that's where most of the bars and restaurants we tried were too. Some of Warsaw's most expensive restaurants are to be found on the Old Town Square. Luckily there are a couple of cheap ones there too, which we managed to find.
Many of the restaurants on the Old Town Square also have tables outdoors in the Square itself; these tend to have different (and usually, cheaper) menus. Bazyliszek (at number 1/3) for instance is a very upmarket and expensive restaurant but we sat outside where the Scotsman had herrings in oil and barszcz (beetroot soup), which were both good and very cheap. Being a manly man I had a liquid lunch. And I don't mean soup.
Arkadia is another place on the Old Town Square (number 18/20). They have an interesting menu which features a whole roast pig for 750zl (over £100). This has to be ordered in advance; I suppose they need time to find a willing pig. As my budget didn't quite stretch that far (my appetite might just have!) I went for the ribeye steak instead which was fine, even though they didn't bother asking me how I wanted it cooked. Luckily it arrived fairly rare. The Scotsman had an impessive looking tuna salad.
Fairly close to the Old Town Square, at the corner of Piwna and Zapiecek, we stumbled across a restaurant called Zapiecek. It was given a slightly strange atmosphere by having a little fountain bubbling away in the middle of the dining room. Very strange. Maybe it doubles up as a sink or something. Anyway, the Scotsman went for some kind of fish, can't remember exactly what but it may have been related to carp. Anyway, he ate all that and as it was a pretty big fish it must have been pretty good. I had the knuckle of pork which was a whole pork joint, although it was n where near as big as U Vejvodu in Prague. (I mean nowhere near as big as the pork joint they serve at U Vejvodu, not that it was nowhere near as U Vejvodu itself; that would just be silly). That was pretty good, although a bit salty (well, it was pork), and the dumplings I had with it were excellent, not too heavy. Anyway, a decent enough place, although hardly exceptional.
For a change from the Old Town Square we tried a restuarant on the New Town Square instead. We ended up in Boruta because we'd basically gone from the Old Town Square, through the Barbican and up ul Freta reading and comparing every menu on the way before eventually realising how hungry we were and deciding to just go in the nearest place, which turned out to be Boruta. Actually, it wasn't a bad choice, although the Scotsman did make the unorthodox move of throwing-up in there before he'd had his meal (something to do with a dodgy chunk of smoked salmon he'd got from a kiosk). As it was a hot sunny day we both had the chlodnik, cold beetroot soup, which was very refreshing, and after that I went for the pork in pepper sauce, which was also very good. All in all then a reasonable, cheap place in a good location on the New Town Square, especially on a hot day when you can sit outside (although I doubt you'd be treated to the sight of some bloke being chased round the square by a black-clad grim reaper, complete with scythe, that was being shot by some film crew when we were there).
There's probably no finer place to enjoy a pint or five than in one of the many bars that are on the Old Town Square, especially on a warm summer's evening. This is where many of Warsaw's inhabitants come of an evening and so the square has a lively, friendly atmosphere well into the early hours. The persistant flower-sellars can be a bit of a pain ("Flower for the lady?" "Fuck off!"), but some of the buskers are actually quite talented, and one of them even got some money out of the Scotsman and myself (there's just something about a teenage girl in a short skirt playing the flute...). And who could resist the old chap who wanders from bar to bar challeing people to a game of chess in return for a pint? Well, me and the Scotsman for two.
Obviously sitting outside in the Old Town Square loses its attraction when it's pissing down, but don't panic, there are some decent indoor bars on the square too. I'm happy to recomend the Pub Stacja Rynek, an under-ground bar (as in it's below ground level, rather than being illegal); they do good, cheap beer, and reasonably priced food but best of all they have a totally bizarre 1930s railway theme; tables and cubicles are done up like railway carriages (complete with over-head luggage racks), and there are photos of trains everywhere. Obviously a train-spotter's wet dream, but happily the service was considerably more reliable than you'd expect on Britain's railways. An excellent place!
If you really, really must Warsaw has plenty of Irish bars (to go with a pair of John Bull Pubs). The Scotsman tried Morgan's Irish Pub on ul Tamka. They serve Guinness, surprisingly enough...
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