Written by larapiegeler
Innumerable places are dubbed 'a city of contrasts', but Warsaw lives the epithet in a superbly surreal and completely charming fashion. The cross-section provided by the sightseeing trip I took on the Vistula River on my first afternoon revealed ancient defensive architecture, glass-walled skyscrapers, Gothic church spires, grey, prefabricated apartment blocks, concealed gardens tumbling over high walls and quaint Medieval houses.
I checked into peaceful but central La Regina Hotel – arguably the city's best, but definitely an ideal balance of modernity and respectful restoration. Dinner on my first night was a reassuringly well-composed French-style affair, set in the courtyard garden, in honour of a Summer far warmer than any I imagined Central Europe to be capable of, but apparently typical of Poland.
Layer upon layer of history is peeled back as you pass through the streets; 85% of the city was levelled during World War II and many of the colourful Medieval buildings in the Old Town were reverently restored to their current joyous-looking selves less than fifty years ago. On the lower floors of the ones on the market square ('Rynek Starego Miasta' in Polish) you'll discover jewellers selling local amber set in silverwork, souvenir shops and cafes spilling out onto the cobblestones – the perfect place to while away an afternoon after a visit to the Royal Castle, just steps away, which filled the morning of day two for me. A fort was first built here in the 13th century and successive extensions and alterations include red brick Gothic, early Roman baroque and 18th century designs. The interior is filled with fantastic artefacts salvaged from the 1944 wreckage.
I enjoyed an unpretentiously delicious (and disconcertingly cheap) lunch at an umbrella-shaded table on the Plac Zamkowy beneath King Sigismund's Column; local food is definitely worth a try and the Restauracja Polska offers a good first sampling.
Even the most voracious cultural historian will find days' worth of diversions here; there's surprising intensity to the shadows of the War that still linger around Warsaw's memorials, such as the austere statue that marks the place of the Warsaw Ghetto, the mass graves in the Okopowa Street Jewish Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, attended by groups of silent, thoughtful visitors. The Royal Route, south of the city centre (which is itself home to striking social realist architecture worth seeing), skirts buildings of note such as the imposing, classicist Presidential Palace and University, and others - the Lazienki and Wilanow palaces and the Opera House, to name a few – are scattered around the middle of the city.
I paid a brief visit to the vast Stadion Dziesieciolecia (a ten-minute taxi ride away). It was created in the 1950s as an Olympic stadium but deserted in the 80s following structural problems. It has since been gradually overrun with immense numbers of market stall traders, selling clothes, curiosities, accessories, souvenirs, and household bargains – and some other, more questionable items – and the sheer scale of the place is incredible. It's best avoided at night, though, and not just because it's supposedly haunted! Better head back towards the river and enjoy dinner on the terrace at the famous, maritime-themed Boathouse.
The countryside surrounding Warsaw is breathtaking - often underrated and relatively unspoiled – and on my day three, I found the slow and very warm bus ride to Zelazowa Wola village worth the effort for the views of rural Mazovia. This little place is the location of the house in which Chopin was born, now a museum devoted to him. It’s closed on Mondays but holds concerts every Sunday afternoon in Summer. This area is one of rich heritage, from which the Mazurka folk dance emerged, and it’s full of ideal spots to picnic and soak up the atmosphere.
Departed from London By Plane to Warsaw £117
Two nights’ B&B and one dinner at Le Regina £302
Boat trip £3.50
Lunch on Plac Zamkowy £8
Dodgy market shopping budget £20
Dinner at The Boathouse £47
Return bus ticket to Zelazowa Wola £5.40
Sunday afternoon Chopin £7
Picnic lunch £5
Taxi rides £40
(All costs are given per person, based on two sharing.)