Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Palace of Culture and Science, Warsaw

This imposing building contains 3288 rooms on 43 floors with cinemas, theatres, museums, bookshops and a large conference hall for 3000 guests.

Royal Castle, Warsaw, 2005

Rebuilt in the 1970's, it is now a branch of the National Museum.

Royal Castle, Warsaw, 1944

The remains of the Royal Castle, after the Nazis fled before the advancing Russian army.

Powazki Cemetary, Warsaw

Graves of Polish soldiers who fell during the Warsaw Uprising.

Day Three – Warsaw, Poland 52o 13’ N 21o02’ E

...and clears.

I find mysely surrounded by gravestones, some relatively recent, some obviously much more ancient. This really is a hauntingly beautiful place, the leafy trees rustling softly in the gentle afternoon breeze. Softly, as befitting a place of such imposing solemnity, I approach an old gentleman who is tending a grave. The simple black marble gravestone bears the name of the influential film director Krzysztof Kieslowski. This means I can be in only one place - the Powazki Cemetery, Warsaw, Poland.

Warsaw’s most remarkable feature is, it seems to me, its durability. No matter how many times the city is invaded, it rises again, surviving all the tragedy that history can throw at it. Only one of many such events occurred near the end of WWII when it became clear that the Nazis would soon be forced to abandon the city under the gunfire of the approaching Russians. Anticipating help from the Russians, the Poles rose up against their Nazi occupiers, however no such help was forthcoming and the uprising was crushed, the survivors being either transported to POW camps (in the case of the fighters) or expelled from the city in the case of the civilian population. This period in Warsaw's history became known as the Warsaw Uprising.Modern historians now disagree on whether the Russians could have reached the city in time to make a contribution.


Leaving the cemetery I board one of the city's many and frequent bus services and after a short journey find myself outside the Royal Castle, which, by the time the Russians entered the city near the end of World War II, was reduced (along with 85% of the city's pre-war building) to a pile of rubble. The Castle as I see it before me now, was re-built in the 1970's and is now a branch of the National Museum. Unfortunately, the museum is now closed for the day (opening hours 10:00am - 4:00pm), so I continue on foot in search of a something to eat and a bed for the night.

One of the buildings which so dominates the skyline of present-day Warsaw is the huge (230m) concrete sky-scraper, The Museum of Science and Culture, a starkly beautiful structure, even if understandably not quite to everyone's taste. This building was a controversial gift to the Varsovian people from the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin. Construction began in 1952 and completed in 1955 and for some time during construction there was dispute over what the completed structure would actually be used for. The Soviet authorities were planning a university modelled on Moscow State University but the will of the Poles carried the day and so it still serves as a museum.


Not far from the museum I find a charming little restaurant, the Adler where I avail myself of their varied menu. I opt for a starter of wild mushrooms in creamy sauce with bavarian dumpling (34.00 Polish Zloty or £5.51) and a main course of roasted pork knuckle served with dumplings and rhein cabbage (39.00 Polish Zloty or £6.33), all washed down with a pint of Okicim Polish beer (8.50 Polish Zloty or £1.37). Fantastic!!

By this point, it's getting on for 9pm - I check out the local cinema, the Atlantic, but there doesn't seem to be anything on that catches my eye. Time to find somewhere to spend the night, I think. I enquire at the cinema ticket booth if they can recommend somewhere near at hand that isn't too expensive and am given directions to a nearby hostel.

Walking alone at night in a strange city, there is none of the sense of unease in Warsaw that you might find in many cities closer to home. The streets are clean and relatively litter-free and the steady rush of traffic is comforting, in a urbanized sort-of way and before long I find myself standing outside the charmingly-named Okidoki hostel.

This is a fascinating place which was specifically created as an alternative to mainstream accomodation. Each room is a separate artistic project with names such as 'The House of Angels' and 'The House of the Maiden'. I book a 1-person bedroom for the night(110.00 Polish Zloty or £17.87, including breakfast) and am soon quietly snoring my head off.