Mellowed and ruddy-cheeked after four days of pampering in Finland’s saunas and icy lakes I was checking in at Warsaw’s four-star Forum Hotel when events took a turn for the worse.
It was 3.45pm but the cleaners, it seemed, were still spiffing up my room. So I asked the receptionist where I could exchange euros for Polish zlotys. “Up the end there,” she pointed.
Up the end, a senior blonde babushka figure sat painting her fingernails iridescent pink. I offered a modest amount of euros in return for lots of Polish zlotys.
“No good,” she snarled.
“The notes,” she said. “They’re not clean.”
“They are clean.”
“They’re used,” she countered, not about to back down. I poked around in my wallet and fished out a dog-eared US dollar travellers’ cheque.
She examined closely. “Alright.” She punched the details into an ancient computer. “Room number?”
“The room’s not ready yet,” I said.
“But what’s the number?” She demanded. I asked the receptionist.
“They won’t give me the number until the room’s ready.” Her eyes glazed over, her lips quivered and her body stiffened like a snake with a hissy fit. I took a step back instinctively. She ripped the printout from the machine, screwed it up, threw it in a bin and shoved the passport and now counter-signed travellers’ cheque back over the desk.
“You must have a room number,” she hissed reaching for the iridescent pink bottle. Welcome to Warsaw, she might have managed. But she didn’t.
I suppose you can’t blame the Poles for being a bit crotchety. Almost as soon as the Polanie people (people of the fields) first settled here in the 10th century, they became Europe’s favorite bullseye. Over the centuries, the Swedes, the Tatars, Ukrainians, Cossacks, Ottomans and Austrians, among others, have all had a crack at them.
Then came World War 2 when Poland copped the world’s first blitzkrieg. They lost six million people to the Nazis and watched Warsaw, once one of Europe’s most beautiful cities, almost completely disintegrate before the Russians seized control and for almost fifty years systematically Sovietised the place.
Factor in the generally lousy weather, tripe soup and the unsolicited gift of Stalin’s Wedding Cake, a huge, hideous, detested building in the heart of Warsaw called the Palace of Culture and Science and you begin to appreciate just how stoic and irrepressible Poles really are.
Renata Kopczewska, interpreter, genealogist and freelance guide agreed, assuring me the blonde babushka figure was not a typical example of Polish hospitality, just a remnant of a Bolshie past.
“We’ve had our share of troubles,” she conceded in an admirable understatement. “But we’re really a very friendly people and optimistic too. We’re just too focussed on the future now to let the past get in the way.”
Nowhere in Poland is this sleeves-up resolve more visible than in the capital itself. The fact that Warsaw is here at all is one of the great post-war miracles. Once you get past the phalanx of old concrete Stalinist apartment boxes that loom grey and gloomy on both sides of the road from Warsaw Chopin Airport, things start to look up a bit.
Away from the boisterous traffic behind neat public gardens and beautiful big linden trees in the reconstructed New Town there are many historic palaces and buildings from baroque to neoclassical dating to the 14th century including the Raczynski Palace and Sapieha Palace while modest, modern skyscrapers have added another dimension.
But it’s the painstaking reconstruction of 95% of the Old Town that has brought to life again the beautiful old Warsaw of the 17th and 18th centuries. Most of the work was done with the aid of drawings, paintings, old photographs and every usable fragment retrieved from the rubble because all the original plans were destroyed in the bombing.
I walked around to Plac Zamkowy (Castle Square), the boundary between the chaos of the new and the peaceful ambience of the old. Dominating the square was a 22m bronze column statue of King Zygmunt Waza. Zigmunt is apparently best remembered for moving Poland’s capital from Krakow to Warsaw back in 1596. On the left were the remnants of the city walls and to the right was the Royal Palace. Both were there in the 14th century.
Around the cobbled streets of nearby Kanonia many of the salmon pink and turmeric coloured buildings had been turned into top-end apartments for the movers and shakers who had helped propel Poland into the European Union in 2004. As if in response to the rise in their spending power, a bevy of fine restaurants had also sprung up to cash in on the Old Town revival.
Jewellery and souvenir shops, buskers, St John’s Cathedral and beggars lined Swietojanska Street on the way to the Old Town Square. “They’re Gypsies,” Renata explained disapprovingly. “They came from Romania about 30 years ago. Now they’re either begging for the mafia or running it.”
In 1945, the Old Town Square consisted of a couple of bits of bombed out walls. Then Warsaw underwent a remarkable transformation, rising from the ashes like the proverbial phoenix. Reconstruction was completed in 1963 and the results were astonishing.
In the heart of the Old Town, the old Market Square is undoubtedly the most beautiful part of Warsaw and it is difficult to imagine this magic setting and the stressed Baroque, Gothic and Renaissance buildings, once the mansions of wealthy merchants, are so new.
The lively atmosphere was a buzz of alfresco cafes with coloured umbrellas, portrait artists, restaurants, bars, old Soviet-style milk bars and lody shops. Lody (ice cream) is a national addiction in Poland, even through the winter deep-freeze.
Vodka is another. “Watch out for the Zubrowka,” Renata warned. The bottle, she said, contained grass leaves urinated on by the bison that allegedly roamed the plains of northern Poland. Less challenging was the local beer, Okocim, Królewskie, Zywiec and more and there was plenty in the bars around the Old Town.
Standing upright under a leaden sky and a black metal lamplight, organ grinder Pietr Bot cranked out a melody penned by Chopin, Warsaw’s favourite son, and glared disapprovingly at an impromptu performance taking place in the centre of the cobblestone square on a makeshift timber stage.
A small crowd of shoppers and tourists had gathered to watch an attractive young couple bumping, twirling and grinding in a sensual display of creative, contemporary dance that 25 years ago might have brought out the riot police. Now the teenager’s miniskirt barely raised an eyebrow.
Radiating from the square little streets and alleys meandered through a maze of cafes, bars and shops selling jewellery, amber, traditional dolls, clothing and various other arts and crafts.
The coloured facades around the square, floodlit at night, provided a neat setting for a romantic dinner. But as I discovered, eating out in Poland was a relatively new phenomenon. “Before 1989, most Varsovians ate at home because the food was infinitely better,” Renata confided.
Polish food is neither for the faint-hearted nor the weight-conscious and whoever designed this heavy, hearty cuisine didn’t do so with the timid in mind. Having said that, Poles make some of the finest soups imaginable.
Tripe soup is a perennial favourite and it tasted so heavenly I backed up for a second go. Then there was sturgeon fin soup, white borsch made from rye flower fermented in water and spices combined with veal sausage and their tomato soups are to die for.
Pork cutlets with stewed cabbage were popular; so were the ubiquitous pierogi that are said to have come from Russia in the 12th century, round sheets of dough stuffed with a mixture of goodies such as fresh or sour cabbage, cabbage and mushrooms, meat, cheese and potatoes, butter, bacon and fried onions.
The very traditional U Fukiera Restaurant on the old Market Square boasted a star-studded clientele from Queen Sofia of Spain and Sarah Ferguson to Lionel Richie, Sharon Stone, Roman Polanski and Nick Cave. The cuisine was described as Nouvelle Polish and were served on lovely old oak tables.
Candlelight dinners were a specialty here. Order treats such as the ubiquitous tripe soup or sour soup on porcini mushrooms with white sausage followed by starters like veal dumplings sprinkled with pig crackling and pig trotters marinated in vinegar with wild mushrooms.
Then hook into the sturgeon wrapped in caviar with chives and champagne or the whole roast goose littered with vegetables and you begin to appreciate just how stoic, optimistic and irrepressible these people really are.
With Poland poised to join the Eurozone in 2015, it seems this phoenix is still on the rise.
Story and Images ©Copyright David May 2012 (Copyright Agency Limited)