IN A train, while clutching my backpack like a pillow, I found myself marveling at the mesmerizing landscape of Warsaw under a blanket of fog. A war-torn city in WWII, the often-overlooked European city is in truth, a place of quiet beauty. Today, the under-appreciated capital of Poland has slowly become a more attractive destination.
Travelling solo, it all made perfect sense.
On my own
I felt a rising feeling of déjà vu outside Warsaw Central Railway Station. The towering “gift of the Soviet people for the Poles” gave me a strong sense of familiarity... something I have seen in Moscow. Sticking out in the heart of the city, being its center of attention, the distinctive Stalinist symbol is a communist blot on its face.
The only one place to be for those running short of time in the city, the Palace of Culture and Science, the country’s tallest multi-purpose building, offers tourists a chance to soak up the breathtaking sights, enjoy glorious sunsets or see the entire city in all directions. It has exclusive elevators to the gorgeous viewing lounge, tasteful souvenir shops and cafés on the 30th floor. Alternatively, the theaters, cinemas, museums and pubs will leave tourists spoilt for choice from a host of exciting things to do.
Warsaw is redolent of everything Frederic Chopin. Often mistaken for French, he is the most distinguished Pole of all time. In fact, around the city, specially designed benches equipped with modern technology play his compositions at the touch of a button. What’s more, his Piano Concerto never takes a back seat. Theaters across the city keep Chopin’s memory alive with shows essentially to sooth any soul. During summer, from May to September, people sprawl on the ground at his monument at Lazienki for the sound of his music performed free by local artists.
You are guaranteed to find something to inspire you at Lazienki Park, erstwhile the residence of Polish royalty. Over 76 hectares, the sheer size of the palace-museum-garden complex provides serenity from the hustle and bustle of life. Squirrels are everywhere, peacocks parade their elaborate plumage and strangely huge fish move furtively in the water. The wild old forest has lakes, mansions, fountains, gardens, pavilions and cafés in which to relax. Walking around the wide urban park offers a chance to spot prominent heads of state, artists and sportsmen trying to go incognito.
The royal route
There is an awful lot to see and do on the vibrant (Nowy Swiat) New World Street. Without feeling anxious, the welcoming lifestyle of Warsaw can be observed in the city center, even after the sun goes down.
Steps away from the Museum of Modern Art and University of Warsaw is the statue of the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus. His Heliocentric Theory states that the Earth, together with the other planets, orbits the sun. Like Da Vinci, he was a polymath, which means he was brilliant at many different things. His monument sits high above ground facing the Holy Cross Church, where Chopin’s heart is kept at the pillar.
Walk away from the University of Warsaw portal and head towards the thickly-wooded State Park past The Academy of Fine Arts. In the immediate vicinity, Europeans pay their respects at the memorial Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Watched by Polish guards, the gravesite keeps an eternal flame showing perpetual gratitude. It burns in memory of the fallen soldiers from WWII.
Besides the Presidential Palace, a much more interesting place I have not anticipated on Nowy Swiat is the Miniatures Museum. Spread out in a garden, the handmade novelties are too exquisite as small replicas. It features Warsaw back in the day with pint-sized models in period costumes against mini buildings and tiny vehicles, all looked very impressive. Good lighting gave the art extra drama, a delight for adults and kids alike.
People mill around the reconstructed Royal Castle-turned-museum and chill out to musical performances by buskers. Surrounded by drinking and dining scenes, it is most imposing at night in the Old Town amidst the ever-lively cultural scene. Vying for every attention in the Castle Square is the symbolic landmark of Sigismund’s Column, the King of Poland, whose statue stands on a 22-meter tower in honor of having moved the capital from Krakow to Warsaw.
Leaving the castle behind, I strolled through the maze of narrow cobbled lanes to the fascinating Market Square with merry food vendors and diners. Full of life especially at night, cafés, restos and bars are always packed. The intriguing Mermaid of Warsaw, known as Syrenka, sits in the middle of the plaza bursting with colors of Renaissance architecture.
To tick the list of all my wishes, I walked to church after church to the New Town. Then I found what I was searching for. She was holding a polonium molecule, standing over a hill, looking out to the Multimedia Fountain Park and the Vistula River. Marie Sklodowska Curie, a native of Warsaw, is the first ever female to win the Nobel Prize, twice, in chemistry and physics.
The monuments are the things the residents are proudest of – Chopin, Copernicus, Curie, Fahrenheit, Pope John Paul II...
I lounged on the lawn to reflect on the beauty of their “stars”... and the fountain.