Travels With Myself

A Personalized Periodic Update, just for my family and friends, of the Ongoing Adventures of Your Favorite World Traveler

Name:
Location: Budapest, Hungary

After nearly 30 years in the financial industry in the US (mostly California and New Mexico), I decided it was time for my second life. I sold my house, sold my car, sold all my furniture, took a TEFL course and moved to Budapest to teach Business English to the business people of Hungary. Amazing mid-life change! I taught for about eight years, then pretty much retired. Now I travel extensively, and have been to more than 65 countries. I have had six books published, mostly about my travels - see my author's page on amazon.com. I have made friends from all over the world. Becoming an expat is the best move I ever made and I plan to continue my travels indefinitely. Come join me on this blog and enjoy the places I've been and the people I've met, past, present and hopefully in the future.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Warsaw Weekend Whirl


Well, what the heck, I’d never been to Warsaw, and it was on my list of second-tier cities to visit this year, so I decided now was the time. Just a brief jaunt, Thursday afternoon through Monday evening, just enough time to wander the restored Old Town and see a couple of museums and hit a few of the vodka bars. I checked in with Expedia, found a good deal on a flight plus hotel, and away I went.

I arrived at Warsaw’s Chopin Airport around 2:30 PM on Thursday, July 30. I could have taken a bus to the city center, but a taxi was only around $12, so what the heck, I splurged on a comfortable, air-conditioned ride to town. And the air con was welcome, as the temp was hovering around 80 degrees F or so. The taxi dropped me off right in front of King Zygmunt III’s column, in the middle of Plac Zamkowy, or Castle Square, a large open space at the southern entrance to the Old Town area. Now, you have to keep in mind that Warsaw was pretty much reduced to rubble during WWII, so everything I saw in this main area was a reconstruction. It was a beautiful job and I can only hope Warsaw originally looked this good.

My hotel, the Castle Inn, was just across the cobblestoned square, maybe 100 meters. I made the crossing quickly and easily, with my wheeled suitcase bouncing jauntily along behind me, and checked in the same way. The Castle Inn is a great place to stay in Warsaw, perfect location, nice ambience, friendly and welcoming staff and small but clean rooms. Only one minor drawback: my room was on the second floor (three flights of stairs) and there was no lift. I tried to keep my visits to my room to a minimum during my stay.

Anyway, I unpacked quickly and headed out on my orientation tour. Out the hotel and a quick right turn brought me to Swietojanska ulica (street); I won’t put the accent marks on the Polish letters as they would just confuse you and besides, I’m not sure my keyboard has the Polish language. It was now around 3:30 and I had missed lunch, so I found the Bazylisek, one of the great Old Town Market Square terrace restaurants, and settled in. The hot day definitely called for a beer, so I chose a local one, Tyskie. Cold and frothy, aaahhh. Lunch was a humungous schnitzel that really did almost cover the entire large plate; of course, it was only ¼ inch thick, so eminently eatable. It was accompanied by some nice bread and spreads and some sauerkraut, so I needn’t have worried about going away hungry. I was even too hungry to take a photo of my meal, but I remembered to do so for other meals to come. At the end of the meal was a complimentary shot of a local digestif liqueur, called (pardon my phonetic spelling) “Vishnooka” and produced locally only by this restaurant, which was actually pretty tasty. I was happy.

I paid for my meal with my debit card, which seemed to be the currency of preference in Warsaw, as I saw almost everyone using their credit and debit cards, so I was right at home with the rest of the travelers. It was now time to check out my surroundings. The Old Town Market Square was fairly crowded with tourists. It was also hot, but there was a rather stiff breeze blowing to cool things down. I strolled around Old Town and New Town, Castle Square, and the main street of Krakowskie Przedmiescie down to Lazienkie Park, around 3.5 kilometers away. I only walked about 1.5 kilometers, which was plenty for me that afternoon.

I found most of the pubs and clubs on my list and even happened upon a karaoke bar; I’d be back to that later. On the eastern side of Old Town, overlooking the Vistula River, was a nice little lookout point where I sat for a few minutes to admire the view and contemplate my navel. I checked my tourist map to see where I was and found I was checking out the view from, and I am quoting from the map information, “The Manure Mountain.” Hmmm. That was enough to start me high-stepping on my way again, looking for an evening libation.
The Old Town Market Square was coming alive by this time and I had a couple of local beers (Kastelan and Okocim) and sat on one of the benches and listened to some live accordion music. It suddenly dawned on me that I hate accordion music, so I headed off to a better venue, preferably someplace air-conditioned. The Shamrock Irish Pub suited me just fine, and another cold beer went down just right.

During my get-acquainted wanderings I had happened upon a Jazz Club, just one street from my hotel, so it was there I returned that night. It was piano night, one guy running through his repertoire of old favorites with a jazzy style. I sampled the local Wyborowka Pure Rye Vodka along with some light snacks and enjoyed the music until it was time to call it a night. I still had three more full days and nights to enjoy Warsaw.

Friday morning I was up with the sun, which shone brightly into my only window and right onto my bed. I think it was planned that way. At any rate, I was up early to go to the Warsaw Rising Museum, which I was told opened at 9 AM. I had to take a tram several stops, then walk a couple of hundred meters, until I found Grzybowska ulica, which I could only pronounce after at least three beers. Since Warsaw is surprisingly easy to navigate, I quickly found the large dark-red-brick building and entered the main gate The guard thereon kindly informed me the Museum opened at 10 AM, special hours for July and August. Naturally.

So, I could stand there and stare at the guard for an hour, which would probably have made him somewhat nervous, or I could sashay across the street where, fortunately and conveniently, there was the Restauracja #JaK VIP. Super. And they were open and they served breakfast. I found a table on the terrace and had a nice meal of scrambled eggs with chives, bacon, toast and orange juice for about $14 US. It seemed high until I remembered my similar breakfast in Rome for 25 euros ($28). So I enjoyed my morning repast and sat in the sun and killed 45 minutes. I returned across the street at 9:45 to find a line waiting to get into the Museum and, after shuffling forward a bit at a time, I finally made it inside by about 9:30 or so.

A little background: The Warsaw Uprising was a World War II operation by the Polish Resistance Home Army to liberate Warsaw from Nazi Germany. The Uprising was timed to coincide with the Russian Army’s approach from the eastern suburbs of the city and the simultaneous retreat of the German forces. The Soviet advance, however, stopped short, enabling the Germans to regroup and demolish the city while defeating the Polish resistance, which fought for 63 days with little outside support. The Uprising was the largest single military effort taken by any European resistance movement during World War II. It began on August 1, 1944.

The Museum is crammed with information, exhibits, films, photos, text and anything and everything of interest concerning this Rising. My initial impression when I entered was, “Too Much Information!” It was Information Overload. To see all the pictures, read all the texts (which were very hard to read in the darkened interior), check out all the exhibits, watch all the films and explore all the dark corners of the Museum would have taken me at least a week of nonstop looking and reading. It was just too much. And when that much information is thrown at a person, the overload of input numbs the mind and results in a severely lessened impact of the event(s) than what was intended. In short, I just couldn’t feel much of the despair and horror that the Museum obviously wanted me to feel, as I just couldn’t take it all in. If I had had a week to look at everything, maybe then, but as it was I spent maybe 90 minutes and then had to leave. With so much information and resources, it could have been done better and more effectively.

I caught a tram back to the Old Town and decided I needed a mid-morning break. I found a sweet shop on the main street (Krakowskie Przedmiescie, hereafter referred to as KP) named E. Wedel and ordered a bittersweet hot chocolate with orange and ginger. It was a definite pick-me-up. When those flavors hit my mouth, every taste bud I had erupted and flooded my mouth with Thank-You juices. Truly amazing.

I spent the afternoon walking around KP and environs. Since I happened by the University of Warsaw, I thought I’d save myself some Quest Day time, so I asked at the Information Desk about their student store. I was informed that there is no student store at the university, and that any logo items I wanted I would have to buy online. Well, Scheisse! How high-tech and boring. Where’s the fun in shopping if you can’t fondle the sweatshirts and try on the caps? Sorry, Morgan, looks like you’ll have to strike Warsaw off your university t-shirt list.

I also looked for Morgan’s Bar, which I’d found on the internet, but it seemed to have disappeared. Long walk for not much result except sore feet. I did have a nice lunch of pelmeni at a local Bierhalle. The day was cool with scattered sunshine as I dragged my poor, tired feet back to the hotel.

Friday night in Warsaw’s Old Town. A happenin’ place. I was ready. First, a cold and tasty Abbott’s ale at Molly Malone’s Irish pub on KP. I was looking forward to meeting people at the bar, but it turned out I was alone – at 7 PM on a Friday. OK, onward and upward. I walked down the street to the “Irlandzki Pub” for a local Zywiec beer. (BTW: If you can’t pronounce these Polish words, neither could I; there were a lot of suppressed laughs when I tried to order something in Polish). Again, almost no one in the bar. I hoped for a snack from their Oriental kitchen, but the bartender saw me peeking at the menu and waved me off, saying, “no kitchen, only chicken wings.” See? It IS me!

So let’s see what else I can find. Gotta be some action somewhere. I headed back to the Shamrock Pub for a kebab plate and a Carlsberg. This pub is located in one of the few cellars to survive the war and it looks it. Lots of character, red brick and small rooms and tunnel-like walkways. Dinner was good, but the hard rock band that started up was just too much for me. I know, I know, “If the music’s too loud, you’re too old.” Guess I must be getting there.

So, it seemed a good time to try the Senator Pub and see if there was a karaoke crowd. Not much. A couple of young ladies sang and a guy who was quite good. The “DJ” played an accompanying guitar to most of the songs, which was nice. I did a couple of my old favorite rock n’ roll standbys, and chatted with a group of young Ukrainian tourists, and, after waiting for more people to show up, I finally called it a night. Guess I visited the wrong places for Friday Night Fun in Warsaw.

Saturday morning I took a leisurely walk to the Copernicus Science Center, on the banks of the Vistula River. It’s a fascinating place, with exhibits and hands-on scientific fun for all ages. I whiled away a couple of happy hours playing the games and testing my skills against seven-year-old kids; I won about half of the tests. Another lunch of pierogi along KP, listening to a group of young Poles singing and playing instruments. I also noticed quite a few people dressed in camouflage smocks with Polish flag armbands and carrying weapons scurrying about the streets. I wondered what it could be when it finally dawned on me.
Today was August First, the 71st anniversary of the Warsaw Rising! And the Poles remember their Rising with a patriotic fervor second to none. They were everywhere in their uniforms, re-enacting scenes from the Rising, marching, singing, stomping on swastika-decorated flags, putting candles and flowers on all the local Rising shrines and generally acting as if it was they who were throwing off the Nazi yoke. I spent the lunch hour huddled on various terraces with my beer and hoping no one would mistake me for a German.
As I drank my beer I also studied my map of Warsaw to see what else I could visit during my stay. I happened to notice that there was something called the Museum of the History of Jewish People in Poland. OK, that might be interesting. I’d read all of Leon Uris’s books and I thought a little more history of Jews in Poland might be in order, so I hiked over to the Museum; it was huge. A gigantic modern building with a fantastic display covering the history of Jews in Poland – as promised. The history covered 1,000 years of Jewish presence in Poland and was done tastefully and without the clutter and overabundance of information at the Warsaw Rising Museum. I spent a couple of enthralled hours there and left knowing much more than when I entered. It was a long walk back to my hotel and I was pleasantly tired.

Since it was Saturday evening and the anniversary of the Warsaw Rising, I decided a splurge was in order. Once again on the Old Town Market Square, I wandered among the terrace restaurants looking for just the right something for dinner. And there it was! At a place called Latem, with tablecloths and just that little extra touch of class to distinguish it from the other eateries. I settled in and checked out the menu. My repast that night consisted of: a shot of ice-cold Orkisz vodka; a glass of red Chilean wine, a perfect cut of sirloin steak with small potatoes and asparagus wrapped in bacon. The weather was still sunny and warm, but with a nice breeze.
The menu described my Orkisz vodka thusly: “made from one of the most expensive and most valuable raw materials in the world, an unusual strain of wheat – spelt wheat (whatever the heck that is), cultivated on eco-friendly terms.” After that heady buildup I should have expected it would be less than amazing – which it was – not bad, but not special. I still prefer Russian vodka.

Anyway, the meal itself was excellent and I even decided on dessert. The menu had ‘cheesecake with chocolate topping’ and I placed my order, only to hear from the waiter - ready for it? – you know what’s coming, right? – “Sorry, we don’t have that.” One day a waiter will tell me that at just the wrong time and I’ll punch him out and then go after the manager. I am so tired of ordering items clearly displayed on the menu and then being told they don’t have them. Tell me beforehand, it’s OK, I don’t care, but don’t make me get my taste buds all ready for a sweet treat and then disappoint me. I really hate that, and if the restaurant hadn’t already added an automatic 10% tip I wouldn’t have left anything.

OK, rant over. I had the chocolate cake with ice cream instead and it was delicious – but it wasn’t cheesecake topped with chocolate. A chilled shot of a Polish liqueur with an unpronounceable name finished me off just right. Another stroll through the darkened streets, another relaxing time spent watching the buskers and I was happy to call it a night.
Sunday, August 2, and I had no real plans for the day, so I took a morning walk along the riverside up to the Multimedia Fountain Park at the castle grounds, which was cooling and sparkling in the early-morning sun. Up the hill to the New Town Square and a long, lazy, yummy breakfast at Fret@Porter, on yet another terrace, listening to the birds sing and watching the Warsaw Rising Re-enacters march down the street in perfect military order. Almost made me want to kick a few Germans.

As I checked my expanded map for the nth time, to see if there was anything I had missed of importance, I chanced upon some familiar street names: Stawki Street, Franciskanska Street and even Mila Street. Hmmm, all mentioned in a book by Leon Uris titled Mila 18, about the Warsaw ghetto during WWII. And just behind the Jewish Museum, I spied on my map a small icon designated Umschlagplatz. I knew that one, too. It was the place where the Germans assembled all the Jews they had rounded up prior to shipping them out to the camps. I’d have to see these places.
So it was two tram rides to the area around Stawki Street and Dzika Street, where I did find the Umschlaplatz, a minimal monument, shaped to resemble a railroad car, memorializing the 300,000 Polish Jews shipped from this spot. Even in the sunshine more than 70 years later it was still a chilling site. I walked back toward the tram and realized I only had to go a short distance to find Mila Street, so I thought maybe there is still a Mila 18 along there. And there was. Of course, the building and its surroundings look nothing like they did back in the 1940s; now there are trees and shrubs and grass and it’s all so banal. But it’s still there. I wondered if there were any deep cellars still undiscovered by past renovators. A thoughtful morning in Warsaw.
A late lunch of kebabs at Przy Danuja restaurant on the Old Town square, along with a couple of badly-needed beers, set me for the afternoon and another stroll up and down as-yet unexplored streets. And then it was cocktail time. I chose one of the many restaurant/bars along KP, this one near Castle Square, called Restauracja Warszawa. It has a small balcony on the first floor to which I immediately gravitated, ordering a pina colada to start the evening off right. I had the waiter take a pic of me (I thought!) with Castle Square in the background, but it didn’t come out (and, of course, I didn’t check it; how hard can it be to press down on a small camera button?), so I can’t show you all how much fun I was having; you’ll just have to imagine it.
I headed across Castle Square for dinner at Przy Zamku (one day I’ll have to find out what ‘Przy’ means), where I once again indulged myself (Hey! I’m on vacation, right?!). This time it was a shot of ice-cold Wyborowka vodka, red wine and wild boar with potato pancakes and ‘fruits of the forest’ (I recognized mushrooms and onions, at least). Dinner was a wonderful, casual affair, watching buskers doing their things and Chopin’s music playing in the background and the Castle clock chiming the quarter hour and the waiter continuing to bring me all sorts of food and drink. Life is good.

And so we come to my last full day in Warsaw, Monday, August 3rd – Quest Day. My plane didn’t leave until 6:30 PM, so I had virtually all day to complete my tasks. This would be a tough one, however. As I already mentioned, the University of Warsaw doesn’t have a real, live bookstore, so I couldn’t pick up the gift now expected by my daughter Morgan. I could only check around the shops again and hope for the best; I doubted I’d find what I wanted, but then, one never knows, do one?

As for her husband Tony’s gift, I had no idea where to go, until the previous night when I was in one of the souvenir shops and spotted one of the salespeople wearing a Harley Davidson Mexico shirt. I asked him where I could find the Warsaw version of his shirt, and he actually gave me the name and street address of the Harley dealer in town (the only time I’ve seen an iphone useful). So, bright and early Monday morning I stopped by the Tourist Information Office in Old Town Square and the very helpful (but unsmiling) woman gave me maps and bus routes and tram numbers and everything I’d need to get to where I wanted to go.

Turned out it was out in the far hinterlands, a looong bus ride away. I fueled up with a nice three-egg breakfast, scrambled with sausage, chives and onions, and then caught the bus to the PKP Kolo stop, where I alighted with some trepidation. But I followed my hand-drawn map faithfully, and only got lost twice and I finally found Liberator HD of Warsaw. And did they have what I wanted? Well, Dear Reader – and Tony – you’ll have to wait until I send my next CARE package to southern California to find out. I know the suspense is killing you, but tough toenails. Suffice it to say that even when there is a Harley store where I travel, I can’t always find the exact product I’m looking for.
I’d finished my programs in Warsaw and took it easy the rest of the afternoon, until I finally caught a local bus back to the airport (only cost about $1 as compared to the $12 for a taxi when I arrived). The one-hour flight was easy-peezy and I was back in Budapest by 8 PM and home by 9 o’clock. Another successful jaunt into the wilds of Europe, and I emerged hale and hearty and ready to rest up for my next adventure – which is coming up in only three weeks.

Only three more weeks to battle the intense heat wave sweeping Europe and I’m off for much cooler climes. Watch this space for more adventures, sit on your porch and sip a long, cool mint julep and keep your powder dry. Until that time.