Slav met us bright and early the next day and after breakfast we hit the street wearing our walking shoes. It was cool and crisp outside but the sun warmed us as the day progressed. Across from the hotel stood buildings that were once part of a palace compound. Now a huge iron gate topped with a family crest closed off the few of the remaining buildings.
Old Town Warsaw buildings are new since the 1950s. Slav explained that Hitler ordered the city be destroyed near the end of World War II, even as the Nazis were losing the war. Poles who fought in the underground resistance movement had dared to stand up to the Nazi invaders with street fighting and sabotage and Hitler retaliated by destroying their city. Centuries old buildings and palaces were turned to rubble. The inhabitants were given a week’s notice to evacuate before the bombings took place. The medieval looking Old Town buildings we see today were re-constructed after World War II.
As tourists walk along the wide walkways and cobblestone streets, there are displays on kiosks explaining the history of some of the buildings. Massive blocks of quartz sit on sidewalks, the top surface covered with depictions of old paintings of the capital city. You view these centuries old paintings and look up to see how they became the blueprints for city planners as the old architecture and streetscapes were laid out when reconstruction began. There are no distracting gift shops, only discreet souvenir stands, so the mood is not spoiled by commercialism.
Interesting too are the marble slabs along the walkways that we recognize as modern public seating benches. In Warsaw, with the press of a button, a piano keyboard suddenly appears on the surface of the bench and a Chopin music selection plays. It is a magical. We wandered in and out of churches and museums and climbed a church tower for views overlooking the city. We ventured down alleyways from the Vistula River to the Rynek – the city square. There we were surrounded by pots of colorful flowers and autumn harvest scenes, with magicians and toy sellers who entertained youngsters, recently let out of school. Beautifully crafted doors, frescoes and unique ironwork accents defined the shops. People lingered outdoors, drinking coffee and eating in the warm afternoon sun.
Cobblestone and paved alleyways extended out from the city square. These were filled with churches, unique shops and places to eat. Men dressed in noblemen’s costumes mingled with tourists. They carried menus and enticed us to choose the restaurants they advertised. We enjoyed a pierogi feast that afternoon, sampling different varieties. Waitresses in the themed restaurant wore peasant costumes.
We walked to the New Town… built just 50 years after the founding of Old Town Warsaw. It too was bombarded during the war. New Town is separated from the Old City by ramparts and wide brick walls, many storey high. Along the brick passageways we saw for sale assorted hand carved wooden figures and statues, displayed casually in an outdoor setting. It seemed that local artists showed their work along the walkways without storefronts. After a walk into the local neighborhoods, we separated from Slav and returned to our hotel. There we fell asleep soundly, still trying to adjust to the eight hour time difference between home and Warsaw.