Warsaw will win over anyone who likes open spaces, history & cold beer

Poland's capital city merits more than just a few days' visit, writes William Smook

23 September 2018 - 00:00 By WILLIAM SNOOK

There's something exhilarating about arriving somewhere you've never been. Maybe it's something to do with the Robert Frost poem about the road less travelled, and luxuriating in the new.
Or you might, like me, wonder how to get out of the airport. Warsaw's Frédéric Chopin Airport is airy and modern with funky, bright-orange signage everywhere. So why couldn't I find the train or bus station?
Eventually I worked out that the "exit to the city" signs led not directly to the city, which is some distance away, but to the trains and buses that get you to the city.
The trains are, like the airport, bright and modern, but information is mostly in Polish. I pestered a kindly passenger about which ticket to buy, and how, and then the train left and the discovery began.
I only had five-ish days in Warsaw, two of them at a conference. Hardly enough time to get to know a city, but here's what I found.
With Cape Town's as my yardstick, I was impressed by Warsaw's public-transport system. The buses run on natural gas. Its trams are sleek and modern or elderly and wooden, but all are immaculate. Bicycles are everywhere: nearly 3,000 bikes at around 200 stations, all accessed with a card-swipe. My hotel offered to get me one. Nice.
Nearly 90% of Warsaw was destroyed in World War 2, an atrocity ordered by Adolf Hitler.
In 1944, as the Red Army approached, Russian radio broadcasts encouraged the Polish underground to rise up and expel the occupying Nazis. They did so and fought with doomed bravery, begging the Russians for the promised help. Stalin ordered his troops to hold back. He wanted a post-war Poland that was pulverised and pliant.
Despite Allied efforts to drop supplies to the Poles, the uprising was crushed and the city levelled. More than 200,000 civilians were murdered and a million more left homeless.
At the outbreak of World War 2, draughtsmen's plans and blueprints were smuggled to London, along with a government in exile. After the war, the plans were used to recreate the city.
The result is a beguiling, carefully choreographed combination of steel and glass, with gracious 17th- and 19th-century burgher houses, public art, boulevards and squares, pedestrianised streets, green spaces and the occasional example of Soviet Brutalist architecture, such as the hulking Palace of Culture and Science. There's even a multimedia fountain. Google it.
On the hot, clear Saturday morning that I arrived, the area around the Old Town and the precinct of Nowy Swiat teemed with pedestrians and cyclists. Its sidewalk cafés buzzed with patrons.
After a guilt-free, you-have-to-be-a-Capetonian-to-understand shower at my hotel, I headed out.
In the balmy early evening, I stopped at Bierhalle, modelled on a Bavarian beer-hall, where a 1lvstein of Kozlak slaked my thirst. For the truly parched, Bierhalle serves a 5l glass vat at your table, with five little taps on it.
Later in the trip, I also visited Piw Paw Beer Heaven, which serves 79 types of beer on tap. The walls are lined with bottlecaps.
In the Praga district is Gnojna Góra (Dung Hill), with views of the Wisla River. For years the hill was the city's rubbish-dump and the gentry would pay to be buried up to their necks in trash and sewage as a cure for syphilis. I can't vouch for its efficacy.
Our group of conference delegates had guided tours of the Warsaw Rising Museum and the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Both are modern, interactive and creative, with superb guides.
The latter is housed in an austere copper-and-glass block, with entrance through an angled fissure. Its main hall is a soaring, curved, almost sinuous space, said to evoke the parted Red Sea.
Inside are eight chronologically ordered exhibits, beginning with a rural idyll, trees subtly projected onto frosted glass, with the sound of birdsong and wind. It moves on through the rich reds and golds of the Renaissance and includes a dazzling, reconstructed 17th-century ceiling of a synagogue in Gwozdziec, today in Ukraine.
That gives way to the steam and iron of the Industrial Revolution. The narrow pedestrian bridge that separated the Warsaw ghetto from the city is ominously replicated, and the Holocaust exhibit is stark steel, claustrophobic and emotionally crushing, documenting the extermination of 90% of Poland's 3.5m Jews.
The tour ends before a soaring, glazed window facing onto a park, symbolising the open-ended future.
Later, at Chmielnik, an unassuming pub in a side street, I watched the city pass by, just as citizens like Copernicus, Chopin, Conrad and Curie may have done.
At the first sip of beer (Tyskie, which rhymes with whisky), I noticed something: there's graffiti everywhere - some of it artistic - but no litter.
Perhaps Warsaw's townsfolk are civic-minded because of a congenital memory of their city's erasure with explosives and flame-throwers 74 years ago, and they're glad it's back.
Maybe that's just how they do things. Whatever the case, the city and its people merit more than a few days' visit, especially once one finds the airport's exit.
British airways flies to Warsaw from Joburg and Cape Town, via Heathrow. Lufthansa flies via Frankfurt. Flight in mid-november cost around R10,000. See skyscanner.netr
1l of beer and a burger and chips at Bierhalle is about R250, including a tip.
The train from Frédéric Chopin Airport to Central Warsaw is about R30.
A stay at the Indigo Hotel Warsaw is about R3,000 per night, including breakfast. Airbnb has apartments from around R400 a night...

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