By Ernest Barteldes
On the early stages of planning this trip, Renata and I decided that we’d spend at least a few days in Zakopane, the famous mountain town near the border with Slovakia, we figured we wouldn’t have too much time to hang out in Warsaw, but we still wanted to visit the nation’s capital even if it were for the weekend.
We left Chelm on Friday right after lunch and boarded our WI-FI equipped minibus (something we did not have two years ago) for the three hour drive to Warsaw. They dropped us off in front of the Palace of Culture and as soon as we got our bearings we walked towards our hotel.
Part of the Mercure/Accor group, our hotel was conveniently located on Zlota Street in the vicinity of the city’s main rail terminal, a shopping mall and several restaurants. The room had free WI-FI, a TV (with only one English-language channel), a pot for heating water for coffee or tea, a refrigerator and the minor comforts a commuter hotel would have. To eliminate unnecessary, We’d decided that we’d only have one restaurant meal a day and would buy food from a local supermarket for either breakfast or lunch. Our booking did not include breakfast, but they could upgrade us for an additional cost, which we declined.
I searched for a supermarket on Google maps and was glad to find that there was a Carrefour right across the street in the shopping mall outside the rail station entrance (something they also have in Krakow). As I searched, I found that we were mere blocks away from the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial, so we made a mental note to check it out the next day.
We’d only have that evening and Saturday to explore the city – our flight to Krakow (the closest airport to Zakopane) was booked for 7:35 AM on Sunday, so our options of things to do were very limited. We got some basic provisions at Carrefour supermarket and headed towards E. Wedel, the famed chocolate factory that makes some of our favorite Polish sweets. We had walked by it during our 2010 visit, but unfortunately it was closed then. It was about a 15-minute walk from the hotel, so we headed there without delay.
Though the factory itself has since moved elsewhere in town, the original building on Spytalna Street is now a store and café, and is a major tourist attraction as well. Prices are quite expensive there compared to other places in town, but we figured we could afford one little indulgence during our visit. We browsed through the store’s selections and sat down for drinks. We both ordered hot chocolate drinks – I had bittersweet chocolate with stout, while (if memory serves right) Renata ordered one with whisky. I later had a cold drink that included fizzy chocolate and vodka. They were all incredibly delicious and definitely worth the expense.
The space is quite luxurious – ambient music (some of it Brazilian!) plays in the background, and the service is impeccable. On the walls there are large paintings of the brand’s founders and the sons that succeeded him until communist rule nationalized it (after the fall of the regime, the brand was briefly owned by Kraft Foods but has since been sold to South Korea’s Lotte Group, a huge conglomerate that owns brands such as Canon and TGI Friday’s).
After we left we strolled towards the Old Town and stopped for coffee at one of the many Starbucks locations in town. We were quite tired from the trip, so we decided to walk to a nearby bar, have a few drinks, return to our hotel and get some sleep. On the way back, we checked out the city’s Hard Rock Café, which was adjacent to the train station. The service was great and so was the ambience, but the prices were considerably high – a single shot of vodka went for PLN 16 (about $4), which more than three times the price most bars in the area charge. In comparison, we had just paid PLN 5 for the exact same thing in the touristy Old Town area – so I guess branding is everything.
We woke up early and after a light breakfast we headed out to find the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial Wall. We looked up directions on Google maps and they seemed quite straightforward, but getting there was not that easy. After walking around for a few minutes, we did find one of the markers of where the wall went through. It quite a few inquiries until we found a local who walked us to an apartment complex we’d had walked by. It was a regular building where folks live. In different part of the complex wre two remnants of the infamous ghetto used in movies like Roman Polanski’s The Pianist and the underrated Robin Williams-led Jakob the Liar (before you mention Schindler’s List, let me remind you that that one was set in Krakow, not Warsaw – more on this next.
It is a very sad place but I guess locals pay little attention to it. Around both memorials life goes on as if these walls had never existed, and they are just part of the background really. As we paid our respects, several English-speaking tourists were lectured by local guides about life inside the ghetto and what came after the Uprising. I tried to listen, but being at the site of such a place – and so close to where we were staying – was a bit overwhelming.
Our next stop was the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising, a space created in 2004 to remember the amazingly courageous effort by the residents of the Polish capital to fight against the Nazi occupiers – it could have been successful if Stalin hadn’t ordered his soldiers wait the whole thing out just across the river. The museum depicts the city’s life before and after the war – including the horrible years under communist rule. Walking through it is very moving because it shows the resilience of the Polish people under crazy odds – and the price they paid.
We had plans to eat at the same traditional restaurant we’d eaten during our 2014 visit, but heavy rain got in the way. We took refuge at a local eatery near the Culture Palace called Restauracja Hector, and after perusing their menu we realized prices were far more affordable. I ordered the kielbasa I was craving since we got to Warsaw, while Renata had Polish-style croquettes. I must say that the food was just as appetizing if not better – and the fact that this was more of a ‘local’ place outside the tourist area made for a much better experience. We washed our meals down with some very cold Zwiec beer (I also had a shot of ice-cold vodka – the right way to serve the stuff)
Considering we had a very early start the next day, we just strolled by the shopping mall by our hotel and checked out a feel deals and then retired back to our hotel – we woke up the next day and headed to the airport, where LOT would take us to Krakow and then Zakopane – a place we had yet to discover.