The first Pole I met was a rather dour taxi driver who shepherded me to the Hotel Hetman in the Praga district slightly northeast of the town center and across the Vistula river. Are Poles dour, I wondered? That’s the first thing people want to know about any country: are the people friendly? I don’t like to generalize about entire populations but I can note that Poles have not acquired the habit of grinning at strangers even in the “service professions” probably because of years of Communism. Their initial presentation tends to be sober but invariably I found that they responded instantly and warmly to the slightest hint of a smile. As my trip progressed and I was forced to rely on locals to untangle language difficulties and the inevitable travel dilemmas, I found everyone I ran across patient and helpful.
The Hotel Hetman is an elegant Art-Deco style hotel initially built in 1898 when the Praga neighborhood was a lively part of central Warsaw. Bombing at the end of WWII eviscerated historic Praga. Rebuilt in a colorless style, only a few interesting streets remain but the Hotel Hetman was not on one of them. Nevertheless it was safe and only a couple of bus stops away from the Old Town. A self-service buffet across the street was ridiculously cheap and offered a selection of tangy salads involving beets, cabbage, herring, potatoes and corn as well as pierogi.
I was happy to eat and head to bed.
Before arriving, I began to read James Michener’s historical novel, Poland, which was a fun way to become acquainted with Poland’s tumultuous and colorful history. It accompanied me throughout the trip I can’t overstate how it deepened my appreciation for the country.
The day started with a light rain as I made my way to Warsaw’s Old Town, bombed to smithereens at the end of WWII and then patiently reconstructed stone by stone. The streets branched off from the main square with the Royal Castle. There were few tourists as I strolled past tiny shops and cosy cafes. The Old Town was small and bohemian but I sensed that Warsavians did their shopping and club-hopping elsewhere.
They did. I took one of the fast and frequent buses up the so-called “Royal Way” lined with handsome 15th-17th century buildings now turned into high-end shops, restaurants and cafes. I dropped into Specjaly Regionalne for an excellent borscht followed by a spinach salad with strawberries and goat cheese. The server was all “Hi! I’m Luke! I’m your waiter today!”
As elsewhere in the country, the trendiest places were serving pizza and pasta, not Polish food which is a shame because you can do just as much with pierogi as the Italians do with ravioli. In fact, a good pierogi is actually lighter than ravioli.
After lunch it was time for Warsaw’s highlight, the Royal Castle, now an excellent museum. Thanks again to James Michener for familiarizing me with the parade of Polish kings who lavishly outfitted the castle with Renaissance art and furnishings. Although infested with school groups, there were few other tourists and the audiotour made it possible to explore at my own pace.
For those who don’t know, the Polish royalty was immensely wealthy in the 17th and 18th centuries and its kings absorbed the best art and architecture from around Europe. Take a look here. The highlight for me was the Canaletto room with 22 paintings by the Italian master.
Dinner was in an unusual space run for the benefit of an Invalid Association. I was delighted to try the traditional sour soup served inside a bread bowl. This is a concept that deserves elaboration and expansion.
The little shot glass is filled with Soplica, a flavored vodka.