Why does Europe have so many incredible cities and places to visit?? The problem is that it turns me into a liar when I visit one place and deem it “the best,” only to rescind that designation when I visit another place three weeks later. There are simply too many bests in Europe – and remember – it is only one continent. Consider all the wonders the rest of the world holds! I’m sure Daniel is just cringing right now at the thought of another proposed year abroad – this time in Asia or Africa. Anyone want to learn Japanese?!?
But I digress. What I really want to tell you is that Poland – or at least Warsaw, Poland – is another MUST SEE place.
Of course, we didn’t know that Poland is a must-see. Instead, we made our decision (once again) in terms of practicality. We looked at the calendar, and seeing the dwindling number of weeks we have left in Europe, we wanted to squeeze in one more trip. Daniel already had tickets booked for a work trip back in the US that included a layover in Warsaw, Poland. So why not Poland? He could just extend his layover there for a weekend and I could fly up to meet him. Also, Poland is the country I am most connected to heritage-wise, so that alone made it feel like a worthwhile place to visit.
Don’t be fooled by the picture of the two of us. Although we spent most of the weekend attached at the hip and thoroughly enjoying our time together, I actually started the weekend on my own.
It started as a solo adventure
I think we’ve told you, but Chișinău is not the most convenient airport to fly in and out of. For one, there is the lack of direct flights. But there is also the problem of flights occurring only once a day or even just two times a week. So although Daniel didn’t plan to arrive in Warsaw until Saturday afternoon, I took a flight from Chișinău on Friday afternoon.
Everything about the flight was uneventful. (Honestly, the lounge in the Chișinău Airport feels like a home-away-from-home to us after all the travel we have done.) And the Warsaw Airport was easy to navigate without any considerable lines. Perhaps the reason for the lack of lines was that I seemed to be the only person from my flight staying in Warsaw. For everyone else, Warsaw was just a layover.
How did I come to this conclusion? Well, I walked quickly, didn’t wait at Customs, and stopped just briefly in the bathroom before going to baggage claim. At baggage claim I found my bag sitting completely alone on a luggage belt that wasn’t even moving. Welcome to Poland!
So I grabbed my bag and followed signs to the train station that is conveniently located less than a 5 minute walk from baggage claim.
Why is taking trains always the hardest?
This is where the easy part ended. And I should have seen it coming! I always think that trains should be simple in foreign countries, and yet I’m always reminded that they just really are not. I have memories with Daniel of almost getting on the wrong train in Barcelona….of trying to guess which train we needed in Scotland after failing to understand the ticket seller’s instructions in the thickest Scottish accent I have ever heard. We struggled remembering to time stamp our ticket on German trains, and we unintentionally didn’t buy a ticket at all going to an airport outside London. Trains are kind of complicated in new places and in different languages. And I found the trains in Warsaw no different.
In the Warsaw airport, you have to purchase a ticket from a kiosk before being able to see the train timeline. I did manage to buy a ticket from the kiosk, but upon seeing two different trains waiting in the terminal, I then I realized that I did’t know which one to get on. I looked like that crazy person: walking towards one train and then turning around and taking a couple of steps before turning around again and starting to walk in a different direction.
Finally I stopped a woman hurrying by for help. She looked at my ticket and told me I could get on the same train as her. Though honestly, she didn’t sound super confident. Thankfully the ticket checker on the train confirmed I was in the right spot.
Why are trains so hard!?? Well, for starters, look at the tree tickets above. Each of those tickets was for the same route: City Center –> Airport or vice-versa. Those tickets look nothing alike. The other problem in this case is that there were two different stations in the center of the city that, in fact, were connected to each other. Meaning I could buy tickets for different stations and end up in the same place.
It feels much different to have these adventures alone than with Daniel. The train debacle was much less fun without him, but it was also that much more empowering when I successfully made it to our Air BnB.
The Warsaw Experience in 2.5 days
After a somewhat restless night of sleep (as it seems I am now used to the night noise of roosters and fighting cats but not the noise of urban traffic), I was ready to explore some of Warsaw before Daniel arrived later that afternoon. And as I explored, I fell in love. Part of the magic was the weather that weekend: mostly sunny and in the 60s. But truly Warsaw is a remarkable city and well-worth a visit there.
It’s got amazing architecture
For starters, the architecture is super interesting…for multiple reasons. Perhaps the most compelling reason is that – like Munich – Warsaw was devastated by WWII. But from what I have read, Warsaw suffered significantly more than Munich. If you search images of Warsaw post-WWII, you will find chilling images of a city razed to the ground. The fact that it has been rebuilt to the beautiful (and historically accurate) state it is in today is absolutely remarkable.
But even more than just formidable reconstructions, Warsaw today is a mix of architectural styles. Above is a building that just screams “communist era construction” to me. Before living in Chișinău I found this architecture downright ugly. Now, having seen it in its impoverished form in Moldova, I actually appreciate it when found in a more developed and wealthy city. And I appreciate it even more when it is found alongside other building styles. Your eye can never get bored walking through Warsaw.
It’s Modern and Playful at the same time
And the architecture didn’t just freeze in a historical time. Although the Old Town of Warsaw as rebuilt to a historical standard, there are other parts of Warsaw that feel eclectic, modern, and avant-garde.
Daniel and I stumbled across a public library on the Warsaw University campus….and…just wow. This building combines two of my loves: books and nature. The outside is a fanciful garden. If you follow the paths you eventually find yourself on the roof of the building with views of the city around you.
And if you choose to look toward the building (rather than at the gardens surrounding you) your eyes catch the rows and rows of books inside waiting to be discovered. Truly this place felt like a bit of magic.
It’s simply beautiful
And this magic, in fact, is part of what makes a city attractive to me. Can you walk its streets without a guide, without the language, and without too much history and still feel inspired?
In Warsaw, I can say yes. I had a lovely Saturday morning walking the streets and stopping whenever I wanted to take photos. I had a lunch of pierogies by myself with a book at an outdoor table, after which I continued to explore and marvel. Perhaps travelling alone is something I should consider more often.
There is so much history
Yes, it is a huge plus if a place is beautiful without previous knowledge of its history. But how much more when you start to learn about the people and the events behind the beauty that you see? In order to learn just a little, Daniel and I did visit the Royal Castle Museum and take part in a free walking tour on Sunday.
We learned that Poland, too, has a complicated past of ethnic/political designation. (And we thought Moldova was unique!) Let me explain. From 1569-1795 existed the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. A famous poet named Adam Mickiewicz was born in 1798, immediately after the end of this Commonwealth. So although Mickiewicz was born in a place that was on the periphery of Lithuania, he was educated and wrote poetry in Polish. In his childhood, though, his hometown was controlled by Russia, and today it is found in modern-day Belarus. So was Mickiewicz Polish, Lithuanian, Russian, or Belarusian? American considers itself a melting pot, but it seems to me that other places in Europe have a much more complicated blend of cultures.
In addition to learning about the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, we also learned about Frederic Chopin. Did you know that Chopin’s heart was smuggled back into Poland by his sister – hidden in a bottle of brandy – and that it is now stored in a church in Warsaw?? Tour guides always have the best information to share!
But there is a deep sadness in that history
Although it’s fun to talk about the quirky stories in history, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the dark and devastating history that Warsaw holds. Honestly, we did not delve into the Holocaust history during our time in Poland. I feel that such a topic requires planning: to prepare my soul beforehand, and then save time afterwards for contemplation.
I hope that in the future we will be able to return to Poland and truly interact with this dark time in history. But as a credit to Warsaw, they do not let you leave the city completely untouched. As I walked around the city, I saw the monuments below. They are simple and yet so very weighty.
Also, the Polish language anyone??
So as not to end on such a sobering note, I will return to one more thing that I unexpectedly loved about Poland, and that was the language. I totally failed when it came to the language: I never managed to even say hello, and I simply held out my hand with coins when asked for money at the store. I let the sales person pick the coins necessary for my transaction. And sure – Polish can be kind of infuriating. Why are there so man Z’s!?!?!?? But it also sounds lovely and subdued when spoken. And I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Chișinău written in Polish phonetics at the airport (Kiszyniow).
Going into this trip, we knew it could be a success or a failure. Meeting up for a weekend after being on different continents for 2 weeks (plus a delayed flight for Daniel) has the potential to derail a fun time. Honestly, jet lag alone can throw a wrench into fun plans. Or me being alone could have been a major downer – what if I had gotten on the wrong train or couldn’t find the Air BnB?
But our weekend most definitely swung in the positive direction. After just 2.5 days I now consider Warsaw my favorite. I want to learn Polish and plan a trip back to visit the entire country. What do you say, Daniel, to our next year abroad being in Poland? We can also do Japan after that…