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I didn’t know what to expect from Warsaw. The name itself (at least the English name) sounds kind of harsh and uninviting.
On an unrelated note why do other languages change the names of cities? The Polish pronunciation of Warsaw is Varshava – a significantly more appealing combination of sounds so yes although Warsaw resembles the polish spelling of the city name – Warszawa it is pronounced completely different. This I’ll never understand.
From our polish friends who we met on our trek in Burma we learned that they city was entirely destroyed during the war and completely reconstructed. The way they spoke of it it didn’t seem all that scenic, and sounded mostly dreary.
On the contrary, when we arrived I was simply stunned. The city center is downright beautiful. Whether this is all reconstructed or original is beyond the point. The builders and designers did a great job rebuilding the city after the war. The center of the old town itself is so charming, with bright colored buildings and interesting architecture.
There are plenty of small shops, restaurants, cafes; I would never have guessed this is the dreary Warsaw I was expecting to see.
I was sick with a cold right around the time we got to Warsaw so we only got a couple days of sightseeing in but thoroughly enjoyed everything we saw.
An absolute must is a walk down Krakowskie Przedmieście and Nowy Świat, these streets are incredibly pleasant and picturesque. Make sure to wander around both the Old Town (Stare Miasto) and New Town (Nowe Miasto). There are many charming squares and alleyways to wander down.
If you’re there in the summer, on Sundays there are free concerts at Lazienki Park by the Chopin monument at 12pm and 4pm. The park itself makes for a perfect summer stroll and you might find ever more musicians hidden away in other places.
The highlight of our trip to Warsaw though was the Uprising Museum. There we learned about the Warsaw residents who fought for a free and independent Poland during the war. They called themselves the Polish Resistance Home Army and timed their rebellion to coincide with the Soviet Army’s approaching the eastern suburbs of Warsaw (Aug 1944). Unfortunately the Soviet army’s advance stopped which gave the Germans the time they needed to regroup and demolish the city while fighting the Home Army. The Home Army fought for 63 days with almost no outside support. This Uprising was the largest single military effort taken by any European resistance movement of World War II. Eventually the Home Army surrendered and by this point 16,000 members of the Polish Resistance had been killed and 150,000 civilians. During fighting 25% of the city’s building were destroyed and after the Poles surrendered the Germans destroyed another 35% of the city. By 1945 85% of Warsaw had been destroyed.
The museum is extensive and you could spend hours and hours there without even getting to everything.
The various exhibits depict the fighting and everyday life during the Rising (as it is called), post war years of the Communist ruled Poland with the fates of the fighters etc. The second part of the exhibit presents the story of the Allied airdrops, with much devoted to showing the German actions during the war.
Throughout the museum there are many interactive exhibits and projections being played either in large halls or even in smaller rooms around the museum. One video that I remember particularly well was of an interview with a German soldier who was talking about his experience while he was stationed in Warsaw. The atrocities that he mentioned witnessing, including watching a whole class of Polish school kids running down the stairs of the school only to then be fired upon with machine guns by the soldier’s fellow officers really show how brutal and cruel the Germans were in Warsaw.
This one video was in a small nook in the back on one of the exhibitions but it really stuck with me. This was the first time I had ever heard an interview with a former German soldier esepcially where the interviewer was being particularly pushy and really asking the questions I think we all want to know – how did the soldier feel about what was happening? did he think it was right/wrong? how could he justify the horrific acts he committed during those years?
If you stop by the museum try to find that room with the video.
Overall we really enjoyed our time in Warsaw and found the Warsaw Uprising museum to be incredibly interesting.
If you are going to Poland make sure to set aside at least one day to spend in this city (preferably a Sunday in the summer so you can witness the concert in the park).