Paying Attention to Poland

Paying Attention to Poland

Author:Anita Maksimiuk
To many American travelers, venturing east of Berlin doesn't usually fit the bill of the perfect European getaway. However, while the entire continent bears scars of the last century, and Eastern Europe wears them perhaps most consciously, its cities continue to persist with irreplaceable character, merging their histories with contemporary culture and creativity.

I spent a month in Poland to explore its largest cities, see how the country was responding to the conflict raging across its eastern border, and, perhaps most importantly, re-visit a country I had only known occasionally, as a child. This time, my visit was planned with intent- I was ready to truly notice the urban landscape as I moved through it. The insights I collected are meant to guide future visitors to Poland through its capital, but also illustrate how strongly the not-so-distant past permeates the look, feel and rhythm of the city.

Poland is a nation filled with as many contradictions as it is with historic relics, gorgeous city centers and dishes that reflect centuries of cultural exchange. To put it bluntly, Warsaw does not have the iconic identity of, for example, Paris, London or Rome. Almost entirely rebuilt after the Second World War, the city is suspended in a moment between past and the future, yearning for the title of metropolis yet never quite reaching the standard set by other European hubs. Legend has it that the city was born from the love of Wars and Sawa, a poor fisherman and the mermaid he became enamored with while working on the river Vistula. Together, their names merged to create the city of Warsaw. Somewhere along the way, Sawa began to take on another character, this time of defense and patriotism in the face of war. Wander on foot and you’ll come upon countless armed mermaids watching over the city, their raised swords and alert expressions set in stone and marble.

Turning the city’s corners and meandering through its neighborhoods, you’ll notice countless monuments, memorials and plaques honoring either those who fought, those who died, or both in the very place you’re standing. Whether addressing victims of massacres, resistance fighters from the famed Warsaw Uprising, or, ‘blood spilled’ in a specific location, these inscribed, sculptural objects evoke a certain permanence in a city that never really boasted one. You’ll have to look for these historical reminders, but once you notice one, they will become easier to spot. I was constantly on the lookout for plaques coming out of the woodwork, knowing I’d have to stop for each one and, if nothing else, simply acknowledge its presence for a moment.

Warsaw’s skyline is sparse, meaning there’s no way visitors will miss the Palace of Culture and Science, the city’s most famous building and a perfect example of its contrasting symbolism. An infamous gift from Stalin, the Palace lives a controversial existence. Hated by some and revered by others, the building is the face of the capital and an embodiment of Poland’s communist era. It also happens to be younger than many Polish grandparents, which puts the country’s recent timeline into perspective. The city’s center moves outwards from the base of the palace- consider this its “downtown” district, complete with department stores, a busy mall, hotels, restaurants and the main train station. Venture east on foot or by tram (the city is incredibly walkable and the tram surprisingly reliable), and you’ll pass the Fryderyk Chopin, Polish Army, and National Museums, all within a few city blocks of one another. You’ll also end up on the bank of the Vistula, which is lined with riverfront walkways, bars and five city beaches. On any given summer night, the beaches light up with bonfires and chatter, creating a loose, organic outdoor alternative to Warsaw’s magnetic nightlife and music venues.