In the heart of Warsaw lies the Polish Vodka Museum, housed in a beautifully renovated 19th-century building that is now a prime attraction. Despite not being a fan of spirits, I decided to join a group escorted tour of the museum. The interactive galleries were impressive, and I learned everything there is to know about Polish vodka in an interesting and informative manner. The tour consisted of four young US military guys and me. Their running commentary was highly entertaining, and we ended the tour with a vodka tasting. To my surprise, even for a vodka virgin like myself, the tasting was a pleasant experience. However, Jake and his mates were unimpressed by my new-found enthusiasm, especially when I pronounced the cheapest vodka as my favorite one of the four tipples on offer.
The Praga district, located on the eastern side of the city’s majestic Vistula river, is home to the vodka museum and is on the way up, garnering an artistic reputation. Until recently, its main claim to fame was as the location for much of Roman Polanski’s wartime film, The Pianist. Praga is also a part of Warsaw that divides opinion among the locals. However, in about 10 years, Praga will be giving west-bank Warsaw a run for its money.
My three-day visit began with a real highlight – a 10-kilometer, late afternoon/evening stroll through the ever-darkening city, taking in what’s known as the Royal Route where most of Warsaw’s historic sites are scattered. What is extraordinary here is that while you feel like you’re strolling through a medieval fairy tale, all of these ‘ancient’ buildings were rebuilt after Warsaw was reduced to rubble by the Germans following the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. Knowing that horrific history, the beauty of the city’s Old Town is certainly an eye-opener – from the Royal Castle, to St John’s Cathedral, to the presidential palace. The route is further enhanced by the incredible displays of winter illuminations that turn the streets here into a dazzling wonderland from November until February every year. Meanwhile, if it’s famous names you’re after, this is the city of Marie Curie and Frederic Chopin, and you’ll find museums dedicated to both of them.
While the integrated public transport system is cheap and excellent, to get a real feel for Warsaw, walking is the best option. You move, effectively, from one Warsaw to another, strolling through those medieval-looking squares and then, just a short time later, past high-rise cathedrals to commercial buildings which reflect, in all their gleaming glory, the new face of 21st century Poland. Modern Warsaw is undoubtedly a hip and thriving city, with vegan cafés and nightclubs cheek by jowl with high-end hotels and art galleries that have sprung up in a number of former Soviet-era factories. It’s a tale-of-two-cities kind of place.
There’s no escape from the fact that the past is always present in Warsaw. While there’s so much more to the city than its tragic history, it’s the war years and, in particular, the stories of the Ghetto Uprising of 1943 that have drawn me here. During my teenage years, I read Leon Uris’s novel Mila 18, set in the Warsaw ghetto and highly praised at the time for its historical accuracy. A few weeks before my Warsaw trip, I read it again and found it as powerful as ever.
It’s somewhat sobering to find myself on a cold and overcast morning, accompanied by Kuba Wesolowski, my brilliant young tour guide, standing at the Mila 18 site, now a spot that commemorates all those who perished in the bunker of the house that once stood here when the premises served as the headquarters of the Jewish Combat Organisation. It’s just a simple grassy mound, a burial mound, in fact, complete with a stone bearing the 51 names of those who took their own lives here in May 1943 rather than surrender to the Nazis. Having already visited the POLIN museum, a striking modern edifice built ten years ago to document the long history of the Polish Jews through interactive exhibits, it’s clear that the past is never far away.