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May 16, 2011

Crowdsourcing Poland
Posted by Patrick at 09:27 AM * 27 comments

In the annals of sentences I didn’t expect to say this year, or possibly in this lifetime, I have to admit that “We’re going to Poland” was pretty high up there. But as anyone with experience booking frequent-flyer reward travel knows, sometimes the weirdly indirect routes on offer present chances to briefly visit someplace you never really expected to see. And so it is that a few months from now, on our way to someplace else, Teresa and I will have ten and a half morning-to-evening hours to kill in Warsaw. Yes, that Warsaw.

Of course we’re already reading all the obvious web pages, and we’ll probably pick up a book or three, but surely there’s someone reading this who already has opinions, formed by personal experience, about what mustn’t be missed when paying a flying visit to Little-Paris-on-the-Vistula. If this is you, please feel encouraged to tell us about it in the comments…

Comments on Crowdsourcing Poland:
#1 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: May 16, 2011, 10:09 AM:

There is a museum, called something like the museum of independent Poland, with the treaty documents from the voting and separation (with maps) of Poland from Prussia after WW1. It was fascinating, although knowing French or German is very helpful as the English signage doesn't translate the documents.

#2 ::: praisegod barebones ::: (view all by) ::: May 16, 2011, 11:17 AM:

Don't the annual Wrld mtr Dsmvwlmnt Chmpnshps normally take place somewhere in Plnd?

Were I to find myself unexpectedly in Wrsw, the acquisition of pork products would be high on my to-do list. But to those coming from the west, rather than the east that may be less of a priority.

#3 ::: nerdycellist ::: (view all by) ::: May 16, 2011, 11:18 AM:

I went to Poland last year and the highlights for me in Warsaw were having a paczek at A. Bikles, and the Warsaw Rising museum. Actually, the Warsaw Rising museum would have been one of the high points of the whole trip, but we made the mistake of going on a free day, when everyone and their dog was there. Originally I was not interested in seeing a "war museum" at all, but I'm really glad we went. It's a new museum, and everything has bilingual captions - it's very Anglophone friendly, in addition to being informative and incredibly moving. I went with a museum professional, and she couldn't stop raving about it.

#4 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: May 16, 2011, 11:53 AM:

Generic advice which you probably already know, but which is always worth repeating:

If it's a 10-11 hour stop-over, priority #1 is to establish how long it takes to get into town from the airport and then back to the airport from town. Allowing enough time for a missed connection on the way back, just so you don't miss your flight. Sounds obvious, but that's a pothole that's tripped me over under similar circumstances before now.

Second priority is to identify somewhere to eat if you have any special dietary needs (I don't remember hearing that you do, but ...). Final priority is to scope out stuff to do in-between, on the basis of it being within your comfortable walking radius of your drop-off point for the train/bus/dirigible to the airport terminal. Because learning a capital city's public transport system in an unfamiliar language is such a great way to spend your free time.

Oh, and you'll need to have some euros. Right?

(Warsaw is on my to-do list one of these days.)

#5 ::: nerdycellist ::: (view all by) ::: May 16, 2011, 12:06 PM:

Actually, Poland is still on the zloty. Chopin Airport is extremely close to Actual Warsaw. It took us about 15 minutes to cab from the airport to our hotel, which was across the street from the Palace of Culture. My guess is that the Warsaw Rising museum is less than a half hour from the airport by cab. Old Town has lots of places to eat (also about 20 minutes from airport) and we had no problem finding food for my pork-allergic friend.

We did use the tram to get to the Museum, but we had more than 10 hours to figure out enough Polish to work Public Transit. The exchange rate is probably still favorable enough to make taxi use not quite as extravagant as it might be back home.

#6 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: May 16, 2011, 12:27 PM:

I fear my knowledge of Warsaw is over 40 years old, so it won't be much help. And it was a gray day when I was there, making it feel like a very gray and depressing city. I'd love to change that impression!

#7 ::: Paul Meyer ::: (view all by) ::: May 16, 2011, 04:13 PM:

We just did this two weeks ago. The airport is quite close in. Warsaw airport has a left luggage holding area - great for the carryons and we checked the other baggage on thru to my wife's home town (Szczecin). There's a bus that goes from the airport to the old town area; fare was 2 zloty. We ate up in the old castle square area (Zamek Krowlewski), and basically wandered around. Bus transit time was 30 minutes. We didn't quite have enough time to go thru the Muzeum Techniki - the walk from the old town area turned out a bit longer than we had expected and we had to go back to the airport.

We definitely need to go back and spend more time in Warsaw and Krakow.

#8 ::: nerdycellist ::: (view all by) ::: May 16, 2011, 04:26 PM:

And you could always go to "Old Town", which is a bit Colonial Williamsburg. Warsaw was flattened in WWII, so everything there is new. Still, I appreciate the desire to recreate the old in addition to starting over with all new things. It's a nice, walkable area with many options for noshing and sight-seeing. I was amused by the juxtaposition of the rebuilt castle, with rebuilt rooms, period furnishings and reproduction Cannelettos (Old Town was reconstructed mostly based on Canneletto's paintings) and also, an urn containing the heart of Tadeusz Kosciuszko - not a reproduction.* A few blocks away is Holy Cross Church, in which Chopin's heart is interred. I have not traveled in Europe enough to know if random body parts being buried in different places is common, or just the legacy of centuries of foreign occupation.

Here is the Warsaw entry from my travel journal . I did prefer Gdansk and Krakow, but I found Warsaw enjoyable, and would like to visit Poland again in the near future.

* I also got to visit Kosciuszko's body's last resting place in Wawel Cathedral in Krakow, but I will have to save making a pilgrimage to the rest of his viscera for when I have the time to go to Switzerland.

#9 ::: Kathryn from Sunnyvale ::: (view all by) ::: May 16, 2011, 05:34 PM:

Generic advise below, and also a question: anyone have thoughts on Prague and Budapest, 1st week of June?

In my past trips to Europe, I find it doesn't hurt--often helps-- to glance over the relevant travel book of R. Steves (1). Empire as he may have, he'll say what's worth seeing and for how long. Many guidebooks don't do either.

(1) Since I've got the '06 here, his top-level summary:
"...though you can get a good taste in a short visit- as a day-trip, or en route elsewhere. W. deserves at least a full day.
With a few hours, gape at Stalin's towering Palace of Culture and Science, then wander through the reconstructed Old Town. With a little more time, relax in Lazienki Park or seek out the sights of whichever topics interest you: art, Holocaust history, the Warsaw Uprising, Polish royalty, or Chopin... If coming from Germany, consider connecting to W. via an overnight train from Berlin. See W. then move on to Krakow later that day."

#10 ::: Russell B. Farr ::: (view all by) ::: May 16, 2011, 09:56 PM:

There's a bar on ulica Nowy Swiat called Sense, they have the most amazing range of home-made infused vodka. The ginger-rose is amazing, but over this I recommend the horseradish.

Beware, the standard spirit measure in Poland is 40mL, so a bit more than the 25mL/30mL in the UK and Australia.

Warsaw also has a great monument to Copernicus in front of the Polish Academy of Sciences.

There's a very powerful Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

At the airport, make sure you only catch a proper, registered taxi.

#11 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: May 16, 2011, 11:28 PM:

Seriously, you guys are awesome. All knowledge is contained in Making Light.

#12 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2011, 12:10 AM:

I still have fond memories of St. Vitus' Cathedral in Prague (from that same 40-years ago trip) and would highly recommend not missing it if you're at all into Gothic. I took the bus to go back to visit it (which, when you think about being in a country where I didn't speak the language and was only 15 strikes me as much more of an adventure than I realized at the time).

#13 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2011, 12:11 AM:

I still have fond memories of St. Vitus' Cathedral in Prague (from that same 40-years ago trip) and would highly recommend not missing it if you're at all into Gothic. I took the bus to go back to visit it (which, when I think about being in a country where I didn't speak the language and was only 15 strikes me as much more of an adventure than I realized at the time).

#14 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2011, 12:12 AM:

(If someone deletes the duplicate, please delete the first one because I made a slight correction kthxbye)

#15 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2011, 01:08 AM:

@9 Kathryn: by an amazing coincidence, I just got back from a week and a half in Prague. I have never been in Prague in June, and don't expect to until the young doctor graduates in two years, so I don't have much seasonal advice. But I have been there in January and April.

#1. Take public transportation. There is no reason to take a taxi or rent a car. Public transportation is cheap, frequent, convenient, and easy to understand (there are English-language maps and guides available at the places where tickets are sold).

2. My favorite tourist stops in Prague:
*the Astronomical Clock, of course
*the Museum of Decorative Arts, walking distance from the Astronomical Clock
*Žižkov Tower, the TV transmitter built in Soviet times which has an observation room
*The National Technical Museum
*The National Agricultural Museum, next door, which has a really cool permanent tractor exhibit
*The National Museum
*Opera at the National Theater. Both times I have seen operas I never heard of before, one a Donizetti and the other a modern one about the Czech hockey team winning the gold at the Tokyo Olympics. The theater itself is marvelous to look at, though not terribly comfortable. It's better to sit kind of higher, because you get a better view of the deep stage and the magnificent staging they do on it.
*The Hunger Wall at Prague Castle
*I didn't go to Vyšehrad because my knees gave out, but my son and daughter loved the underground tour: including views of the originals of the creepy statues on the Charles Bridge. You kind of have to go on the Charles Bridge, but I think it's really creepy, between the sadistic statuary and the countless caricaturists. The Nigerians in sailor suits selling tickets to boatrides on the Vltava River are picturesque though. We did a boat ride this time and it was fun to see stuff from the water, especially the Fred and Ginger building (also called the Dancing House).
*The Prague Zoo -- my son's favorite place to take visitors -- actually if you were going to be there a few days, and not in June, I'd hook you up with him, but in June he'll be in Accra, so that won't work.

Less touristy things:
If you want to go out at night, you should probably first go to a traditional Czech beer pub, which guidebooks will tell you about, and I can't remember the names of the ones I went to with my son. But the best night spots I have experienced in Prague are:
*The Cross Club!!!! Sorry, I can't express my enthusiasm adequately. It's a dance club, a cafe, a beer pub, an anarchist artist collective, and a scrap metal art project.
*Cafe Újezd, which is smaller and more intimate, and has its own unique sculpture, but some excessively tall stools (I didn't think I was going to be able to climb in)

food advice:
You can actually get fresh vegetables in Prague, despite what people say. Eat at Strahov Monastery (and drink their self-made beer), the Green Gate, and Cafe Amandine. On the street you can get rohlik (a kind of longish roll) and sausage. For good and cheap, eat Turkish.

hotel advice: First time I stayed in the cheapest hostel I could find in the neighborhood my son was living in. This time we stayed in a decent, plain little hotel called Denisa, where they took good care of us when my daughter twisted her ankle. The best thing is that it was a Dejvicka, which is where the bus from the airport comes, and is a major hub for metro, bus, and tram.

Oh, and here's about ten percent of the pictures I took this time.

#16 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2011, 01:10 AM:

@Tom Whitmore (13): The one thing about Prague I do not enjoy is all the old churches. They are creepy, creepy, creepy. I much prefer other stuff, including Soviet-era architecture!

To Patrick: I'm sorry I don't know anything about Warsaw, though.

#17 ::: Jay Lake ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2011, 08:22 AM:

I have a very good friend who lives in Poland whom I can connect you to if that's useful. American emigre married to a native.

#18 ::: Ken Brown ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2011, 06:17 PM:

@Kathryn: Budapest? I spent a few hours there on my way from somewhere to somewhere else by train about 10 years ago.
I walked round the old part of Buda. I walked over a very serious bridge. I went on the Metro ( world's third oldest). I ate a ridiculous quantity of meat ridiculously cheaply in a pavement cafe. I went to a rather astonishing Jewish cemetry - oldest grave something like the 6th century And I went to a small supermarket and bought sausages, beer, Bartok CDs, and some Magyar folk music.

But that was all rather rushed and random. Maybe I'd have had an even more interesting time had I planned anything. But on the whole I love just wandering around cities.

#19 ::: marek ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2011, 07:59 PM:

If you are in the mood to stroll, you could do much worse than the Lazienki park, in which is to be found a perfect miniature palace on a lake, one of the most charming buildings in one of the most charming settings Warsaw has to offer. It is also one of the most fortunate - the Germans got as far as drilling the walls for explosives to destroy it, but not as far as blowing it up. There are various other buildings dotted around the park, including the presidential palace (nothing very special) on one edge, with the Chopin memorial close by. Chopin's heart, as has already been mentioned is a little way to the north in one of the churches on Nowy Swiat ("New World"), the street leading up to the old town.

#20 ::: kathryn from Sunnyvale ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2011, 10:03 PM:

Thanks so much! [Copying to paper notebook for when I'm real-true offline { and remembering when 'notebook' keener no adjective'}].

#21 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: May 18, 2011, 02:35 PM:

kathryn @20: You're very welcome! If you're in Sunnyvale as well as being friom Sunnyvale, you're close enough to me (Santa Cruz) that I could get you my Czech phrasebook and a metro map (not crucial: they're easy to get). Not the guidebooks, though -- they were out of date this time and we left them there.

I have actually been trying to learn Czech. It has a reputation for being very difficult. From my perspective, it's not that the principles are so hard to learn, it's that there are so many details you just have to memorize. Way, way too many. Also, it has a couple of sounds the human tongue was not made to reproduce. On topic: so does Polish, which is almost the same language anyway.

#22 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: May 19, 2011, 08:05 AM:

Lucy Kemnitzer @ #21: I have actually been trying to learn Czech. It has a reputation for being very difficult. From my perspective, it's not that the principles are so hard to learn, it's that there are so many details you just have to memorize.

"Do you know what is the trouble with learning English? It is not like German, it is not an exact language. Or one must memorize fifty thousand words or one cannot speak it correctly."

"Either one must memorize..."

#23 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: May 19, 2011, 11:53 AM:

Paul@22: alas, if it were only vocabulary! But there are four or five classes (I'm not sure which, because my textbook doesn't present them that way) of verbs -- not a lot of tenses, but there's aspect, in which you use a different (but usually related) verb to express the past perfect and the future from the one you use to express the present and the imperfective tenses. And there are seven cases for the nouns, and five or six classes of them, and the pronouns have all the cases and there are four genders and some words have three plurals (two, less than five, and more than five), though most only have two (less than five, more than five).

It's nowhere near as irregular as English, but it's not as regular as Spanish, so that all adds up to a lot of details.

#24 ::: Tim Bartik ::: (view all by) ::: May 19, 2011, 03:11 PM:

A friend of mine is from Poland, and told me that she recently gave the following advice to a friend on what to do in Warsaw:

"One of the nicest walks in the center is along Nowy Swiat . The nice route starts at a roundabout that has a palm tree in the middle (the tree is plastic… a bit strange really). Nowy Swiat has many nice cafes and small shops. Somewhere along the way the name of the street changes and you should continue walking along Krakowskie Przedmiescie. Along it, you'll pass the old Warsaw University Campus (pretty) and further on you will reach the Old Town. Then you'll pass the Presidential Palace. All of that area was bombed to the ground during the War, so all the seemingly old buildings are rebuilt from photographs from before the War. In the Old Town, you can check out surroundings of the Royal Castle and take a walk around. The Old Town has a wall surrounding it and if you go towards the river (the Vistula river), you can get a nice view of what there is on the other side. The Old town has many restaurants and cafes. A typical Polish dish is "pierogi", which are dumplings that can be filled with cheese, meat, mushrooms or cabbage. Beer is cheap and very good in Poland. The Nowy Swiat and Old Town experience could take you half a day to a day, depending how far you progress. The part of Nowy Swiat that is closer to the city center (the one closer to the palm tree) also has pubs if you want to go somewhere in the evening.

If you want to see something very typical of communism of the 1950's, you have to walk around the Palace of Culture and Science. It was the gift to the city of Warsaw by Stalin himself, but completed after his death in 1955. You can't miss it; it is the tallest and most central building in Warsaw and looks kind of like Empire state building. Around it you can see statues of representatives of working class, the farmers etc. And there is one statue that holds a Marx-Engels-Lenin tablet that makes it a good photo opp. That one stands in front of what used to be where the Central Party Committee would meet annually. Now it is a concert hall. That should take you about half an hour. Around that area there is a big shopping mall called the Golden Terraces (Zlote Tarasy). It's big, but nothing special really.

The Polish sci-fi writer Stanislaw Lem lived in Cracow, and I don’t know if there are traces of him to pursue in Warsaw."

#25 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: May 19, 2011, 04:13 PM:

Lucy Kemmnizter: It's a lot like Russian (they are related) only with some of the lost cases (vocative) retained.

And they use a modified latin alphabet, so it's trickier for the non-native to map the sounds to the letters.

#26 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: May 19, 2011, 07:39 PM:

Terry, I have no trouble with most of the letters -- the normal ones with antennas on them (accents and hačeks) -- but the ř is not probnounceable by a person who did not grow up speaking a Western Slavic language. The instruction: "say r and ž simultaneously" explains only how it sounds: it's like trying to drink water from the opposite side of the glass to cure hiccups.

Russian is Eastern Slavic and Czech is Western Slavic, but since I've been studying Czech all the Slavic languages look to me to be no more different than UK and US English a lot of the time. This might appear different if I could actually carry on a real conversation in any one of them.

#27 ::: Doug ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2011, 05:23 AM:

I wonder whether you could book a personal guide to tell you in greater detail about the restoration of the Old Town after WWII. Given your interests, that seems like something you might find Really Neat. Because of the expertise built up in restoring Warsaw and other parts of Poland, Poles are among the world's leading experts in all sorts of historical restoration. There's bound to be an academy, and I can imagine that student guides would be particularly interesting.

Warsaw is, I think, a better city to live in than to visit, but as the folks above have noted, there's plenty to engage the one-day visitor. Outside the center, one of the highlights is the Wilanów park and palace.

Bigos, a hunter's stew, is a fine and characteristic Polish meal. If you're vegetarian (or feeling that way when you're there) good pierogi can be had stuffed with cheese, with mushrooms and sometimes, more in a dessert mode, with seasonal fruit.

Before you go, pick up the modern translation (by W.S. Kuniczak) of Henryk Sienkiewicz's With Fire and Sword. Give it 30 pages and just see if you can put it down again. Usually shelved among Literature in Translation, this book is missing its market.

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