Now I don’t generally hold with past-life stuff but during my one previous visit to Warsaw, I had stepped off the plane to the strangest sense that I’d been there before. Wistfully recalling my late-1990s visit to Peter, I described old houses and classic trams, quiet squares, and buildings which still bore shrapnel wounds.
This time around we exited the train station to several glass and steel behemoths, a Costa coffee, and a giant sign for H&M. The connection was gone. Putting aside the question as to why I’d felt it originally (one too many faux-medieval town squares, perhaps? A romantic notion of my family history? My 14-year-old self desperate to forge a connection with anywhere other than Kingston-upon-Thames?), one thing was clear: Warsaw was not the dainty backwater with an identity crisis that I’d developed in my mind. This is a city that’s going places.
The mix of buildings went some way towards suggesting this.
At the bus stop, we found no machines selling tickets, nor any signs of where to buy one. Bemoaning the prehistoric system (buying them from the driver? Get with the times, Poland), we waited for 20 minutes until the 35 turned up. We hauled ourselves on and gestured for two tickets to the driver who prior to us tapping on his window had barely acknowledged the embarking passengers. With a great show of effort, he dug around and finally produced a dog-eared book of cardboard tickets, tore off two (sighing deeply) and pointed: 9 zlotys. We hopefully proffered our smallest note: 100 PZL. He was most affronted. After much protracted searching through his pockets, a brief and most awkward moment when we thought he was allowing us to travel for free (he wasn’t), and a shunned attempt to pay with Euros, we were unceremoniously booted from the bus. Off we went to Costa to break a note. One cookie and 90 zlotys (plus change) later, we were back at the bus stop. Another 20 minutes. Another number 35. Another bus driver who looked at us in astonishment as we tried to buy two tickets and loudly ploughed through his belongings to find the precious book of tokens.
“What is going on?” we whispered with great umbrage at the bus drivers’ collective disgust with us attempting to abide by the law and pay our way on their stupid buses. “Why don’t they have change?” Eventually he found the tickets but this one didn’t even have change for a tenner. “Keep it!” we almost wept, flapping our hands and backing into the bus with the abject fear of people about to be ejected from public transport for the second time in an hour, “Just keep the one zloty!” In surprise, he did, and finally, ceremoniously, the doors closed. Absolutely furious now with the archaic Poles forcing passengers to buy tickets from the driver but the drivers possessing no change, we clomped down the aisle, whereupon we discovered a shiny ticket-selling machine taking pride of place, which gave change, took cards, accepted contactless, and performed the entire process in ten seconds flat and four different languages.
Chastened, we sat in silence until the end of the journey.
Our apartment was advertised on AirBNB with perfect English and it was primarily on that basis we had chosen it. So it was with some surprise that having located the street and called our host Renata to be let in, we learnt that she spoke about as much English as we did Polish. We had just about mastered an attempt at “thank you”; she was limited to “Poland please” and didn’t know the English for “seventeen”, the number of the block she was renting out to foreigners as her primary business. So we weren’t given the local’s run-down on the area but we did have a nice little place just next to the old town, even if we proudly ate pierogi at what later turned out to be a city-wide chain (like heading to London and having dinner from the Cornish Pasty Company, I should imagine).
It’s a quiet city, Warsaw, and we were surprised at the lack of young people although we seemed to find most of them on Friday night when we sampled the nightlife like the crazy 30-something flashpackers that we are.
Embarking on a miniature bar crawl of our own making, we checked out Max’s Coctail (sic) Bar where rather than a menu, drinks are made to order based on your preferences, and served Carmen Miranda-style with spectacular crowns of tropical fruit. In London this would be a theme bar but here the patrons were stylish and the interior slick, despite the ostentatious pineapples and dragon fruits being chucked about with abandon. I would have happily stayed for more (especially when generous servings of rum-based drinks cost a measly £5) but we needed to check out venue number two: PiwPaw, aka craft beer central, aka Peter’s dream destination.
The walls here were decorated with beer bottle tops and it was packed with a more laid-back crowd (plus two men at the neighbouring table whose choice of conversation primarily centered around their body-building techniques whilst their dates gazed forlornly at the bottoms of their glasses). The hip female bartender refused to believe that Peter and I actually wanted a half of chocolate beer, sending him back to the table with a sample of something else just to be absolutely certain we were voluntarily ordering something so utterly lacking in the cool factor. Yes, trendy lady, we like chocolate beer. Just be glad I’m not demanding it be served with a cocktail umbrella and neon stirring flamingo.
We spent a lot of time in Warsaw finalising things and picking up last minute Trans-Siberian essentials (read: portable DVD player) so again, it’s a place to return. Still, we managed to take in tranquil parks, impressive government buildings, clean streets, friendly locals, and poignant history. It’s an underrated European capital, and I think misunderstood by many Brits who assume that the large influx of Polish immigrants are due to something lacking in their own country. We may have only been there briefly but it’s hard to know what that could possibly be. The Poles we saw appeared happy and comfortable, and the city your standard European mix of preserved historical quaintness and swish modern skyscrapers. Smooth transportation (ahem) and low prices topped it off. English perhaps isn’t as widely spoken as in other continental capitals but it’s relatively common amongst the younger generation and more than enough for Anglo-centric travellers to get by. We barely scratched the surface but I’d recommend it as a more unusual city break over the obvious choices. And why not travel there by train whilst you’re at it?!