‘Awesome’ Warsaw

The drive into town from Warsaw’s sparkling Chopin airport took an hour instead of the usual twenty minutes.  Policemen had directed traffic off the main roads to make way for officials in a hurry – a motorcade of black cars with blacked out windows. Caught up in a maze of one-way streets, Hubert, our guide and driver muttered and honked his way towards our hotel, swerving around corners, weaving through the heavy traffic.

Misha, my 14-year-old grandson and traveling companion for the weekend, was buckled into the seat next to me.  ‘Cool,’ said he as we ricocheted onward. Meanwhile, I had plenty of time for a first look at Warsaw, a sprawling, tree-less complex of wide streets and ugly overpasses, the surrounding buildings ’60s communist-era blocks.

We sped on, passing the Palace of Science and Culture, Joe Stalin’s unloved ‘gift’ to the Polish people.  Modern, glassy skyscrapers are springing up all around it, reducing it to the stature of a souvenir paperweight.  Some of the famous chain hotels are in this area and so was the main stop on the single line metro.

But we were staying at the edge of the Old Town and a final diversion brought us to the Mamaison Hotel. Here were narrow, cobbled streets, trees in blossom, medieval architecture along with plenty of small shops and inviting restaurants.

Warsaw’s ‘old town’ is in two sections- the ‘old’ old part (13th century) and the ‘new’ old part (15th century). Each has its own lively square. The Barbican, a brick rampart with a park-like walk on top, separates them; a walkway through a covered arch- a shelter for musicians and souvenir sellers- leads you from one to the other.  There are a few gift shops featuring amber from the Baltic Sea, ice cream and waffle shops with the offerings pictured on posters outside.  Misha opted for a waffle slathered with whipped cream and topped with cherries.  Waiting on the queue he’d also picked up the Polish word for ‘thank you’. It sounded something like ‘chink way ah’ (it’s spelt dziękuję). It was all the Polish we had between us, but almost everyone we met on a short break spoke at least some English and seemed anxious to try it out .Castle Square is also a place to get a perspective on Warsaw’s Old Town itself.  A panel outside the enormous Baroque palace, now a museum, shows what was left of the structure after WW2; along with 85 percent of the city, the castle had been reduced to rubble by the departing Nazis.

 The Old Town, including the castle, has been reconstructed brick by brick using 18th century etchings of Warsaw as a guide.  In 1980, UNESCO made the Old Town a World Heritage site.We looped back around the Barbican towards the hotel. Restaurants had taken over parts of the road as ‘annexes’ and dinner was being served in the warm spring air. One enterprising bistro had installed benches and tables for four on platforms that would swing back and forth if you pumped them.  Who could resist? We shared a plate of mixed dumplings and went on to pork cutlets. The menu was in English as well as Polish, portions were big, prices were low. Add a 10 percent tip.

Next morning Hubert took us to visit Europe’s newest Science Museum, the Copernicus Science Centre.  Once inside (and there are queues especially on weekends) you get an electronic card with your ticket; activate it at a kiosk near the desk, and from then on use it to set in motion any or all of 450 interactive experiment: enter an operating theatre, address a convention, generate your own electricity, feel an earthquake, watch a tornado build, watch robots perform. You could spend a day here. There’s a cheerful, inexpensive restaurant on the ground floor of the museum as well as a gift shop full of scientific toys.  The museum is closed

Two days down, one to go and it was Sunday. There seem to be more churches in Warsaw than in Rome. Most of them were draped in giant photos of Pope John Paul II who was to be beatified in a few days. Once the Archbishop of Krakow, he is very much a Polish hero. We stopped in at St. Hyacinth’s Church. In the vestibule were photos of the ruins of the 15th century building after the Nazis had destroyed it. Captions explained that the church was a field hospital during the Warsaw uprising; five hundred patients were buried alive in the basement when the building was demolished.  It seemed time for us to visit one more museum, the Museum of the Warsaw Rising, to see what prompted that awful reprisal.

This museum opened in 2004, the 60th anniversary of the uprising. Established in an old power station, it sets out the cause, effect, and aftermath of the two months in 1944 when the people of Warsaw tried to wrest their city back from the Nazis. There are eyewitness accounts and photos of all kinds.  The more ‘graphic’ photos are shown in a kind of stone well in such a way that smaller children can’t see them. Misha could see them and did and then watched a five-minute 3-D film, ‘The City of Ruin’, a computer-generated ‘flight’ over what was left of Warsaw in 1945, it is based on the evidence of over 2000 photos of the devastation.  It’s designed to put Hitler’s savage revenge in a form the younger generation can absorb.  I can report it worked for Misha. “Awesome,’ he said. For details of opening hours and admission charges:

On the Nazi’s heels, came the Soviets who stayed for the next 44 years.  They left behind the ugly concrete suburbs and the Palace of Culture whose mammoth Communist Party meeting hall now houses rock concerts. A few ‘Milk Bars’ remain, too (originally they served only dairy-based food). Many of these utterly basic canteens have closed down, but the survivors have become a tourist attraction, a glimpse of life under Communism. There’s a Milk Bar beside the Barbican. Look for the words ‘bar mleczny’.

And here’s a tip. Don’t say ‘thank you ‘ in any language in any restaurant until you’ve paid your bill. In that context ‘thank you’ means ‘keep the change’.

Staying there: Mamaison Hotel Le Regina is the only hotel in Warsaw’s Old Town. Bring your togs for a dip in the indoor swimming pool. Check rates on their website:

Or rent an apartment. lists one right on Warsaw’s Old Town market square.

Our tour guide was Hubert Pawlik, “Warsaw city guide’, who also met us at the airport. Contact him at +48 502 298 105 . Visit:

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Explore Hungary/Poland

Secret Budapest

Invaded by Turks, annexed by Austria, ruled by Fascists, occupied by the Soviets, Budapest has developed a personality all its own. It’s a combination of pride, stubbornness and accommodation, tempered by history and tradition.

Unique Budapest is still visible in the buildings – ravaged  or restored – the little parks with monuments to dead heroes, its churches, the shop signs in Magyar – with its sprinkling of “zeds” and accent marks– and even in the old-fashioned good manners of the people you meet.

But perhaps the most incredible souvenir of a time gone by is the “Hospital in the Rock,” in the caves under the Buda hill; this installation must be seen to be believed. And even then, you may have trouble coming to terms with its extraordinary history. Its very existence was a secret until 2002, referred to in official papers only by the code name LOSK 0101/01.

When the top-secret installation was declassified in 2002, it was renovated as an exhibition of hospital life during the three month siege in the winter of 1945. Its still-functioning control and engine rooms are displayed along with a collection of period medical equipment (some of which was used in the film Evita.) An underground hospital for 200, it was fitted out in 1944 as the battle for Budapest raged on the hill above. A daily average of more than 700 casualties – soldiers and civilians – was cared for. At certain times, a shortage of water for sterilisation meant that bandages were taken from the dead and used directly on the living.

Inevitably, infection added to the numbers of deceased who were removed nightly for burial in bomb craters. The hospital served again during the failed Hungarian uprising in 1956 and was then officially closed. Only a handful of people would have known that it had since been updated to serve as a nuclear bunker during the Cold War. When warned of an attack, 50 designated doctors, nurses and technicians from St Janos hospital were to have taken shelter in the hospital which is, on average, 11 metres under ground; their mission was to treat the civilians who survived exposure to the bombing.

A janitor couple, Mr and Mrs Mohacsi, lived in an underground apartment whose only natural light came from a small window at street level near the present entrance on Lovas Street. They kept the hospital operational during its secret period from 1970-2004. The husband was in charge of ensuring that the ventilation, sanitation, power generators and medical equipment was in working order, his wife cleaned the rooms and changed the bed sheets every two weeks. The authorities closely monitored the couple’s secret work, with note taken of anyone with whom they had contact. Today, the wards, operating rooms, communications centre, military headquarters and nuclear de-contamination areas are animated with lifelike wax figures. The museum claims to be the largest waxworks exhibition in Central Europe. It is surely one of the most unsettling and unforgettable museums anywhere.