This summer saw my first experience of backpacking – except I didn’t take a backpack. I’m justifying still calling this a backpacking trip because we were jumping from country to country by train, living out of tiny bags in hostels, and not staying in one place for more than 3 nights. The exhaustion was easily worth it for the trip: 6 capital cities in 15 days is never going to lack rewards.
The main focus of the trip was Scandinavia (although I’m still not entirely sure what counts as Scandinavia even now), but before we crossed the Danish border, my school friend and I decided to dabble in Eastern Europe with a flying visit to Warsaw and Berlin.
Warsaw as a city can be summed up by my favourite word: chilled. It’s lively without being busy, it’s fascinating without being touristy. We found a restaurant serving delicious, filling Polish food in Old Town on our first night without being shouted at by hordes of pushy restaurant managers. The beer alone was heavy enough to make a whole meal, let alone the richly flavoured dumplings served alongside it. The night in Old Town was full of mystique; lights illuminated portions of the restored castle walls, and winding streets all blended into one as we attempted to get our bearings.
After the tranquil peace of Old Town in the evening, the following morning was taken up with the boring admin of any disorganised Interrailer. Having not managed to grasp that we had to reserve the majority of our trains, and also that Polish train station clerks do not have the grasp of English that British tourists are often arrogantly used to, we only narrowly avoided buying 10 tickets to Berlin, with the help of an angelic passerby. I’m still now proud of our success at perpetuating British tourist stereotypes so effectively.
Travel panic over, we wandered over to the domineering tower of the Palace of Culture and Science, a somewhat unwelcome gift from the Soviet Union to Poland. Despite its association with the Soviet hold on Polish history, its architectural beauty cannot be ignored, and it is increasingly becoming more accepted as an integral part of Warsaw’s skyline, even if the older generations of the city still see it as a sentinel of Soviet occupation.
Inevitably, we were drawn back to Old Town in the afternoon. Underneath the daytime sun, the castle’s orange bricks are much more welcoming than its dark silhouette at night, and the restored buildings surrounding the ruins do their job at pulling you back to the 1800s. To truly get your fill of what was my favourite area of Warsaw, I would highly recommend a walking tour – there are many companies that offer free ones, and there are wonderful treasures hidden amongst the narrow streets that only a local can reveal. I personally did the City of Contrasts Tour with Orange Umbrella Free Tours, which covered huge swathes of both ground and history, in central Warsaw and the Old Town. The tour guide clearly loved his city, was passionate and knowledgeable about the history, particularly the architecture, and overall made me feel lucky to be in Warsaw.
The importance of doing a guided tour in a city I knew little about was made clear to me in the first 10 minutes, when he pointed out the significance of the dozens of palaces lining what is, unbeknown to me, called the Royal Route, a street I had walked up and down half a dozen times already without realising what I was seeing. Although I had obviously noticed the colours and intricacy of the buildings, I didn’t know they were restored versions of 15-16th Century Polish noblemen’s palaces, casually ignoring a huge section of Polish history. Oops.
The image of Warsaw that has truly stuck in my head is from our painstaking climb up over-150, worryingly-sloping, stone stairs. The narrow staircase opened up out onto a perfectly square space, with clear views in every direction. The different areas of Warsaw could be clearly separated: the huge green spaces, the colourful old town, the skyline of central Warsaw. I felt like the different sections all spoke of the varied history of this sometimes-forgotten European capital; the medieval kings squabbling for position, the shared horror that spread across Europe in World War Two, and the subsequent revival that no other European city has done quite to the same extent. It’s hard to believe in such a quaint, calm, and undoubtedly beautiful city that just 80 years previously, it was 85% rubble, with the only buildings left ones that were seen as being strategically helpful.
I left Warsaw thinking of it as a city of surprises: surprising people, with their overwhelming friendliness; surprising food, with ridiculous amounts of flavour in unsuspecting white dumplings; most of all, surprising history – there is so much more to the city than what I expected, and I’m excited to see how it develops in future years, having heard and even seen some of the changes that have happened over the last few decades.