The Day When (Almost) Nothing Went Right in Warsaw
a few days ago i shared my perfect monday in berlin, so it seems only right to balance that out with a travel day that was quite the opposite.
i had such high hopes for my last day in warsaw. you know how last days are– a final chance to fit in all the things that you’ve learned about in the first couple days. unfortunately, the day turned into an almost laughable example of a travel day gone awry. sure, we weren’t actually travelling this day and the weather was quite good so i admit it could’ve been much worse. i really enjoyed parts of this day but even then it was downright painful to remember all of the nitty-gritty details from certain parts of this day. i’ve included some lessons that i picked up along the way to make sure that you (or um, myself) don’t make any of these silly mistakes again.
the day: friday, august 15th, 2014. the morning started off beautifully. around the corner from the flat just a few minutes walk away on puławska ulice was what likely is the best breakfast joint in town: bułkę przez bibułkę (better to just call it “the best breakfast joint”). menu options are varied, everything is freshly made or baked in-house, and i believe they use organic ingredients. the menu was only written on chalkboards above the register in polish, so i stood there and squinted for what seemed like ten minutes until i ordered something that i could vaguely understand and ended up with plates of pancakes– brilliant! i would go here again and again if i could; everything i saw them bring out of the kitchen looked incredible.
second order of the day: to łazienski park! but it wasn’t so easy. i had been informed a couple days before that august 15th is a national public holiday (armed forces day) and getting to the park was a huge trial in patience. the entrance i wanted to take was all blocked off, as it was near the the palace where they were obviously awaiting a very important guest; possible the president. to find another way in the park was so difficult! we’d try one way: nope, that didn’t work, blocked off. we’d try a different way and found a parade of poles in tanks getting ready to kick off and crowds everywhere so it took forever to cross the parade route.
a note on poles in tanks: i fully support that they want to ride around in tanks in a parade, even flash around their guns if they want to. considering their storied history, they have fully deserved this right, especially on armed forces day. but that doesn’t make me like this event any more. i dislike tanks. i’m not a fan of guns. i hate loud noises and drum lines. pair this with swarms of people heading to the parade, and i do not want.
when we actually made it in the park, it was wonderful. so big, so much to see… you could spend an entire day if you wanted going from one part to another. you can visit palaces, a roman-inspired theater, greek-style temples and more… but my favorite was relaxing near the asian temple area. this would easily be the calmest, most relaxing part of the day.
eventually we had to leave this oasis of calm and walk north, leaving the park. upon leaving we were hit with the entire city of warsaw walking in our direction away from the parade, which had just ended. blimey. it took nearly forty-five minutes just to get out onto a street, with much stop-and-go pedestrian traffic. not fun, not in the plan.
but at the very least, i did find john lennon street by accident.
by this time, we had worked up some hunger so we stopped by an old and obviously well-established milk bar on marszałkowska ulice that a reader recommended awhile ago (thank you!). however, it wasn’t any old restaurant, it was a milk bar.
if you’ve never been to poland before you might be asking, but cynthia… what the heck is a milk bar? milk bars (or bar mleczny) are government-subsidized cafeterias which were quite popular during the communist era as a joint that you knew would have decent traditional polish food for an incredibly affordable price. a two course meal at a milk bar shouldn’t set you back more than $5 (unless you’re visiting one of the more slightly touristy ones).
i had done the milk bar thang a couple times before and i knew what was up. i memorized the entree names that i wanted (not so hard when you have a slight background in czech), knowing that the milk bar cashier most certainly wouldn’t speak any english. i was right. my order went off without a hitch until we got to alex’s. poor alex. there were some translation issues and he ended up with only a small portion of food that he didn’t think he even ordered. alex hit his high frustration point of the day. (photo via)
so, milk bar customer beware! although it is a totally interesting and unique experience, be prepared to communicate with the cashier in polish-only: memorize your entree name or bring a pad and pen with you to ensure a smooth transaction. then stand-by at the pick-up window and retrieve what you ordered.
then from aleje jerozelimskie, we finally managed to find a bus going in our direction to take us to the copernicus science center, a new and much-raved about polish-counterpart to the pacific science center in seattle that i have enjoyed since i was a kid. alex loves science and i figured it would make a fun afternoon. however, it was a national polish holiday. it seems that everyone headed there after the parade because at the time we entered, they were not selling anymore tickets because the center was over-capacity. people were still standing in line however, because the museum staff simply waits for patrons to leave and then they will sell new tickets accordingly. but no one was leaving and we had only two hours before the center was set to close at 18:00. bummer. (photo via)
if you are planning on visiting the science center, avoid weekends and holidays and to maximize your chances of admittance, visit in the morning when it opens at 9:00!
we needed a cafe time out. down the street we had a drink and snack at an unremarkable sort of place that reminded me of new cafes that often pop-up underneath newly built condo complexes on seattle’s alaskan way in belltown. once that was settled, we decided to make the most of being in that part of town by visiting the warsaw university library’s rooftop gardens. it’s free and it’s a nice way to see warsaw from a slightly-higher vantage point. also: a great place for a picnic!
okay. this is the point we should’ve turned around and went back to mokotow, where we were staying. but no, that would’ve been too easy.
because we were pretty close to the river, i had the bright idea to walk across the praga bridge. good lord, i forgot that i don’t like heights, even heights as pathetically low as these were. should’ve bused… of course then i wouldn’t have taken these photos.
we made it to the west bank of the wisla river in the praga district, which all the kids say is pretty up-and-coming these days. it was one of the only areas of the city to have missed total destruction during WWII so you can still find some neighborhoods that some say are in desperate need of a remodel and others say are cool, funky and exuding history. but we didn’t see too much of praga unfortunately because i set us on the course of walking to an american BBQ place, purported to be in the neighborhood to the south, saska kepa.
i almost just don’t want to talk about the walk from praga to saska kepa. it was so long, terrible, and felt like walking on a highway; my highest frustration point of the day. but this story is about to get worse. however one tip: warsaw is huge with especially long blocks. even if you think you can walk to your destination, double-check to be sure or you might be walking for what seems like an eternity.
after wandering around saska kepa for at least two hours hunting down this restaurant, we came to the sad conclusion it had closed down… and by the looks of it, not recently. on one hand, this is a huge bummer but on the other, i’m really proud of the two of us for being so unrelenting with a search for something. it may have been something as unimportant as a hidden little hole-in-the-wall restaurant, but it shows we can work together and achieve a goal without getting frustrated… or hangry.
poland’s cities are changing so fast: establishments can open and close within a year! even if you read it in a guidebook you trust (lonely planet poland, you need an upgrade!), always confirm the location online first to avoid losses of time… and sanity. (below, praga)
by this time (about 20:00), we straight-up just decided to go back to our neighborhood (by bus) to get some mexican food and make everything right. and it definitely did the most damage control that one meal can do after a day like this. we headed straight for warsaw tortilla factory, located on the happening wilcza ulice south of jerozemlimskie. although the food ain’t like the authentic stuff you had that one time on spring break in mazatlan, they had an extensive menu of both entrees and cocktails. it was high time for a caipirenha and to my delight, enchiladas: a food i’ve not eaten for over two years at that point due to its rarity in central europe. i was feeling giddy, the flavors were amazing, the drinks were flowing, the top forty dance hits were blaring, and it was just the kind of outdoor street-party atmosphere i needed to forget about the trials of the day that just may invite another tequila shot or two.
i may have blown our entire day’s food budget on that one meal… but i can easily say it was worth it. my belly was glowing for at least 24 hours after this meal: warsaw definitely makes good in the food department.
i like to share the failures as well as the successes because travel isn’t always just full of win. and i love learning from past mistakes. what better to learn from the mistakes of others, right?
have you ever had a particularly trying travel day?