Careening through the backstreets of Warsaw in a minibus that bumped and jostled us through a former Communist neighborhood, I immediately regretted that extra pierogi I’d had for lunch that now threatened to expel itself.
As if clairvoyant, Tomas, our guide, stopped and guided us into an area where partially destroyed, bullet-ridden brick structures were oddly juxtaposed next to utilitarian Cold War-era high rises. I leaned in to hear as he softly launched into a boyhood memory of life under Communist domination.
Hard Times in the 1980s
“A man appeared at the window with big mustache and big face,” he said in heavily-accented English. As a young boy, he had been traveling by car with his parents with half a slaughtered pig in the trunk. Although illegal, they intended to sell the pig. When stopped at the check post, his parents very quietly answered the interrogation.
“My father paid $500 in Polish money which at that time was about a month’s salary,” said Tomas. “They let us go through.”
“In the 1980s, times were really hard,” he continued. “If there was something sold, even at a kiosk, you would go and buy anything they had, because even if you didn’t need it you could always trade with someone else.”
Warsaw’s Unexpected Charms
Warsaw was the last stop on my tour of Poland with JayWay Travel, and it was the destination I was least looking forward to. Krakow had historical architecture; Gdansk captivated me with its charm offensive. But Warsaw? “It’s not authentic; it’s been rebuilt” people told me. “It’s Krakow’s ugly stepsister.”
Warsaw has been through some of the most horrific epochs possible, and has emerged not just your ordinary survivor, but vibrant and thriving. The Polish capital is an eclectic mix of Communist utilitarian tenement houses, restored 17th-century architecture, and glitzy museums. It’s the last place where Polish royalty ruled and is now the intellectual center of Poland. What I didn’t know, though, was that the Polish capital had some hidden charm awaiting me in the unlikely form of its Communist past.
The tour began that day at the city’s tallest building, the Palace of Culture and Science. Read the rest of this Warsaw story in World Footprints Magazine.
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