Joseph Stalin’s “gift from the Soviet people” to Poland sits all alone next to Warsaw’s central train station. It’s the tallest building in Poland, but you don’t seem to feel that height without a few buildings in the area to give the monster proper dimension and perspective. And there are no buildings around the Palace of Culture, so Uncle Joe’s gift sits there like a big, oafish hockey player stuck in the penalty box for slashing.
Communism did little for the Polish capital, its people, or the surrounding environment. Yet unlike the fickleness of Stalin, today’s Warsaw has not destroyed its monster building out of spite for all those “lean” years under totalitarian rule. Poles have embraced free market capitalism and democratic rule with an equanimity not quickly found by other, less industrious countries that had thrown off the cloak of communist rule more than 15 years ago.
Recently I saw a commercial on BBC World from the Warsaw chamber of commerce (or some such business-booster organization), where the city was masterfully presented as the new Central European city for trade fairs, symposia, and world-class business convention centers. If a city’s prosperity and wealth can be measured by the number of construction cranes in the sky like so many television antennas, Warsaw is up there among other European capitals I’ve visited during 2006—including Rome, Berlin, London, and Prague. Okay, this page is not about Warsaw’s business plan—but rather the travelers’ possibilities in a city perhaps not thought of as a holiday destination. And that’s exactly why I brought up the business angle: if business is coming to Warsaw, the holiday visitors have already laid the foundation for fun, entertainment, dining, and sightseeing.
Too often the former Soviet satellite countries are thought of as oddities by tourists who think they should make the trip there to see “what it was like” living under communist control. Recent history has its way of overshadowing what really can be found in a city and its country. Warsaw’s history looks back 1100 years. Nevertheless, the city is a special case among all the great cities of Europe. As a crossroads of central European commerce, Warsaw was also the site of dynastic ambitions. Its past is troubled by invasion, war, usurpation, and occupation. The Poles always survived these episodes and eras. Those who left out of need returned. Those who died were honored. The pride of Poland can be seen everywhere, especially on the faces of its people.
I wasn’t sure who I could focus on to write this introduction. Would it be Stan, the policeman in Saski Gardens who, with a friendly smile, asked where I was from and then wound up telling me the history of Polish Kings on a long walk through the park? Would it be the teens—Anna, Seth, Rad, and Peter—who hang out on Old Town Square Rynek, practicing their break dance moves on sheets of cardboard taped to the pavement? Or there is the beefy old carriage driver who for 25 years has ridden his carriage around Old Town’s huddle of cobblestone streets? Perhaps Father Leo, whose story of pilgrimage and inspiration taken from holy sites now encourages those in his parish to see the world for an awakened sense of self. The best way to tell their stories is to tell you to go there and find people like them. Because, ultimately, each of their stories is Warsaw’s story, too.
(read more about Warsaw, Poland highlights here)