After spending the first part of our trip exploring the now-modern parts of the city in depth, it was time to head to Old Town for another day of sight-seeing. The area is the oldest part of the capital city, located within ‘Śródmieście‘, the most central district of Warsaw and beautifully bordered by the bank of the Vistula River.
The Old Town is characterised by beautiful, colourful buildings, most of which have been carefully reconstructed in the 1950s, after 85% of the area was destroyed during World War II. Here, the walk allows you to take a rest from the modern bustle of central city life. Full of mysterious alleyways, market squares, and rustic cafés, it creates a unique sense of history that is worlds apart from the more business-orientated areas of Warsaw. Our first point of interest was Plac Zamkowy and the Kolumna króla Zygmunta III Wazy, or the King Zygmunt III Waza Column. Built in 1644, it is the oldest and tallest non-church monument in the city. The statue fell during World War II so the column had to be rebuilt. The destroyed column has now been placed next to the Royal Castle, as a separate attraction.
Onto Zamek Królewski, or the Royal Castle, located on the right of Plac Zamkowy. which was built in the 15th century, serving as seat of the king and the government after Warsaw became the capital of Poland instead of Krakow. It was destroyed completely during World War II and was rebuilt in 1988 using rubble from the original building. Today, the clock tower signifies the Old Town border. Inside now houses a museum which we sadly didn’t have time to visit, but it boasts two original Rembrandt paintings as well as works by Bernardo Bellotto, who’s paintings were used for Warsaw’s post-war reconstruction efforts. Outside you could hitch a lift on a traditional horse and wagon for a cheap tour of the area, but again as we were rushed on time, we had to give this a miss.
Further into town, we stumbled across a funky looking building with periodic table symbols on it and realised we’d reached the Muzeum Marii Skłodowskiej-Curie, a museum dedicated to the life and work of Marie Curie, housed in the 18th century townhouse in which Marie Curie was born. The exhibition is quite small, and gives details about the life and activities of the great scientist, including displays with her authentic tools, or those from the era. For those that don’t know. she is the only woman to have been awarded the Nobel Prize twice and the only winner in history to be honoured in two different fields; physics and chemistry. Nowadays, she is most notable for performing the first research of the treatment of cancer using radioactivity.
Next on our walk, we spotted the Kościół św. Kazimierza, or the Church of St. Casimir, location on Rynek Nowego Miasta, not far from the Marie Curie museum. Interestingly, during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944 the church was used as a hospital for treating injured rebels, and as a shelter for the civilian population who’d been caught up in the fighting. As a result, it became a target for bombing and hundreds of people were killed by falling rubble.
Just before lunch, we decided to look around the Old Town Market Square shops. Poland is famous for being able to buy real Baltic amber, and I had to drag myself away from jewellery stores on more than one occasion, as amber is my favourite gemstone. I just love the story that it tells, perfectly capturing a moment, and often a bug, in time. You can pick up replica amber fairly cheaply, but the real stuff can fetch up quite a price tag, especially if you ooze ‘tourist’. We stumbled across an amazing antique shop that was filled to the brim with weird and wonderful things from all across Europe, including this hand-written letter from Eric Clapton!
For lunch, we headed to Bazyliszek, after reading about it in our guidebook the night before. The basilisk, most famous with my generation because of the Harry Potter books, was just a legendary monster used to scare children, until one day in 1587 when word spread through the capital that a giant snaked was hiding in a cellar somewhere in the city and killing anybody who approached it. The legend says that in the basements of the buildings located along one side of Dekert, at the corner of Krzywe Koło, there lives the Basilisk. Now, the new owner of the cellar where it supposedly resided has turned it into a restaurant, serving traditional Polish food, in giant portions (try the schnitzel, you won’t walk for a week) and giving you free cherry vodka when you settle your bill, not too shabby!
By the time we came back out onto Old Town Market Square, the sun had begun to set and we were greeted by…well I don’t know who we were greeted by, I was half expecting him to be a town crier but alas I was disappointed, and he disappeared soon after he realised we didn’t want to have a photo with him. The square is one of the most picturesque corners of the city and was once the main square of Warsaw. All its buildings had to be reconstructed after the war, and have been rebuilt so that their appearance perfectly matches the Square’s original look from the 17th and 18th centuries.
One of the most famous landmarks in the Old Town is the Pomnik Warszawskiej Syrenki, which is the Monument of the Warsaw Mermaid. Surrounded by a fountain, the statue in the square is actually a replica, as the original is now housed in the Historical Museum of Warsaw due to vandalism. According to legend, something which became apparent that the people of Warsaw love, a mermaid once swam in from the sea and stopped on a riverbank near the Old Town to rest. Like us, she became so enamoured with the beauty of the area that she decided to stay. Local fishermen began to notice something that was creating waves, tangling nets and releasing their catch. Although they originally planned to trap the creature that was ruining their hauls, they fell in love with the mermaid upon hearing her sing, until a rich merchant trader trapped the siren and imprisoned her. A young fisherman heard the mermaid’s cry and helped to free her. In gratitude, the mermaid offered to help the local community whenever she would be needed, and now, armed with sword and shield, she protects the city and its residents and is a widely recognised symbol of Warsaw.
After the sun set, we headed back to our hotel to get changed for the night, passing through Plac Zamkowy to appreciate the Royal Castle at night, and to check out the view over the river to Narodowy Stadium, which was lit up in preparation for a football match that night.
That night, we decided to head out for a night on the tiles. Having been obsessed with Sexy Sax Man due to a pre-flight Youtube session (I can’t even watch 10 seconds of that video without peeing myself laughing), we decided to head to a place called ‘Jazz’ for a spot of…well, jazz, before having a few cheeky pre-drinks in the Oki Doki Hostel bar. Live music venues are surprisingly thin on the ground in Warsaw, so we were quite excited to have found out that the ‘Jazz’ existed, as we really wanted to check out the nightlife, whilst having a nice, relaxed night out.
When we arrived, we realised that the club night was in fact called ‘Jazz’, and that the bar was called Tygmont…jazz music, it was not. With the atmosphere of a prohibition speak-easy, Tygmont is dark and smoky, and other than on a Monday, when there is a scheduled jazz night, house and dance music rule the roost. In a turn of events that no-one saw coming, suddenly the room was filled with the sound of sirens, and in walked two angry looking police officers, calling for the music to be turned off whilst shouting random things at us in Polish. When I began to panic that we were all about to be shot…it turns out it was ladies night. Suddenly, off went their clothes, on went the music and in came the seductive chair dances, with us girls peeing ourselves in the corner whilst the boys looked incredibly uncomfortable and regretted their decision to bring us here. Those 15 minutes were probably the highlight of the trip, purely because it was so funny to see their faces looking on in absolute horror.
Afterwards, a normal nightclub night kicked in, and we made the most of dancing with some of the locals, some weirder than others. The boys learned the hard way that girls in Warsaw seem to be incredibly promiscuous, ordering themselves drinks at the other end of the bar and whilst trying to tell the bar woman that the boys had offered to pay for them, hoping their lack of Polish would seal the deal…jog on kitties!
Safe to say, Warsaw is definitely not your standard night out!