Both going to then United States and returning to Georgia for my holiday required a very long layover in Warsaw, Poland. On my return to Georgia, I ventured into the city with my friend, Alexis. It helped to break up the 12+ hours we had before we could fly to Tbilisi. One terrible thing about the Tbilisi airport is that all the major airlines only seem to fly in and out of there at insane early morning hours. So a 12 hour layover is followed-up by an arrival at 4:40 a.m. Awesome.
Getting to the city center from Frederic Chopin International Airport is shockingly easy. Unlike many major cities, the airport is really close to the city center. Simply hop on the #175 bus (3.6 zloty) and approximately 12 minutes later you can be at the Old Town portion of Warsaw. Buses run from about 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. making it really easy. Immigration is a breeze with an American passport. No visa is needed, but the passport stamp is super lame. I find it ironic that Poland was my first Western European country that I visited. At university I had made plans to visit Poland and attend a language academy. I also wrote extensively about World War II and the LDS Church in Poland while studying.
Until I ran into her waiting by the Lot Polish Airlines gate at Chicago I had no idea that Alexis would be on my flight to Warsaw. Alexis and I have been with TLG since the beginning of the program in July 2010. She had planned to go into the city just as I was, so we ended up going into the city together. It was much more enjoyable that way. Prior to running into Alexis I had planned a whole Warsaw Judaica tour for myself. After living in Israel I am drawn to anything related to the Jewish Experience no matter where I am. Prior to World War II, more than 30% of the population of Warsaw was Jewish. Physically little remains to commemorate the horrific events of WWII, but the memory remains strong.
Warsaw was pretty cool, but very, very cold. It was a lot like I expected it to be: grey, overcast, cold with lots of Soviet-era architecture, so much like Tbilisi, only cleaner with less laundry hanging from the balconies of the apartment buildings. The buildings and squares of the Old Town section evoke the classic and quintessential view of Europe. It was great.
Our first stop was the Warsaw Uprising Museum. This had not been part of my Warsaw Judaica tour, and it should have been. Fortunately, Alexis had wanted to go. After walking several blocks in what we hoped was the right direction, we found it. Admission was cheap (14 zloty, approximately USD$5.00) and it provided several hours of warmth and diversion. The museum deals with all of Warsaw during the whole occupation and war period. As far as museums go, it was very, very well done. All the artifacts, texts, and displays really made the events come to life; however, I would have liked to have seen more about daily life for the average person during this time. The museum was huge and literally seemed to go on forever. As soon as we thought we were about to be at the end, we would turn a corner to find more. Moreover, it seemed to be a very popular place not only for foreign tourists but for local visitors as well. By the time we left the place was getting packed.
After the museum we decided to venture out on foot for the Palace of Science and eventually Old Town. Warsaw is an easily walkable city for the main sights, however, in the cold while carrying carry-on luggage and wearing new boots makes things fun, exciting, and rather painful. We pressed forward despite the cold and being hungry. By this time our last meal on the plane had been about 6 hours prior. Thanks to the concierge at the Hilton we successfully found the sights we were looking for. For my readers, if ever in doubt when visiting a place go to a major, Western-branded hotel and talk to the concierge. Regardless of where you are, they are liable to be 1) English speaking 2) know the city and 3) have maps, good ones at that. I have used this in Tbilisi, Chicago, and Warsaw and never once have I been let down.
While walking to the Palace of Science, we came across a few places where one can see where the boundaries of the Warsaw Ghetto were. The wall is gone except for one small portion, which we didn't see. However, seeing where the wall was good, and provided a lot to talk and think about. Eventually our discussion turn to the movie The Pianist and how hot Adrian Brody is. And then of course other guys who are hot, like Ewan McGregor. By this point we were pretty tired and cold.
Stepping into Old Town is like going back in time. The street are cobbled, the architecture changes, and cars are few and far between. It is my understanding that the citizens of Warsaw rebuilt the Old Town in the 1950s after WWII had decimated the area. It is adorable. By this point the combination of cold, tired, and hungry were taking their toll on us, and we found a small restaurant to eat at. It was warm and hospitable, and the Caprese salad with fresh mozzarella was amazing. During our late lunch we discussed how to get back to where we thought we could meet the #175 bus. We were approximately 3 kM from the road where we got off of the bus in the morning. At this time the prospect of walking back to that road was daunting in our tired state, and we hoped that along the main road leading from Old Town to the road that some sort of bus would be running.
As we started our journey back the the airport, it began snowing. An ominous sign, to be sure. We didn't want to add wet and snow covered to the list of things we were already experiencing. Just then a bus went by, and it appeared to say "#175." We got excited because it did indeed say that. We ran to meet it, a task made more difficulty with boots and carry-on luggage. It was only 4 p.m. but the sun had already set in Warsaw, and with the snow heading to the airport seemed like a good idea. I was so tired that numerous times on the ride back I dozed off. Warsaw was a good diversion. Next time I have a layover in Warsaw I will once again head to the Old Town section. It is just that easy.