Most of us know that Warsaw is the capital of Poland. But, we probably do not know much else about it. Warsaw is located in the east central part of the country, not far from the border of the Czech Republic from where we arrived. Sparing you some of its storied past, Warsaw is located on the Vistula River, 240 miles SE of the Baltic coast city of Gdansk.
The Old Town was designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1980. The heart of Polish French composer Frederic Chopin resides in the Church of the Holy Cross. Remnants of tsarist era remain in various forms. In the early 20th century, the Jewish community accounted for nearly 50% of the population of Warsaw. After the annihilation of the Jews, Warsaw had to be repopulated after the war.
The tallest building (237 meters) in Warsaw is the Palace of Culture and Science, a gift of the Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin. The oldest evidence of cheese production was discovered here, around 7500 to 8000 years ago. Warsaw is the most congested city in Europe. The world’s narrowest house is here, with a width of 1.22 meters, and a height of 9 meters. A patent bureau for children has been open for 10 years, with over 30,000 inventions registered. Lazienki Park hosts free Sunday concerts from May to October. Warsaw has more theaters (47) than movie theaters (36).
Milk bars and other options for eating out that were opened in Socialist times are experiencing a second life in Warsaw thanks to affordable prices subsidized by the state. Milk bar, a Polish (bar meleczny) cafeteria, was first established in 1896. Many people feel this is the best way to experience Polish culture. Started during the communist era when milk bars were subsidized, it allowed lowly workers to enjoy a meal out. Even today, the price is about $3 USD.
Common items are delicious soups, a variety of cabbage-based salads, fried pork chops, pierogi (ravioli with various fillings), and pancakes. At the milk bar, you’ll likely see glasses of watery juice and — of course — milk, but most milk bars also stock bottles of water and Coke. Try a Polish pastry, especially the classic paczki, a glazed jelly doughnut typically filled with a wild-rose jam. Every milk bar is a little different, but it is little taste of the communist days.
Like many other cities of the world, Warsaw is often called the “Paris” of the east, and may well have been one of the world’s most beautiful cities before World War 2. But I like the fact that Poles drink 92 liters of beer yearly! At one time, over 3.3 million Jews lived in Poland, making it the center for European Jews. The oldest restaurant in Europe has been in operation since 1275. The first surviving Polish recipes cookbook dates back to 1682 with dishes influenced by strong Lithuanian and Tartar-Turkish influences and German culinary traditions.
The biggest section in any Polish grocery store is the candy aisle!! That must make the dentists happy! On the downside, the Polish language is difficult to master. On the plus side, Poles represent the biggest number of people by nationality to rescue Jews during the German Nazi-organized Holocaust, up to around 450,000 from certain death. Poland holds the world record with the most people at 6,135 being awarded the title of Righteous among the Nations by the State of Israel.
What else? The Polish alphabet consists of 32 letters. A popular drink in Poland, orangeade or oranzada, is a sweet carbonated drink with an orange taste that originated in France and spread to Poland in the 18th century. Polish dumplings or “pierogi” are one of national dishes and one of the best recognizable Polish food outside Poland. Poles love their cold cut and Polish butcher shops or “sklep miesny” are known for their enormous selection. The main meal of 3 courses is eaten around 2pm, starting with a soup, a main course of meat and a desert. That leaves a long period of time to drink beer! The “Paczki” or Polish doughnut is one of the most traditional Polish desserts appearing since the time of King Augustus III of Poland in the early 18th century. It is most consumed on the last Thursday or “tlusty czwartek”, which is a Thursday before Ash Wednesday. It has been recorded that 100 million “paczki” are consumed every year just on this one day.
Polish born Marie Curie or Maria Sklodowska (1867-1934) was the first and only Nobel laureate in two different sciences and first female professor at the Sorbonne University. Pope John Paul II also known as Karol Wojtyla (1920-2005) was Polish. He was the only Polish Pope to date and served the second longest. Additionally he is credited with contributing to hastening the end of communism in Poland and throughout Central and Eastern Europe.
What about my profession? The first oil refinery in the world was built in 1856 by Polish pharmacist and petroleum industry pioneer, Ignacy Lukasiewicz. Beer is often served with raspberry or blackcurrant juice (piwo z sokiem) and drunk using a straw. During colder seasons the popular refreshment is hot beer with cloves and cinnamon, sweetened with honey (piwo grzane).
Speaking of vodka, this is part of the ‘Vodka belt countries’ and has a history of producing high quality vodka for more than 500 years. They are made from specially selected variety of Stobrawa potatoes, rye or the grass Hierochloe odorata. Poles celebrate their name day or “imieniny”, which is the day commemorating the saint they are named after. The names associated with each day is listed in all calendars in Poland. Just like birthdays, there are parties with food, drinks, presents and the singing of the traditional birthday song, “sto lat”. And if you want to wish someone on their name day, just say “Wszystkiego najlepszego z okazji imienin!”
On a sad note, it is estimated that more than 6 million Poles including soldiers and civilians died in concentration camps, labor camps, prisons, and forced labor during the 5 years of Nazi occupation. The historic site of the Auschwitz German concentration camp near Oświęcim is now a site of pilgrimage and monument to the prevention of war and suffering.
As you can read, there is much to see and do, to experience and learn. I never thought I would visit Poland, but here we are!!!