Monday, June 14, 2010

Two Men and a Truck

Today: a guided tour of Warsaw. I normally cover my own ground on foot, but one of my fellow crewmembers had done a little research and found an offbeat tour that was listed as a top attraction on Google's Trip Advisor. I decided to tag along. Our group consisted of we three crewmembers, plus the F/O's retired American brother (who jetted over to join his brother for four days in Poland; they spent the first two days in Krakow) plus a British Airways captain on layover and his wife.

(Our tour bus!)

Adventure Warsaw appears to be just a couple of early-20s guys with a '70s era Polish minibus who cater to English-speaking small groups wanting a personalized tour. Our tour guide (the firm's only tour guide, it would appear; perhaps the firm's only employee) was Rafael, a 24-year-old native of Warsaw. Blond and tousle-headed and very friendly, he looks like your neighbor's kid who happily shows visitors around town between beer parties and volleyball games (well, for 169 PZL a head--about $50).

(Constitution Square, this iteration as the Soviets envisioned it.)

(The main street at Constitution Square as it existed pre-war.)

(The same street post-war. The big thoroughfare is for marches and parades.)

(Statues and carvings celebrating the common worker are everywhere on official buildings.)

(Our Boy George is a world traveler--erm, in one sense only.)

The tour ran four hours and we covered a number of significant sites in Warsaw, with a stop for refreshments and a light lunch at the end. Adventure Warsaw's blockish, clattering Soviet-era minibus is very evocative (and garnered lots of attention from pedestrians) but was hard to see out of. Luckily, we stopped often and walked around a bit at each stop. Rafael concentrated on the old versus new architecture, showing us what little remained from before the war (when Warsaw was known as "the Paris of the East") and how the Soviet-era construction differed from what preceded it--the wide, processional thoroughfares and monolithic "egalitarian" architecture seeking to reduce the importance of the individual relative to the collective.

We visited the last couple remaining buildings from Warsaw's famed Jewish Ghetto, buildings still pockmarked with bullet holes and bearing the repairs from explosions. This is a pretty sobering place. The city was utterly devastated after the war, and the few streets of original buildings are striking in how they differ from the rest of the city. (My companions who had been to Krakow talked about how utterly beautiful it was compared to Warsaw, a function of all the original architecture that survived the war.)

(The last couple remaining ghetto buildings. Ghostly pictures are hung around the outside of the buildings.)

(The hole in the door gives a glimpse back into another world.)

(The buildings were stripped of their facades during the war, but what remains is pocked with bullet holes.)

(Rafael says the small pits are from home-made Polish ammunition; the deeper pocks are from German guns.)

The sense from the tour was that Warsaw is a city which has been hard used. Between two powerful and ambitious neighbors--Germany and Russia--the place has been through many occupations and bloodshed, though none so bad as the total devastation of WWII. The city literally had to start over after that ("The phoenix city," says Raphael), and with the skewed vision and shabby construction of the Soviets, one can only imagine all that has been lost forever. Raphael clearly has a love for his city and a pain for what his city has been through, and his tour was something more than just a show and tell. We stopped at a little corner bar mid-tour for a traditional greeting of vodka and bread and lard with pickles, and finished up with a sampler of traditional Polish comfort food. A most valuable half-day.

(Rafael translated: "Show more respect for women or the slut gets it!")

(The remains of a wall in the ghetto next to a more modern building. Graffiti is everywhere in the city.)

(The changing of the guard at the tomb of the unknown soldier.)

(One of the last remaining original streets in the city. Parts of Roman Polanski's "The Pianist" were filmed here.)

Next up: Shanghai.

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