Yesterday we left Lithuania, and made our way to Poland. That was easier said than done, since we had to drive through the narrow corridor of land between Belarus and Kaliningrad, neither of which we are allowed to drive through. Our satnav didn’t understand the vagaries of political no-go zones, so we resorted to navigating using a small scale map of Europe. We were so close to the border on much of our drive, that we were in the shadow of the old Soviet watchtowers.
Before leaving Lithuania, we stopped briefly at a charming town on a lake called Lazdijai, and another called Veisiejai, with it’s huge white church. This border area is clearly good for fruit growing, predominantly apples, but we also spotted some small bright orange fruits, which we still haven’t discovered what they were.
Crossing over the border into Poland, the weather started to heat up. For the first part, we drove through the beautiful Wigry and Biebrza National Parks, along heavily forested roads – it was almost like being back in Sweden or Finland. We passed through the pretty lakeside town of Augustow, where pleasure cruisers were taking visitors on boat trips through the lakes, and families were enjoying swimming from the small sandy beach. Just south of this area is the Bialowieza National Park, home to Europe’s last remaining bison, but is so well protected that there are no campsites within the reserve.
So instead, we headed south westwards towards Warsaw. We had both had our fill of staying in cities over the last week or two, but felt that we couldn’t come to Poland, and miss Warsaw. Our plan therefore, was to visit it during the afternoon and evening, and then head on to our campsite to the south. I remember reading about Warsaw in the Second World War as a child. My favourite book, which I read and re-read, was ‘The Silver Sword’ by Iain Serraillier, the true story of a family living in wartime Warsaw, whose children get separated from their parents. The American version of this book was originally called ‘Escape from Warsaw’. It gives a chilling account of the Jewish ghettoes, and the tyranny of the Nazis during the period of occupation.
Indeed, the history of Warsaw is tumultuous. In the 18th century, it became incorporated into Tsarist Prussia, before a brief period of independence after the first world war. By 1939, the city’s population had grown to 1.3 million, including 380,000 jews. In the autumn of 1939, the city fell to the Germans within a month. Prominent Polish leaders were shot to deprive the city of leadership, and a huge Jewish ghetto was formed. Throughout the war, the Jews were systematically deported, train by train, to extermination camps, or simply starved to death. There were two uprisings during this period, the first in 1943 was the Ghetto uprising, which was a futile attempt to save what was left of the Jewish population. It was cruelly crushed, and much of the ghetto burned to the ground. The second came in August 1944, when the entire Polish civilian population that was left in Warsaw undertook the ‘Warsaw Uprising’. Yet again, it was unsuccessful, but so incensed Hitler, that he ordered the complete destruction of Warsaw, with the SS systematically destroying all the buildings that were left. By the end of the war, 850,000 Varsovians were dead or missing, two thirds of the city’s 1939 population. Compare that to the total US losses in WWII of 400,000, and the UK of 326,000 losses, and it puts it in perspective the total annihilation that occurred here.
Post war, under the Soviets, a massive rebuilding programme was undertaken in Warsaw. The Old Town area was painstakingly restored to it’s former pre-war appearance, with new cobbles re-laid, and the baroque and gothic three storey townhouses and palaces reconstructed using old photographs and paintings. Along with that, came the inevitable communist architecture, the most startling of which is the huge Palace of Culture and Sciences, a gift from Stalin to the Polish people, which literally towers over the city.
Driving into the centre of Warsaw was a challenge (understatement!). As a result, we had managed to see most of the City’s highlights, after driving round the one-way system no less than three times. On our second pass across the river (unintentionally), we spotted the famous Plastic Palm Tree sitting in the middle of a roundabout, and extraordinarily, and rather sadly, a large brown bear, stood on a concrete platform in it’s enclosure in one of the parks. The city is a real hotch potch of old and new. Contemporary glass sky-scrapers sit beside ugly soviet concrete monstrosities, and then you are taken aback by the painstaking care that has gone into restoring the 17th and 18th century architecture, that has resulted in it being awarded UNESCO status.
After eventually parking the van, we were pleasantly surprised by the leafy squares and beautiful churches that surrounded us. In a park overlooking the river, we discovered a statue of Marie Curie, who was born in the city, before moving to study in the Sorbonne in Paris. She is one of the few people to receive two Nobel prizes, one jointly with her husband, for discovering polonium, and the second for her work in nuclear physics and the discovery of pure Radium. Sadly, she died from leukaemia, attributed to working with radio-active materials all her working life.
We stopped at a restaurant in a the lovely old square and had a very tasty early supper, before heading off into the Old Town to explore. Stepping through the red brick city gates felt as if we were stepping back in time. The main Old town Square was thronging with people enjoying a Saturday night out, and it was almost unbelievable to imagine that this was just sixty years old, and not four hundred. All around were reminders of the suffering in the war. We passed several plaques and small monuments dedicated to Poles who were shot dead, always with fresh red and white carnations adorning them, the colours of the Polish flag. Around the city walls was a statue of a small boy, wearing an over-sized pith helmet, monument to the children who fought in the Uprising. Around the city, were posters advertising the 74th Anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising this month. Strange to pick on 74th, but maybe that the episode has such an indelible impression on this city, that they commemorate every one?
I am really glad that we took time to visit Warsaw, albeit briefly. It is not, in truth, the most good-looking of some of the cities we have been to, but it is certainly one of the most inspirational. You could easily spend a week there, and not see everything. The many museums, I’m sure, would tell a gruelling tale of eventual triumph over adversity, and lead you to understand the psyche of the Varsanians better. But for us it was just a taster, and I must say, it left me feeling mad. I was left with an overwhelming feeling of sadness, that knowing all that has gone on in Europe’s not-so-long-ago history, that we, as a nation, are choosing to turn our backs on the friendship, security and solidarity that our union within the EU offers. The rest of the EU does not understand it, and neither do I. Just my thoughts!