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Phespirit goes to Poland
Warsaw     May 2009

Direct flights between London and Minsk do not come cheap, so when Phespirit decided it was time for a first visit to Belarus he sought alternatives. Sleeper trains looked a good bet as they would allow him to save on both flight and accommodation costs, but how best to build an itinerary? After much research he settled on a cheap flight to Warsaw, catch the night train from Warsaw to Minsk the following evening, spend a couple of nights in Minsk, catch the night train from Minsk to Warsaw, and then wind down with a couple more nights in Warsaw before returning to London.

So this trip to Warsaw was a means to an end rather than a holiday for its own sake. He had previously spent a day (or rather six hours) in Warsaw whilst visiting Kraków in November 2000, and had not been harbouring any desperate urge to return. As it turned out though, he enjoyed a particularly rewarding three days exploring the corners of a city he had previously only skimmed over. Below are Phespirit's top five highlights in the order that he visited them:

  1. Pawiak Prison Museum.

    The richness of Polish history has been tragically overwhelmed by events of the Second World War. The turbulence of centuries ended abruptly with holocaust. The successful rebuilding of Poland's national identity since the war, through decades of Soviet occupation and international abandonment, must be hailed as a great achievement. Part of that success has been the creation and preservation of memorials that acknowledge the horrors and betrayals of the past, but always in the hope of a brighter future. Most of all they celebrate heroism and resilience - qualities that were desperately needed in this former Gestapo investigation prison, the largest political prison in occupied Poland.

  2. Warsaw Rising Museum.

    Opened in 2004, this museum records the desperate efforts of Polish people to liberate their city from German occupiers between 1st August 1944 and 2nd October 1944, during the doomed Warsaw Uprising. Phespirit whiled away almost two hours exploring its extraordinarily assembled exhibits, and rates it as one of the most fascinating, powerful museums he had visited anywhere in the world. The layout is complex, so it's easy to lose direction, but the chaos is part of the charm and in its own way harks back to the chaos on Warsaw's streets at the time. Everything here stimulates the mind and senses.

  3. Wilanów Palace and Park.

    This is the so-called 'Polish Versailles', 10km south of central Warsaw. Visits to the palace start upstairs where plain walls, plain floors, a couple of rough ceiling frescos, and portraits of persons unknown to anyone not acquainted with Polish aristocracy, fail to live up to the impressive baroque exterior. Downstairs is a touch more in keeping, with assorted flourishes in every room. Back to the top floor, the Chinese and Hunters rooms raise the bar even higher with restored wood panel walls and ceilings throughout, plus a few Oriental motifs. The park is huge and made all the more pleasant to stroll around by friendly red squirrels.

  4. National Museum.

    It's easy to lose a couple of hours in this vast art gallery. Standards are high. A star attraction for fans of vast conflict scenes is 'The Battle of Grunwald' (1878) by Jan Matejko, depicting the victory of Polish and Lithuanian forces over the Order of Teutonic Knights on 15th July 1410. Phespirit was particularly drawn to works by Jozef Simmler - for example 'Death of Barbara Radziwill' (1860) - and also thought well of 'The Christian Dirce' (1897) by Henryk Siemiradzki, and 'Sand Diggers' (1887) by Aleksander Gierymski. Phespirit is not sure when or how he acquired this unfashionable taste for nineteenth century romanticism.

  5. Łazienki Palace and Park.

    At the southern end of the city, just about within walking distance from the centre, Łazienki is less ambitious than Wilanów but has rather more charm. It does not hurt that the park has numerous Blue Indian Peacocks, and that when Phespirit reached the front of the palace he was confronted with the magnificent spectacle of four peacocks with their tails fully fanned. Phespirit has seen peacocks in various places over the years but it had been a long, long time since he'd seen one with its feathers standing proud, let alone four in a single view.

This visit to Warsaw was a timely reminder to Phespirit that he should not consider he has 'done' a place simply because he has spent a few hours there. Having arrived in Warsaw feeling quite indifferent towards visiting it for a second time, he left the city feeling it would be a pleasure to come back time and again.

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