"Driving for long distances in Poland is no fun."
So sayeth the 2012 Lonely Planet Poland guide, and it's an observation this traveler can't find fault with. What should have been a six-hour drive (according to Google Maps) from Vilnius to Warsaw turned instead into a ten-hour Boxing Day ordeal. It didn't help that our GPS, oblivious to current political situations, guided us to the Lithuanian-Belarusian border, which technically might've been the quickest route, but certainly wasn't the one we wanted to take. At least the attractive Belarusian female border guard allowed us to back up and return to Lithuania instead of throwing Amber, Shu-E and me into prison for attempting to enter her country without visas, but this unintended detour added an extra hour and 80 kilometers onto our trip. It was with a great sense of relief that we finally crossed the correct border, having lunch at a truck stop and converting some euros into zlotys at a kantor (private currency-exchange office):
It soon got worse. Twice we were on fast-moving highways with signs pointing toward Warsaw, only to have the GPS direct us off these roads and onto slow-speed routes passing through an endless series of dreary towns and villages. When finally we pulled onto what appeared to be an expressway on the outskirts of Poland's capital city with a maximum speed limit of 120kph, we quickly ran into two serious obstacles: a huge road construction project that reduced traffic to one lane in either direction and those Warsaw residents returning home after the Christmas/Boxing Day holiday weekend. When we finally pulled into our hotel parking lot at almost 7pm local time, we were tired and hungry, only to discover that the only place open to eat was the McDonald's next to the Statoil behind the building. Even the Arkadia shopping mall across the road was closed, with the exception of the movie theater and two stores in the food court: KFC and (you guessed it) another McDonald's:
The next morning after breakfast (and following a much-needed good night's sleep), I took a walk around the neighborhood while the girls packed up (yes, we only stayed the night before heading off to Krakow). The Polish flag was flying proudly in a very stiff breeze:
An eerie cemetery and an apt reminder of the ghosts that haunt Poland's recent past (up to a fifth of the population perished in the Second World War, including more than 90% of the country's Jews):
The Hotel Maria - spacious rooms, good breakfast spread and very reasonably priced, especially considering its location in Warsaw's financial district:
After checking out, we made the short drive to Old Town (Stare Miasto), which is only fifty or so years old thanks to the war. Just 15% of the city's buildings were left standing after the failed Warsaw Uprising, but Old Town was painstakingly recreated between 1949 and 1953, eventually being granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 1980:
The highlight of Old Town is the Royal Castle (Zamek Królewski), which itself was only completed in 1984. The original building started out as a wooden stronghold of the dukes of Mazovia in the 14th century, before becoming one of Europe's most magnificent royal residences in the mid-17th century. It later served as the residence of the Polish president after 1918 before being destroyed by the Germans in World War II. Today it's a fascinating museum of period furniture and works of art, and an introduction to Poland's royal history:
Among the highlights of the "Castle Tour" is the Great Assembly Hall, restored to its 18th-century grandeur and dominated by the enormous ceiling painting called The Disentanglement of Chaos:
King Stanislaw August Poniatowski, flanked by Peace and Justice:
The Throne Room (as if there were any doubt):
The Marble Room, recreated in 16th-century style and housing 22 portraits of Polish kings:
The King's Apartment:
The Canaletto Room. The 23 paintings by Bernardo Bellotto of Warsaw in the mid-1700's were of great help in the reconstruction of the city's landmarks and monuments after the war:
A map of Lithuania showing the Polish name for Vilnius, Wilno:
The Constitution of the 3rd of May 1791, by Jan Matejko, one of the highlights of the Crown Prince's Apartment:
A pair of Rembrandts, part of a temporary exhibit at the castle:
After touring the Royal Castle, we strolled through the Old Town Square (Rynek Starego Miasta). The 1855 statue of the Mermaid (Syrena) serves as the symbol of Warsaw:
Lunchtime in Old Town. My wife enjoys a Żywiec (of which I could only have a few sips as I was the designated driver), while I prepare to dig into...I never caught the name, but it was made of sourdough and filled with sausages and vegetables, and was pretty fortifying, which was fortuitous as...:
...as I would need all the energy I could muster for the five-hour grind to Krakow, a drive that took longer than needed thanks to more road construction and the lack of a direct expressway link between the two cities. The delights of Krakow, however, would make the long haul worthwhile.
To be continued...