Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Revitalized Warsaw

Before arriving in Warsaw, we could only think of one thing: grey. That was our image of the city. It turned out that we were very wrong.

Stepping out of what was onc
e a clean, modern 1970’s train station, we were met by two amazing sights; the gigantic and imposing Museum of Culture, built by Stalin, and the Palonia Palace Hotel, just a short distance away. But to get there we had to climb through sand and construction debris since the tram tracks were being replaced along what appeared to be the major road in the city.

The hotel, with its beautiful renovated skylit lobby, was a very welcoming site. Once again, my name got us a good room since it was pronounced almo
st the same way as the Hotel General Manager, Peter Goehle. After cleaning up, we left the hotel to explore. But we were soon back since it started to rain. Sally found her rarely used rain jacket. I found a small umbrella hidden at the bottom of the luggage, and we were off. After ten minutes we couldn’t go any further, since an amazing thunder and lightning storm was happening. I started to imagine a conversation at the Richmond Country Club. “Did you hear about the Gellers? They were struck by lightening in Warsaw.” “What in the world were they doing in Warsaw?”When the storm subsided we tried to find the celebrated ‘Old Town’. But it was getting darker and wetter, so we decided to return to the area around our hotel. We found a pedestrian street lined with rain soaked restaurants, and went into the most Polish looking place, the Kaiser Restaurant. Since there were no pictures on the menu, we asked if there was one in English. It arrived, but we still didn’t know what most of the items were, so we asked for recommendations. We had one of the best meals of our trip.

The next morning we enjoyed the best breakfast of our trip. It's not often that we have champagne, vodka and caviar for breakfast.
After eating enough for a week, I went onto the internet to explore the options for getting to Moscow. The plane fares that I found were ridiculously expensive (you could get a return ticket across Canada for less than the cost of the two hour flight) but there was a train routing that avoided Belarus, through Lithuania and Latvia. (I had always wanted to go to these places!) We then set off for the train station and a Travel Agency to enquire about Visas, plane and train tickets. On our way we came across a bookstore with a Harry Potter poster in the window. It was July 21st, the day of the release of the latest and final installment. Sally went inside to see, if by any chance, they had an English version. “We only have an English version” said a very charming girl. “It won’t be translated into Polish for a long time.”

We had much less success at the offices of LOT, the Polish airline and train station. At LOT we were told a
return ticket would be the equivalent of $780, but a one way ticket was about $670. For the two hour flight.

At the train station, the news was worse. The route that I had found through Lithuania and Latvia was not a viable option. “It will take 30 hours to Riga” said a very knowledgeable young man. “Furthermore, there’s no train connection to Moscow.”
I asked him about the alternatives. There were three direct trains to Moscow, including a morning train that left from a suburban station at 10:35, arriving at 9:20. Perfect we thought, but what about a transit visa. “I think you will need one” he said. “I see people being turned back all the time.” We went upstairs and found a very harried travel agent. She spoke a bit of English. “You don’t want to fly to Moscow” she said. “Very expensive. Come back on Monday.”

During our entire trip, we had never been in a predicament quite like this. We had been fortunate to find a cruise that fit our dates, and managed to reserve one of the few remaining cabins. We had arranged a last minute visa to Russia in about an hour. I really wanted to travel all the way from Istanbul to Moscow by train but we didn’t have a visa for Belarus, and weren’t absolutely sure if we could get there without one. At the same time, I was reluctant to pay almost $1500 for a two hour flight. Furthermore, the transfer from the airport to the cruise ship could be another $100.

In the end, we decided we would take the morning train, thinking the worst that could happen wou
ld be getting turned back at the border. At least it would be daylight, and we would still have time to return to Warsaw from where we would take the plane the next morning. Armed with this decision, we set out to see the sights of Warsaw. We found a surprisingly beautiful city. It wasn’t grey at all. The buildings were impressive; there was a lot of renovation and new construction taking place; there were impressive gardens and the Old Town, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site was remarkable for its ‘historic’ painted buildings that had been rebuilt following the war. There were good facilities for tourists, including a public transit bus that visited many of the major sites, and we had a terrific afternoon. That evening, we had dinner in the Old Town square, listening to a jazz concert. We then came across a large tent where hundreds of people were gathered to watch a filmed version of an opera. It was all free. Around 10:30, anticipating a big day on Sunday, we returned to our hotel and settled into our very luxurious surroundings. As we ate the chocolates on our pillows, we couldn't help but wonder where we would be sleeping the next night!

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