My son, Alex, and I got off at Warsaw’s main bus depot to find no taxis waiting. Weeks earlier, taxis lingered here like pierogis waiting to be ladled from a pot.
As Alex and I walked from map to map — bus, tram, metro — figuring out our best option back to Old Town, I asked myself: Was Poland really the best option for a father-son vacation? Other 12-year-olds were enjoying theme parks and beaches while we trudged through the dingy streets of Eastern Europe, dragging suitcases over pock-holed sidewalks.
“What an adventure, Dad,” Alex said in the metro. “We’re like Indiana Jones and his dad, traveling the world!”
Protected by a Mermaid
The shuttle from Chopin Airport oriented us as we made our way down the Royal Route — the place kings used to travel at least twice in a lifetime: coronation march and funeral march. The Royal Route’s now lined with cafes, restaurants, shops, museums, churches, royal residences, the presidential residence and Warsaw University.
In Old Town’s Palace Square, at the end of the Royal Route, we marveled at Zygmunt’s Column, topped by a statue of King Zygmunt III Vasa wielding a cross and a sword.
A couple of cobblestone side streets and cathedrals beyond, Old Market Square bustled with activity. Cafe dwellers ate sausages and drank beer beneath yellow umbrellas, street artists sold paintings and sculptures, and people strolled in all directions. The square was lined with buildings of yellow and orange, green and red. Sculptures decorated façades with lions and servants, ships and flowers. In one corner of the square, an accordion player performed; in another, strings.
“Wow,” Alex said, “look at her!” He pointed to Warsaw’s protective mermaid at the middle of the square. She’s been on Warsaw’s coat of arms since the 1300s. Now people flowed around her statue like water.
There’d be plenty of time to admire her during our stay. She practically guarded the doorstep of our Airbnb.
New and Newer Warsaw
Warsaw gets a bad rap for Soviet-era dreariness. Half-hour’s walk from Old Town are dreary apartment buildings and the tallest high-rise in Poland: The Palace of Culture and Science, known as Stalin’s “gift” to the Polish people. Those leftovers take a back seat to the architecture of old Warsaw.
Not that it’s really that old. About 85 percent of Warsaw’s Old Town buildings were destroyed during World War II. They were rebuilt in the same style, earning the UNESCO World Heritage “Reconstruction Masterpiece” designation. In Poland, they do make them like they used to.
Sunday in the Park (with Chopin)
We were in for a treat when we went to Lazienki Park for a Sunday stroll among palaces on the water, orangeries and statuary. Every Sunday, for more than 50 years, world-renowned pianists perform Chopin concerts in the garden, just beneath the enormous monument to the composer. Hundreds of people listened on the lawn, in benches and chairs, as Chopin’s music radiated from the monument, trees blowing in the light breeze.
“I can’t decide which was better,” Alex mused. “The planetarium concert or this one.”
Just a couple days earlier, we made a left at the Copernicus statue along the Royal Route. The Copernicus Science Museum and Planetarium offered the perfect alchemy of science and art during their Friday evening show, which included a live pianist performing jazzy renditions of Debussy to a spectacular planetarium sky. Planetariums and parks differ, but the music evoked similar emotions.
Back in the city, we concluded our day with another piece of Chopin. In the Church of the Holy Cross, an urn contains the heart of Chopin, who asked to be laid to rest in Paris, but said his heart belonged to Warsaw.
After several days exploring Poland’s capitol city, ours did too.
On to Krakow
Hollywood couldn’t have done a better job of creating this perfect scene: a six-piece jazz ensemble welcomed us to Old Town Main Market Square, a crowd listening and dancing. The first of a dozen horse-drawn carriages left the front of the taxi cue, the driver tipping his top hat as he passed. A man with two long sticks and webbing waved hundreds of bubbles into the air, children jumping and popping and giggling. Street vendors sold ice cream and fresh-baked pretzels that tasked a lot like hot bagels. Street performers dressed as statues and robots, coming alive when coins were tossed. Alex got a kick out of the Grim Reaper statue that startled people as they walked by.
At the center of the square stood the 1300s Cloth Hall, restored in the late 1800s. Inside, kiosks sold souvenirs where vendors used to sell silks and linens. Beneath the Cloth Hall, the Rynek Underground displayed sheets of cobblestone streets from centuries past, like a layer cake. The hall’s upstairs featured the National Museum’s Gallery of Polish Painting, including masterworks by Jan Matejko — frosting on the layer cake.
Beside the hall stood Krakow’s own “leaning tower.” City Hall Tower, all that remains of the 1400s City Hall, tilts slightly after a strong wind nudged it in the 1700s.
“Can we go up?” Alex asked.
We did and were rewarded with a bird’s-eye view.
“We’ll go there next.” I pointed at the towers across the square.
Trumpets and Altarpieces
St. Mary’s twin towers are mirror images — until you look at the top, where one tower is taller than the other. Legend has it, two brothers were responsible for construction. To ensure his tower was best, one brother killed the other before construction was complete. A replica of the knife he used hangs in the Cloth Hall across the square.
Inside, the church is filled with tombs and carvings, crucifixes and statuary beneath a blue and gold ceiling. We arrived at 11 a.m., just in time for the ceremonial opening of the Altarpiece of Viet Stoss. Hundreds watched as a nun slowly opened one side of the world’s largest Gothic altarpiece, then the other, revealing the detailed wood carving scenes from the lives of Mary and Jesus — slathered with gold and colorful paints. After viewing the altarpiece, we headed outside for St. Mary’s other popular draw.
Polish firefighters have been performing a Hejnal, or trumpet call, from the tower of St. Mary for centuries. Every day, the trumpeting firefighter opens a window of the tallest tower and performs “St. Mary’s Dawn” or “Krakow Anthem.” This noon performance is broadcast daily on live Polish radio. Rarely has another song been performed; the last time was when they performed “Hallelujah” on the day Leonard Cohen died.
Many Poles who remember the 1980s recall hard times during Soviet occupation. Our friend from the pierogi shop measured the difference in LEGO bricks.
“When I was a child, every year, for my birthday, I asked for LEGOs. But Western toys were expensive,” he said.
“I love LEGOs,” Alex said. The size of his collection could likely satisfy the children of 1980 Krakow.
Piotr smiled. “After years of saving, my parents let me pick out a LEGO set. I had to choose between a farm and firehouse, the only two we could afford. I chose the firehouse. I still have it today.”
I nodded, wondering how few of my childhood toys lurked in my attic.
Things are different now that Piotr is a father: “Every year, I take my son to a LEGO store and tell him, pick out anything you want. Death Star, Ninjago City. I’ll even buy the Taj Mahal or pyramids of Egypt.”
Alex brightened at the prospect.
“That’s the difference between occupation and freedom,” Piotr said.
Ending with the Beginning in Mind
All of the places we explored were worthwhile, but we felt most at home in Warsaw. We returned there before we left and back in our home away from home, we took another leisurely stroll along the Royal Route, stopping in at our favorite restaurant, down a short staircase into a brick cellar filled with pierogis and music and dancing.
In the courtyard behind Old Town’s churches, we did a ritual hop around the wishing bell.
“I wished that we’d come back to Poland,” Alex said. “I wished that wherever we go next, we’ll have as good a time as we did here.”
We returned to Old Town Square, our doorstep, and spent some time between the colorful facades.
This wasn’t the most luxurious square in Poland, but it felt like we were back where we belonged. We gravitated toward the square’s center, where Warsaw’s protective mermaid still held her sword and shield. We stayed with her after our ice cream was gone, then went to our flat and looked out the window. People flowed all around her as she continued to protect Warsaw.
Old World Treasures
Where to Stay
In Warsaw, we made our home in an Airbnb flat in Aga’s Old Town Square. Not the Hilton, but a very comfortable top-floor apartment with two bedrooms, living room, kitchen, bathroom and a view of the square from one side and of the river from the other. The best of Old Town Warsaw was literally on our doorstep.
Where to Eat
Warsaw’s Kamanda Lowowska at Foksal 10, a rustic, family-run restaurant, serves traditional local cuisine, good Polish beer and homemade liquor. Live music and dancing accompanied our meal more than once.
To Do in Warsaw
Old Town, with Old Town Square, the Royal Castle, Zygumunt’s Column and the Cathedral of St. John.
Royal Route, with the Church of St. Anne, Presidential Residence, Warsaw University and the Church of the Holy Cross, where Chopin’s heart rests.
Lazienki Park, for a peaceful stroll through trees and gardens, a Palace on the Water, and a world-class Chopin concert beneath his monument.