Discovering my Polish heritage in Warsaw

At UNESCO I spend a lot of my time writing about “heritage” – what it means and why it is important. After an amazing trip I took this month with my Dad, where I had a chance to see the house where he was born, in a small town just outside of Warsaw, I have a feeling that this task will become a bit easier, as I have gained an even deeper appreciation for the value of heritage, especially family heritage!

DAY ONE

Our trip to Warsaw was sandwiched between two days in Paris and two days in Prague, so in order to keep this blog post to a manageable length, I will just say that after two days spent enjoying breakfast at Les Deux Magots, a couple of beautiful photography exhibitions, a dinner cruise on the Seine, and a meat extravaganza at Brasserie Lipp, my Dad and I got up at 4:00 a.m. on Saturday morning to make our flight to Warsaw!

I think we both knew that we were in for an exciting, emotional trip. My Dad was born in a town just outside of Warsaw called Miłosna, which he left for Chicago when he was nine years old. 42 years had past since he had last laid eyes on either Miłosna or Warsaw, and we could only imagine how much things had changed, especially since the fall of Communism in 1989. I was therefore more than a little curious to see how the images of Warsaw that I had in my head as a result of my Dad’s stories corresponded with life in modern-day Poland. After landing in Warsaw’s Chopin Airport and hopping into our Uber (where my Dad was already speaking near-flawless Polish with the driver!) our first major stop was the Palace of Culture and Science – a “gift” from the Soviet Union that Warsaw had no choice but to accept in 1955.

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The (somewhat menacing) Palace of Culture and Science
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We ran into some friendly Solidarity protesters along the way!
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The Palace is 778 feet tall, making it still one of the tallest buildings in Europe!

After checking out the lobby of the Palace of Culture and Science, we were feeling pretty hungry, so my Dad suggested that we go to a restaurant called the Belvedere in Łazienki Park, the largest park in Warsaw. Although we expected an upscale restaurant, we were not prepared for the overwhelming amount of beautiful plants we found inside. It was like dinning in a tropical rain forest! The food was absolutely delicious as well, and our servers were so friendly – I could definitely get used to this style of living. 😉

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Happily drinking rose while surrounded by plants 🙂

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After our gorgeous lunch, we decided to make our way to one of Łazienki Park’s most famous attractions: Łazienki Palace (also known as the Palace on the Water or the Palace on the Isle). The palace, which was the summer residence of the last king of Poland, was nearly empty when we went inside – incredible because we were there during the European Heritage Days, so admission was free! It was so lovely to stroll through all the beautiful rooms without having to elbow other tourists out of the way (which I have been known to do, I take my palace sightseeing very seriously! :P)

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The Palace on the Water
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Can I please live here?
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I even found the floors mesmerizing!

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Hidden in a room a bit removed from the opulence of the rest of the palace was perhaps the most interesting and poignant part of the building: an exhibit describing how the Nazis ransacked much of Łazienki Palace and drilled holes in its walls, with the intention of blowing it up. This was a story that was repeated again and again during our short stay in Warsaw. It is estimated that the Nazis destroyed 80-90% of Warsaw during the war, part of a systematic effort to wipe the city – and its people – clean from the map. Nearly every historic building that you see in Warsaw today was painstakingly reconstructed in the decades after the war, and, even now, more than half of the historic artefacts stolen by the Nazis from Poland have yet to be recovered. I do not think my Dad and I fully grasped the extent of this devastation until we went to Prague a few days later, and saw what Warsaw might have been had its built environment been left untouched by the war.

Although we could have spent many more hours brooding over the sadder parts of Poland’s history, we turned our attention to exploring Warsaw’s Old Town, which was so meticulously (and, to me, miraculously) rebuilt over the course of nearly 40 years that today it is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (I guess I am a little bit proud of that fact. :P) On our way out of the park we also passed by the very expressive Chopin Monument, which my Dad remembered seeing while riding the tram with his mother as a little boy.

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Chilling with Chopin
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Plac Zamkowy, at the entrance to Old Town Warsaw
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To the right is the Royal Castle

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Our first glimpse of the famous Old Town Market Square!
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The Mermaid of Warsaw has been the symbol of the city since the 1300s

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After picking out a restaurant to return to the following evening and being photobombed on several occasions by a roving bachelor party, we left the Old Town Market Square to stroll through the backstreets and along the Barbican, the redbrick remains of the old city walls.

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I am just a sucker for picturesque-looking antique shops 😛

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The Barbican

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After so much walking through history, we decided it was finally time to check into our hotel and take a breather before dinner. I must have gotten a room upgrade, because my room was enormous! The ceilings were so high that I could safely jump on the bed! Again, this is a style of traveling that I could get used to. 😉

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My beautiful bed 🙂

For dinner we went to Restauracja Zapiecek, known for making the best pierogi in Warsaw! This reputation was well deserved; the pierogi delicious and smothered in bacon drippings, and their flaczki soup was also the best I had ever had! Plus, they managed to take my favorite beverage – lemonade – and make it even better by adding apple and mint. I bow down to you, Restauracja Zapiecek. 😀

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Yuuuuuuuum!

DAY TWO

Our second day in Warsaw was definitely the highlight of the trip, as this was the day that we got to visit the town where my Dad was born! We started our morning off early at Cafe Bristol, a beautiful 1920s-era cafe in the larger Hotel Bristol, which serves delicious pastries and breakfast dishes (and somehow plays my Dad’s favorite jazz music in the background). I got the Polish-style crepes and a hot chocolate and could not have been happier. 🙂

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I look much more tired here than I felt ahaha!

After picking up a rental car from the airport, I managed to safely navigate us to Sulejówek, a town of about 20,000 people that has incorporated my Dad’s hometown of Miłosna. Once we arrived, it did not take us long to find my Dad’s old house. It still sat across the street from the pine forest where my Dad used to play and pick mushrooms for his mother. Yet now it sat on a paved road called “William Shakespeare” and had doubled in size thanks to the additions of its subsequent owners. We gazed at the outside of the house for a while and then crossed the street into the forest, where we found the watering hole where he used to swim and plenty of mushrooms. Around the watering hole, we also met a group of longtime residents, who ranged from a bit older to a bit younger than my Dad. After striking up a conversation with them, they not only remembered my Dad’s family, but they remembered him as a little boy! I was so happy for him, what an amazing thing to be remembered and welcomed back to your childhood home after so many years! Plus, it was incredible for me to think about all the stories that my Dad had told me about his childhood – many of which took place in that forest – and to see it all almost unchanged before my eyes. It is definitely a moment we will both remember forever. 🙂

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My Dad’s childhood home!

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Heading into the pine forest!
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The mushrooms! 😀

After returning to the house once more, we set off on a tour of all the most memorable places from my Dad’s childhood. Although the town has changed a lot since he left, we were still able to visit the train station where he would catch the train to Warsaw with his mother, the church where he was baptized, the elementary school that he attended, the fire station where he saw his first movie, and the town cemetery. I was just so proud and happy that I was there to see all of this for the first time with him, because although Miłosna is his hometown, it is a big part of my heritage as well!

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Back in the day, my Dad and his Mom used to crawl under slow-moving cargo trains to reach the train bound for Warsaw on the other side. Luckily they have built an underground tunnel since then!
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My Dad outside the town church!

After spending most of the afternoon in Miłosna, we headed back to Warsaw to check out one more site – the expertly done Warsaw Uprising Museum – before enjoying an absolutely delicious dinner in the beautiful U Fukiera, on the Old Town Market Square.

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What an amazing trip! (And it wasn’t even over yet, we still had two more days in Prague ahead of us!) We ate a series of mouth-watering meals, strolled through beautiful surroundings and witnessed firsthand the kindness and resilience of the Polish people. Yet even more than that, we both had a chance to discover, and rediscover, our family history, and to really appreciate how that history has helped make us who we are today. 🙂

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