Travel: Warsaw city essentials

Poland's capital has a grim past - flattened by the Nazis, overlorded by the Soviet Union - but there are now the first glimmers of a dazzling future. Graham Leach explores the new East's newest city-break destination
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The fast way to Warsaw is from Heathrow on British Airways (0345 222111) or the Polish national airline LOT (0171-580 5037). Discount agents should be able to offer fares around the pounds 200 mark: Trailfinders (0171- 937 5400) has a fare of pounds 195.60 for a LOT flight from Heathrow.

The slow way is on one of the many coach services to the Polish capital, for example on Eurolines (01582 404511) for pounds 105 return from various points in the UK.

For more information, contact the Polish National Tourist Office, First Floor, Remo House, 310-312 Regent Street, London W1R 5AJ (0171-580 8811).

It's the final nail in the coffin for Uncle Joe. Warsaw's awesome, multi-tiered 1955 Palace of Culture and Science (not-so-affectionately known as "Stalin's wedding cake"), which the Soviet dictator bestowed upon the Polish people as a symbol of Communist achievement, has been part-converted into the very symbol of capitalist decadence: a casino.

Two hefty bouncers guard the casino entrance, just a few paces from statues dedicated to Communist Man and Woman. The former depicts a miner carrying a drill in one hand, a piece of rock in the other; the latter honours toiling Socialist woman. Next to the casino entrance is a statue of a Socialist revolutionary thinker carrying a tome of works by Engels, Marx and Lenin. Their names are engraved on the cover of the book. There's a stark gap where Stalin's name has clearly been chiselled out.

The Palace of Culture dominates the city of Warsaw like Big Brother. It's hard to imagine that during the bad old days anyone ever smiled behind its huge portals. This monolith was designed to intimidate, to make every Pole feel small in the face of overwhelming Soviet power.

But then so much of Warsaw still bears the scars of Soviet hegemony.

Like capital cities in many Soviet satellites, Warsaw is dissected by wide, often dangerous boulevards. They were another form of psychological control, to make the individual feel insignificant against the power of the State. The city's multi-lane, inner-city highways, though not as daunting as those in Moscow, are still forbidding. They seem to ring-fence the population into zones of hideous tower blocks.

Repainting the exteriors of these monstrosities has begun, but the task of upgrading Warsaw's housing is enormous. The tower blocks exude a bleakness which dampens the spirit of the whole city.

That said, one would have sympathised with any government - Communist or capitalist - which, after the Second World War, opted for a quick-fix housing plan. In a word, Warsaw was obliterated by the Nazis, with millions of residents returning to the city after the war to find their homes in ruins.

The scale of the devastation and the task of post-war reconstruction is evident in the Old Town, where a pleasant day can be spent criss-crossing the cobbled square, dropping in on the cafes, the cathedral and the shops selling antiques - or, at least, those artefacts which escaped Nazi plunder. The faithful recreation of the Old Town square after the war was perhaps an important cathartic process for the Poles as they sought to revive their national spirit.

The north side of the square is given over to the Warsaw Historical Museum. Its tiny entrance is easy to miss. The four-storey museum meanders through eight houses, all painted in different colours and with distinct roofs, which from the outside look like eight separate buildings. The museum is a sombre journey through Poland's history, starting with a 20-minute film (with English commentary) on the Warsaw uprising and the German occupation.

There are some truly chilling exhibits: the message from Hitler's commanding officer in Warsaw (presented as evidence at the Nuremberg trials) reporting to the Fuhrer that "the Jewish quarter of Warsaw exists no more"; the almost-daily posters from the Nazi occupiers announcing the names of Poles rounded up and shot in reprisal for attacks on German soldiers.

Personally, I thought the Russians got off rather lightly at the museum. The period of Soviet overlordship before the rise of Solidarity is dealt with scantily. But then, the museum itself emerged during the Soviet period, and modern-day Poland, anxious to overcome objections to it joining Nato, would not wish to upset the Russians unnecessarily.

Indeed, Warsaw seems to have an ambivalent attitude towards its Communist past. No one is thinking of pulling down the Palace of Culture. People say that the building is so tall, it's a good direction-finder when you're driving into Warsaw from outside the city. And, after all, the Communist period is, for better or worse, part of Polish history, and few Poles want to extinguish their past. However, the city's war memorial now reflects changed times. It's not only the Soviet-Polish war effort which is remembered; names such as Narvik, Normandy, Arnhem and the Battle of Britain, where Poles also fought, have now been added.

Warsaw is slowly shedding the dour atmosphere which is the hangover from the years of Soviet surrogacy. The city now feels like Mittel-Europa. The coffee shop in the refurbished Hotel Bristol, serving good coffee and mouthwatering cakes, could be in Munich or Prague. The city trams - once drab in their faded red and yellow livery - have now been spruced up with advertising. Just to see some shop lights glowing at night contrasts with previous times. The people, especially the young, are aching for opportunity. They make the city.

With eastern and central Europe opening up, is Warsaw in the vanguard of new city-break holidays?

Travel operators are slowly getting organised. My hotel offered half- day Cityrama tours as well as full-day trips to Krakow and Auschwitz, cultural visits taking in the music of Chopin, and a Sunday countryside tour with a "typical Polish lunch" thrown in.

Several of Warsaw's hotels are well up to Western standards and arguably boast the best restaurants in town: an excellent Italian in the Marriott; a buzzing, American-style diner in the Sheraton. Polish restaurants can be a bit hit-and-miss.

Warsaw is in limbo at present. Communism is in the past but capitalism is still in its infancy. So there's still a chance almost to feel what it was like to live for nearly five decades under socialist planning. The future is arriving - mass advertising, satellite and cable television and rising crime - but the past is not yet another country.

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