Poland: 48 hours in the life of ... Warsaw

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The Independent Online
You need a break - and a short-cut to the soul of a city. Each week, `The Independent' provides a prescription for the perfect weekend away. This week, Simon Calder makes a pact with Warsaw, capital of Poland

Why go now?

Because Warsaw is at a delicious cusp: between shaking off the stagnation of nearly half a century of domination by Moscow, and becoming a premier league weekend-break destination. So you can enjoy a city where the tourist is still a rarity, yet benefit from a place where sassy new restaurants have joined the stock of Soviet-era milk bars to create a unique ambience. And in which other European capital could you stay in a hotel called, in all seriousness, "Garrison No 1"?

Beam down

The British bus company National Express has most of the angles covered. Its subsidiary, Fregata Travel (0171-451 7000), is an Eastern European specialist that offers cheap flights to Warsaw. For a Heathrow-Warsaw return on LOT Polish Airlines I paid pounds 185 return; from today, this now costs pounds 195 because of the increase in Air Passenger Duty.

The tax rise is likely to steer more passengers towards another National Express associate, Eurolines (01582 404511). This company operates regular buses to Warsaw from various UK departure points, for around pounds 100 return. But with a journey time of around 24 hours, this does not make for a relaxing weekend.

Take a ride

Assuming you arrive by air, it is imperative to ignore the touts who greet all new arrivals at Warsaw airport; the very best you could hope for is to be comprehensively fleeced for a taxi ride into town. Instead, take a ride on the 175 bus. Change your money before passport control. Then clear a path from Arrivals to Departures on the upper level. Buy a bus ticket (or, while you're at it, 10 tickets), price 1.40zl each, which works out at 25 pence. This will allow you to board the bus, which should be waiting outside - there is a service every 15 minutes or so for most of the day.

In the course of its half-hour journey, the bus will take you through the city's entire architectural repertoire - from broad, tree-lined avenues with ranks of apartment blocks in the background, through hectares of dismal Socialist Realist cuboids and past the monumental Palace of Culture and Science, Stalin's bequest to Warsaw.

Get off the bus at the start of the Old Town, marked by the column of King Sigismund III.

Get your bearings

If you find yourself facing what looks like a breathtakingly preserved medieval masterpiece, that's because it has all been painstakingly reconstructed since the Second World War, when almost all of Warsaw was destroyed.

Sadly, only the core of the city was re-created: the Stare Miasto (Old Town), in which you find yourself standing, and the Nowe Miasto (New Town), based on a street plan that is almost as old. South runs the Royal Way. To the immediate east is the Wisla (Vistula) river; beyond it, and in all other directions, sprawls the artless architecture created when Warsaw was an unwilling participant in a Pact with the USSR.

Check in

Just two recommendations, but both are gems. Hotel Garnizonowy Nr 1, a former army hotel, is neatly adjacent to the Old Town at ulitsa Mazowiecka 10 (00 48 22 827 2365). A twin room costs pounds 18. Close by, the Hotel Warszawa (corner of Swietokryska and Szpitalna (00 48 22 826 9421), is unreconstructed Soviet swagger with double rooms from pounds 50.

Take a hike

The Royal Way is the way. In an hour you can comfortably walk along a broad boulevard, laid out two centuries ago, from the Old Town to Lazienki Park.

Lunch on the run

The first time I visited Warsaw, in 1985, you could barely find anywhere to eat out. Compared with even a year ago, there are now far more places along the Way where you can grab a satisfying snack. But hold out, if you can, to enjoy perfect pierogi (spicy dumplings) washed down with creamy, bitter hot chocolate at the small, cosy cafe in the north-west corner of the park.

Cultural afternoon

The Warsaw Historical Museum, which occupies a large chunk of the north side of Old Town Square, begins like any other repository of municipal history - with several storeys of how the city came to be. Then the tale takes a series of shattering twists, when the grim story of how a city with the one of the largest, liveliest Jewish communities in Europe could have been destroyed so wantonly and competely. Determinedly shocking, deeply moving.

Window shopping

Ha! The last people to go seriously shopping in Warsaw were Russians, prior to 1989. The best souvenir among the retail doldrums is to be found at the airport duty-free shop, where a half-litre of Zubrowka (bison grass) vodka costs just pounds 1.50.

An aperitif

Just inside the Old Town wall, on the north side of Kapitulna, a wine cellar has somehow survived the transition from Communism without becoming a Mafia bolthole - and the nation's brewers have rediscovered the art of making tasty beer, rather than the soapy ditchwater served up pre-1989.

Demure dinner

The first cheap, cheerful and chic restaurant opened in Warsaw about six months ago. Brseska, located on Krakowskie Przedmiescie (the first stretch of the Royal Way, opposite Tragutta) is most easily spotted by the image of a duck in the window, next to a shop with some bright yellow Camel window shades. Inside, this split-level bistro achieves a feat which has eluded most chefs in Warsaw: serving simple, fresh and filling dishes. A comprehensive meal might cost pounds 5, including a few beers to wash it down.

Sunday morning: go to church

Almost every street in the centre contains a church heavy with ornamentation. The massive cathedral in the Old Town is a minor miracle in brick, while St Anne's, just south of the Royal Castle, retains its dignity despite having been moved a few dozen yards south to make way for an underpass.

Bracing brunch

Get there soon, because the superbly located Bar pod Barbakanem, next to the New Town barbican, cannot possibly survive the influx of foreign funds. This splendid hangover from Communist days dispenses pancakes, eggs, bread and a sweet, brownish liquid described as "cocoa" in surreal milk bar surroundings, for around pounds 1.

A walk in the park

Back to Lazienki, a kind of three-dimensional, undepopulated version of Versailles. Keep moving, rather than opting for its "attractions", which include a Snake Museum and Torture Museum. Instead, revel in some sublime royal indulgences.

The icing on the cake

Don't bother ascending "Stalin's wedding cake" - the Palace of Culture and Sport is best seen from the 36th-floor bar of the Marriott Hotel which kindly has a Happy Hour, 5pm-7pm daily. Two beers will set you back pounds 2, while you marvel at the sprawl of the city and, beyond, the unremittingly flat terrain that earned Poland the title "North Dakota of Europe".