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Warsaw, Poland 
May 30

You just canít count on a travel day to be boring. We left Ukraine with nothing more than a passport check and a walk through the train cars with sniff dogs. We were in the second to last compartment in the end car so the two dogs and their handlers sat outside our door until the border officials had finished their business.

On the Polish side the passport process was electronic. The border official carried it around her neck and told us it was convenient but heavy. She also asked if we had anything to declare. "No," we answered looking at our small backpacks.

A fellow dressed in black and armed with a power screwdriver, a small crowbar and an extendable lighted mirror entered at the rear of the train. His mission was to find anything being smuggled. He was going along the walls, unscrewing parts of panelling and peering in. He wasnít finding anything, even when he removed some panels in the last compartment next to ours. We sensed he sensed their was something to be found, as he was dismantling the entire end of the car. He was joined by two other men in black. We were then asked to step out of our room and the investigator who spoke some English started removing panels. "Surprise," he said and from over our doorway he pull a long thin strip of cigarette packages wrapped in plastic and dropped them through the door into the hallway at our feet; then another; and another. Five strips in total plus two single packages with blue on the label. Plunk.

Adding to the packages on the floor was a package wrapped in black material with a black cloth tie. Plunk. A second just the same. He called some words down the hallway and the search became more intensive. Other panels were taken off and other packages dropped in the hallway. The investigator confirmed the long strips were cigarettes but he didnít say what he thought were in the black ones other than to say that being black made them harder to find.

While all this was going on, things were happening outside the train as well. The whole train was being lifted off the tracks, car by car, with us, the investigators and other passengers still inside, while the narrow gauge undercarriage was being pushed away and the European wide gauge undercarriage was replacing them.

For over two hours the train shifted back and forth within two miles of the border. We donít know why. It just did ... back and forth ... and then we sat ... just sat. While we sat the train car man (conductor/porter) sweating profusely, first with his shirt just open, then stripped to the waist, worked feverishly to reassemble his domain which had been torn apart by the men in black. Finally after more than four hours within sight of the border, we were under way.

Our long travel day turned out to be even longer than we had expected Ė over fifteen hours from our hotel in Lviv, Ukraine to our hotel in Warsaw, Poland. Yawn.

   

May 31

Warsaw ... a most pleasant surprise.

Not big on big cities and having a New York tourist tell us the day before that Warsaw was "a big, cold, grey, concrete city", we didnít expect much.

After an 15+ hour day of travel and a late night, we woke looking forward to a day on the ground walking.

Warsaw, Polandís capital, is home to nearly 1.7 million people. It is also the centre of business, labour, transportation, trade and government. Warsaw was almost completely destroyed by the Nazis during World War II. Since then it has been regenerating itself Ė in some places, like Old Town, it has recreated the past while in other parts it is developing a modern image of tall glass towers and dramatic architectural designs (a welcome contrast to the Soviet block buildings).

We started about midway on the approximately 3.5 km Royal Way lined with classic buildings, home of the President, churches and a university. The baroque Church of the Holy Cross may hold some interest to those with an interest in classical music, for it is here the urn containing Chopinís heart was set in its walls in 1882.

The Royal Way ends at the walls of Old Town and the massive Royal Castle. Polish monarchs have resided here since King Zygmut III Vasa moved the capital from Krakow to Warsaw in 1596. The rose-terra-cotta coloured building is a pentagon with a centre courtyard. Following its total destruction during World War II it was rebuilt in its original style including 30 years spent recreating the interior which is now much like it was during the reign of King Stanistaw August (1764-1795).

The palaceís original paintings with views of Warsaw were helpful in the reconstruction of the city.

We walked outside the Old Townís walls (a short section still the original) and dipped into a milk bar for lunch Ė a generic name for a cafeteria style eatery leftover (no pun intended) from the communist era. They serve simple, artery clogging, cheap food. This one wasnít as good as others we had experienced.

Old Town is the oldest part of Warsaw dating from the turn of the 13th century. It was almost levelled during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. Reconstruction with care and attention to detail according to its original layout and appearance was one of the reasons it was placed on UNESCOís list of World Cultural Heritage Monuments in 1980. Tall slim buildings of varying soft hues frame the large market square. As we stood in the centre and turned around, taking in its beauty, it was difficult to grasp its real history and not accept it as the 13th century town centre it appears to be. Our hats off to the city and the citizens of Warsaw for their insight, courage and resilience.

Back in front of the Royal Castle, we saw a young woman rolling out a long scroll of signatures and asked what it meant. "It is to bring awareness of a need for a bicycle route from the mountains to the sea."

"To raise money?" we asked.

"No, not money. Votes. We want people to tell the politicians to vote for it."

The police presence and traffic control officers were increasing in numbers around the castle square. Someone speaking English guessed that there might be a political protest. Free speech is a valued and encouraged commodity in todayís Poland.

Shortly, the people in the square started to move to the view point overlooking a major street. We went with them and saw a long stream of blue clad cyclists. Now the long scroll made sense.

The cyclists must be coming to the square. We positioned ourselves on the highest step on the centre monument. The cyclists, lead by an older lady (who we noticed later walked with a cane), were escorted by police cars and motorcycles into the square where the scroll stretched out on the ground and the bikers lined up behind it. Speeches followed using a police carís loud speaker system. We left as a political looking big wig was being greeted and coddled.

We returned along the Royal Way and stopped into the bar "Sense", famed for their flavoured vodka, and ordered blackberry and a ginger-rose vodkas ... neat. Tiny long stemmed glasses were placed on the shattered glass bar top. They may have been tiny glasses but the sipping was slow and relaxed among patrons who come to this up-market bar to see and be seen ... overlooking the likes of us backpackers of course.

We returned to the hotel, using the tram system which laces this easy to get around city. We sent away a pile of journal entries to friends and family and began packing for an early departure in the morning.

 

 

click here to continue June 1  and trip to Vilnius, Lithuania  ... 


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