Poland: a six-day culinary-cultural study tour
Would I like to join a study tour to Poland in the event of there being one?
I am asked the question at a gathering of Poles in Durban.
“Is the pope a Catholic?” pops to mind as I nod in the affirmative and start jabbering on, unnecessarily I realize given that the invite has already been issued, about the two previous personal trips I’ve made to Poland and the numerous stories these have generated. And the culinary passion (and artistry) of my (late) Polish dad who came to South Africa after World War II.
A couple of months later the formal invite comes via a heavily accented voice on my cellphone. The itinerary is still being planned. They are, at this point, checking on availability and dates.
The duration of the study tour will be six days. In October, same month as my previous visit. “Poland’s golden autumn.” I check that I can extend my return by a month so that I might continue what has become an extended exploration of my Polish “roots” under my own steam. I am told they will gladly book me back on the date of my choice. Thus, my place is confirmed.
We — a writer I have not previously met (Diane de Beer), from Pretoria, and myself—arrive at Warsaw’s Frédéric Chopin Airport early on a Sunday to meet with our guide Jakub (Kuba) Wesołowski (oh happy days and easy life!), plus driver (natch, with transport vehicle).
The itinerary is full and carefully planned. It says we will check in (no slumming it or budget these first six days!) at the conveniently located (for walking to many must-see spots and right by Warsaw’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Piłsudski Square): Warsaw Sofitel Victoria and right off, have free time to relax.
Ha. The best laid plans! Much too early for check-in. Besides, who wants to relax? The hotel keeps our luggage and we head off with Kuba.
Note: Warsaw is an excellent city to walk and good and easy for the solo traveler (how I usually travel). Plus transport for when one needs it is fairly straightforward to get a handle on, even when you don’t know the language. There is a tourist office at the landmark Soviet-era Palace of Culture and Science, which you can spot rising like the phallic beacon it is from many Warsaw locations, including Piłsudski Square. You’ll want to go there to ask about transport and other things. It is near the main railway station. And central, too, to many walking streets.
Back to Day One, we head on foot to Old Town to start our six day study tour. Earlier than planned, we do much of what was set down for 14:30 – 17:30 on our itinerary.
Sightseeing of Warsaw Zbawiciela Square (in English, Savior Square), which I later read is also known as Hipster Square. Check this alternative link to A Hipster’s Guide to Warsaw. (The rainbow was removed in 2015.)
Also the grand and fabulous Nowy Swiat Street (New World Street): one of the main historic thoroughfares of Warsaw. The place to walk, day or night. To people watch. To stop off in a cafe and eat lody (ice cream).
Note: If you are an ice cream lover, as I am, Poland is a dream destination. People eat it day and night, hot weather and when it is as freezing as ice cream.
Nowy Swiat Street comprises part of the city’s Royal Route that runs from Warsaw’s Royal Castle and Old Town, south to King John III Sobieski’s 17th-century royal residence at Wilanów.
Talking Warsaw Old Town (Stare Miasto), it is our walking destination with Kuba. The heart is the Old Town Market Place, home of the famous mermaid statue and rich in restaurants, cafés and shops. Surrounding streets feature medieval architecture such as the city walls, the Barbican and St. John’s Cathedral, which we visit.
See 30-plus things to do in and near Warsaw’s Old Town.
Kuba shows and tells us how paintings by Italian artist Bernardo Bellotto informed the rebuilding of Old Town Warsaw, turned to rubble by Hitler’s troops during WWII. See this Guardian story on how postwar Warsaw was rebuilt using 18th century paintings. He also points out the Chopin music benches where you take a pic and hear a melody.
Lubie Cafe Old Town
Half-way through our walk, we’re hungry and in need to strong coffee. Kuba herds us in to Lubie Cafe on the fringe of Old Town — well reviewed on TripAdvisor. He tells us it is an “in” place. Good coffee and breakfast. And: there, they have them. Those amazing meringue and cream special with berries, impossible to resist in Poland. And why would one? To give you a taste till you get there, try this tort bezowy recipe.
Or, to whet the appetite, see these seven must-try Polish cakes and pastries.
Thanks to my Polish dad, a passionate cook, I grew up with baked Alaska, Pavlova and crepe suzettes. Not all Polish, but Polish to me growing up…
Kuba gets us back to the Sofitel at (latish) lunchtime, tells us to unpack, unwind, eat something there if we’re peckish — and change, if we want to, into something fresh for the rest of the day.
Mid-afternoon the driver pick us up to continue the Day One itinerary.
Łazienki Królewskie Chopin concerts
A visit to the Łazienki Królewskie Royal Garden, museum and palace-garden complex, which includes a forest-park (at 76 hectares, Warsaw’s biggest). The place is stunning in terms of its greenery and architecture. Particularly gorgeous in Poland’s golden autumn. There is a Chopin statue in a large grassy clearing with seats. In the summertime for 50-plus years they have held regular Saturday and Sunday Chopin piano concerts here.
On our Sunday in October, families are out strolling, many pushing baby-carriages. Apparently this is a favorite Sunday outing for Warsaw locals.
The so-called “palace on the island” is indeed, as the publicity material says, a pearl of Polish architecture as well as one of the symbols of Warsaw. Its history is closely connected with the reign of Stanisław August Poniatowski, the last Polish king. The palace, though badly damaged, survived World War II and was re-opened to the public in 1960.
There is a Belvedere Restaurant here. Any link to Belvedere vodka? Not sure, but read this piece Traveling Poland in the footsteps of Belvedere vodka. The writer is taken to eat here on her last day.
Our next stop is the Zachęta National Gallery of Art (Museum for Contemporary Polish Art) in the center of Warsaw. Our guide, Magdalena Zięba, takes us through the permanent collection (which today comprises 3,600 works of which about 700 are paintings, almost 80 are videos and around 100 are sculptures and installations) and current (temporary) installations.
Like most everything in Warsaw, the history is worth reading. The Nazi occupation. The soviet period. More recent controversies. Click through to the link above.
Post-museum and it is on to a unique memorable culinary experiences involving vodka and fine dining: Elixir Dom Wódki.
Some special links not in the article above:
- To join a culinary tour of Poland from the US or elsewhere, connect with Sarna Rose at Poland Culinary Vacations.
- In Poland connect with Monika Kucia.
- See her Polish P(a)late on Facebook.
- Warsaw Official website.
- With special thanks to the Department of Public and Cultural Diplomacy, Warsaw.
- And the Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Pretoria.
© Words and photo Wanda Hennig, 2017