Warsaw’s National Museum of Art

The National Museum of Art in Warsaw is conveniently located across the street from my grandma’s house. That, and the fact that my mom spent a big chunk of her life there, made it a destination I was excited to see.

My highlights:

  • 13th-century religious figures from Wrocław: apparently these old wooden figures were the subject of my mom’s final paper. What really caught my eye was this tall wooden figure of Jesus on the cross, where rope created bulging veins and grape-vine metal drops of blood created a very intense portrayal of the crucifixion.
  • Faras Gallery: these frescoes were uncovered in Egypt by a group of Polish archaeologists, and was actually a very important discovery (the team found the site just in time, Faras is entirely flooded and under water now). The saints and figures depicted in the frescoes have simple, almost child-like round and oval-shaped features and faces – but their simplicity is very beautiful.
  • Witold Wojtkiewicz: I was interested to see the Polish paintings in the gallery, since I’m really not very knowledgeable about Poland’s art history or major painters. Wojtkiewicz caught my eye because his paintings have interesting topics and I like his painting style. But just seeing all the older as well as more modern art was worth a visit.
  • Ancient Egypt Collection: the museum has a good, if relatively small, collection of artifacts from Ancient Egypt. For me, the highlight was a section from the Book of the Dead that is displayed, including a translation of what each page reads.

There was also a very graphic special exhibit when I toured the museum, Ars Erotica. It was a little too “modern art” for me, but there was an interesting part of the exhibit that examined homosexuality  in mythology.

Overall, the Museum is definitely well worth a visit, especially to see the Polish art displayed there. Saturdays are free!

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Lesson learned: Polish bathroom signs

Since it was raining yet again in Warsaw, I decided to go to the movies. Before the movie began, I had to take a trip to the bathroom. You can imagine my reaction when I get to the bathroom doors and all that’s on them is a circle and a triangle (insert expletive here).

I stand in front of the two doors for a minute and randomly choose the triangle. Well, it wasn’t completely random – I figured the triangle was like the dress on the typical girl bathroom sign. Plus, I thought of the triangle chalice symbol from the Da Vinci Code (damn you, Dan Brown!).

When I walked in, the bathroom was empty, but you’d think the urinals would have tipped me off. Nope. Oh well, it was just awkward walking out as some guy walked in. He seemed confused for a minute, as if he had made the mistake, but nope – it was me!

Lesson learned: triangle = boys, circle = girls.

Road trip 1: a tour through Poland’s countryside

I was a little nervous about my first road trip with my grandma because so far during our car rides she had: swerved all over her lane, started moving into a busy intersection on a red light, almost had a head-on collision and almost merged into another car. But what choice did I have? If only I knew how to drive stick shift!

"The death-trap"

We drove to Łowicz, the town where my grandfather grew up, and where his parents are buried. We stopped by the main square, where there’s a big church, but unfortunately, it was heavily under renovation. But here’s a little tidbit about Łowicz (according to Wikipedia): Napoleon Bonaparte once stopped by.

Next, we drove to Sobota, a “wieś” (really small town) outside of Łowicz where my grandfather actually lived. We stopped into a church where he was baptized – a small, but very beautiful church:

Church in Sobota

Yes, my grandma convinced me to take a picture inside the church during mass. I felt bad, but in the end I’m glad I got a good shot of the church inside.

Our next stop was the cemetery down the street where my grandfather’s parents, siblings and grandma are buried. I love the cemeteries in Poland (and Europe) – they’re just so beautiful, with their old stone tombstones and monuments.

We drove through the small, country town, where I saw a couple of storks in their nests – which of course prompted more commentary from my grandma about me having a baby.

I really like driving through these country towns (they’re barely even towns, more like a handful of houses lining a dirt road in the middle of a field). Although the houses are usually poor and run down, they’re very beautiful in their own way, often made of wood or brick and usually still surrounded by colorful gardens of prairie flowers (and maybe even some chickens or cows). And each wieś usually has a lovely chapel or large cross surrounded by flowers and wreaths.

Chapel near Urzecze

On the way back to Warsaw, we stopped by Puszcza Mariańska, where my mom spent much of her childhood with her grandma. There’s a cute but tiny wooden church there, as well as a large house where the priests stayed. It was cool to see where my mom used to “run around with the chickens.”

Church in Puszcza Marianska

Nowy Swiat, very “nowy” – Stare Miasto, still “stare”

So, back in Poland after 10 years. What to do, what to do… 

I decided to take advantage of my grandma’s central location to some of Warsaw’s best attractions and walked towards the Stare Miasto (Old Town). Basically this is the route: you start on Nowy Swiat (New World street), which eventually turns into Krakowskie Przedmiescie street, which runs right into the Old Town. 

Nowy Swiat
This street has changed so much in the past 10 years! It was always a more modern part of this route, lined with little shops. But now it’s completely re-done, and is literally restaurants after bar after cafe, and each place has an outdoor patio area, so the entire street is lined with people eating and drinking outside. 

If only I had someone to eat and drink with! Guess I just have to eat alone – there’s even a Spanish tapas place and a Mexican restaurant (I tried both of course, and they were pretty good but not 100% authentic (man, I miss Mexican food!)). 

Let’s not forget that this is where you can find a Starbuck’s. I’m not a die-hard Starbuck’s fan, but I must admit it’s comforting to see a “familiar face” in essentially and country you visit. 

And good news: the pet store is still there! 

Krakowskie Przedmiescie
This is where the historically significant landmarks begin: 

  • Holy Cross Church: this is where Chopin’s heart lies (his body is buried in Paris).
  • Warsaw University
  • Hotel Bristol: apparently plenty of famous people have stopped here, including JFK and Woody Allen.
  • Presidential Palace: yes, the scene of daily demonstrations about the infamous cross.
Krakowskie Przedmiescie running towards Stare Miasto

Stare Miasto (Old Town)
This is the Old Town, restored to its pre-war beauty after being completely destroyed. Naturally, nothing here would have changed in the past ten years – it’s as beautiful as I remember it! Every time I walk towards the Old Town, I just want to take a picture of the Plac Zamkowy (Castle Square): 

Plac Zamkowy, Warsaw

Walk through the square and down one of the cobble-stone streets. They’re lined with restaurants, churches, stores full of amber jewelry or Polish folk art, galleries, and walk-up windows selling waffles, hot dogs or ice cream. Then you get to the best part – Rynek Starego Miasta (Old Town Square): 

Rynek Starego Miasta (Old Town Square), Warsaw

It’s difficult to capture in a picture, but the square is lined with colorfully-painted stone houses, with galleries or restaurants or stores at the ground level (including a tourism info office full of brochures in English). The square itself is filled with tables where restaurant guests can eat traditional Polish food (among other cuisines). Wherever there’s spare room, artists stand selling paintings of the square or other Polish landscapes. The square is also home to Warsaw’s symbol, the mermaid. 

And during the summer, there are also other events hosted here, including Warsaw’s Summer Jazz Days

If you keep walking, you’ll run into the Barbakan (Barbican) and eventually Nowe Miasto (New Town).

Wizz Air adventure to Warsaw

My trip from Rome to Warsaw was not uneventful. I ended up flying Wizz Air, some discount airline from Hungary. This time I gave myself plenty of time to avoid a repeat of the easyJet fiasco, and got to the airport more than two hours before take-off.

Wizz Air was organized just a little better than easyJet. But of course their counter was hidden somewhere around a corner, and there was no signage. So after standing in the wrong line for 10 minutes, I finally found the right line. Then, I waited. And waited.

About an hour later, I got to the counter, where there were only two attendants working. Once I finally got my boarding pass, I headed for the gate, which was of course changed after everyone had gathered there. 

Then, the plane was delayed so we all had to sit and wait. In the meantime, kids are playing and screaming and running around and banging on things. I literally almost lost it. I had to put on my iPod and blast music to drown out all the madness.

When we finally got on the place, the pilot greeted us and made a little impromptu speech. These European pilots sure like to take advantage of their access to a mic and a captive audience. The pilot apologized for the delay and explained that the baggage handlers were late to load our luggage and then were taking their sweet-ass time. As a result, we lost our place in line to take off, so had to wait for a new time. BUT, apparently no one was picking up our pilot’s call in the control tower for 10 minutes! That’s always comforting to hear.

Anyways, we finally took off. Of course one of the annoying kids was sitting behind me and kicking my seat half the time.

Then, my eyes started itching so I go to the bathroom and see that my eyes are getting puffy and my face is getting a couple red patches! Awesome.

A little later, I start getting itchy, red patches on my hands and arms. By the time we landed, I was not looking too pretty. I’m not necessarily saying I was allergic to Wizz Air, but do you have a better explanation?

We land and get off the plane in Warsaw, and it’s pouring rain. Literally pouring. It was almost funny.

But the important thing is that I made it to Poland safe & sound! And with an allergic reaction…

Lasting impressions: Rome

Rome is starkly different from any other European city I’ve seen so far. The ruins alone set it apart from any other place. But what makes the biggest impression on me is how Rome is just jam-packed with stuff: it’s a city where everything is piled on top of one another.

Riding on the bus, I experienced some of Rome’s infamous traffic. It was just cars and scooters all jumbled up seemingly randomly in the street – apparently the lanes are only suggestions.

The ruins, too, are all jumbled together: the Victor Emmanuel monument is cut into the Santa Maria Aracoeli church, which makes up a border of Capitoline Hill, which overlooks the Roman Forum, which neighbors the Colosseum. And this is only one cluster of ruins, which are scattered throughout Rome. Any one of them is a historic treasure, but Rome has dozens!

The museums have hundreds, maybe thousands of sculptures all lined up and crammed together into rooms, halls and gardens.

It’s unimaginable how much there is to see in Rome in addition to even all these things – the scenes that have been immortalized in movies, the never-ending streets of designer shops….

It’s all overwhelming and crazy – but in the best way!

Hotel review: Arena-House Hotel

Our Rome hotel, the Arena-House Hotel, was in a great location – literally down the block from the Colosseum. And as impressive as the Colosseum is during the day, it’s indescribeable at night, when it’s lit up from the inside. It sure was convenient to be able to take a nighttime stroll there.

Colosseum at night

And while the Colosseum isn’t the most centrally-located attraction in Rome, being near the ruins ain’t bad. Plus there was a bus stop two block from the hotel which took you everywhere else pretty quickly.

Although the entrance to the hotel was technically in an alley, at least it was literally between the police station and the caribinieri station, so I felt safe.

There was AC in the room, which is absolutely crucial in Rome! Plus, the hotel had a station set up in reception for guests to make their own tea, which was a lifesaver for me when I was stranded in the hotel for two days. And the rooms even each had a PC in them with internet access.

In addition to a great location and comfy accomodations, the staff was super friendly, always willing to give tips, answer questions and help you out!