A Selamat Hari Raya to all Muslims!
This festive holiday season has given me some idle moments to reminisce about my recent Eastern Europe adventures.
During the planning stage for my holiday, I almost gave Warsaw a pass because The Pianist, an award-winning movie based on a true story, had etched in my mind images of a war-torn city with people looking like haggard refugee Wladyslaw Szpilman (played by Adrien Brody in the film).
True enough, 85% of the city was destroyed during World War II.
Still, my curiosity and adventurous nature convinced me to board a two-and-a-half hour flight from London to the Polish capital.
Unlike many other European cities, Warsaw is a modern city with relatively new buildings.
Most locals speak fluent English and there is almost no trace of communism, which the country was under until 1990.
UNFORGETTABLE RIALTO HOTEL
I picked the Rialto Hotel, a boutique luxury hotel in the city centre for its good service and famed Salto Restaurant. My deluxe room was spacious, with classic furniture and wide windows overlooking the streets below. The linens and towels were new and the room was so cosy that I was reluctant to go out.
Although there is a Hop-on Hop-off bus service and metro, I preferred to explore the city on foot. The friendly receptionists at the hotel gave me a city map and marked the popular tourist sites.
The first site I visited was Warsaw Old Town or Stare Miasto, which was the only area not destroyed during World War II.
I enjoyed the 3km walk in the cool afternoon on the Royal Route, starting from Nowy Swiat Street at the Palm roundabout to Krakowskie Przemiescie Street, where historic palaces, churches and manor-houses are located.
The Old Town has several attractions. Among them are Sigismund’s Column, erected in 1644 in Castle Square, and the 14th century majestic Royal Castle, which was the residence of Polish kings, then presidents as well as the seat of parliament.
Walking further, I reached the picturesque Old Town Market Place where the iconic 13th century late-Baroque buildings were built around a big square.
A hundred metres further is The Barbican, which is the well-preserved structures of the fortifications that once encircled the city.
“TOP CHEF” WINNER
For my first meal in Warsaw, I decided to dine at Salto. It is the signature restaurant of Martin Gimenez Castro, the winner of the first Polish edition of television programme Top Chef.
Castro’s fine dining restaurant offers South American delicacies of fish, seafood as well as famous Argentine steaks.
The elegant interior, inspired by The Great Gatsby, enhances the enjoyment of the meal, especially when accompanied by fine wine for dinner and sparkling wine for breakfast.
For my appetiser, I had a creamy soup of flora, octopus and cod followed by a main course of Angus striploin served with homemade sauces and mashed potatoes with truffle oil and grilled vegetables. The portions were so large I had to skip dessert.
So scrumptious was the meal that I had my breakfast and dinner here for four days.
The ultra modern Zlote Tarasy or Golden Terraces Shopping Centre with its beautiful glass structures and the Palace of Culture and Science are worth spending some time in.
The latter is a prominent landmark. The huge building serves as an exhibition centre and office complex and is the centre for various cultural activities.
It comprises four theatres, two museums, offices, bookshops, an auditorium for 3,000 people, a university, a multiplex cinema, a large swimming pool and a viewing platform on the 30th floor.
Every day, I explored the downtown areas and visited interesting sites like Pilsudski Square and the Chopin Museum, that is dedicated to the famous composer Frederic Chopin.
There are three sites that commemorate the extreme suffering of the Jews during WWII - the Warsaw Uprising Museum, the Warsaw Ghetto, and POLIN or the Museum of the History of the Polish Jews.
After spending two hours in POLIN viewing photos and reading captions recording the mass murders of the Jewish people by the Nazi regime, I decided to skip the other two sites as well as Auschwitz.
I would like to return again to Poland and maybe then I will have the stomach and nerve to visit the horrifying but historical sites.
All in, it is fortunate that I included Warsaw in my travel plans. I thoroughly enjoyed the wonderful stay, the delicious food and the warm hospitality of the Polish people.
> The views expressed are entirely the writer's own.
Chermaine Poo is a chartered accountant turned actress, TV host, emcee and columnist. Now she juggles between motherhood and running her classic car restoration workshop, Restoration Performance Design. And because she doesn’t sleep, she writes this columns and a blog on www.chermainepoo.com.