Warsaw packed: exploring Euro 2012 co-host nation Poland's capital
Neil McLeman explores Euro 2012 co-host nation Poland’s capital
The National Stadium in Warsaw will be the centrepiece of Euro 2012 All roads in Poland lead to Warsaw. And this summer, whether you are an Ireland football fan based in Gdansk or an England supporter driving from Calais to Kiev in Ukraine, take the chance to pass a couple of days in the Polish capital en route to Euro 2012.
Warsaw may lack the beauty of Budapest or Prague or the madness of modern-day Moscow but the wow factor is in the long and humbling history of a city and country that suffered from the Nazis and communists before finally regaining independence in the 20th Century.
The old city square in Warsaw
It has a fascinating story and Warsaw proves there is more to Polish tourism than England’s summer base in charming Krakow, around 180 miles to the south. Warsaw is now a bustling cosmopolitan city full of western shops, hotels and restaurants. And this summer’s football tournament is a chance for a proud nation to once again show off its splendid history and culture.
But visits to the Warsaw Uprising Museum and the Palace of Culture and Science are stark reminders of the struggles its people have suffered relatively recently.
Palace of Culture & Science
While I had assumed the Poles would feel a close affinity with the United Kingdom after the Second World War – many of their officers served in the RAF – the reality is more complicated.
Our tour guide Artur explained that Poland felt betrayed by the West at the start of a war which saw 85% of Warsaw destroyed and 800,000 of the 1.3 million population it had in 1939 dead.
Much of the Jewish population was deported and exterminated at the haunting site of Treblinka, 90 minutes north-east of the capital.
The Royal Castle, Warsaw
The Old Town is the only Unesco-listed heritage site in the world which is a total reconstruction, with the Royal Castle only rebuilt in 1983. The city itself also rose again from the ashes in the second part of the 20th Century. The Warsaw Uprising Museum tells the chilling story of how the Poles fought for their freedom in 1944 when Hitler ordered the remaining residents to be liquidated.
During the next 63 days of heroic street-fighting, up to 200,000 Warsaw civilians were killed. The Red Army waited across the River Vistula until the rebellion was crushed before arriving in a devastated city.
The free museum has moving first-hand accounts of the events – with English subtitles – and a recreation of the underground sewage system through which the Poles moved around the city.
Clamber through to get the claustrophobic feel even if it does not include the rats and sewage.
After the Yalta Conference in 1945 Poland found itself forced in to Stalin’s sphere of influence – again, the Poles felt betrayed by the West – and the socialist realism architecture of the incongruously-named Palace of Science and Culture which still dominates the Warsaw skyline was a “gift” from the Soviet Union.
With the fall of communism, Poles debated whether to knock down the 760ft reminder of Soviet rule or build other tall buildings to hide it.
It has become a tourist attraction in its own right and is more spectacular at night, illuminated by purple and yellow lights.
Neil inside the National Stadium before its completion
By day the 30th floor terrace offers a stunning view of the new Warsaw and the £300million National Stadium – which I visited – across the river, where Poland will play two matches, including the tournament opener and which will also host a quarter and semi-final.
Inside the finished National Stadium in Warsaw
The biggest fan zone in history, which will accommodate up to 120,000 supporters, will be held in Defilad Square below the Palace.
Walking down the main street of Nowy Swiat, from the castle into the heart of the city, gives you the sophisticated feel of a modern European centre.
We went to a jazz club, the ballet (which had a relatively young audience) and enjoyed the diet-busting fare that is Polish cuisine. Liking meat, potatoes and cabbage will help your stay. Eating out and beer is still cheap even if the shops now have UK prices.
Poles have contributed much to world history, probably none more so than Pope John Paul II, Nicolaus Copernicus and Frederic Chopin.
There is a tour of Warsaw churches well connected to the former Archbishop of Krakow; a fantastic, interactive science museum is named after the astronomer while the Holy Cross Church has an urn containing the heart of the composer.
Football is by no means the only sport in Poland and the nation is now promoting itself as a golf location with three courses in the Warsaw area and resorts from the mountains in the south to the Baltic coast.
It’s an intriguing, varied country. And wonderful Warsaw is in the middle of it all.
Wizz Air flies three times a week to Warsaw from Liverpool from £63.98 return inc taxes, and three flights daily from Luton (£47.98 inc taxes).
Standard double rooms at Hotel Gromada Dom Chlopa from £50.78pn inc breakfast.