Every town has a Christmas market these days. All you need is a few sheds and a surly chap selling food from Lidl and people will turn up in their thousands looking for wooden ornaments.
For something a little different to the usual festive fare, Nicola and I headed to the capital of Poland, Warsaw. We stayed in a small hotel on the edge of town, which had only recently opened, and claimed to be the former headquarters of the Communist party in Poland. Strangely enough, the hotel itself doesn’t seem to make a big deal of this, although you could still see hammer and sickle engravings at the top of some pillars in the lobby.
The allies destroyed much of the city in the Second World War, but the Polish have done an extremely good job of rebuilding it. The old town square looks exactly as it did pre-war, and for Christmas they had festooned the buildings with fairy lights. We stood among the warm sheds of the Christmas market (there’s no avoiding them), and watched the city come alive at night, our mulled wine misting and swirling in the cold evening air.
Varsovians are not a fan of the Palace of Culture and Science. It was a gift from Stalin in the 50s, and he clearly didn’t keep the receipt. With a looming 750-foot tower, it remains the tallest building in Poland to this day, and offers a panoramic view across the city from the thirtieth floor. Poland escaped the recession relatively unscathed, and the numerous glass and steel skyscrapers in the financial quarter look a world away from the rest of the city. Peering down from the concrete viewing balcony, you can see a marked difference between the modern buildings and those that remain from Poland’s days under communism.
We’d seen a cocktail bar recommended in a guidebook, and so one evening went out to pay a visit to Kita Kogula. The bar, in a relatively modern residential block, was a great find – with no menu in site, we simply told the barman the sort of drinks we liked, and he willingly made a cocktail to suit our tastes. I asked to try a local vodka cocktail, while Nicola wanted something sour with gin. Both drinks were great, and when the bill came we were pleasantly surprised that they were also extremely cheap.
Breakfast the next day was at a small café a few yards from the hotel. We sat in the window, selecting all sorts of Polish delicacies from the buffet. I’d recommend the pierogi; ravioli-style dumplings which seem to be fried or boiled. They go well with a decent helping of fermented cabbage and a mound of hard-boiled eggs. We washed it all down with a coffee then went back to the hotel to brush our teeth.
On our final evening in Warsaw, we went into the old town to see the Christmas lights being switched on, or as one online guide brilliantly put it, ‘Warsaw revealing its Christmas face’. We stood towards the back of the vast crowd, craning our necks to see what was happening on the brightly-lit stage. All we could make out was four schoolchildren perched on the edge of the stage, bobbing their heads from side to side in time to various Polish Christmas carols. Halfway through one song, and with absolutely no warning at all, there was a loud bang which filled the air with glittering streamers and ticker tape, and revealed a 60-foot tall green cone masquerading as a Christmas tree. The schoolchildren continued to sing, completely unwatched and unheard by the crowd enthralled at the strange sight of this luminous green cone. I have never seen anything so utterly bewildering. It was absolutely superb.