In Greek mythology, the Phoenix died in a show of flames and combustion before its rebirth, rising from ashes to start anew. 'The Phoenix City', Warsaw's fitting moniker, emerged from its resurrection and transformation following WWII decimation and Communist oppression.
In 1944, the anti-Nazi uprising infuriated German leaders. To punish the city, Hitler ordered that the Polish capital be flattened by fire and dynamite. More than 85% of the city's historic center was reduced to rubble.
This past Saturday's free walking tour taught me that Warsaw's 'Old' Town was rebuilt post-war, largely based on 18th century paintings, so meticulously that UNESCO added it on the World Heritage List, in 1980.
I also learned that the people of Poland love Christmas so much that festive decor and lights are put up in November and kept up through early February.
Within the Old Town, located at 20-22 Kanonia Street, was one of the narrowest houses in Warsaw, constructed as a strategy for avoiding property taxes. The 17-century tax system was based on the width of a home's front-facing facade and the number of windows it had.
Although the house got a lot wider in the back (pictured below), the clever construction of this property in the front would have saved its original owners a lot of złoty.
Outside the Old Town, Warsaw's architecture varied widely, reflecting the city's long, turbulent history. There were Gothic churches, Renaissance-style historical landmarks, neoclassical palaces as well as Soviet-era blocks and modern skyscrapers.
The Palace of Culture and Science (shown below) was a 'gift' from Stalin to symbolize how strategically important Poland was to Moscow. It stands taller than any other building in Poland and remains a divisive and controversial building, serving as constant reminder of the Soviet occupation.
Despite being freezing cold, I had a wander through Warsaw's largest park, Łazienki Park, which occupies 76 hectares of the City Center. I was told that peacocks made this park their home, but they seemed to be hiding when I was there.
To stay warm, I spent quite a bit of time indulging in Warsaw's eclectic international cuisine offerings. Below are my recommendations for meals and drinks:
U TATO - Hearty Georgian cuisine at a fair price.
Hala Koszyki - A hip food court. The tapas at Sobremesa were delicious.
Taverna Patris - Traditional Greek food, in an unpretentious converted house.
Hala Gwardii - Food market in an industrial building formerly used for boxing matches. I had the pierogis.
Superiore Wine Bar: A hybrid wine shop, restaurant and bar.
Panorama Sky Bar - Cocktails and city views from a swanky lounge on the 40th Floor of the Marriott.
Prosta Historia - The food looked great, but I only had drinks.
Momu: Nice atmosphere and helpful, English-speaking staff.
Warsaw has come a long way since the systematic destruction of its city and Soviet occupation. This Phoenix City serves as an inspiring example of indestructibility.
If you're looking for a modern city with an Old Town as colorful as its past, interesting architecture, peacocks, and an increasing number of shiny new skyscrapers, restaurants, designer shops and bars, then Warsaw might be the destination you're after.