Sunday, 18 March 2012

Warsaw in December

 I have been knocked down for the last two days with a whopping sore throat - so I've been held hostage by throat pain and a good book. I’m taking a break from both while I wait for Pedro to skype with me from Germany (another business trip). While I’ve been waiting, I have been sifting through photos from the last three months. Last December, we found ourselves in Poland and I never blogged about it. Isabella and I were with Pedro for the entirety of his nearly two week trip, and we two girls did a lot of exploring Warsaw on our own.  

I have to admit. I was expecting Warsaw to be bleak. Even the name in English, Warsaw, sounds terrible. In fact, the first neighborhood I explored kinda was. But more than that, it was interesting. Random artful graffiti, unusual film posters, and remnants of long destroyed building were in evidence. Also strange, there were nice hotels around those areas - as if they are anticipating gentrification, if such a thing even exists in Eastern Europe. 

We stayed at a nice hotel that caters to businessmen - obviously, we were tagging along on a work trip after all. When that happens, I always seem to notice the sharp contrast between the suited men making deals in the lobby and the hoi polloi of the streets, like me. That’s a lot what Warsaw itself was like - a contrast of hard earned public real estate scattered amongst large areas of modernity with a noticeable push toward city improvement. With all of the modern and wonderful new sites for business and pleasure, I couldn't help but wonder where the money came from. Britain has such a large influx of Polish migrant workers that I must have been expecting a dismal setting from which they were all fleeing.

Copernicus Museum of Science - hot air balloon demonstration

Isabella and I would hit one museum a day, which was easy in Warsaw. The weather was wet and cold in early December, and the museums were consistently excellent.  We visited three museums designed with children in mind, the Chopin Museum, the Copernicus Museum and Planetarium, and, of all things, the Warsaw Uprising Museum.

I was blown away by their modern presentation and ingenious, touchable design - even the Warsaw Uprising Museum had a full room dedicated to a milder representation of the strong material of the rest of the exhibits - such as teddy bears and toys used by children of the period. It didn’t have that saccharine Disney flavor, nor did it have that “life is hard, deal with it” Soviet one.

A seemingly endless list of the fallen, yet another sad memorial - Uprising Museum
 The Copernicus Museum was ahead of its class - virtually everything could be touched by children, and the science involved was amazing and entertaining. I loved it. I also got tickets for the Planetarium where Isabella and I watched thirty minutes of science talk about the stars in Polish. Fortunately, we had a portion of the show available on headphones in English, but the most interesting part was certainly the one I couldn't understand! Isabella was afraid in the planetarium, and spent a lot of the show covering her ears while curled up in my lap.

Polish dolls from wartime Warsaw

We have loads of photos of great sites, but no pics of the place we had lunch and hot chocolates at almost every day. It was an inexpensive cafe, part of a Polish chain perhaps, where they served yummy mulled wine, coffees, weird-but-delicious Greek salads, and quiches. We had a lot of fun lounging around there, so I feel I have to mention it, even though I can't remember the name.

Isabella is a bit big for a stroller, but I sure was glad we had it
 This strangely beautiful Empire State Building look-alike was a "gift" to the city of Warsaw by the Soviet union - it's actually called the Palace of Science and Culture. I heard that its presence remains controversial; some people even want to tear it down. Inside the building are a number of venues, including the small Museum of Evolution which houses dinosaur bones from past Polish expeditions and a room full of crazy taxidermy.  The interior of this building is so cool - all of the mouldings, light fixtures, and details would make a design enthusiast get pretty excited.

Museum of Evolution
After we saw all there was to see in the Museum of Evolution (it was small enough that Isabella actually asked to keep seeing more stuff : we did two rounds), then we walked outside to find a newly installed ice rink. I had around only a few zlotys left, but didn't know if I'd have enough for skating for the two of us. I didn't. But the vendor took pity on my communication skills and inability to properly count and gave us skates anyway. 

Impromptu ice-skating!
 By the end of the week, we finally made it to the Warsaw Zoo. I probably picked the worst day to do it. We were the only visitors in the park, and it was so quiet that had I not already paid for our tickets, I would have thought I wasn't supposed to be there. It rained almost the whole time and all we had was one broken umbrella between us. The zoo covered a lot of territory but there were lots of opportunities for getting out of the rain - including the hippo tank, the spider room, and the elephant shelter. Once again, I was impressed with how modern, clean, and well looked after the whole place was.

Warsaw Zoo - A giant Easter Egg in December,
 makes me wish I understood some Polish
 By the time we left the zoo, the rain had died down but we were on the other side of town without a taxi or bus stop in sight, and....Isabella chose that moment to jump into a deep puddle. So we slowly made our way across the river and into the Old Town, trying to keep warm. The Old Town was mostly rebuilt after the bombing of WWII, so it looks quaint and lovely, especially with all the Christmas markets tucked into market squares and side streets. We were dazzled by the Christmas displays and the giant, sparkling purple tree in the town square. We managed to get something good and hot to eat at the street market: Isabella a Polish hot dog on rustic bread, and me a dose of the national dish - Bigos, a warming stew of sausage and sauerkraut.

 Unfortunately, this was all we got to see of the pretty Old Town because I had to take Isabella back to the hotel for fresh clothes and hot chocolate. Both things not negotiable. We were leaving the following morning. The funny thing is, I spent almost ten days traipsing around the un-touristy parts of the city, enjoying myself so much that I didn't realize I was missing the prettiest bit. Ah well, certainly a good excuse to go back to Warsaw, not that I needed another one.

And now, I'm back to convalescing the weekend away. Isabella and I have been drinking strange brews of tea with this Slovenian "super honey" I bought in Ljubljana last autumn to cure our cold. Though the lady I got it from explained to me what was in it, I can't remember now - I'm hoping the magical quality of the strange language will have the placebo effect on me, if nothing else!

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Tallinn, Estonia

We are visiting Tallinn, Estonia. I must admit, I wasn't expecting much - I actually made the trip a bit reluctantly, finally deciding to follow Pedro here because of all of the back to back trips he has booked for work. I am delightfully surprised by the medieval beauty, as much of an oxymoron as that may sound. It's just that the medieval architecture and streets of the Old Town are so completely intact that it feels as if we've really stepped back in time. This is, after all, an eastern European country that directly borders Russia to the east and was dominated by Soviet rule in the not-too-distant past.
in the puppet-making workshop

the princess with the pink eyes is our own handiwork
Today we spent all morning at the Estonia Puppet Museum and Theatre - NUKU. Again, another pleasant surprise. The museum is home to myriad types of amazing (yes, amazing) puppets and has some pretty state-of-the-art exhibits for kids - children can actually activate the puppets by a touch-screen computer, while the puppet remains protected and properly displayed behind glass. I have to say, we could have happily spent another day at the museum alone. We also attended a proper puppet show, and despite the Estonian language barrier, the movements of the puppets told us all we needed to know. The morning was a huge success.

puppets of all sorts- some creepy, some cool... 

puppets from around the world...

some even bigger than me...(and can you believe Bella took this shot!?)
I have an additional unexpected travel companion as well. On the plane, Isabella and I met an American ballerina from LA who was travelling alone looking for work with a new European ballet company, so we have spent some of our meandering around Tallinn making better friends between her auditions, while Pedro is hard at work. 

Isabella and our new friend, Lucy, standing at the top of the Old Town looking onto the industrial, and modern Tallinn

Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

More of the Old Town walls and fortifications
When we came in from our flight yesterday, the sun had the whole place illuminated in the most beautiful light. I am hoping I can get some better shots with that sort of light tomorrow. We have another two days to try!