Tag Archives: Old Town

Impressions of Warsaw

As I look around Warsaw, it’s difficult for me to imagine that Nazi Germany bombed this city to the ground in World War II. Warsaw is alive and bustling, the capital of Poland and the most prosperous city in the country.

Of course, almost all the buildings are from the post-WWII era during which the country was ruled by a Soviet administration. Some of the buildings, like the Palace of Culture and Science, show the Communist authority in its Eastern Bloc design.

The city is split north-south by the Vistula River, which travels through several countries before opening into the Baltic Sea. Today, when you cross the river from Warsaw’s Old Town to the Praga district, you can find pre-WWII buildings complete with bullet holes and all. This area of the city remained mostly untouched by air raids during the war and the destruction campaign that was ordered as Germany withdrew its hold on the city.

In Warsaw, I finally felt like I was in a European city. That’s not to say that the other countries I visited aren’t European, but somehow Warsaw just fit my idea of “Europe” a bit better. I look forward to getting to know its history more intimately through walking tours and am anticipating my visit to Auschwitz in a few days.

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Filed under Culture, Poland

Vilnius Walking Tour: Jewish Ghetto and Užupis

Sorry for the long delay . . . life got in the way, and I just haven’t had the time to blog for a while. But, I’m back again and talking about my second day in Vilnius, Lithuania.

Today I decided to take the city’s free walking tour, which took us around the main areas of Old Town. The guide recounted the city’s history, including the horrific events that happened during World War II.

When Nazi troops entered the city, they rounded up all the Jewish people in the area and conducted a mass execution. More than 21,000 Jews died during this raid.

Following Nazi Germany’s occupation, they decided to clear out poor, uneducated Jews and herd the more affluent Jews into a ghetto. However, they needed to clear an area out for the new ghetto, so they staged an attack on German troops then pinned it on unsuspecting Jews. This event gave the Nazis a reason to evict Jewish residents from their homes with only the clothes on their backs. In the process, the Nazis managed to kill between 5,000 and 10,000 people.

The remaining 20,000 Jews were put into what became known as the Vilnius Ghetto and separated into Large and Small Ghettos. After two years, less than a 1,000 Jews survived. Many died from starvation and disease; others shipped to concentration or extermination camps in Poland; even more were simply taken to the forest and shot.

The more we learned about Vilnius and Lithuania’s history, the more amazed we were to see how the city thrives today. Not only have they survived the Holocaust, but they have also endured multiple sieges and occupations throughout the years by the Soviet Union, Poland and other neighboring entities. 

It’s no wonder that Užupis, a neighborhood that celebrates art and creativity, formed and officially declared itself an independent republic in 1997. The Republic of Užupis began its life as a dilapidated area abandoned by the Jewish who were forced into the Ghetto and overlooked by the Soviets. Squatters and the dregs of society took up residence in the buildings. But, the area also called out to artists and bohemian looking for freedom.

Now they have their own flag, declaration of independence, currency, anthem and president. It’s not quite certain whether all of this is serious or a social commentary, especially when Užupis Day falls on April first. But, the ideals they uphold are really inspirational given the dark history that surrounds the city.

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Filed under Attraction, Culture, Lithuania

Lost in the Streets of Vilnius

Thus far, I’d been extremely successful in not getting lost. But, somehow, it took me a while to get my bearings once I arrived at the Vilnius bus station. Even after asking random people and consulting a map, I ended up taking the long route to get to the Old Town.

When I finally arrived, I couldn’t find my hostel. I knew I was on the right street but couldn’t find the door! Like a typical lost tourist, I lugged my backpack up and down the street trying to find the correct street number.

At last I located the door that led to the hostel above and was able to check in. After a no-nonsense check in, I settled into at 12-bed dorm, which I was dreading. However, it turned out the room was enormous and everyone would definitely fit in it.

My first foray into Vilnius was to walk around the Old Town and take it in. Like most European old towns, Vilnius is completely walkable and is probably one of the best ways to see things. As I walked along, I noticed many shops selling amber jewelry and articles made from wool.

When I got to Gediminas Castle Hill, I buckled down and decided to hike to the top. I pushed on despite the bitingly cold wind. It may not look like it from the pictures, but the air had a definite chill to it. Only later did I realize that there was a funicular on the other side of the hill in which I could have easily ridden to the top for a small fee. Ah, such is life sometimes.

I must admit that the walk was not overly difficult, especially if you’re relatively in shape. That being said though, I am not in shape and wore the wrong footwear to boot ( boots would’ve been a better choice) as the ground was old, disintegrating cobblestones and dirt. Still, I pushed on against the elements and a stunning view rewarded me at the top.

Across the way stood three crosses on a hill, which is called Crooked Castle, and is part of perimeter defenses of the past. Today they stand like sentinels surrounded by lush forest. I enjoyed the fact that so much green space was preserved here in the middle of a bustling Old Town.

After taking a look inside a cathedral and walking through many streets filled with other religious houses, I decided I needed to warm up and stopped at a bookstore with an adjoining cafe. In a blink, a large, steaming cup of hot chocolate warmed me from the inside out. What a great way to wind down the day!

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Filed under Accommodation, Attraction, Lithuania