[Previously: Bristol, Camden, Newcastle, Birmingham, Shoreditch, Aberdeen, Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Kungsholmen, Leeds, Shepherd's Bush, Nottingham, Sheffield, Dog Tap, Tate Modern†, Clapham Junction, Roppongi, Liverpool, Dundee, Bologna, Florence, Brighton, DED Angel†, Brussels, Soho, Cardiff, Barcelona, Clerkenwell, DogHouse Glasgow, Rome, Castlegate, Leicester, Oslo, Gothenburg, Södermalm, Turku, Helsinki, Gray's Inn Road†, Stirling, Norwich, Southampton, Homerton, Berlin]
This is how Christmas holidays get planned at Château Belated-Monkey. During 2016, BrewDog opened bars in a number of international locations: two of them were Berlin and Warsaw. We noticed that both cities were joined by a simple rail connection. "Let's go there, then," we said.
It actually turned out to be slightly more complicated than we first thought. The usual start to our planning is to buy some guidebooks for the places we're about to visit, because we're old-fashioned like that. But when I got to Waterstones, I discovered something unexpected: you can't buy a travel guide to Warsaw, because everyone's visiting Krakow instead. As we started talking about the trip to friends, we kept hearing the same thing over and over again - you should go to Krakow, nobody really does Warsaw any more, even if it does have one of those bars you like.
In the end, we compromised: after a few days in Berlin (previously discussed), we spent just over a week in Poland, celebrating the Christmas period itself in Krakow, and a couple of days in Warsaw at either end. I'll get around to telling you about Krakow at a later date. Here, you're getting a report on two visits to Warsaw, including the inevitable bit about one of those bars we like - and an awful lot more besides, no matter what anyone else says.
Once we get to Warsaw station, the big problem is identifying which of the multiple exits we need to take to get our tram: all of them have huge numbers of steps that my oversized bag needs to be dragged up. (As our time in Warsaw progresses, we learn the useful tip of checking the tram departure boards to find out which ones are wheelchair-friendly, and therefore much easier to lug a giant suitcase onto.) But apart from that, the rest of the journey’s fine: we get off in good time at the stop I insist on calling Crusher (it’s actually spelt Krucza), and actually see the BrewDog bar on our short walk to the Mamaison Residence Diana. It’s a very nice apartment hotel (our room is surprisingly huge for the price), located in a quiet courtyard off the main road – a month or so later, we’ll be watching Adam Richman’s Secret Eats on telly back home and he’ll be claiming that the restaurant attached to the Diana is quietly serving the best Neapolitan pizzas in Poland. (We never get to confirm this for ourselves, sadly.)
The Diana is our base for the pre-Christmas part of our stay: our post-Christmas return requires a bus into the old town, and one that’s easily reached by an escalator out of the station, which is a definite improvement on our last visit. Even better, when we get off at the far end there’s a funicular lift that takes us up to the level of the town square, which is where we find the Castle Inn after a few minutes of wandering around in circles (oh, all right, squares). This, unfortunately, is where our luck with avoiding stairs runs out, as the hotel’s in an old preserved building with no lift. (Three months after this holiday, I finally bought myself a lighter suitcase.) But our room is a delightful thing with a huge four-poster bed in the middle, although the TV is somewhat knackered and the power sockets are in wildly inaccessible locations. There are renovations being done on one floor during our stay, but they're relatively discreet: the one time I hear people at work, I find myself unconsciously thinking "ah, they've got Poles in".
With a collection of maps and guides picked up from the Diana's reception desk (though the booklet and map version of Warsaw In Your Pocket end up being all we really need), we pay our first visit to BrewDog Warszawa. It’s a good size, brilliantly buzzy for a midweek night, and serving a fine mixture of their own beers as well as local stuff. Between us we end up getting through BrewDog’s own 5AM Saint and Jack Hammer, plus Browar Zakladowy’s Czarna Robota and Choinka Zakladowa. We also order dinner there – my BrewBurger is fine, while The BBG’s club sandwich unfortunately comes with meat that she didn’t ask for, but we survive. The only disappointment on that particular night is that someone's booked the bar for a pre-Christmas party, which means that we're all turfed out onto the street at 10pm sharp.
There's no such curfew on our two subsequent visits, and each time the bar is satisfyingly busy - though a couple of the larger tables are obviously occupied by small groups of people grabbing festive post-work beers. For visitors like us, there's a certain thrill in seeing the standard BrewDog design template getting slightly tweaked for an Eastern European audience: if I sometimes feel guilty about the perceived coolness of the location, it can't be denied that the bar itself is playing up to that. Warsaw is, I think, the only one of the bars with a t-shirt featuring its city name on the front: I come this close to buying one for The BBG as a Christmas present, but don't because I've already bought her a different BrewDog shirt. (It's the one featuring the label design for Restorative Beverage For Invalids And Convalescents, or as we like to call it, InBev.)
The thinking behind BrewDog's international bar openings tends to be that they prefer locations where there's already a craft beer scene thriving. And boy, that's certainly the case in Warsaw. On three of our four nights in the city, we head out on a series of mini bar crawls, working our way through a list of recommended craft beer bars that The BBG has picked up from her pals on the BrewDog shareholders’ discussion board. Our second night in the city starts at Kufle I Kapsle, a ‘multitap bar’ which is closest in feel to the sort of hipster hangouts where we drink back home: we grab a few beers from local breweries Piwne Podzienie (Holy Citrus and Tropicalia), Pinta (Apetyt na Zycie) and Beer Bros (Kwassiflora). Jabeerwocky, on the other hand, is a more traditional pub but with a fabulous beer selection: we go for Bednary Yeti, Kormoran Warminskie Rewolucje, Kancut Kurna Chata and Kormoran Coffee Stout, with a couple of paninis to help line the stomach along the way. Finally, as we’ve gone to the trouble of staying in a hotel near to it, we grab a pair of nightcap beers – Westbrook Gose and Mikkeller X-Mas Ginger Brett – at BrewDog.
On our return from Krakow, we go off in search of the various bars on the list that we didn't manage to find first time round. One fine discovery is a pair of craft beer bars virtually across the road from each other on Nowomiejska. Same Krafty is the bigger of the two, with a sit-down pizza restaurant in the front and a bar at the back which serves us Pan IPAni, Dzoana, Portogryko and Puchacz: over the road, Same Krafty Vis-à-Vis is a more straightforward bar where we drink Wheat Black IPA and Black Guzzler, a pair of dark beers to wrap up the night nicely. And on our final night in town, we go for another three-bar binge. After starting off in BrewDog with the suitably festive Hoppy Christmas, we manage through a pure accident of timing to get ourselves a table in the otherwise packed Hoppiness. As well as a couple of beers (Kingpin Most Wanted and Primator Weizenbier) we grab some traditional Polish bar food of, um, bangers and mash plus fish and chips. A quick review from The BBG: "The fish and chips was very nicely done, and the sausage and mash at least came with a traditional Polish sausage." Suitably fortified, we spend ages trying to find our final bar of the day, Cuda na Kiju. We’re still not entirely sure if we’ve found it once we’re there: there’s no signage on the front at all, or even a name on the bar receipt. But it matches the description we’ve been given of a three-floor bar with sixteen taps, so we grab our glasses of Sen O Warszawe and A Koko To Obciodzi and say no more about it.
You'll be relieved to hear that we ate some proper food as well as bar snacks. The Diana does breakfast in its own restaurant, but a little exploration nearby led us to French-style breakfast nibbles at Petit Appetit – croque monsieur, scrambled eggs, coffee and orange juice. Inside the Soho Factory complex we stop off for lunch at Szklarnia for chicken tagliatelle and vegetable gnocchi with Bursztyn cheese. "The food was very nice, decent quality but a bit pricey: and I liked the design and feel of the restaurant, though it was a bit quiet at that time of the day," says The BBG. We find out later from our Lonely Planet that another restaurant nearby, Warszawa Wschodnia, does a top value 25zl set lunch, but they didn’t have any sort of menu outside to even hint at that.
If you're looking for a street with a choice of restaurants on it, then your best bet is Freta in the old town. It includes the slightly disappointing traditional food of the Barbakan restaurant, the friendly atmosphere of the Bombonierka Café , and - best of all, despite the terrible pun in its name - Freta Porter. A cosy place with a nice assortment of things on the menu, it relaxes us enough to have our first glasses of white wine of the season, and accompany them with salmon fishcakes, roasted zander fillet on spinach with horseradish cream sauce and roast potatoes, and a breaded pork chop (although it’s actually more of a cutlet). The BBG reports: "The zander was nicely cooked, and the horseradish sauce gave it a good tang. I liked the feel of the place, quirky decor and friendly staff." For my part, I should mention that we’re slightly concerned at the appearance of an unordered item ‘dodatek’ on the bill, and feel embarrassed when we're told it’s the service charge.
There's more to Warsaw than eating and drinking, of course: but either side of Christmas, it does seem to be a primary focus for people. (And just wait till we get to actual Christmas in Krakow, of course. Coming soon! Really!) Still, let's look at some more touristy things to do.
The transport network of buses, trams and (if you ever get to use them - we don't) subway trains is nicely integrated: you can buy one-day tickets that give you unlimited use of all three for 24 hours from their first use. Having said that, a lot of the main attractions of the city are in walking distance of each other, and we find ourselves strolling up and down the Nowy Świat between the old and new town on several occasions. Mind you, 'old town' doesn't really mean anything here. We become properly fascinated by just how much of the city has been rebuilt after the destruction of the war – it’s apparently why people pooh-pooh Warsaw as a tourist destination, but surely the fact that it’s all rebuilt is an astonishing achievement? Particularly when you hear stories from the likes of our walking tour guide in Berlin, who suggested that as there were no official blueprints to work from, many buildings were reconstructed from old Canaletto paintings, which presumably embellished the original designs even further.
Our transport tickets prove most useful when we head out of town on a tram to the arty Soho Factory complex, specifically the Neon Museum. The idea of a museum of old neon signs is delightful enough in its own right, but it’s even more terrific when you discover their role in Warsaw’s history – part propaganda, part attempt to give life to an otherwise drab-looking city. You'll also need a tram (heading in the opposite direction) to get from the centre of town to the Museum Powstania Warszawskiego, the Warsaw Rising Museum. It tells the story of Warsaw’s wartime resistance against the Germans and subsequent betrayal by the Russians: it’s only slightly marred by some confusing layout choices, and the decision to hide its most gruesome images inside peep show-style turrets (which makes them inaccessible to children, but feels like a come-on to everyone else).
Closer to the old town square - and, not surprisingly, to the Castle Inn - is the Royal Castle itself. Again, the idea that this was rebuilt from scratch in the 1970s makes it more astonishing rather than less. There’s plenty of glorious art on display – including a portrait of, I think, Henri IV looking like the smuggest Frenchman of all time – but the thing that impresses us the most is a side wing dedicated to a temporary exhibition about Andrzej Wajda, one of Poland’s most internationally renowned film directors. There’s a series of terrific movie posters from around the world (including one in the unmistakable house style of London’s old Academy Cinema), plus a back room with a slideshow of his sketches and a small collection of memorabilia that includes his actual Palme d’Or.
For the obligatory cinema trip of the holiday, we head off to the ridiculously ornate Palace of Culture and Science, inside of which is hiding the Kinoteka cinema complex. It’s fabulously decorated inside up until the point where you enter the cinema screens themselves, which are the usual multiplex anonymities. We’re there to see the popular local hit Pitbull: Niebezpieczne Kobiety, which I subsequently review on MostlyFilm alongside its predecessor. We also pay a visit to what they suggest is a precursor of cinema - the Fotoplastikon, carefully concealed at the far end of a courtyard leading off the main road. It turns out that we’re already familiar with the basic idea, as a smaller version is on display at the Oskar Schindler museum in Krakow. Basically, it’s a method of showing a collection of early 20th century 3D photos to a large number of people: they’re mounted inside a slowly rotating drum, and you look at them through one of many sets of 3D goggles mounted on the outside, waiting a few seconds before each photo rolls around to the next one. There are some fun views of sites we’ve already seen on our travels, and all in all it’s ridiculously entertaining.
So, to hell with the begrudgers - Warsaw is definitely worth visiting in its own right, whether you're a fan of beer, reconstructed architecture or soup served in bowls made out of bread, and nothing like as depressing as Bowie says it is. But for those of you who'd rather follow the crowds into Krakow, give me a few days and I'll tell you about that too.