Warsaw, Poland: an up-and-coming European museum destination

As an EU member with a good exchange rate and low prices, Poland is becoming a popular tourist destination in Eastern Europe. Most of the love goes to Krakow, with its original architecture and “new Prague” charm, but capital city Warsaw has plenty to offer as a European museum destination. While much of the old town was leveled in World War II, the restorations have been painstakingly done and the tumultuous history makes for a great basis for museum exhibitions.

Like Berlin, Warsaw has embraced its past and given the visitor plenty to learn from and new investments mean state-of-the-art attractions and exhibitions.

Given all of the places to see, Warsaw could easily fill a week (or two) on a Europe trip. Here’s a look at some of Warsaw’s best museums.

Warsaw (Up)Rising Museum – Warsaw’s proudest museum is a hi-tech interactive experience detailing the events of the two-month rebellion of the Polish people against the German forces as well as what preceded and followed. It borders on being overly comprehensive, the hundreds of artifacts can overwhelm, as can the crowds who line up daily. Be sure to follow museum signs as you walk through, as the chronological exhibit doesn’t necessarily follow the logical path.

Gestapo Headquarters and Pawiak Prison – Two of the city’s most unassuming buildings were once the most feared. Not as flashy as the Rising Museum but equally effective, the former Gestapo HQ contains a few stark cells that once held prisoners to be interrogated and often tortured before being taken to the prison, along with very professionally-done interactive displays telling the experiences of the poor souls held there. Most of the prison in the former Jewish ghetto has been destroyed, but dozens of artifacts and exhibits explain the prisoners’ conditions and attempt to describe the horrors that happened there.

Fryderyk Chopin Museum – Another hi-tech, multimedia extravaganza, this brand new space dedicated to Poland’s most famous composer goes beyond the usual exhibition with a fully customizable experience. Sample sounds from a rare score, read letters to the important women in Chopin’s life, and see a recreation of his Paris drawing room.

Palace of Culture and Science – Not so much a museum as a gift Warsaw can’t hide away, the tallest building in Poland was a gift from Joseph Stalin and it’s hard to go anywhere in the city without seeing the Soviet beast. Though the building is enormous, not much of it is open to the public. It’s worth a trip to the terrace for panoramic city views (see above photo) or spend an afternoon making sense of the bizarrely curated Museum of Technology.

Want more history? There are also museums dedicated to the Polish People’s Movement and Polish Independence, plus the many churches and monuments of the restored Old City and Krakowskie Przedmiescie street. Warsaw’s Jewish culture is also well-documented at the new Jewish Museum and Wola district historical museum.

Well-done in Warsaw

Center for Contemporary Art at Ujazdowski Castle – A few blocks away from the Gestapo Headquarters, the building has a history as a royal residence, medical hospital, and now modern art museum. Some of the most innovative artists in Poland and Europe are showcased here: November saw a show focused on Internet-shaped culture such as a scrolling display of Twitter results for the phrase “Best day ever.”

Warsaw Zoo – In addition to being a nicely-maintained habitat for animals, this zoo has a fascinating and heroic past. Diane Ackerman’s book The Zookeeper’s Wife tells the story of the zoo director who aided in war efforts and saved many Jewish Poles from the Nazis by hiding them in the animal cages.

Royal Castle and Wilanow Palace – Just outside the Old City, the Royal Castle was also rebuilt from scratch and houses a slew of antiques and artwork, as well as excellent temporary exhibitions such as Leonardo da Vinci’s “Lady with an Ermine” and other treasures from other museums. If you visit in good weather, it’s worth a day out of town to visit the grand Wilanow Palace and gardens, the Polish Versailles.

Not exhausted yet? Small museums also specialize in collections of cars, trains, military weaponry, horse-riding, caricatures, and Polish physicist Marie Curie. See the In Your Pocket Warsaw guide for more info.

A Canadian in Beijing: FOR SALE! Live Animals (Trapped) in Small Cages

Walking along the sidewalk here in Wudaokou in the late afternoon and evening is not a passive exercise. The sidewalk markets take a wide space and transform it into a narrow, colourful corridor as vendors roll out their ware on square pieces of fabric on both sides and then call for your attention as you pass. That doesn’t keep people off the sidewalks, of course, but instead draws more to this small area. As a result, congestion is intense and the going is slow. If you’re not headed anywhere in particular then it’s worth the stroll. (If you’re trying to get somewhere on time, I suggest walking along the street!)

I have been taking in these kinds of street markets all over the city since I arrived and I’ve noticed one common element: there are always small, live animals for sale.

I hate to see it. Small rabbits in cages that are just slightly larger than they are with barely enough room to turn their bodies around. There are always puppies and kittens, turtles, snakes and lizards of various sizes. All of them are miserably tucked into cages or plastic cubicles and lay taking in the afternoon heat in their cells.

I can’t free them and I can’t save them . . .

I feel helpless and powerless walking by. I wonder who actually buys them and why. Do the rabbits become pets or food? And the reptiles must simply become pets, right?!

The huge box of baby chicks would make a lot more sense to me if this were a rural area. I can understand people having farms or small lots on which they would raise chickens for eggs and/or meat. Now, if this were the intention for the chicks, then I can understand wanting to sell them and wanting to buy them. But, here in the city? What would a person do with a baby chick here? Is it legal to keep chickens here? Something tells me that it’s not, especially since almost everyone lives in an apartment.

I have seen a lot of things like this here, i.e. things about China that I don’t understand and don’t want to see but simply have to accept as being part of the way it is here. I know I have my cultural background that fuels my opinions and I know there’s so much more to everything than meets the eye. Still, life here in Beijing has occasionally challenged my values and beliefs. I have chosen to sit back and take in the culture rather than passing judgements before I understand.

Two months later (and then some) and I still don’t understand the reason for selling these small animals in this way. And, I still want to set them all free in a park somewhere… which is, of course, not the answer. Nor will any amount of discussion with a vendor change the fact that they’re being sold, especially not in my third language.

About a month ago, I expressed to a vendor in Chinese that I felt sorry for the animals. I said they were “poor things” and said that their “houses were too small” (lacking the word for “cage” in my vocabulary.) The vendor just laughed at me with a look that told me he has heard it before from the foreigners and he has no time or space for it. This is his livelihood. This is his job.

Who buys them?

My friend Sarah told me that she knew two people who had bought puppies or kittens from a street or sidewalk vendor only to watch them die just a few days later. There is a compulsion to want to give one – if even just one – a safe and cage-free life and many ex-pats succumb to that urge. Apparently, these puppies and kittens are often drugged so that they appear more docile and cute while being sold (rather than active and hard to contain.) If the dosage is too high at that time that they are drugged, it eventually kills them but long after the vendor and customer have exchanged money for merchandise. I haven’t heard this since, but I was horrified to hear it at all.

Back in North America, we have done lots of work to make pet stores more humane. There is often a lot of anger towards them and over time I have noticed that most people just don’t trust these stores to care for the pets properly, preferring to find new pets at the Humane Society or the local pound.

So, buying live animals on the street is just another level altogether.

Now, when I’m strolling through the sidewalk markets, I just steer around the animal vendors. I can’t bear to see the congestion of turtles or chicks in boxes too small for their volume. I can’t bear to look at the puppies lolling in their drugged state and worry about whether or not they’ll pull through into adulthood.

After driving my gaze deep into the vendors’ eyes and telepathically communicating “how could you?” alongside of an amazed expression, I turn my head.

This technique doesn’t make it go away, however. Maybe this post will inspire more people to ask the vendors the “why?” questions – especially those fluent enough in Chinese to carry on a conversation. Until then, I can write about it.

(And always be open to other suggestions…)