“When the Rolling Stones played here in 1967, there was a small problem about the fee,” said Lucas, with the air of a man setting you up for a delicious punchline. We were in downtown Warsaw, standing in front of Poland’s tallest building, the 1955 art deco high-rise originally known as the Joseph Stalin Palace of Culture and Science. “How did the Rolling Stones come behind the Iron Curtain? The daughter of First Secretary Wladyslaw Gomulka was a fan, and she pestered and pestered until it was agreed. The concert was only for communist party leaders and their families. After, when the Stones received their payment, they go to the bank, and find out the money cannot be exchanged or transferred. The money must be used in Poland. They go to the store to buy something, but in those days there is nothing to buy. A few potatoes. Some soap. And vodka. So they bought enough bottles of vodka to fill an entire railroad car. But then they learn the railroad car of vodka also cannot leave Poland. So they donate the vodka to the Polish Artistic Agency. It took them 30 years to drink it all.”
Lucas was our guide on the 3-Hour Communist Tour of Warsaw in an Original Socialist Van, which like just about everything we encountered in the Polish capital, didn’t turn out as expected. It was meant to be a small, English-language tour, yet somehow it included an entire Lithuanian bachelor party that hadn’t slept in days, four Spaniards who spoke almost no English, and three others besides ourselves who actually listened to Lucas. We drove around town for hours in two noisy, sweltering Soviet-era vans. The Lithuanians disappeared somewhere around the old headquarters of the Central Committee of the Polish United Worker’s Party, and the rest of us went on to the cheesy Museum of Life Under Communism. Shots of cheap, mint-flavored and cherry-flavored vodka went around, and we were supposed to view some 1950s propaganda films and sample the traditional, down-and-dirty snack of bread with pork lard and pickles, but none of that ever materialized.
“The lard sounded revolting,” I said to Rich. “But I’m kind of sorry we’ll never have the chance to try it.”
But this was Warsaw, where the only thing you can count on is being surprised. Two days later, on the gourmet Eat Polska food tour, we found ourselves sitting down to platters of pork lard, brown bread, and gerkins. It actually tasted pretty good, especially when washed down with high-grade, unflavored vodka. “In the past, before McDonald’s and new kinds of processing arrived, the food here was more flavorful and nutritious,” said Ula, our gastronomic guide. “There wasn’t much food in the stores, but at least everything was fresh and not full of chemicals. Many people here are quite nostalgic for food from the 1970s.”
After the lard incident, we realized that there wasn’t much point in even trying to control events. One night we tried to go to the Copernicus Planetarium’s classical music under starry skies, but that was sold out, so we wound up with tickets to what we thought was a night of Pink Floyd under starry skies. Instead it turned out to be the mind-blowing Dark Side of the Moon.
After that hallucinatory extravaganza, we attempted to take Uber back to our apartment, but found the main thoroughfare blocked off for a street party. Go around? Hell no. We leaped out and joined in, winding up in a courtyard where a band was playing Day-O (The Banana Boat Song). When the crowd chimed in with the chorus, we did too. Hey, when in Warsaw…
We made one more attempt to hear some classical tunes, heading over to the vast Lazienki Park for the traditional Sunday afternoon open air Chopin concert. Arriving too late for the early show, we wandered about until we heard sixties rock music wafting out from behind the Palace on the Island. We sat down at the water’s edge to enjoy the familiar tunes, including — what are the odds? — “Money,” one of Pink Floyd’s hits from The Dark Side of the Moon.
You see where I’m going with this. If we’d tried to stick to our own plans, we’d be singing I Can’t Get No Satisfaction and having our 19th nervous breakdown. Instead, we relaxed and enjoyed Odpowiedź Niesie Wiatr, Bob Dylan’s Blowing in the Wind sung in Polish. We thought we were visiting Warsaw, but it turned out we were re-visiting the sixties and seventies. And that’s good fun in any language.
By now we've been on the road two months, and we've covered 3573 km / 2220 miles, mostly by train. Highlights have included zany Amsterdam, the German city of Lübeck on the edge of the Baltic Sea, the Stockholm disaster, the new foodie mecca of Helsinki, Finland, futuristic Estonia, and a kookie visit to Riga, Latvia. We headed south to Šiauliai, Lithuania, where history — and great chocolate — were made. Vilnius — and the tiny Republic of Užupis— taught me about miracles; I learned about devils in southern Lithuania and northern Poland. To follow our adventures as they unfold, subscribe to my blog, like my Facebook page, and keep checking the map of our journey.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain, to which I've just returned after a 16-month absence due to the pandemic.
As I resettle in Seville, my favorite city on the planet, I'll keep you posted on how the pandemic has reshaped the landscape and where to go to find fun, adventure, and great food in this quirky, engaging city.
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