Travel Lens: Julia Nowińska’s World
Julia Nowińska has lived just about everywhere—from the Netherlands to the United States—but this peripatetic editor always finds her way back to her roots, and the place where she was born: Warsaw.
“I really do feel like a local here,” Julia says. “Ask me where is the best coffee shop or club in town, and I will tell you.”
Julia’s nomadic lifestyle inspired her to pursue a career in travel journalism. Now the lead editor at National Geographic Traveler Poland, one of Traveler‘s many international editions, Julia ensures the magazine puts sustainable tourism front and center while continuing her life-long love affair with the world and all that’s in it.
Here’s a look at the world through Julia Nowińska’s unique lens:
Christine Blau: When and how did you join the National Geographic family?
Julia Nowińska: I wrote my first freelance story for National Geographic Traveler Poland in the summer of 2010. It was about Nollywood, Nigeria’s burgeoning film industry.
What’s been your favorite “Nat Geo Moment” over the years?
There have been many of them, but, for sure, the possibility of meeting amazing people—and interviewing them sometimes in very unexpected places—is one of the highlights of the job.
I remember with particular fondness my interview with Bangladeshi Nobel Prize-winner Muhammad Yunus, which was conducted on a train from Krakow to Warsaw, and the five days that I spent with Reinhold Messner—the first man to ascend all 14 “eight-thousanders” (peaks higher than 8,000 meters)—at his castle in South Tirol, Italy.
Where do you call home? Why, out of every place in the world, do you choose to make your home there?
I have a nomad’s soul, so I feel at home wherever I am. But after traveling, I always come back to Poland and Warsaw, where I was born, to recharge and get new ideas and inspirations before heading off somewhere again.
When someone comes to visit, where’s the first place you take them?
Saska Kępa, a district on the opposite side of the river from Warsaw’s city center that hides unique restaurants, cafés, and boutiques along its tree-shaded streets. Tourists rarely get here, but they should. Most of the neighborhood was spared from bombing during World War II, so you can admire villas from the beginning of the 20th century—some of which are real architectural gems.
It isn’t only me that feels this way. The New York Times recently identified Saska Kępa as one of the most charming parts of Warsaw.
What’s the biggest misconception about Warsaw?
That it was completely destroyed [by the Nazis] during the war. Yes, it was bombarded, but there are many sites to visit that reveal pre-war Warsaw, which was once one of the most spectacular cities in Europe. Another popular misconception about Warsaw is that it is much more boring than Krakow. It is not! You just need to know where to go.
What’s your favorite local quirk?
Varsovians—Warsaw natives—tend toward using the diminutive. We do not drink tea, we take wee tea. And we pay with wee money and go for wee lunch.
The other thing that is very Warsaw is how we commemorate the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, a two-month struggle to free the city from German occupation. Every year at 5 p.m. on August 1, the day the uprising began, the entire city observes a minute of silence. Sirens go off and literally everything stops—cars, buses, people on the streets and in shops. It’s very moving.
Why is travel important?
Seeing the world firsthand makes people more tolerant and less judgmental of other customs and cultures. That’s certainly true in my case.
Is there a place that draws you back again and again? Why?
India. It’s a love-hate relationship at times, but I’m addicted. I love how diverse and intense India is, and how much it contrasts with what I experience in Europe. I particularly love the Indian Himalayas. They are truly spectacular.
If you had to recommend only one place in the world to visit, what would that be?
That’s a difficult task, but it would probably be northern Norway. Seeing the midnight sun during the summer and the northern lights in winter are experiences that should be on every traveler’s bucket list.
Iran is also one of the most fascinating places I have ever visited. Iranians are the friendliest people on Earth.
Which city has it all, and why?
Warsaw, of course! Come and check for yourself. It has it all, I promise.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen in your travels?
The nice thing about traveling a lot is that fewer things surprise you. You take the world as it is. But the attitude towards road safety in many Asian cities never fails to amaze me. Cars, rickshaws, bikes, cows, and pedestrians all sharing the road without any rules—it’s crazy.
What do you never leave home without when you’re on the road?
Duct tape. It has a million uses and doesn’t take up much space if you wrap a little bit around a pen and stick it in your luggage. It can be a real lifesaver.
What’s the best thing you’ve ever eaten in the course of your travels, and where can we try it?
I adore food and have no problem trying the strangest of things, but I love gelato. It tastes best when you’re in Florence on a warm summer afternoon. My favorite flavor? Amarena.
What’s the most unique museum you have visited?
Definitely the Samúel Jónsson museum, which is located in the Westfjords of Iceland, where the road ends and virtually no people live. Jónsson was a farmer who, upon retirement, indulged his creative streak by sculpting whimsical folk art statues made of concrete on his isolated property. He even built a chapel and another building, which now houses the museum, where his paintings and other works are now on display.
Of all the places you’ve been, which place has changed the most since your last visit?
China, especially Beijing, which has become a modern metropolis in just a few years’ time. If you want to see “the old” in this capital, you’d better hurry up!
What impact do you think National Geographic Traveler Poland has on its readers?
I hope it makes them travel more responsibly and wisely. And it is a great inspiration for travel that goes beyond booking a nice room in an all-inclusive hotel.