Feb 08 2016
Just a few short years ago Warsaw wouldn’t have been top of too many travellers’ city-break lists. But Poland’s capital has made a habit of resurrecting itself over the centuries and is once more enjoying a resurgent period in its long and difficult history. There’s never been a better time to visit.
The starting point for most tourists is the Market Place in the Old Town (Stare Miasto) with its charming facades and stunning period detail encapsulating hundreds of years of Polish heritage and prosperity. If walls could talk you’d imagine this square, in particular, would have plenty to tell you. All the more staggering then to realise that the entire Old Town was, in fact, reconstructed following the Second World War. It’s as if Disney had decided to add Poland to the Epcot Centre World Showcase Pavilion.
The Nazis wrought the most vicious retribution on the city following the Warsaw Rising in 1944 when the Poles tried to retake the city after five years of occupation. The resistance failed, and an incensed Hitler ordered Warsaw be razed to the ground. Somehow his retreating forces found time to do just that, destroying 90% of the city and leaving it a smoking pile of rubble. At the conclusion of the war the city’s fortunes couldn’t be said to have improved overmuch as Poland next came under the control of Stalin’s Russia.
The Soviet approach to reconstruction was orderly, utilitarian, low-cost and very much in the Le Corbusier school of architectural thought – concrete and brick, and plenty of it. Reconstruction along the lines of the ‘golden’ imperial period of 18th Century Poland was hardly in line with Communist thinking, yet the authorities finally consented to this very plan, largely in an effort to stem further unrest.
As well as the actual buildings most records had also been destroyed in the war, so the planners sought any references that could provide a guide for the reconstruction – old photographs, student architectural drawings and, most unusual of all, the paintings of townscape painter Bernardo Bellotto (aka Canaletto) from the late 18th Century. Unlike Epcot, the restoration was to be completed using as many of the original materials that could be salvaged from the ruins as well as ensuring original craftsmanship wherever possible.
Does a visitor taking endless photographs of the Old Town need to know this story to appreciate the aesthetic? Does it actually matter? Well, yes, it does, because to enjoy Warsaw fully you need to factor in knowledge of its remarkable re-birth as you take in the city as well as recognising the Poles’ redoubtable sense of history and identity that they refused to relinquish, even against the most terrible odds. You also need to appreciate how the modern day capital sports three distinct personas – the baroque and neo-classical resurrection, Soviet brutalism and, latterly, the ultra-modern as Warsaw embraces the 21st century with a passion.
Let’s get back to the not-so-old Old Square though, take in a coffee, or maybe a Zywiec beer or a glass of Zubrowka Bison Grass Vodka, and decide how to spend the few days at your disposal. Firstly, this is an area made for walking – the square itself, the network of narrow streets off it, the Barbican fortification and city walls that look exactly like they did five hundred years ago. After that, take a stroll down to overlook the River Vistula that flows through the city.
The Varsovians love statues almost as much as the stories that seem to accompany each one. If you want to play monument bingo during your trip look out for The Mermaid of Warsaw, (called Syrenka) armed with sword and shield and ready to defend the city (she’s also represented on the city arms) or the Jan Kilinski Monument honouring the cobbler who led a peasants revolt against Russian occupiers in 1794. The fighting-the-Russian theme continues with the statue of Josef Pilsudski, the statesman who led Poland to independence in 1918 (and then saw off the Bolsheviks at the gates of Warsaw two year later). King Sigismund’s column is an enduring symbol of the capital, while the Copernicus monument honours the Pole who first theorised that the Sun rather than the Earth was the centre of the Universe. As both the Russians and the Nazis had a tendency to remove nationalist monuments it’s only in recent years that the statuary has made a collective reappearance – it’s another small miracle that they’ve actually survived.
The Royal Palace in Castle Square is another remarkable landmark. Unlike the adjacent Old Town, which was rebuilt in the 1950s, the Soviets were at first reluctant to allow the former official residence of Polish Monarchs to be rebuilt, and only finally succumbed in the early 1970s. There was one condition – the Poles had to pay for it themselves, and duly raised the money to accomplish the task, which took another thirteen years to complete. As per the Old Town, you would be hard-pressed to spot it’s of recent construction, but as you immerse yourself in the Great Assembly Hall, the royal apartment and chambers, the chapel and the impressive ‘From Destruction to Reconstruction’ basement exhibition, it matters not one jot. In fact it adds to the wonder.
As you’re now in a regal mood, turn left on exiting the Palace and head for the Krakowskie Przedmiescie – the Royal Route – one of the best known and prestigious streets of the capital with its succession of historic palaces, churches and manor houses as well as the Presidential Palace and the University of Warsaw. Pre-war Warsaw was often referred to as the Paris of the East and here was its Champs Elysee. Look out for the display cubes, opposite key buildings, containing Canaletto’s paintings so you can check out how well they managed to reproduce the splendour of over two centuries past.
By now you’ll have recognised that the most dominant building in the city centre has very little to do with the 18th century, or earlier, classical reproductions – it’s the imposing communist-era Palace of Culture and Science that towers over every building in the city. Commissioned in 1955 by Stalin as a ‘gift from the Soviet people’ it’s 231 metres high and can be seen from 30 kilometres away. A trip to the top is almost mandatory for visitors, although there’s not an awful lot to see inside if the truth were told. The building remains a symbol of the Soviet domination and is disliked intently by most locals – now that it’s synonymous with Warsaw it may take some shifting.
Far more popular and dear to city is one Frederyk Chopin, who lived and studied music in Warsaw in his formative years. Chopin is celebrated throughout the city from a museum in his honour to an international piano competition held every five years. There’s an urn containing Chopin’s heart residing in the basilica of the Church of the Holy Cross, brought there by his sister following his death in Paris. However, the most intriguing way to remember the composer is to locate the series of fifteen benches dotted around the city that relate episodes from his life and actually play extracts from his works. Musical chairs, literally.
If you take a short excursion to Lazienki Park you’ll also find piano recitals featuring Chopin’s music taking place every Sunday between May and September. Just look for the art nouveau bronze statue of the composer enfolded by a giant willow tree. In fact, whether you like Chopin or not, the 76-hectare Lazienki Park is worth at least a half-day visit. Lazienki means ‘baths’ and the park today is dotted with numerous palaces, summerhouses, orangeries, pavilions, lakes and an outdoor theatre. The artificial island in the middle of the lake – connected to the surrounding park by two colonnaded bridges – is where you should head for first.
All this walking and fresh air will work up an appetite, which is just as well given that Polish food is renowned for its heartiness. Actually, that’s a bit of an understatement because the local fare definitely sticks to your ribs – in a nice way, of course. Try zurek soup made with white kielbasa (smoked sausage) and vegetables and topped with a hard-boiled egg, or pierogi dumplings, either boiled or fried, containing either sweet or savoury fillings. If that isn’t enough in the way of carbohydrates pyzy are small, boiled balls made from grated potatoes and flour (and again coming with a variety of fillings). And remember to leave room for dessert – the locals are mad on paczki deep-fried donuts, and wuzetka (cocoa) and zygmuntowka (almond) cakes are famous symbols of the capital city. Belt-loosening time.
Many of these ‘comfort’ foods can be found in and around the Old Town where numerous Polish restaurants are located. Some, like U Fukiera and Przy Zamku go in for more modern (and expensive) takes on traditional dishes (well, slightly more modern, but not that much) but if you’re really on a budget and want a taste of Soviet–era Warsaw check out a milk bar (Bar Mleczny) – hangovers from the Communist period where meals were subsidised. It’s till the cheapest way to eat out in Warsaw, but don’t expect silver cutlery. Having said that, even with Poland’s economy on the up, your zlotys will go a long way in comparison to other European capitals, making the cost of a visit all the more competitive.
Warsaw boasts many and varied museums and these figure significantly in most visitors’ itineraries (definitely invest in the official sightseeing pass to gain reduced entry to museums and key sites). The Copernicus Science Centre is renowned for its hands-on and immersive approach to learning while the Maria Sklodowska-Curie Museum, though considerably smaller, champions the discoverer of Radium and Polonium. But it’s the history of Warsaw in the 20th century that introduces a sober note in the majority of travellers’ hearts and in that respect three key sites underline the sacrifices made by its people.
The first of these is the Warsaw Uprising Museum that records the failed bid by patriots in 1944 to throw off the Nazi yoke. That story is sombrely told through an array of interactive displays, video and exhibits. In particular don’t miss the 3-D ’City Of Ruins’ animation that gives an aerial flight over the desolation of Warsaw at the end of the war. The Jewish Ghetto, and its earlier uprising in 1943, isn’t as well represented but the perimeter of the old ghetto is marked out and you can visit the ‘footbridge of memory’, a light installation that recreates the bridge that connected the large and small ghettos. Finally, The POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews tells the story of the Jews in Poland and how a country that was once home to over 3.3 Million Jews is now reduced to a small community.
As a travel destination, Warsaw isn’t party-central, (if that’s what you’re mainly after, then stay in the suburb of Praga on the other side of the Vistula) but for the discerning traveller with an eye to history and culture there are few more absorbing European cities around. It’s recent past is certainly painful, but this is a city on the up, as the new 52-story Zlota 44 residential skyscraper designed by Daniel Liebeskind, due to open in 2017, demonstrates. It will still be a few metres shorter than the nearby Palace of Culture but for once it will give Varsovians something new to look up to as they go about their business.
A version of this travel article appeared in Gafencu magazine, February 2016.