Wednesday, August 18, 2010

City With Soul

Warsaw is not a city that would ever win any beauty contests (although when it comes to its female populace that's another matter): its unending rows of Communist apartment blocks, drab office buildings and overly-wide boulevards make it, at first, an impersonal and dreary city. The Lonely Planet guide suggests devoting only a day or two to Poland's capital, and on the surface of it this seems like a reasonable recommendation. After WW II 85% of the buildings had not just been damaged, but completely razed to the ground, as the Nazis tried to obliterate it from the face of the earth. The entire old town and most state buildings and numerous palaces were systematically blown up. A town with so little in the way of historical remains must must surely be devoid of attractions and soulless. But no, following the war the plucky Poles decided to rebuild the old town exactly as it was. So, often with only the aid of 18th century paintings of the city, they set about reconstructing the medieval centre brick by brick to create the newest old town in the world. And the result is certainly convincing. From the cobbled streets and simple, everyday houses to the Baroque palaces and even the Polish Royal Castle the historic core has risen like a phoenix from the ashes.

The main square in Warsaw's old town looks like any other medieval european centre, except that this is a faithful, 20th century reconstruction following the cataclysm of World War II.

The desire not to forget - the country's difficult rebirth 90 years ago, its dismemberment only 20 years later, the various uprisings during the war and the painful aftermath - is plainly visible around the city if you keep your eyes open. The most obvious symbol is the Kotwica, the symbol of the Armija Krajowa, the Polish home army which constituted the third-largest allied force in Europe. There isn't a single street in Warsaw that doesn't have a plaque commemorating some event or person from the war, with the roll call of names overwhelming in its size. Or if you walk along Jana Pawla II street your eyes, drawn to the ground to watch out for the uneven paving, won't fail to miss the outlines of the ghetto walls that witnessed some of the most heart-rending events human history.

The Kotwice symbol at the Warsaw Uprising memorial.

The sad past aside, there is a gritty vibe and determination beneath the grey, impersonal exterior and a little investigative wandering (aka getting lost) will unearth some hidden gems for those curious enough to look: between some tower blocks a functionalist residential commune from the 30s; a biker bar with a difference, where cyclists hang out in their lycra shorts and compare their latest mods; or a small park with a bijou Baroque church hidden amongst the trees that transports you away from the big city.

Guidebook acolytes will come, spend their two days, and then go. But of all the cities I've been to so far in these 5 months Warsaw has the biggest soul. And though she may not be the prettiest girl at the dance, at least you'll be able to have a conversation with her afterwards.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Worth visiting is Praga, the prewar neighborhood of Warszaw, also its nice part too - although most people you ask will take you to the ugly part (in some parts buildings still bear spectacular traces of WW2, you need a local to show you, of course). Also, I found Praga to be 100% Poland in atmosphere.

For oddities you may consider visiting the Finnish neighborhood, built with traditional Scandinavian houses. Also a nice history behind it.

I would take 4 days to visit Warszaw including museums and all relevant areas - old and new.

I hope you visit Lodz - a strange city, worth two days of intense wandering through the old factories and in the end with the most interesting urban regeneration project in post communistic Europe - Manufaktura, the ultimate tribute to capitalism.