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Eyewitness: Warsaw

Poland’s sprawling capital is steeped in history — with its diverse display of architectural styles — yet nowhere embodies the city’s drive to reinvent itself like the formerly run-down district of Praga. By Nicola Trup

 

You probably don’t remember apartments like this,” says my guide, Iza Danil. But I do; the summer vacations of my childhood were spent visiting my grandmother here in Warsaw, and her home wasn’t too dissimilar to the one we’re looking at now: laminate wood furniture, orange-brown color scheme, electronics by a variety of eastern European brands I’d never heard of… and many, many tchotchkes (trinkets).

The key difference is that this apartment in front of us is a reconstruction. It’s part of the tiny Czar PRL museum, dedicated to Poland’s communist past, which is hidden away in an old industrial building I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to find again.

Lining the walls of the museum are displays of sports memorabilia, vintage consumer goods and diagrams of unrealized city plans — and there’s a cafe serving alarmingly red soda with a retro label (“It’s like drinking sugar with water,” says Iza).

Poland is, of course, somewhere with a strong sense of history, and nowhere more so than the capital. Around 85% of the city was destroyed during the Second World War, and it later spent decades under communism, so the Warsaw of my childhood seemed grey and gloomy, even in summer. Yet, in recent years — particularly since joining the European Union in 2004 — the city has been noteably smartening up and developing a cool, creative vibe.

The area around Czar PRL, Praga, is perhaps the clearest example of the city’s recent regeneration. Once considered pretty shady, it’s now Warsaw’s hipster epicenter, and as the artists have moved in, so have the developers, building new apartment blocks and converting old factories into quirky galleries and museums (you’ll find exhibits on neon signs, the local area and — soon to come — vodka) along with smart restaurants, hotels and even an outpost of Google’s Campus tech hub.

There are still a lot of run-down buildings too — I’m not surprised when I hear Roman Polanski used the area as a location for his World War Two movie The Pianist — but little by little Praga is changing.

We walk down the district’s main street, ulica Zabkowska, where through the open doors of a tiny store, Pierozki Gosi, I spot two old ladies making pierogi (filled dumplings). Just a few yards away, the neighboring bars are setting up for the evening; craft beers and acoustic tunes are the order of the day.

“There’s a very cool place I want to show you,” says Iza, leading the way down the street to Skamiejka. She’s surprised to find it expanded since the last time she was here; it used to have just a handful of seats, but now it’s taken over the next-door hair salon and has several tables. If Czar PRL was like a Polish grandmother’s apartment, Skamiejka is like a Russian grandmother’s, with vintage furniture accented by doilies and vases of flowers.

We’re a little too early for dinner (the menu includes Russian, Polish and even Georgian dishes) but the owner, Tamara, explains the restaurant acts as something of a cultural center for the local Russian-speaking community, with a variety of musical performances, movie screenings and literary events on certain nights. On other evenings, you just turn up for pelmeni (another type of dumpling) washed down with vodka.

Praga has long been a unique place, Iza informs me. “It was only incorporated into the city about 200 years ago,” she says. “Maybe that’s why the people here are a bit different.”

The shabby but hip streets of Praga are a stark contrast to the Old Town, across the Vistula river. Here I spend a sunny afternoon strolling the pristine cobbled lanes, which are lined with townhouse-style apartment blocks, jewelry shops and traditional restaurants, and admiring the main square, Rynek Starego Miasta. This is the Old Town’s calling card; at its heart stands a modest bronze statue of a mermaid, the symbol of Warsaw, while around the edge are umbrella-sheltered cafe tables and colorful buildings that display flourishes of a variety of architectural styles, from Renaissance and Gothic to Baroque.

I remember my surprise when, as a teen, I was told by my mother that none of these buildings are actually original. After the destruction of the war, the Poles had wanted to return their decimated capital city to its former glory, and spent more than a decade doing so, working from photos and drawings to revive the ruined 18th- and 19th-century structures — in many cases using the original bricks where possible. Their efforts were rewarded and this part of town has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1980.

Among the most impressive works of reconstruction is the Royal Castle — a red-brick beauty which totally dominates Plac Zamkowy (Castle Square). You could spend a good couple of hours exploring its lavish interiors, but I decide instead to head for another regal delight.

A short bus journey takes me along what’s known as Trakt Krolewski (the Royal Route), past the Presidential Palace and down the stylish street of Nowy Swiat, to my destination: Lazienki Park. Once a playground for nobility, Lazienki is awash with manicured gardens, follies and water features, along with a few wandering peacocks. At its heart, on an artificial island that divides the ornamental lake in two, is the Palace on the Isle. It was originally built as a bathhouse for a 17th-century Polish count, and later transformed into a museum of the royal family’s extensive collection of European art.

Following a recent three-year renovation, it’s still used as a gallery, but its interiors are arguably as much of an attraction as what’s on display. There’s the room clad in intricate 17th-century Dutch blue tiles, the hall covered in frescoes depicting the biblical history of Solomon, the ballroom, with its neo-classical columns and statues, and much more.

I’ve been visiting Lazienki as long as I can remember, but I’ve never taken the time to explore the surrounding area, so when Iza suggests another unusual historical attraction nearby, I’m intrigued. Slightly to the north of the park, in Osiedle Jazdow, it suddenly feels like we’ve been transported out of the capital and into the countryside; the roads are practically traffic free and lined with low-rise wooden homes in fenced-off yards. Some of the houses look a little shabby, but most are in great condition, with dark wood walls and sloping roofs.

They’re known as the Finnish houses, I learn. “They were brought here in 1945 for workers rebuilding the city,” Iza tells me. They were imported from Finland as part of that country’s war reparations to the Soviet Union, and while there were originally 90 on this site, just 27 remain standing, after many were cleared to make way for the construction of embassies and thoroughfares in this upscale part of town.

In recent years this whole neighborhood was under threat from development but, this past May, Jazdow gained protected status, so the future of what were intended as temporary homes seems a little more certain. Warsaw’s fascinating history will live on.

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