Warsaw, Still Rising

Poland's capital finds a strong identity in new urban spaces, romantic symbolism, and a healthy dose of nostalgia

Top Stories | Rennie Sweeney | September 2013

The skyline with the Palace of Culture and Science (Photos: V. Isidoro)

In downtown Warsaw, imposing, sleekly designed towers dot the skyline. Glass and steel towers have sprouted near the Palace of Culture and Science. A sign plastered to a skyscraper in progress, which wouldn’t look out of place in midtown Manhattan, identifies future "cosmopolitan apartments". 

Since we were last here, Warsaw has become exhilaratingly urban, at times almost unrecognisable. Even with my companion’s miraculous sense of direction, he’s often disoriented, studying maps, comparing what stands before us to what’s stored in memory. This feels like my first time, in this strange, yet hauntingly familiar city.


New downtown vitality

Within the urban scene, there is definitely new vigour in Warsaw. New art galleries have popped up in the heavily-trafficked centre. Street art booms, with intricate murals covering once-hidden walls. Scenes change quickly; modern stretches like Grzybowski pick up where old-world alleys end. Inner city Mokotowska Street encapsulates Warsaw’s emergence into the cosmopolitan; lined with international designers, ritzy boutiques, make-up emporiums and upscale toy stores, it remains unobtrusive and attractive.

People are friendly, too. A resting worker hurries to pull a wheelbarrow off a sidewalk it was hardly obstructing, smiles warmly, and gestures for us to pass. A woman smoking outside her market hall booth catches my eye and smiles as we meander through eating Pączki - glazed jam-filled pastries. Amidst change, Warsaw’s hard-won aura of peace pervades.


Amy Winehouse and a local mermaid

While it changes, the city still remembers its history. Iron plates delineating the infamous Jewish Ghetto’s walls stamp the ground, demanding notice. Plaques in Polish and English seem to be everywhere on buildings and sidewalks, compel passers-by to confront history and pay homage.

The Old Town (Stare Miasto) is a "re-imagining", rebuilt with bricks from wartime bombing and evocative of centuries of architectural history. "Real" or not, it’s effective, especially at night, when walking along the city walls affords spectacular views to the bridges, Vistula river, and the lit up stadium. And no distraction from pierogi shops passing flyers, teenagers hawking buttons picturing Amy Winehouse, or graffiti marking the red brick walls. Not that it’s all so edgy: one brick politely notes, "You look nice today", punctuated with a heart.

Varsovians’ pride in their city is apparent. As we photograph the ground-level fountain in Market Square with its statue of Warsaw’s legendary mermaid, an old woman digs in its gutters, oblivious to cameras or children’s splashes. She cleans it, her hands full of soggy paper, leaves, cigarette butts. Tossing the junk into a nearby bin, she wipes her hands on her skirt and disappears into the crowd.


Symbols of the city

Warsaw still celebrates its pride as the only city to rise against its Nazi occupiers. Next year will be the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, and it’s hard to find a street that doesn’t display one of the two key icons. The first, the Kotwica ("anchor") symbolises fighting Poland and the Home Army – the Resistance who, without outside aid, fought for 63 days to liberate their city. Anna Smoleńska, the anchor’s young designer, was later sent to the notorious Pawiak Prison, then Auschwitz. The other is Krystyna Krahelska, the model for the emblematic mermaid statue, who died in the Uprising.

We stumble on a film crew cut ‘for’ of an upcoming movie, City 44, planned for the 70th anniversary. Streets are closed. Extras mill, wearing red and white armbands or German uniforms. We climb a fence to watch between shots, glimpsing actresses in soup-can curls and fitted skirts of ‘40s style, waiting in the shade. Two off-duty extras sit at a cafe on the square, cherry-red lipstick staining coffee cups as they smoke and check iPhones. When action is called actors charge enthusiastically, waving hats and guns while storming the dusty street. Gathered gawkers cheer wildly.


Remnants of Communism

Remnants of the city’s communist history are still visible – but occasionally fate has a sense of humour. The former party HQ stands at the intersection of Nowy Swiat (New World) and Aleje Jerozolimskie (Jerusalem Avenue), with a Ferrari dealership gleaming from its ground floor windows.

A disappearing relic is the milk bar. These longstanding institutions ensured everyone was well-fed with cheap, nourishing meals during the Communist years. Milk bars receive government subsidies for staples like milk and potatoes, keeping prices low. Interiors and cafeteria-like service are unapologetically no-frills, part of the nostalgia.

We try one, Familijny. Homey white curtains shut out the bustle. Between wooden walls and austere furnishings, we’re transported to a humbler age. A wall-mounted board lists dishes. Orders are paid at one window, tickets shown at another and picked up when brusquely called. Coffee is priced (1.10 zloty, about 26 Euro cents) but when I order, I’m told it’s out. No wonder.

A family orders cold, creamy borscht, served in platter-like bowls, topped with more cream. A student reads her medical textbook, tucking into a heaped plate of roasted pork and pickled beet salad. We order meat-filled pierogis and they arrive drenched in oil, topped with fried onions. Minimally spiced, they’re filling and savoury.

We get coffee at a juice bar a few doors down, with neon lights and modern white banquettes. It costs six times as much. There are only 10 Bar Mleczny left in Warsaw. It’s hard to tell how long they’ll hold out.


Back to the future

When the past weighs too heavily, we rent cheap bikes and ride to Saska Kepa, an up-and-coming district east of Poniatowski Bridge. Hailed as the city’s "hippest" spot, it’s worth crossing the bridge for, although it’s definitely still rough-around-the-edges.

The main street, Ulica Francuska, is packed with cafés, trattorias, bars and boutiques, with a decidedly hipster feel. Families lounge on beaches by the Vistula banks. Nightfall sees a younger crowd move in, and the party starts.

Warsaw’s nightlife is in full swing, with nightspots for every taste. We opt for lower key, frequenting a 24-hour vodka and zakaska (appetiser) bar, Pijalnia Wodki i Piwa (simply "Drinking Hall for Vodka and Beer") with 4 złoty (just under a euro) drinks. Bartenders in white shirts and black bowties sling drinks and snacks like pork jelly and herring.

It’s a nocturnal version of the milk bar, a nostalgic throwback to communist-era habits and budgets, allowing for a low-cost good time. The room is wallpapered with newspapers from the communist era.

Walking home, we take a shortcut through a park. Strains of music, eerie and faint, grow louder. In a square softly lit by street lamps, a dozen couples waltz. Some move fluidly and practiced, others stiffly but smiling, whispering, giggling, holding each other. A trained dancer steps confidently in silver stilettos, adding staccato flourishes.

Others are more casual: a woman in leopard-print pants, men in khakis and sneakers. Observers fill nearby benches, so we watch from the ground at the square’s edge.

I miss the city we visited three years ago, but I also love what Warsaw is becoming, alive and optimistic, yet leaving a light on down the hallway to the past. ÷

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