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How Warsaw got its mojo back
WHEN it comes to picking the next holiday destination, chances are that for most people, Warsaw sits comfortably near the bottom of the list - that is, if it even makes it onto the list in the first place. Even from the perspective of Continental Europe - never mind faraway Asia - the Polish capital labours under a reputation for Soviet-era dourness, bland streetscape, and dull doughy dumplings.
As it turns out, none of this is true, which is what makes Warsaw one of Europe's best-kept holiday secrets. Here is a city that puts its best foot forward at all times, from the favourable first impressions on arrival at a compact and efficient Fryderyk Chopin Airport, followed by a barely 20-minute commute to downtown Warsaw through broad tree-lined avenues, low-slung buildings (whose architecture admittedly betrays a soulless Soviet bent) and leafy parks.
Then, one arrives at Warsaw, a city of around 1.7 million that hugs the sinuous curves of the Vistula River, its urban sprawl contained by apartment blocks, charming historic quarters, and neighbourhoods such as Praga that are being revived by an optimistic generation of artists, designers, chefs and bar owners.
In summer, the banks of the Vistula and inland lakes are thronged by well-behaved, attractive Varsovians. In the evenings, the entire stretch of Nowy Swiat Road leading to the Old Town buzzes with outdoor cafés, bars and restaurants.
What helps especially is an urban footprint that thoughtfully combines mixed-use developments and well-designed public infrastructure with sprawling green spaces (incredibly, parks make up a quarter of Warsaw).
A comprehensive network of public transportation alongside safe walking and bicycle paths also mean the city has avoided the worst of the congestion that plagues so many European cities. The result is that most destinations are within easy reach of one another. For locals, the combination makes for a quality of life and setting that remind one of Copenhagen and Paris. For the casual tourist, Warsaw is transformed into a charming bolt-hole that, even in high summer, steers clear of the tourist crush that bedevils Venice and Rome.
What makes this achievement all the more remarkable is that it could so easily have been otherwise. Standing in the pretty, picture-perfect cobblestoned Castle Square in the Old Town - framed by the serenely grand Royal Castle and the slender spire of King Sigismund's Column - it's impossible to imagine that in 1945, 85 per cent of Warsaw including the Old Town itself was flattened by brutal German bombing. Black-and-white photographs from the era showing the devastation beggar belief: the shattered landscape resembles Hiroshima after the atomic bomb.
That the Poles, by dint of sheer courage, nerve and national pride, have managed to rebuild Warsaw is a civic act on a scale that deserves unending applause. The rebuilding has been so thorough and skilfully done that one begins to understand why, throughout modern Europe, the Polish diaspora is so prized for its craftsmen, engineers and construction workers.
Of course, the Soviet occupation of Poland post-1945 left its own imprint, not least in the still extant rows of faceless apartment and office blocks that are straight out of the Communist architectural handbook, the hysterically grandiose boulevards of central Warsaw, and the mammoth skyscraper that is the Palace of Culture and Science, a totemic gift from Stalin to the city in 1955. From the latter's viewing deck, Warsaw unfolds in a patchwork of concrete blocks, charming tiled roofscapes, and leafy expanses. From this height, it's almost impossible to imagine that it's been nearly 25 years since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Warsaw today feels freshly scrubbed and hopeful. On the street level, there is a distinct sense of quiet vitality. National pride is writ large everywhere, especially in the local artistic scene where graphic design, indie music, artisanal craft beer, experimental architecture and niche publishing all combine to create a heady sense of solidarity and national pride that would have been unimaginable in the dark days immediately after 1945. In the world of modern travel, there are still so many inspirational stories to be found. Right now, Warsaw's tale of rejuvenation is one of the most compelling.
When it comes to stylish accommodation, Warsaw still has some ways to go. That said, the Sheraton (www.sheraton.pl) cannot be faulted for its comfortably furnished rooms and a very central location that is within easy walking distance to major tourist spots including Lazienki Park, the Old Town and the Palace of Culture and Science (Plac Defilad 1). For now, hipsters should check into the colourful H15 (www.h15boutiqueapartments.com).
Avoid the inevitable tourist traps, especially in the Old Town. Instead, dive into a side street off the main Nowy Swiat drag to hunt down local designed fashion at Risk Made in Warsaw (www.riskmadeinwarsaw.com).
Meanwhile, Ania Kuczynska's stylish inventory of women's accessories are just what the fashion police ordered (www.aniakuczynska.com), or else over-heat the Visa at the Likus Concept Store and super chic Delikatesy food hall in the stunning Vitkac emporium (www.vitkac.com).
Despite the savage destruction of Warsaw during World War II, most of the city's stunning collection of churches and palaces have been faithfully restored and refurnished to its glitzy glory. The Royal Castle in the Old Town is an obligatory stop for its gloriously ornate rooms.
Equally, the Palace on the Island in Lazienki Park is a pleasure dome lifted off the pages of a Jane Austen novel, its graceful Corinthian pilasters and Baroque flourishes beautifully reflected in the lake's mirror-flat water.
Around 10 kilometres south of Warsaw, an easy enough taxi ride, sits Wilanow, one of Poland's greatest national treasures. Set on 45 hectares of elaborate gardens, this sunshine-yellow high Baroque palace more than lives up to its monicker as the Polish Versailles.
Book ahead for a table at Atelier Amaro for a dose of molecular gastronomy and Poland's first Michelin-starred restaurant (www.atelieramaro.pl). At the newly renovated Prasowy (Marszalkowska 10/16), a local institution and classic milk bar (Soviet-era canteen), order the pierogi dumplings. On a summer's evening, book a table in the charming garden of Dawne Smaki (www.dawnesmaki.pl) - yes, it's a little touristy, but the setting is just lovely, the cuisine is strictly local and the portions are unusually large.
A few doors away, the outdoor seats at Blikle Café (www.blikle.pl), a favourite haunt of Charles de Gaulle (he loved their raspberry jam-filled doughnuts apparently), are perfect for people-watching.