Posted on Saturday, March 8th, 2008 at 8:17 am
Author: Feature Writer
Gc contributor: Victoria Aitken
I arrived in Warsaw by train from Krakow. I forgot to take a book for my train ride, but this was a blessing in disguise, because Polish people have devised a wonderful system for book promotion:
Instead of doing signings in bookshops, authors can sit in a specially designated train carriage, and have the travelers come over and get their books signed. It’s a clever promotional tool and it makes traveling by train in Poland incredibly fun.
From the window of the train, Warsaw initially struck me as ugly. This was confirmed on a taxi ride to my friend’s apartment. However, the elements of ugliness are both palpable and understandable.
Warsaw was largely destroyed by the Germans during WWII, and its reconstruction mostly took the form of large, concrete communist-style blocks scattered all over the city. There is lots of Russian architectural influence, but other traditions have a presence in Warsaw as well.
For example, France gave Warsaw the gift of a lovely bridge. And today the European Union is stepping in to repair roads and the city itself. A large sports complex has been created, and a concert hall is in the process of being erected in the center of town in the place of an old hotel.
On the first night, my friend took me to an underground bar. He told me about working as a journalist, following in his mother’s footsteps. His mother had been exiled due to running a printing press against the communists. On a more cheerful note, the bar we met at turned out to be having a cheap selection of new flavored vodka, mixed with apple juice so sweet it tasted like its name: Apple Pie.
The following day, I took a walking tour around Warsaw – my friend was my guide. We met in Lazienki Park situated in downtown Warsaw. We entered the park near a statue of Chopin (Poland’s most famous composer), which is surrounded by benches and a rose garden. Every year a Chopin concert is put on here.
We strolled through the park- which boasts royal baths, an orangery, and a sculpture gallery. The old bathhouse is also known as the “Palace on the Water,” and is located on an artificial island on the Lazienki Lake. The island is connected by two arcade bridges to the rest of the park, and regal peacocks roam the outside. Prince Stanislaus Lubomirski lived there first, then sold it to Stanislaw Poniatowski, the last King and Grand Duke of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Poniatowski transformed the place by bringing in minor works by Rubens and Rembrandt, as well as frescoes. Sadly, the Germans undid much of the work by blowing up the first floor with dynamite.
Driving towards the Old Town, we passed many memorials for those who fought against the Nazis and, in most cases, perished.
The Old Town (Stare Miasto) is a 14th century market square. Unfortunately, it was destroyed in WWII, and rebuilt in the 1980’s. There is an element of the surreal here. It feels as if you are on a film set, where the colours are too bright.
My friend told me about his grandmother, who got very lucky during the bombing attack on the Old Town. A entire building fell on top of her, but she was not caught by the walls. She went through a window, suffering some cuts but remaining in one piece. She must have had an angel on her shoulder, we both agreed.
Speaking of miracles, there is a terrifically reconstructed Gothic church in the middle of the old town, as well as the 1855 statue of the Warsaw Mermaid, the city’s emblem for protection. As if a sign of hope, the Mermaid was the only monument left standing when the Nazis finally departed.
On the way home, we passed Stalin’s gift to the Poles, a huge skyscraper in the center of town, the Palace of Culture and Science. The top floor is a terrific location to view Warsaw. The palace has 3200 rooms which include a cinema, a nightclub, a museum, and a theater. The Rolling stones played their biggest Eastern European concert in communist times there.
That evening, we had a lazy dinner at Milk, a new restaurant in Warsaw. Everything inside is appropriately white, and people dance to rock ‘n roll music. Once again, the atmosphere is surreal.
Overall though, the highlight of my short visit to Warsaw was Klubokawiarnia on Czackiego 8, the coolest and most unusual nightclub I’ve ever come across. It is located in the center of town, by Teatr Kwadrat. The club’s décor is all red and black, peculiar music that sounds like a communist march plays early on in the evening, followed by amazing Polish techno. The dress code of the clientele matches the mood: black eyeliner and avant garde footwear.
For a taste of what to expect, do check out their official website.
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