Rich with European romanticism and a burgeoning cultural scene, Warsaw is an alluring study of an old town’s brilliant rejuvenation
Standing on the edge of the picture-perfect and cobblestoned Castle Square in Warsaw’s Old Town, it is impossible to imagine that barely two generations ago in 1945, the entire quarter was levelled—a vicious victim of brutal German bombing, and battles between Hitler’s desperate armies and Poland’s doomed resistance fighters. Black and white photographs from the era show a devastation that beggars belief: The shattered landscape, 20 million cubic metres of rubble by some estimates, resembles Hiroshima after the atomic bomb. “No stone can remain standing,” Heinrich Himmler had decreed. His instructions were followed to the letter.
By the time the Russians marched into Warsaw, 85 per cent of the ancient capital had been destroyed and half the population dead. That the Poles, by dint of sheer courage, nerve and national pride, have managed to rebuild Warsaw—today, a city of about 1.7 million that hugs the sinuous curves of the Vistula River—is a civic act on a scale that deserves unending applause. Castle Square has been completely rebuilt. The rooms of the Royal Castle have been reassembled with such care that it’s difficult to see where the past ends and the present begins.
The slender statue of King Sigismund miraculously survived a direct hit from a tank shell and was restored to his columned perch in 1949. Today, it’s the city’s most popular meeting place—hipster Varsovians in Gap and Armani mingle with snap-happy tourists posing for selfies and group shots. The memory of the recent bloody past fades with each uploaded picture.
Of course, the Soviet occupation of Poland post-1945 left its own psychic imprint, not least in the still extant rows of faceless apartment and office blocks that are straight out of the Communist architectural handbook. Case in point are the hysterically grandiose boulevards of the city centre, anchored by the mammoth skyscraper that is the Palace of Culture and Science, a totemic gift from Stalin to the city in 1955 and one inspired by New York’s Empire State building. From the latter’s terrace on the 30th floor, Warsaw unfolds in a patchwork of concrete blocks, charming tiled roofscapes and leafy expanses. From this height, it’s hard to believe that it’s been barely 25 years since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Elsewhere, Warsaw’s physical 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. Which is not to imply that the city has been busy air-brushing its history. Far from it. There are monuments to martyrs, revolutionaries and heroes down the ages. On a busy intersection on Rondo de Gaulle’a, a statue of Charles de Gaulle strides resolutely towards an unseen destiny. Fifteen musical benches playing 30-second snippets of Chopin are installed at key sites connected with the Polish master’s life. Meanwhile, the soaring Museum of the History of Polish Jews in the Muranow district, once the site of the notorious Warsaw Ghetto, is a sobering reminder of the depths of humanity’s evil.
Seguing gently from the gloomy past, the Palace on the Island in Lazienki Park is a majestic 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. About 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 moniker as the Polish Versailles.
All of this is a rather meandering way of saying that Warsaw is one of Europe’s, if not the world’s, best-kept holiday secrets. The city feels freshly scrubbed and hopeful. A combination of history and cultural hospitality insists it puts its best foot forward at all times—beginning with 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 and leafy parks.
What is especially encouraging is that the city’s urban planners have been careful to avoid the congestion and thoughtless expansion that bedevil so many former Soviet-bloc cities. Instead, Warsaw enjoys 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 the city. A comprehensive network of public transportation alongside safe walking and bicycle paths also mean that most destinations are within casual reach of one another.
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 cultural awareness that would have been unimaginable in the dark days immediately after 1945. You get the sense that if continental Europe—never mind faraway Asia—persists in thinking of the Polish capital in terms of Soviet-era dourness, bland streetscape and dull doughy dumplings, then all the better for insiders. Here is a vacation spot redolent of European romanticism without the unbearable crowds of Venice and Paris. Those in the know decamp to the leafy banks of the Vistula river for a summer picnic or dive into Praga, once off-limits to tourists for its criminal underclass, but now enjoying a gritty revival thanks to an optimistic generation of artists, designers, chefs and bar owners.
In the evenings, throngs of well-behaved, attractive Varsovians fill up outdoor cafés, bars and restaurants that line the entire stretch of Nowy Swiat Road leading to the Old Town. The setting is reminiscent of Copenhagen and for even the most jaded tourists, Warsaw is transformed into an unexpectedly charming bolthole.
No doubt, in the world of modern travel, there are many inspirational stories yet to be found. Right now, however, Warsaw’s tale of rejuvenation is one of the most compelling.