Presented by Stalin as “a gift from the Soviet people to the Polish nation”, the Palace of Culture and Science towers over the city of Warsaw. At 230 meters tall, the 1950s skyscraper boasts more than 3,000 rooms and a panoramic view from the 30th floor.
Warsaw – Long Read

Poland’s capital is making up for lost time

Photo by Lucas Vallecillos

Warsaw – Long Read Poland’s capital is making up for lost time

Hello Warsaw, a city which mixes a history of one of the most tragic episodes in the history of Europe with a present that enthusiastically embraces life. Its trams run to every corner with an energy that reflects how the citizens of Poland’s capital, isolated for so long behind the Iron Curtain, seem to be making up for lost time.

Lucas Vallecillos
Lucas Vallecillos Travel Photographer

From my 14th floor hotel, l have a sweeping view of the skyline of Warsaw. Although the weather forecast yesterday promised rain, a radiant sun illuminates one of the most amazing cities in Europe, one with a dramatic history that has shaped its current face. Since 1990, when the Polish People’s Republic officially ended, Warsaw has undergone a slow but profound transformation that accelerated fast after its entry into the European Union in 2004. The energy I can see below me is that of a city in a hurry to catch up.

“It has changed so much in only the past 15 years,” says Agata Szymanski, a Polish friend I met when she was studying in Barcelona, as she joins me to admire the view. “Before, the Palace of Culture and Science monopolized the skyline but now it has been joined by the Metropolitan, designed by Norman Foster, the Warsaw Trade Tower and Atrium buildings.”

Warsaw is transforming itself into one of the most modern cities of the former Eastern Europe, a process of imposing capitalist aesthetics on a distinctly Soviet urban base. This is a city where it is possible to see a tram that seems to have come directly from the middle of the last century, juxtaposed with the latest in technology and a building that is distinctly futuristic.

Agata points a few of the most prominent buildings, including one of visionary appearance close to the Continental Hotel. “That is Zlote Tarasy (Golden Terraces), the most modern shopping center inthe city,” she says. “It seems small from here but it is very, very large. Let’s go there to meet my friend Anna.”

A SciFi vision of an artificial city

Zlote Tarasy is so huge that it reminds me of a SciFi vision of an artificial city on the planet Mars, closed in by an undulating glass roof has become one of the great modern icons of the city. This is where the Varsovians come in search of the ultimate in stylish fashion for their wardrobe. Among the crowd of shoppers, Agata’s co-worker Anna Nowak is waiting for us. They are both historians and involved with a project preserving the memory of the city. “Zlote Tarasy is one of the ultimate expressions of capitalism,” says Anna. “In front of it is that great symbol of the Communist past, the Palace of Culture and Science.”

Described by Stalin as “a gift from the Soviet people to Poland”, the reality is that the Palace was a symbol showing the power of the new regime. Dating to 1955, and erected in only three years by architect Lew Rudniew using more than 3,000 workers brought from the Soviet Union exclusively for the purpose, it is one of the best examples of Socialist architecture. At the time, it was the second highest building in Europe and is still the highest in Poland at 230 meters.

Known by the acronym of PKiN (Palac Kultury i Naujk), it currently serves as the headquarters of banks, multinationals and insurance companies. There are also several museums, theaters, a skating rink and even a nightclub. It is hard to imagine a better symbol of how capitalism has swept away socialism here. The building’s origins and style, a brutal Soviet realist reworking of the Chicago art deco style of skyscraper, has never made it popular in Warsaw and a local joke is that the view from its 30th floor is the best in town – because you can’t see the PKiN.

The wonderful National Stadium

As we admire the magnificent view below us, Agata and Anna both point to a modern building next to the Vistula River that looks like a giant crown. This is the wonderful National Stadium. “That was built for Euro 2012,” they say in unison, showing the pride Poles still feel for having organized this major European football event, even if Ukraine can share half the credit as co-hosts.

There is more Stalinist architecture on Marszalkowska Street, where I feel I am walking in a place that exudes the past from every pore. It must be one of the best examples of Soviet style outside Russia, startling in its cold monumentality. I am surprised by the similarity to fascist architecture. “You won’t find this area in the tourist guides,” says Agata. “The authorities do not promote it but I think it is one of the most valuable architectural legacies of the city. In time, it will have the recognition it deserves.” She is passionate about preserving the past, warts and all. “Socialist architecture is an important part of Warsaw’s identity and this is one area that has not been rebuilt where you can see how it looked before.” Large reliefs of laborers decorate the facades of the buildings on each side of the street, their solidity and scale a stark contrast to the incessant movement of the colorful trams.

Where Marszalkowska Street meets Konstytucji Square is another space dominated by Socialist aesthetics, sober but monumental in its scale and self-evidently designed to show the strength of the regime and intimidate the population. Even the streetlights are chandeliers of Pharaonic stature. “This axis along Marszalkowska Avenue through Konstytucji Square, with the vast Warsaw Stadium and PKiN, was the first thing the Soviets built in a city devastated by World War II,” says Anna. “It was designed for impressive parades that bullied the citizens. People – especially the new generation – want to forget our history of Communism but it is important to remember this Soviet legacy.”

This whole area, and especially the streets near Zbawiciela Square, have recently become the fashionable place to dine or enjoy a drink. We sit on the beer on the terrace of a wine bar in one of the square’s arcades. Right in its center stands a modern plastic sculpture, a rainbow of large dimensions that has been burnt on several occasions after arousing the wrath of homophobes.

The Allies refused to come to their aid

Warsaw’s history has been one of conflict. The city’s population suffered Nazi occupation during the World War II, including the horrors of Holocaust. When the news broke that the Russians were close to defeating Hitler, an Uprising broke out on August 1, 1944, with the aim of ridding themselves of the Nazi yoke before suffering a new invader. Sixty-three days of hard struggle against a powerful enemy failed when the Allies refused to come to their aid. In retaliation, Hitler ordered that Warsaw be dynamited, house by house. The Nazis destroyed 90 percent of the city, leaving a pile of ruins that Stalin could transform with his new Soviet vision at leisure.

But the citizens of Warsaw fought for their identity, facing down supporters of raising a new Communist city and advocating the restoration of what was destroyed by the Nazis. “An agreement was finally reached and part of the historical center was rebuilt,” says Agata, as we walk along Swietojanska eating ice creams we have bought in one of the numerous kiosks that open out from buildings along the street. “Today, few people can imagine that the historic center is the result of a reconstruction that was only 60 years old in 2013.”

Recreating the city center as it was before World War II was a titanic work. Architects made a rigorous study of all the documentation they could find, including paintings by Canaletto, old photographs, prints, drawings, sketches by architecture students, and even people’s memories. Whenever possible, materials was recovered from the rubble. In less than a decade, thousands of volunteers had reconstructed the old town – Stare Miasto – with so much attention to historical accuracy that it was declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 1980. “The love of the people of Warsaw for their city, not to mention their identity, drove the reconstruction,” says Anna. “They had financial help from many Poles in exile and supportive foreign organizations.”

Our walk has been leading us to this district, where the houses of the wealthiest and most influential of Warsaw’s 18th-century families have risen from the rubble. A fountain at its heart holds a beautiful statue of a mermaid that is the symbol of Warsaw. Legend has it says that in gratitude to the Varsovians, who freed her from the clutches of a wealthy merchant who had caught her, the siren promised that whenever the city needed help, she would be there to defend it. The city’s coat of arms shows her, armed with shield and sword, and ready to keep her promise.

It is a bit like ravioli

The market square is the liveliest part of the historical center, where visitors and locals gather to eat at one of the many restaurants, stroll around, or simply sit on a bench to contemplate life. I watch a painter, sitting on a chair under an umbrella, working on a beautiful watercolors that I cannot resist buying. In fact, I decide to buy two, one each to give as a gift later to Anna and Agata. But first I have to eat something to regain my strength after the hours of walking.

I make for Udekerta, one of the best restaurants for traditional Polish cuisine in the city, recognized with a Michelin star. “I suggest bigos [hunter’s stew], our national dish,” says the waiter. “It is a delicious recipe using meat and sauerkraut.” I must look unimpressed because he goes on. “Or there is pierogi: pasta filled with meat and vegetables. It is a bit like ravioli. You will love it!”

Afterwards, I walk along the Camino Real, considered by many to be the prettiest street in Poland. It was also rebuilt after World War II and owes its name to the ancient royal residences which line it. The major one is the Real Castillo, home of the ancient Polish monarchs on Plaza de Castillo, which is dominated by a huge column carrying a sculpture of King Segismundo III. He carries a sword and a cross symbolizing the war and Catholic character that has characterized the history of Poland.

One of the great pleasures of Warsaw is to stroll along this Royal Road, which is divided into two parts. The first is the so-called Krakowskie Przedmiescie, with buildings such as the beautiful Carmelite Church topped by a green globe representing the Earth; Namiestnikowski Palace, the residence of the President; the University of Warsaw; and the neoclassic Palacio Staszic, which is the seat of the Polish Academy of Science. In front of this last is an impressive statue in honor of a Pole who transformed our ideas of astronomy: Nicolás Copérnico.

Only his heart is buried here

Nearby is the Church of the Holy Cross, a Baroque temple that holds the heart of Federick Chopin. A group of students stand around a teacher under the composer’s large tombstone, topped by his bust. “Only his heart is buried here,” says the teacher, “The rest of his body is buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. Chopin asked in his will that his heart be removed and returned to his homeland.” A very walk away in the Ostrogski Palace is the Chopin Museum dedicated to his life and work.

The other stretch of the Camino Real is Nowy Swiat, well known for its large number of restaurants, cafés and bars. In one of them, the mythical Blake, that has been serving coffee and traditional pastry to Varsovians since 1869, I meet with Juan Polanski. He is a Spanish Jew of Polish origin who has been studying Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto, adding those memories to Agata’s history project. After a coffee, and a brief visit to the Nozyk synagogue, we take a taxi to the Jewish cemetery.

“This is one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Europe,” says Juan. “And it is still in use today. During World War II, it was part of the Jewish ghetto. Warsaw had the largest community of Jews in Europe, more than 400,000 people. After the Nazi occupation, they were forced to live within the ghetto, encircled by a wall designed to keep them under control and exterminate them little by little.”

Among the famous names buried here are L.L. Zamenhof (1859-1917), creator of Esperanto; writer Adam Czerniaków (1880-1942) and actor Ester Rachel Kamińska (1870-1925). Juan stops before a sculpture showing a man carrying a child in his arms and holding another by the hand. “This is a monument to Janusz Korczak, director of an orphanage and a great teacher. His connections could have saved him but he chose to die along with the children of the ghetto’s orphanage in the gas chamber at Treblinka.”

A futuristic building of great beauty

The former ghetto wall is marked by a series of plaques set into the sidewalk, and we follow them until we come to Umschlagplatz. From this tragic place, the Nazis sent more than 300,000 Jews to the extermination camps. Nearby is the monument to the Heroes of the Ghetto, in front of the brand-new Museum of the History of Polish Jews. It is a futuristic building of great beauty, designed by Rainer Mahlamaki, but its interior describes a much darker past.

Afterwards, Juan decides to lift our mood with a visit to Łazienki, the most beautiful green space in the city. This complex of historic gardens is dotted with ponds and leafy paths where the bustle of the city fades away. There is a neo-classical Temple dating back to 1820 referred as the Sybil; a mid-19th century greenhouse; the Myslewicki Palace and the magnificent Stanislaw Palace beside the largest lake in the park. Juan leads me to an higher part, guided by the notes of a piano. A large square pens before us, with a magnificent statue of Chopin, shown under a weeping willow. This tree served as inspiration for many of his compositions in exile. The music is coming from a pianist giving a concert and, sitting on the grass very near the monument, I spot Agata and Anna.

“There is a concert here every Sunday afternoon from May to September,” says Anna. “We come every chance we can. It is the best way to end the weekend.” They have a bottle of white wine in an ice bucket. Raising our glasses, we toast the beauty of this lovely city: “Na zdrowie!”


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