Warsaw Revisited – What I Found New in 2017
No matter how I raved about Warsaw as a destination to my friends, my own memories of the place are bittersweet. The last visit ended on a sour note after a falling-out with a friend. Four years and a football tournament had passed since then and I was going to be in the Polish capital again. It was going to be just a brief stop to see what changes an international event had catalysed.
(I’d recommend seeing the Old Town, the royal castle, Ogrod Saski, the Uprising Museum and Lazienki Park on your first trip. They were not at the top of my agenda on my second visit.)
What I did differently on my return to Warsaw
Passing through Warsaw Old Town
The overnight bus from Vilnius pulled into the station at 6 in the morning. The summer sun was up, and it illuminated the evidence of the night’s revelry on the street. Nothing unusual about that, given that it was a Saturday. Walking along Krakowskie Przedmiescie on a weekend morning, I had virtually the whole boulevard to myself. It was peaceful, and it was a welcome break from jostling with tourists in other cities, no matter how brief it was.
St John’s Archcathedral was covered in hoardings that concealed the restoration work that was taking place, but the landmarks of the old town were still in the right places. I already had a photo of the castle square, so it didn’t matter if it wasn’t perfect today.
This revisit was going to start where I left off the last time: Praga, on the other side of the Vistula. The vicinity of Wilenska mall was a hive of pedestrian and construction activity, in contrast to the old city that I just left behind. In 2009, people spoke of Praga as the gritty part of Warsaw that was just starting to be ‘cool’. If I could barely sense the changes when I first set foot here then, they were truly underway now. Roadworks occupied the spot where a Soviet war monument once stood. It was a symbol of a dark period in the history of this city, and people understandably didn’t want to memorialise it any longer.
Walking around the back of the former Koneser vodka factory, the sight of excavators and dust-covered plots made me uneasy. There were certainly more buildings here when we visited that evening four years ago.
I hit upon something familiar when I reached the other side of the compound. Beyond the main gate, the rusted dragon and chessboard were still there, along with other sculptures and a public bike stand, albeit among sparser settings.
It wasn’t going to stay like that for long, however – the plans and renderings of a future redevelopment project were also on display and it had already claimed the buildings behind. What a shame they couldn’t be saved. Architecture like this is rare on the other side of the river and it is part of the character of the district. Hopefully, others do not have to go the same way.
Elsewhere in Poland: Sights and Sounds of St Dominic’s Fair, Gdansk
It was close to midday when I crossed the river again, and by now the visitors filled the historic streets. I can’t say without prejudice whether it was really more crowded than the last time I was there. It certainly felt that way, and I saw things that I didn’t remember seeing before: buskers and balloon sculptors joined the ice-cream and drink vans in the square, and I heard the local guides speak not just Polish, German and English, but also Mandarin and Spanish.
The rest of the day was spent in Ujazdów Park with another friend who had recently returned home, and she had observed some changes too. “There are more outdoor events like this and people enjoy going out more. The city is only just starting to make use of the riverside locations. Things are getting more vibrant,” she said, as we enjoyed lemonade and watched others play games on the turf.
The Vistula in the evening
Nowy Swiat’s bars were certainly lively that evening, but I had other plans. With a cone of Grycan ice-cream in hand, I retraced the steps of our last evening together and made my way to Powisle. Party boats lined the shore in front of the National Stadium (newly-built for the Euro 2012 tournament) while young people sat on the banks enjoying another Saturday evening.
The mermaid sculpture near the bridge was nowhere in sight, though, and the work taking place on the new metro line all but blocked access to the spot where it once stood. Since then I learnt that it can still be seen from the bridge, behind a bulletproof glass panel. This one is less famous than the Syrena in the Old Town Square, but I find the background story more poignant. Krystyna Krahelska, a young poet, was its model and she died fighting in the Warsaw Uprising at the age of 30. (2017 update: The work is done and she’s accessible once again)
In the morning I left for Lublin happy with a strange feeling. Yes, I was happy with what I’d managed to see and do in 24 hours. Now that more people know about its gems, I may miss promoting Warsaw like an over-enthusiastic know-it-all. I may cling to the memory of a few landmarks that will no longer look the way they did. The relentless march of development has no time for sentiments like that. It left me with a bittersweet feeling for the second time.
Epilogue: My 2017 return
I made another return to Warsaw in February 2017. It was the first time I was there in winter. While it was not so picturesque, I found newly opened places and others that I hadn’t been to before.
All that construction I saw in 2009 opposite the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes ended with the opening of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in 2013. The permanent exhibition was completed a year later. The building is quite something to behold, and if I thought the displays at the Warsaw Uprising Museum were advanced and interactive, this took it to another level. I especially loved the recreation of a beautiful wooden synagogue that was destroyed by the Nazis.
Reginabar, near Ujazdow, is a watering hole inspired by New York’s Chinatown. It went somewhat viral in 2016 when Singaporean beatboxer Dharni found cocktails named after “auspicious” sayings that are more common in Geylang than Manhattan. I simply had to try it for myself. Alas, by 2021, those cocktails have disappeared following a menu change.
N.B. I stand corrected if I have misunderstood the changes to the landmarks mentioned above.