WarsawAugust 15 in Poland
Eastern Europe is a hipster’s wet dream, endless post industrial ruins and neighbourhoods ripe for ironic gentrification and the perks of good bars, coffee and craft beer. The speed with which the invasion is happening is incredible, like a blitzkrieg proceeding the wave of tourists finally waking up to the wonders of the east. Where Minsk this invasion was still raw and tentative, Warsaw, being further west and with a much more secure beachhead of tourists, had tipped over into full blown gentrification. Praga, a neighbourhood across the river from the centre, and a no go area after dark only a few years ago, now boasts the coolest, newest and most expensive real estate, which is slowly destroying decaying neighbourhoods, street art and markets. Not all is lost though, a few amazing examples of street art remain, the Soho district (really!) is a fantastic example of reuse of an old industrial area for the purpose of museums and public event spaces and Bazaar Rozicki remains, increasingly hedged in by increasingly shiny apartments on all sides.
Bazaar Rozicki, was once Warsaw’s premier market, the epicentre of Warsaw’s thriving black market during the days of communism, since 1989 its popularity has waned significantly and is now a shadow of its former self. Today the lure of illicit goods has gone, but one could still easily outfit an entire polyester wedding thanks to the variety of cheap wedding dresses, kiddie tuxes and chintzy mother-of-the-bride gowns. It is still a great place to visit though with the characterful faded green wooden store fronts providing an atmospheric reminder of a time when Warsaw was a Communist backwater.
While not Poland’s premier tourist destination, Warsaw was a shock after Minsk. Where the entirety of Belarus gets 100,000 international tourists in an entire year, the same number must have been in Warsaw on my first afternoon. Endless tour groups from every corner of the world and selfie sticks jostling for space and airtime in the tight streets of Warsaw’s beautifully reconstructed old town. Warsaw was completely obliterated in World War 2, what wasn’t destroyed by being in the middle of the be and flow of the eastern front was destroyed during and after the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, when the local population rose up in open rebellion against the Nazi’s. The uprising lasted just over 2 months in the forlorn hope of achieving the backing of the western powers and reestablishing an independent state before the Soviets arrived in town. 45,000 underarmed Poles kept the Nazi’s pinned down in bitter street fighting, before capitulating having run out of ammunition, food and water and receiving only limited support from the Allies, despite multiple promises of support. In retribution the Nazi’s ordered the destruction of the entire city, systematically going block by block blowing up every building. By the time the Soviets ‘liberated’ the city 85% of all buildings had been completely destroyed, and from a prewar population of 1.2 million people, less than 1000 remained living in sewers and basements. As a final nail in the coffin, the Soviets quickly rounded up all members of the Polish liberation forces and sent them to Siberian Gulags to ensure that any hope of national independence would be quashed. Finding themselves once again being “prisoners of geography”, experiencing first hand the manifest unfairness of being born in a small country in the no mans land between the east and the west.
Other than the incredibly good Uprising Museum and monuments, today you wouldn’t know this was the case. The Old Town has been beautifully and faithfully restored, incorporating a huge number of original decorative features, which had been salvaged and hidden by locals in basements and houses for decades post war and using original stone and brick salvaged from other towns and cities across the country.
My second day in Warsaw happened to coincide with a national holiday, Soldiers Day, a day similar to ANZAC day, but taking on an added level of gravity when you consider the countries geography and history. The city came to a standstill and there were various commemorative events culminating in an appropriately impressive parade of goose stepping soldiers, tanks and aircraft. A lot of the countries I have travelled through are celebrating 100 years of independence this year, which I have found a little ironic seeing as most have only been truely independent for a fraction of that time, but Poland is no different and so the parade was supersized this year, moving streets to a larger thoroughfare and including a large contingent of American servicemen and military hardware underlining the importance of NATO forces in bolstering the eastern front against an expansionist Russia. With the parade and formalities over it appeared that the entire city descended on the old town as one for an afternoon of eating and drink. This made the previous days crowds appear like a mere small gathering. The place was packed and I wandered the streets struggling to find anywhere for lunch or a drink that didn’t have lines stretching a block. As I was giving up and heading out, I heard someone call my name, and it was Tim, an American I’d met back in Riga. Tim lives in Germany and works for NATO and was randomly in town as part of the American contingent for the parade, it was serendipitous and another example of our crazy small world. Even better they had a table and a jug of beer and so I had somewhere to sit back and watch the passing parade and incredibly talented buskers who took over the town in the evening.Read more