Poland's Lively Pulse
OUR WINTER TRAVEL EXCURSION, ORGANISED IN COLLABORATION WITH THE POLISH INSTITUTE IN PRAGUE, TOOK US TO CULTURALLY-VIBRANT WARSAW AND EQUALLY IMPRESSIVE LODZ. THE WEATHER WAS SEASONALLY COLD, BUT WE WERE WARMED BY STRONG CUPS OF COFFEE, EXCELLENT LOCAL DELICACIES AND THE FRIENDLY SMILES OF PEOPLE WE MET ALONG THE WAY. EXPLORE WITH US POLAND’S GRANDILOQUENT HISTORICAL CENTRES, IMPRESSIVE MODERN ARCHITECTURE, EVER-PRESENT STREET ART AND FORMER INDUSTRIAL COMPLEXES PULSING WITH NEW LIFE.
Warsaw: The Phoenix City
Poland’s capital is found in the country’s centre and is home to more than 1.75 million residents. One of the most important economic, political and cultural centres of Central Europe, Warsaw is also the seat of key Polish institutions. Folk etymology attributes the origin of the name of the city to a fisherman named Wars and his wife Sawa. According to the legend, Sawa was a mermaid living in the Vistula River with whom Wars fell in love. A fable written by the Polish writer Artur Franciszek Oppman even suggests that Sawa was one of the seven daughters of the Greek god Triton and a sister of Copenhagen’s little mermaid. Warsaw’s coat of arms features an armed mermaid and statues in her honour are found in Old Town Square, at the riverbank near Świętokrzyski Bridge and on Karowa Street.
Once called ‘Paris of the East’, Warsaw was believed to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. That was until 1939, the year that brought occupation by Nazi Germany and with it the massacre of Polish Jews and the creation of the Warsaw Ghetto. In 1944 the Polish Home Army led the Warsaw Uprising to liberate the city, and the Nazis retaliated by reducing more than 85 per cent of the historical centre to rubble. After the end of the war the Polish metropolis earned the moniker Phoenix City for the massive reconstruction effort that followed. The people of Warsaw are thought to have a good sense of humour and to be hard-working – perhaps that is how a former fishing village managed to survive multiple occupations and become what it is today: a majestic city full of life, a bit brash, but a city to love.
In addition to its neon signage, Warsaw impresses with lovely people and delicious Polish food. Bar Prasowy, one of the milk bars that have been hugely popular in Warsaw for many years, has been serving zupy [soups], naleśniki [pancakes], pierogi and other Polish specialties since 1954. Here you will run into various local types as well as tourists, and you can try the kind of lunch that any self-respecting Polish grandmother would typically serve up. A few years ago the bar was slated to be replaced by a bank, but locals protested and won. We would have joined the protesters because Prasowy’s sauerkraut and mushroom pierogi and sweet pancakes are out of this world. Those with a sweet tooth will also love the renowned Pracownia Cukiernicza, which makes a delectable Central European version of a doughnut. You may have to wait in a long queue to savour the fresh doughnuts based on an old family recipe, but your wait will be well worth it.
Last but not least, the tallest and the most imposing building in Warsaw is the Palace of Culture and Science. One of the most iconic architectural examples of socialist realism, the palace was built at the behest of Josef Stalin as part of the rebuilding of the devastated city following the end of the Second World War. The massive complex houses several exhibition halls, a congress centre, a multi-screen cinema, four theatres, two museums, a university and a large swimming pool. Since 2007 the complex has been protected under heritage laws, which has angered many politicians and famous personalities, who had called for its demolition. While some people view it as a symbol of oppression that needs to be replaced, others cannot imagine Warsaw without Stalin’s palace. Love it or hate it, the palace firmly holds its position as the most immense city symbol, and together with its glass-faced cousins it defines Warsaw’s skyline. Not only does the combination of historical buildings, memorials and ultramodern architecture make Warsaw a city full of fascinating stories, it is also a promise of the beautiful future that awaits.
Two hours west of Warsaw lies Poland’s third largest city and the one-time centre of the Polish textile industry. Today Lodz lives not only on industry, but also on cinematography and art. The city that enchanted the American film director David Lynch produces the highest number of feature-length films in Poland and hosts the Camerimage International Film Festival. It is also home to the Lodz Film School, which counts Andrzej Wajda, Roman Polański and Krzysztof Kieślowski among its former students. Lodz boasts a wide range of fascinating museums including the Museum of Cinematography, the Central Museum of Textiles, the Lodz City Museum, the Museum of Art and the Book Art Museum, as well as theatres, galleries and the Lodz Philharmonic.
The textile industry that charted the city’s historic growth declined dramatically after the fall of Communism, leaving behind vast complexes of empty factories that were calling for creative revitalisation. One such effort transformed a former cotton mill located off the popular Piotrkowska Street into an alternative multifunctional space. The new OFF Piotrkowska complex houses bars, clubs, a concert hall, artist studios, designer shops, cafes and restaurants. A similar though much larger and more comprehensive project is the nearby Manufaktura. The 27-hectare complex includes the largest open square in Lodz, which hosts cultural and sporting events, an arts centre, a shopping gallery with more than 300 shops, a multiplex cinema and a skate park. Another successful revitalisation is the EC1 Łódź cultural centre, where art and science meet. The former power station includes a planetarium and an engaging science and technology centre. It also regularly comes alive with exciting film events.
Where next? From the Fabryczna train station you can explore Poland in all directions, whether your destination be Krakow, Malbork or Gdańsk on the Baltic Sea. In addition to its lively culture and historically rich cities, the sixth most populous nation in Europe boasts stunning nature. Images from Poland’s natural side will have to wait for our next feature, for this certainly won’t be Soffa’s last visit to our welcoming neighbours in the northeast.