Travel: Warsaw, a city reborn

By Coen Lammers

Walking around Warsaw is like strolling through a living World War II museum.

Even though the history of Poland's capital goes back to the 13th century and still includes some of Europe's finest architecture, the horrors of the German occupation are a theme the city cannot escape.

Modern Warsaw is a billboard of the booming Polish economy, with skyscrapers and enormous new shopping malls dominating the skyline among baroque castles and Stalinist palaces.

The fascinating tale of this city is how in 1945 its few surviving citizens picked themselves up and restored their most famous castles, churches and medieval streets as close as possible to before the war. Dubbed The Phoenix City, it counted 1.3 million inhabitants in 1939, but fewer than a third survived or chose to return by the end of the war.

Without any plans or blueprints, much of the reconstruction was based on paintings by Caneletto, who captured Warsaw's beauty in the 18th century.

The bright red Royal Castle dominates the entrance to the Old City. It was built in 1407 and not reconstructed in 1980 when it was declared a Unesco heritage site.

Much of the artwork, carpets and furniture was saved during the German invasion in 1939 and put back 40 years later.

The facade of the castle and other reconstructed landmarks along the Old Town streets look authentic but the interior is often communist designs.

Having lived through the Christchurch earthquakes, the tales of the Warsaw recovery are truly inspirational and any disillusioned Canterbury earthquake official should visit Poland.

Pictures of Warsaw in 1945 would remind New Zealanders of the rubble of Christchurch in 2011. However, it is not until you see the movie City of Ruins at the Uprising Museum that you realise how much larger the destruction was in Warsaw.

This museum is a perfect starting point for any tourist to understand this city, its heroism during the 1944 uprising, the betrayal by the Soviets and the eventual total destruction by the Nazis.

Interestingly, New Zealand Air Force pilots were among the few Allied forces who assisted the uprising by dropping supplies into the war zone, a fact that is not forgotten by the locals.

Christchurch used much of its rubble to fill in a part of Lyttleton Harbour, and Warsaw built the 121m-high Uprising Hill, now covered in trees and possibly the best viewpoint to see the city.

From the hill you can see the skyscrapers of the business district, the towers of its castles and outlying suburbs dominated by communist apartment blocks on both sides of the Vistula River.

Warsaw has always been an economic hub between East and West but it now benefits from Poland's membership of the European Union as well as being a close trading partner with the oil-rich economies of Russia and the Ukraine.

Visitors can get lost in the giant Royal Baths Park that houses the presidential palace Belvedere and the picturesque Palace on the Water.

The park is also home to a statue of composer Frederique Chopin, who grew up in Warsaw, and during summer visitors are treated to regular piano concerts. A number of black benches throughout the city burst into one of his masterpieces at the push of a button.

The city is also proud of scientist Marie Curie, the only person to have won two Nobel Prizes, and her birthplace in the New Town is covered in beautiful murals.

The name New Town is relative because it developed centuries ago on the outskirts of the walled city that was unable to cope with the population growth.

New Town was also the place where the Nazis herded the Jewish population and, after their uprising in 1943, this part of the city was wiped out, a year before the rest of Warsaw suffered a similar fate. Where one of Europe's most beautiful synagogues once stood is now a modern skyscraper.

A bit further down the road the mammoth Palace for Arts and Science dominates the city centre. Many Poles were keen to tear down this gift from Comrade Stalin after the Russians departed in 1990 but the protracted public debate ended abruptly when Unesco listed the building a heritage site in 2005.

Along this Stalinist monster runs one of Warsaw's wide boulevards that city planners included in their post-war blueprint. For decades these six-lane avenues were a running joke as few locals owned a car but now the network can barely cope with the traffic.

Warsaw is home to some of the craziest drivers in Europe, who seem to drive at full speed until they get stuck in a traffic jam.

Visitors who are nervous to mix it with the Polish drivers can hop in a retro car from the communist days. Racing around Warsaw in a smelly, noisy Zastava or Lada definitely has its charm and gets plenty of funny looks.

You can also use the new bike-rental network or fall back on the cheap and sophisticated bus and metro network. The city is constructing a second east-west metro route to complement the single north-south line.

Once the metro is complete, suburbs such as Praga across the river will be more accessible.

Praga has long been the underbelly of the city, with its cheap housing and criminal reputation. In recent times, however, the authorities have successfully turned Praga into the hip new part of town where young people party in the numerous cafes, bistros and night clubs, or visit the new art galleries.

The east side of the river escaped the German destruction, and you can still find a chapel in every courtyard to thank the Holy Mary for saving their homes.

Praga may look a bit rough around the edges but it gives visitors a more authentic glance at the Warsaw of old. The river used to be the western border of the Russian empire and Praga still houses the largest Orthodox Church in the country.

It is also home to the new National Stadium built for last year's Euro football championship on the former site of Europe's largest market.

Before the games, football fans often hang out on the riverbank beaches, next to the stadium where Warsaw locals escape the heat of the summer.

Summers can be hot and sticky in Warsaw and winters can have a real nasty bite but despite this contrast, the city has plenty to offer in all seasons.

Coen Lammers travelled to Warsaw courtesy of Emirates Airlines, which has recently opened a direct route to the Polish capital from Christchurch and Auckland via Dubai.


- Hamilton News

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