For the second instalment of our Warsaw series, we would like to take you with us on an ‘Off the Beaten Track’ tour with Adventure Warsaw, to unveil the soul of this extraordinary city.
Warsaw and its history
Warsaw is an odd city. It’s not particularly pretty, at first glance. It is a city that cannot be understood, unless one knows history. It’s a place where beauty is not in the obvious, and stories are not out in the open. A place that reveals itself only to those who have time to search for stories.
Usually, when that’s the case, we like taking a tour. We loved the sound of the Adventure Warsaw’s tour, focused on Warsaw’s history over the course of the twentieth century. So, one sunny morning, we set off in a bright blue Soviet era van, with our guide Adam, a Warsaw local.
Our Adventure Warsaw Tour
Our first stop was Grzybowski Square, which, once again, at first glance didn’t look like much. ‘Listen to the city’ Adam said. ‘Look at the buildings. The city wants to tell you a story’.
We looked around, helped by Adam, and saw what he meant. Over one hundred years of history, stories and people’s lives, crossing paths in the same square. Wealthy pre-war buildings, with ornate windows and façades; stocky and functional Socialist blocks of flats, and the cathedrals of capitalism, all glistening steel and glass.
A few steps away, we reached the last street of the Ghetto, Ulica Próżna. The four remaining houses are being restored now, but Adam led us around the back, where it was possible to see into the old courtyards. The buildings had been constructed as homes for the wealthy; Adam pointed out details we never would have noticed, such the ornate bollards on the entrance to prevent coal-carts from ruining the beautiful doorways, and hooks to tie the horses.
We learnt of the tragedy of the Ghetto. I thought it was strangely prophetic that Ulica Próżna is translated as ’empty street’, for it was empty indeed; empty but not silent, if one knew how to listen.
Before reaching our next stop, Adam drove past the Palace of Culture and Science, the Soviet-style extravaganza that still dominates Warsaw’s skyline. ‘Normally, where there are two Poles, there are three opinions’ Adam joked. ‘Some people think the Palace is beautiful. Others hate it. But even those who hate it agree there’s a beautiful view from the top. Because that’s the only place where you can’t see the Palace itself’.
Adam stopped the van in a quiet backstreet. I was wondering what was so interesting about it, before Adam suggested again to listen to the city. We wandered into a courtyard, and then another, and another. All three had a small shrine with the Virgin Mary in it.
They were set up during the War, sometimes in the centre of the yard, other times hidden in the gate or staircases. Public gatherings were prohibited, and the atmosphere was of terror, with dissidents being deported on a daily basis. These shrines were a way for people to gather in prayer, to find faith while the city was crumbling around them.
Some of these pre-war buildings were in terrible condition, poorly maintained, some even still riddled with bullet holes. That is because their ownership is not clear, Adam explained. The original owners may have died in the War, but their heirs might survive, elsewhere in Europe, the US or Israel. No one wants to face the costs of renovating the buildings, as the heirs may turn up, one day or another.
Praga, Warsaw’s bohemian neighbourhood
After showing us the stunning Polytechnic building, Adam drove us across the river to the suburb of Praga. The name has nothing to do with Prague; it originates from the old Polish word for burning, referring to a forested area that was burnt to make way for the village. There were far more pre-war buildings in Praga compared to the city centre. This area was where the Red Army was stationed, and it was spared the destruction of the centre after the Warsaw Uprising.
We had lunch in a milk bar, a type of establishment that was popular throughout the last century among the working classes. The name milk bar derives from the fact that no meat was traditionally served; nowadays milk bars are making a comeback, partly because of nostalgia, partly as a result of the economic crisis.
Next door to the milk bar was Bazar Różyckiego, Warsaw’s last bazaar. It once was Poland’s biggest black market; all that survived when we visited, though, were a smattering of fruit and veg stalls and (funnily enough) a couple of sellers offering ceremony attire.
Adam explained that free market is slowly killing the Bazaar. It was thriving during Socialist times, as it was the place where everything could be found. Now, with supermarkets on every other street corner, hardly anyone goes there anymore. In Socialist times, the Bazaar was the only place where capitalism survived. It’s ironic that capitalism is killing it now.
The tour ended at Adventure Warsaw’s very own museum of Socialist memorabilia. Wandering back around Warsaw, we looked at the city with different eyes. We noticed the small things; the bullet holes, the horses’ hooks, the Virgin Mary shrines. Most of all, we saw history. The whole twentieth century.
Our tour was sponsored by Adventure Warsaw. All opinions expressed in this article are our own. We thoroughly enjoyed the tour and recommend it highly.