Warsaw a latter day Phoenix raised from ashes

In the seventies when my husband and I decided to ‘discover’ both our families’ roots in Poland, the first question the custom officer asked when we arrived was “Why are you coming HERE?” Of course, we were interested in seeing first hand, the horrors of the Holocaust but another part was visiting a country that dates back to the 13th century, filled with history, culture, art and to learn more about the roll call of Polish talent.e.g. Copernicus, Chopin and Rubenstein for starters.

We soon found out that Warsaw, our first stop, was visually a bleak, grey, desolate destination with little to its credit. Most monumental buildings had been damaged or completely destroyed and unrepaired since WWII. Now, in the 70s, it was a Soviet related.

As we continued our voyage every other city seemed worse. The custom officer’s query became relevant and at the same time, laughable. Why indeed had we come?”

But thirty years later, now with the Stalinists gone after their presence from 1945 to 1989 and the new years of democracy, Warsaw is a surprisingly cosmopolitan city, all amazingly recaptured in such a short time

As a Jew, I can’t, won’t and don’t forget the horrific years with each step, every day. But as a travel writer there is much to extol this city.

Polish history is so convoluted with various invasions, partitions off to other bordering countries and its complete disappearance from the maps for over 123 years, (1795-1918).

And yet with all these complex colonization, the revived vitality of the people have made this metropolis vibrant and Westernized in the best sense.

Over 80% of Warsaw was destroyed during WWII and the ugly structures that were built by the Russians certainly didn’t help the aesthetics. But with an infusion of government money and the completion of the renovations of Warsaw’s Old Town since 1980, listed as an UNESCO world heritage, replicas of the grand buildings and the refurbishing of the slightly damaged original edifices once again have helped this become a gracious square. However, as I sit at Metal Cafe, it struck me this could be a Hollywood film set. The colourful facades all looked one dimensional, about to be taken away after the ‘shoot’.

From La Regina Hotel, the 18th century former palace turned elegant 61 room boutique hotel where I was staying, it was a few minutes walk to the Town Square, usually the first stop for tourists as it was mine.

Only four buildings were left standing on this square but the exacting renovations make it difficult to distinguish which are new or date back hundreds of years. Yellow, blue, green stucco buildings are marked contrast to the Commie-style raw concrete left-overs that are still seen throughout the city. As filled with tourists as the square may be, there aren’t any’ kitschy’ stalls but flower filled outdoor cafes, a few overpriced but notable restaurants like the very traditional Dekerta (their duck is worth the calories) house in one of the original houses.

Throughout Poland, jewelry stores featuring famous Baltic amber is omnipresent, some pure ‘schlock’, others beautiful. Once shunned by the locals, amber is no longer presented as just beads on a string. Creative use of polished and rough stones in a bewildering range of colour –green, ivory white, clear yellow, blue, black – are getting rarer. Amber designer and forerunner of modern amber jeweller, Marcin Zaremski, owns Metal jewelry Boutique (he’s also the proprietor of the popular modern decorated restaurant cum outdoor café by the same name in this trendy square) has given new definition with his integration of brushed silver.

“Silver,” he says, “was the cheapest of all metals after the war. Therefore it’s rare to see any amber set in gold.”

With his signature tilted straw hat, he proudly shows irregular shapes and unpolished textures. Tourists, especially savvy Germans and French are wisely purchasing these constantly price rising ‘gems’. Upstairs of a café where Chopin was a regular, in Gallery Marki, there was an exhibit of the ever-growing popular stone. Designers Danuta Czapnik whose clear light yellow neckpiece and bracelet are used with matte silver, Slywia Gobszewicz’s irregular large amber beads are combined with oxidized silver cubes and turquoise and Zbigniaw Dabski mixed black with rough yellow amber attached to black leather strands. Perhaps one of the more successful amber designers is the Nowinska family. Mother, father and daughter, all contribute completely different ‘takes’ to their boutiques located in the three top 5 star hotels, La Regina, Bristol and Polania Place.

Art is everywhere

Music seems part of the Polish DNA as it flows out of the windows, musicians play Beethoven with their accordions on street corners and then there’s Sunday in the Park. By the time Aneta, my well informed guide, and I arrived for the noon day performance at Lazienki Park, every bench and available surface was taken. The lush park in the city centre boasts of a massive bronze statue of Frederic Chopin who lived in Warsaw for 20 years and is the country’s musical hero. Under a white canopy next to the statue was a large baby grand piano where well known pianists concretize. These concerts have been held every year for over 50 years except of course, during the war. So twice on Sunday during the summer months (noon and 4PM) the incredible popularity of Chopin attracts standing-room only audiences. Afterwards, it’s tradition to walk down the long winding walkway past a small lake to lunch at Café Amfiteatr. While we strolled, young people openly expressed their feelings while the more mature couples held hands. Aneta pointed out former and late King Stanislaw August Poniatowski’s mistress’ white grand manor in the days when there was royalty with huge disposable incomes. These days, with the high rate of unemployment, about 14% depending to whom you speak, the zloty buys a lot when you’re a tourist but everything seems wildly expensive for the Poles.

Warm, sunny and a lucky day, we found the only vacant outdoor table. Over in-season wild mushroom soup and salad, I had my very first Polish beer, Okocim. Strong and good.

Our next musical destination was in the Jewish Quarter. On stage was a female trio singing Yiddish folk songs followed by the beat of a Klezmer band which had the large audience clapping and dancing in what seemed to be a large parking lot. The annual Singer Festival, (named after the famed Jewish author Isaac Bashevis Singer) included stage productions across the street in the Teatr Zydowski while under a tent, outfitted to look like a turn of the century ‘shethl’ café, another band was playing Yiddish tunes. Involved in the activities is the Nozyk Synagogue built in 1902 and the only synagogue to survive, also holding an event. The ecru stucco building had been damaged and miraculously survived.

Under three brass chandeliers, near the marble and granite the ark that holds the Torah, standing in front of the modest wood altar (“bimah”), Rabbi Goldberg, visiting from Israel and through an interpreter, answered questions about Judaism. Most of the 600 seats were filled. I sat next to Sister Elizabeth, a Franciscan num. She had come because she wanted to know more about Judaism. For any Jew, the queries from the audience would have seemed naive. But it gave me great satisfaction to see the interest in this country known for its anti-Semitism.

From the 300,000 Warsaw Jewish population pre-war, there are only approximately 300 in the city and about 4000 throughout Poland.

The beat continued at the Second International Argentine Tango Festival taking place with ‘milonga’ (dancing parities), intensive workshops for both teachers and students. Tango fever was just another aspect of the city’s diversified musical interests.

If anyone would have told me that there was a segment of the population that was stylish, I would not have believed it. I expected to see plumpish women wearing tired looking head scarves. But in fact, ‘fashionistas’, especially between 20-45 years old, were out in force, certainly visible on Nowy Swiat the local Fifth Ave or Toronto’s Bloor Street.. Two designers, Zien who goes by one name and Gosia Baczywska have created high priced salons where stylish designs hang from the racks and runway fashion shows have huge attendance but for the very well established since their prices are up in the thousand zloty area. Zien’s forte is Red Carpet evening wear, his signature is lace and colourful sashes to show off his clients slim waistlines. Gosia’s designs go from a daytime cobra skin coat to after-five richly and elegantly detailed separates and simplistic chiffon gowns with delicate and interesting intricate sequin work.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect was the plethora of modern cuisine – restaurants that can rival any major city’s with both menu and décor. In the original art deco, 44 room Hotel Rialto, complete with original art deco furniture and Lempika paintings in the lobby, the grey-haired handle-bar mustached, beret wearing Viennese born, Kurt Scheller, is a culinary star in the city. He has established and refurbished one of the very, smartly designed eateries in the business centre of the city. From creamy horseradish soup to bison strip loin and a very impressive wine list, the popularity has made it necessary to have reservations. Sense, an Asian style restaurant on the fashionable, Nowy Sweat, the menu is the antitheses of pierogis and dumplings. Another centrally located ultra modern restaurant is KOM, a communications building used by the Germans and left to deteriorate. It took a lot of guts and 6 months of planning and hard labour to keep the integrity of the building. American born Kai Schoenhals, a former American movie producer, opened KOM in April 2006 and offers a menu including a delicious Moroccan ‘pastilla’, several vegetarian dishes’ and a wine bar with 220 wines.

The creative Marta Gessler’s all-white restaurant, Qchnia Artystyczna, located in the Contemporary Art Museum is as New York as one could imagine. An interior decorator and florist, she changes the ‘scene’ as often as her menu. While I was there, goblets became centerpieces and were filled with cherry tomatoes; large painted white garbage cans were filled with green plants and also used as table bases. And the luncheon offering – my simple tuna salad and Aneta’s pasta dish- looked like an art form.

From just about anywhere in the city, one can’t miss seeing the 231 metre high Palace of Culture and Science, a gift in 1952 from Joseph Stalin, which ironically, the citizens of the city had to pay for in the end. Now used for city council board meetings as well as fairs and balls, there’s definitely a new laissez faire attitude. What may have been considered irreverent a few decades ago, it now acceptable but noisy. Young people use this long paved narrow street entrance to show off their skate board skills, play basket ball, talk on their cell phones, wear jeans, studs, bare torsos – all part of the new but ancient city of Warsaw which has set the bar for the rest of the country.

Dekerta, Rynek Starego Miasta 38/12 Old Town Square Tel 635 6511

Hotel La Regina Koscienia 12 Tel 48 22 531 6000 info@leregina.com

Hotel Rialto Ul Wilcza 73 tel 822 58 48 700 info@rialto.pl

Sense Ul. Nowy Swiat 19 tel 22 826 6570

Zien Atelier Ostrobramska St. 75 biuro@zien.pl

Nowinska at Hotel Bristol tel 22 55 11862

KOM Zielna 37 Tel 48 22 617 3553

The Nozyk Synagogue 6 Twarda Street


Paparazzi, a bar located on 12 Mazowlecka St, in the very heart of the Varsovian clubbing zone Tel 48 22 828 42 19

Cate Kulturalna 1 Defilad Square is a club cum café situated in the foyer of Cramatyczny theatre in the Palace of Culture and Science. A perfect way to see this mammoth building and to have a drink before or after a show or concert tel 4822 656 62 81

Ice Bar 61 Panska St. Tel 48 22 654 56 34 is Europe’s fifth original Ice Bar but the first in Poland. It’s equipped with a Warm Hall on those cold wintry nights and the décor is wintry. The Ice Hall temperature only 8 Celsius leaves no doubt where you are and all the walls, benches, tables, bars and figures are of course made of transparent or opaque ice.