Built less than 100 years ago as Poland’s first garden city, the very concept of Podkowa Leśna was seen as futuristic at the time. Today, hidden in a wooded valley, it represents a secret sanctuary from the big city bedlam…
Set about 30 kilometers south west of Warsaw, the small town of Podkowa Leśna is one of the great nuggets of Mazovia, and an inside secret if ever there was: be truthful, hands up if you’ve ever heard of it. Once a vast hunting estate belonging to Duke Michał Radziwiłł, the grounds were parceled off at the start of the 20th century, and plans were mooted for the creation of Poland’s first ‘garden city’. These became reality in the inter-bellum: created to a radial street plan envisioned by Englishman Ebenezer Howard, Podkowa Leśna (Horseshoe Grove) became a bucolic haven away from boomtown Warsaw, and almost symbolic of the golden years of The Second Republic of Poland.
While it was hit by a few stray bombs from the Luftwaffe, the Nazi invasion largely bypassed Podkowa, and it remained undestroyed by the armies that were to spend the next six years rolling through Poland. And thank goodness for that. While Warsaw was flattened, Podkowa’s linden lined avenues survived. So too did its remarkable architecture: and there’s no better time to see it than now.
Whether they’re viewed through a soupy October mist, or in the golden glow of Autumn, the villas of Podkowa are extraordinary – rambling country residences that cover all schools of style: from faux fortresses with turrets and towers, to elegant mansions for the manor born; then, interspersed between them, are functionalist ivy-clad villas of the inter war, and cutting edge designs almost sci-fi in shape. This isn’t Millionaires Row, this is Petro Mega Millions Row.
Named after animals (North East Podkowa), trees (South East), birds (North West) and flowers (South West), the streets of this 4,000 strong settlement make for a compelling walk – not least if you spot some of the strange wildlife that allegedly lurks in the park. Lone bison are said to emerge dopily from the woods; recently, a privately-owned camel was seen strolling around. And there’s more. If the local guidebook is to be taken at face value, visitors should also look for the mysterious canis familiaris podkoviensis: a corgi-like dog apparently unique to the area. Are these tall tales the fumes of fancy? Maybe so. After all, some natives claim to be able to see the Tatra Mountains from the birds-eye lookout that crowns the park’s intricate ‘Casino’.
Be that as it may, Podkowa Leśna is awash with surprises. A network of walking trails take outdoorsy types past the town’s highlights: for instance, The Glass House (Sosnowa 9) is where famed feminist and author Irena Krzywicka once lived. But, short of burglary, to see what lies inside Podkowa’s gracious dwellings one must visit Stawisko (Gołębia 1). Completed in 1928, this stately home was the seat of Anna and Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz. Now a museum, the creaking mansion has been preserved as a tribute to this cult writer’s life.
Gnarled hunting trophies stare dead-eyed from the stairwell, and rooms come filled with dusty swag – first editions of the Polish dictionary, paintings (including a family portrait composed by Witkacy), and family photo albums (local hunting expeditions, early 20th century explorations of Egypt, etc.). In wartime, Stawisko was refuge for Warsaw’s intelligentsia, while in the post-war Iwaszkiewicz (allowed to keep his home after some dastardly double dealing with the communists), entertained visitors of rank and privilege: the Queen of Belgium, pianist Artur Rubinstein… You can feel the weight of history in the thick, musky air.
But it is St. Christopher’s Church, named after the patron saint of travelers following extensive funding from the Polish Automobile Club, that is recognized as the town’s central element. Unveiled in 1933, the black marble altar was constructed from material salvaged from Warsaw’s onion domed Tsarist Cathedral after it was stripped and dynamited in the 1920s. Built as a ‘garden church’, it’s a curious affair, with ponds, waterfalls, ducks and a Chinese-style cage filled with Mohican-topped birds. You half anticipate seeing a collection of gnomes. Instead, quirks are contained to a confessional booth built into a tree trunk, and a couple of cats snoring in the bible garden. There is, however, a serious side to the grounds, and that includes a number of plaques to events such as Katyń. Revealed in 1986, there’s also the Soviet Bloc’s first plaque commemorating the anti-communist Hungarian Uprising in 1956.
This improbable link with Hungary actually dates from the war, and manifests itself in the form of a memorial on ul. Akacjowa. Celebrating Polish-Hungarian friendship, this simple stone monument honors the 100 strong Hungarian garrison posted here by the Germans during the time of the Warsaw Uprising. Rather than joining the rampant butchery, the Hungarians kept a low profile, and displayed more interest in befriending the locals than shooting them. But the story isn’t without tragedy. Three Hungarian soldiers caught collaborating with the Polish Home Army were executed on September 5th, 1944, and are now interred in the cemetery found between ul. Brwinowska and Główna.
The cemetery is not just worth visiting for these three graves. Pinned in by a narrow river on one side, and a steep forest on the other, it’s an explosion of autumn color with intricate graves set amid thick undergrowth and elaborate arrangements of vibrant flowers. It feels melancholy, serene and far removed from the real world outside. Squelching across soggy leaves and springy vegetation, one gets the sensation of time standing still.
With body and soul thoroughly cleansed by the clear country air, it’s time to consider food. There are two ways to eat in Podkowa: very badly and very well. To sample the former, look no further than Biały Dworek (Gołębia 39), a macabre looking restaurant whose charms don’t extend beyond the stale scent of 1992. As for the food, it sets a new, dismal low for national cuisine: if ever there was a challenge for Kitchen Nightmares, here it is. But there is a flipside to the coin, and that arrives in the unlikely form of a warehouse – such is Wine Depot’s reputation (Nadaryńska 4), people travel from Warsaw to peruse their exhaustive stock of New World wines. But it’s not just about wine – the Argentine grill brings meat lovers one step closer to heaven, with Angus and Hereford cows cooked with such talent you genuinely question if this is Poland’s best steak. Having eaten lavishly and made copious toasts, one leaves Podkowo with something of an inner glow. You make mental notes to check out property here once you get back online. You want to return, and you want to do so permanently.
Yet this should not signal the end of your trip. If you’re traveling by car, then set aside time for the nearby Car Museum next door in Otrębusy. From the main road it appears like a junkyard; a cemetery of rust and a tangle of exhaust pipes. But do make the stop – it’s a thrilling little museum, and not just for car nerds. Having resisted the chance to climb onboard JPII’s Pope Mobile out front, visitors pay a modest entrance fee before edging into a shadowy garage complex filled with vehicles of every description: Lech Wałesa’s Volvo (with 7cm bullet-proof windows), Gomułka’s ZIS limo, German wartime armor and a pretty-in-pink Buick Skylark – the type, so informs the sign, favored by Elvis and Marilyn. It’s incredible in its peculiarity, with the random layout, oily smells and dark, cobwebbed corners only adding to the sense of treading somewhere special.
And having visited somewhere special, why not make a night of it and stay somewhere special? Found in the town of Michałowice, the Hotel Venecia (hotelveneciapalace.pl ) is a candidate for Poland’s most hilarious hotel; on sighting it, you shake the head, rub the eyes and then repeat the process a couple of times. You’re definitely awake, but who spiked your drink? And where’s Liberace? Designed in true Vegas style, the hotel is a feast of high kitsch: Roman statues, stone lions, cannons, and Doric columns supporting a palatial exterior: seeing is believing. It won’t be the best hotel you’ve stayed in, but it will be one of the more memorable.