A new guidebook twists Warsaw on its head with its fresh perspective on the city we thought we knew…
It is not always easy seeing past the city’s concrete skin – ask visitors and residents alike what Warsaw’s defining color is, and the chances are that battleship grey would top an on-the-spot ranking. However, like many generalizations, this tells not the full story.
When penetrated, the Polish capital comes alive in a sea of green, and whilst that’s not always obvious, this book is here to lead you by hand to those verdant spots. Titled ‘Green Warsaw Alternative Guide’, it is exactly that.
The work of Agnieszka Kowalska there is little that is ordinary about this book. Arranged in an easily navigable format, it’s as suited to random nosediving as it is to a more traditional linear approach. Choosing either, readers find themselves plunged into a magical world blooming with secrets.
By way of introduction, the author sets a helpful background – with Warsaw still reeling from the impact of the Nazi occupation, it is explained that as early as 1945 11,000 trees were planted as part of plans to ‘green up’ the city. In 1949, this was followed by a pledge to provide for 30 sq/m of greenery per capita.
Not that this idea was anything new – one picture, for instance, depicts a group of smartly attired citizens in 1935. “We will change the city into a beautiful garden,” declares the placard that they hold.
From thereon, the book reels off some of Warsaw’s highlights: its parks, rooftop gardens and riverfront spots. So far, so normal. But then, unexpectedly, this tome veers into the cemeteries, takes us through swamps and explores dunes and moors.
We meet the flora and fauna that populate these, and are then introduced to the people that protect them. At this point, the book bursts to life in spectacular fashion. Had you ever heard, for instance, about the Grochów Kibbutz? Neither had we.
Founded in 1919, it was established on a 30 hectare site that had originally been earmarked to serve as the city’s third Jewish cemetery. Instead, it became a training ground of sorts: a place where young Jews could prepare to build their own future home in Palestine.
Architects and artists come next, and at this stage one should prepare to come face-to-face with an assortment of eccentrics: who can fail not to fall in love with the strange micro-gardens of Marcin Chomicki, or to raise a smile at the zany works of Maurycy Gomulicki.
And after, having digested it all, feel inspired by Kowlaska’s string of neighborhood walks.
It is not just the text that deserves applause, either. This book succeeds thanks to its balance – the visuals play a vital part in capturing the spirit of green Warsaw, and here that means a joyously rich selection of images that run from delicious architectural renderings to archival black and whites via reproduced posters and vintage postcards.
Mostly though, it is the photographs that prompt one to pause. Immediately, you want to venture outdoors to see everything yourself.
Diligently researched, tenderly written and artfully photographed, this work breathes new life into Warsaw – a life that has always existed yet has perhaps failed to register. Deeply engaging, it has a home on every bookshelf.
Zielona Warszawa (Green Warsaw Alternative Guide) is published by Dom Spotkań z Historią and priced at PLN 79. To order, see: ksiegarnia.dsh.waw.pl