Warsaw’s best district? Easy. Not for me the garden suburbs of Żoliborz and Saska, and you can stick your Wilanów and Konstancin up your jacksie. For me, nowhere is more representative of the spirit of the city than Mirów.Tired and shaggy in parts, it’s an area rich in contrast, energy, stories and tales. And seen through a January film of mist, murk and muck, at no other time are these qualities more pronounced. Which is why we went for an afternoon lurk around some of its streets…
If the center is increasingly homogenized, I love Mirów for its raw aesthetic, and for the opportunity to sneak round pre-war buildings that have been left battered and broken. For instance, this wreck on Łucka 12.
So I read, in the aftermath of the war the area was nicknamed The Wild West – it’s round these parts gangsters and black marketeers would meet to settle scores and bump each other off. Even now, you sense a deep, dark atmosphere hanging in the air.
But within touching distance of the Hilton and grade A gated communities, these ruins offer an outlet for creativity and self-expression. The street art is compelling, witty and at times thrilling.
Yet my favorite ruin of them all is on Waliców 14. How amazing to find something like this standing in the middle of a capital city, mere minutes from Warsaw’s financial heart. It’s both magical and spooky.
Defined by its brutal, barren blocks, I love the Żelazna Brama housing estate. Looking like a grotesque relic from a lost world, I’ve read that at one stage First Secretary Gomułka urged the city to slash spiraling building costs by installing communal bathroom facilities at the end of each floor. His suggestion, fortunately, was ignored.
I always smile at the ‘garden of reindeer’ outside Folk Gospoda (Waliców 13). From the inside the place is designed to mimic a Zakopane chata, and while many younger Poles cringe at such a representation of their country, it’s a good humored venue where warm memories are made – thanks, in part, to the vodka that goes down.
On the corner of Żelazna and Krochmalna is this blast from the past – it looks decrepit and disheveled, but the pączki are among the best I’ve ever had and come wrapped in string-tied paper bags by cheerful matriarchs. The Fresh Market in the background on the right, incidentally, has a sordid claim to fame. Back in 2000, when it was a bank, it was the scene of Poland’s bloodiest heist – four people shot dead for the sake of zł. 100,000. According to a taxi driver I once chatted to, at times people report strange chills in the night and the sounds of keyboards tapping. Haunted or not, it’s one of the most tragic stories in Warsaw’s modern life.
Chłodna, to me, is where Mirów happens. All life is here. From shabby pavilions and seedy enterprises, to glittery venues like the acclaimed Winosfera. In winter, I just love how the tower at the top disappears in the fog.
Amid the desolation of Wronia street, there is beauty. Found on a fence in front of what was once Browary Warszawski is this cute little work from celebrated street artist NeSpoon.
Back to Chłodna, and No. 20 is home to this urban jewel. Art nouveau cherubs adorn the façade. Adam Czerniakow, head of the wartime Jewish Council (Judenrat), lived here. He took poison in 1942 rather than collude with the Nazis and organize transports to Treblinka.
Chłodna saw the benefit of a zł. 12 million restoration program not long back. The results are magnificent. But the show-stealer is St. Andrew’s, an elaborate church built by Henryk Marconi and inspired by the Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica in Rome. Stunning, and even more so at dusk.
The area’s Jewish past is impossible to ignore. Throughout the district markers denote the boundary of the Ghetto. However, it is this installation that is the most prominent. Illuminated at night, the trail of overhead lights signal the point where an overhead bridge once connected the small Ghetto with the big. At night, with frost on the cobbles and mist from the manholes, you can almost feel the sad weight of history and the ghosts of the past.
(Words & Photos: Alex Webber)