With Women’s Day here, the Insider takes a look at the story behind the legendary flower market found at Hala Mirowska… By Stuart Dowell | Photographs by Ed Wight
It’s about 6 p.m. on 8 March and you’ve been busy all day penning multi-million złoty contracts, ducking for cover in English language classes or, if you’re lucky, lounging on the sofa binging on box sets. Yet something is different today. All the women are clicking down the street clutching single tulips, while the men form orderly queues outside florists. Of course… It’s Women’s Day! But where’s the best place to pick up a bunch for your loved one and pretend that you had your bases covered? The Hala Mirowska flower market of course!
The old markets on Plac Mirowski have been going through a renaissance in recent years. For a long time before and after the transformation of 1989, the halls and the outdoor market around them exuded a mustiness and state of dilapidation that was exponentiated by the armies of pensioners who turned shopping into a martial art. While that side of the market has certainly not disappeared, new groups of shoppers have appeared that include top chefs provisioning for their restaurants, food bloggers researching their next post and all those in search of fresh, seasonal ingredients, the best local products and specialities from all corners of the world.
The stalls that are housed in smart, brick pavilions along the southern flank of both main halls groan under the weight of typical market vegetables, cheeses, eggs, meat and fish. If you hunt a little deeper, though, you’ll find fresh tofu locally made by Vietnamese experts, edible flowers, nose-to-tail cuts of meat trimmed just how you want and bulk quantities of pure Cretan olive oil.
Market trading in this part of Warsaw goes back to the late 17th century when the area was the privately-owned borough of Wielopole. The name Mirowski came later and derives from the Mirowski Mounted Cavalry Guard, which occupied the famous Mirowski Barracks (built in 1730-32), several of which were torn down to make way for the market halls built in 1899-1901. What’s interesting is that the name Mirowski actually comes from a Scot, Wilhelm Mier (the “e” in his name was dropped over time), who was the cavalry guard’s first commander.
The neo-Romanesque, redbrick halls survived the destruction of the Siege of Warsaw in 1939; however, they were the scene of a horrific massacre when 510 Poles were shot on 7-8 August 1944 while German soldiers were carrying out Hitler’s order to murder every citizen of Warsaw during the Warsaw Uprising. On the night of September 30th, 1944, the halls were completely burnt down during a German assault. The walls remained, though, and even today scars from the fighting and the earlier executions can be seen clearly.
After the war, the halls were used temporarily as a bus depot and were slated for demolition as the authorities saw no architectural value in them. After much public outcry, they were rebuilt. The eastern one of the one pair became a sport and entertainment venue, while the western hall retained its market function. In 1974, a concrete pavilion was wedged onto the upper level of the western hall and disfigures the building to this day.
On the wide pavement in front of the western hall is Warsaw’s best know street flower market, made up of a couple of dozen green, tented stalls where customers can buy a single tulip or an extravagant bouquet. Indeed, Pani Teresa, a flower seller from stall number 8, says that she once sold fifty red roses to a gentleman on Valentine’s Day. What sells best on Women’s Day? “Tulips, definitely tulips. It used to be carnations, but people will only buy tulips now,” Pani Teresa stated sagely. Are there any new trends when it comes to buying flowers on Women’s Day? “Not really,” she asserts, “just tulips”.
Although the tradition of celebrating Women’s Day can be traced back to the Matronalia of ancient Rome, which fell on March 1st and was associated with motherhood and fertility, most Poles will tell you that it’s a socialist-inspired holiday from after the war. It was a day on which men would give the women in their lives a small gift, most often a single carnation or maybe a pair of tights, but it was also a day when the Party would trumpet its achievements in integrating women into all areas of Polish life – a transparent propaganda play to bind the population to the grand ideals of peace and socialism.
Now, the propaganda has been replaced by marketing, and although people have grown weary of every occasion being used to empty their pockets, giving our friends and loved ones flowers feels good. Grabbing a bunch of tulips from the Hala Mirowska flower sellers won’t cost you much, and it gives you a great excuse to visit Warsaw’s finest old market…