Before winter kicks in for another six or seven months take a walk with the Insider deep in the South Central badlands.
The Insider points its compass in a south central direction – an area of sharp architectural contrast and history in abundance. More known for its busy bars and honking horns, it’s an underestimated gem that’s ideal for a dawdle.
The jigsaw of architectural styles jolts you the moment you begin at the fork which splits Wilcza and Koszykowa. Walking down towards Pl. Konstytucji, to your left stands the grim looking University of Chemical Technology, its dull brick walls lightened by the seemingly random painted form of a dove. Added in communist times, the dove was a popular symbol, and seen as a swipe at the west and its wicked war mongering ways. But if that’s a relic of state communism, let a remnant of independence be the building at No. 70. Marshal Józef Piłsudski, the man largely credited with restoring the Polish state in 1918, lived here between 1922 and 1923. Another ‘they lived here’ plaque celebrates Norbert Barlicki, the leader of Poland’s pre-war Socialist Party – later killed in Auschwitz. The building itself made it past the war, but fared less successfully during the sixties. For reasons unknown, the decorations and top floor were lopped off by an over-eager architect with more power than sense.
But don’t think lunatic architects were exclusive to the sixties. Evidence of barking modern madness comes in the shape of Hala Koszyki at No. 61/63. Having trouble spotting it? That’s because most of it has been knocked down. Completed in 1906, this historic market hall was demolished a few years back – amazingly, with the approval of the local conservation department. Justifying their decision, the city claims developers are under obligation to rebuild a faithful copy, yet even so their reasoning seems iffy – an original is not original if it’s actually a copy… Even so, a couple of wings have survived, and with them, a few fading traces of art nouveau flourishes.
Ironically, it’s fair to say a few of these blooping architects actually cut their teeth on Koszykowa. The University’s Department of Architecture is found at No. 55, with alumni numbering the fantastic Stefan Kuryłowicz (Prosta Tower, Focus Filtrowa) and Arseniusz Romanowicz (Warsaw Centralna).
As you approach the monolithic Pl. Konstytucji, make a detour – quickly. The pre-war street plan was radically altered around this way, but in the courtyard behind Pl. Kon, you’ll find a couple of battered looking tenements that were inexplicably forgotten when the wrecking crew moved in. Find this blast to the past inside the yard at No. 49.
Even in a city not short on socialist stains, Pl. Konstytucji is a bit of a breathtaker. Sometimes referred to as the ‘propaganda district’ it was here that the commie town planners really went nuts and let idealism run free. “A stone wedding cake covered with balconies built of boulders,” wrote one critic, and it’s easy to see his point. Much of the area survived the war, albeit with plenty of nicks and knocks, yet that wasn’t enough to save it. Working to a Socialist Realist template, age old tenements were bulldozed before being replaced by the bombastic monstrosity you see right ahead (cleverly, the street plan was purposefully designed to mask Saviour’s Church down on pl. Zbawiciela).
Built as a showpiece district for good-ranking communists (rents were set at a then eye-watering zł. 1,000), its construction was followed eagerly by the press who reported, in gushing terms, on the Herculean graft – Józef Gutowski, we’re told, smashed the Polish glazing record while exceeding his work quota by 510%. Opened to much fanfare and applause on 22 July 1952, the square was topped with monumental lamp posts and magnificent reliefs of socialist heroes – a miner, a bricklayer, a female teacher etc. Of course, as time clocked by this Utopian settlement fell by the way. In the 80s, famous footage of a Solidarity protestor being flattened by a militia truck was filmed here, while the 90s brought with it an invasion of Vietnamese hawkers – resembling Hanoi in miniature, the number of Vietnamese food cabins reached critical mass. Today, all that is a far cry. Buffed with giant posters advertising mobile operators, the clash between communism and capitalism is biting and acute.
Resume acquaintance with Koszykowa by heading through the ‘tunnel bit’ on the opposite side. Now this end of Koszykowa has pretty much zero to see, with the highlight reserved for pl. Na Rozdrożu at the very end. The dry concrete fountain is typical of the socialist follies found around town, though hopes are high the summer will once again see the return of the UFO – the Unexpected Fountain Occupation, a temporary bar/hostel/pool/tent that made all sorts of headlines when it landed last year. Having been unimpressed by this sorry bit of concrete, go north up Ujazdowskie, but not before noting the memorial built into the wall on the corner – from ’39 to ’45 one thousand Polish soldiers were killed and tortured here.
From Ujazdowskie nip to the left on Al. Róż and past the former British Embassy. Warsaw has many hidden secrets, but few command the aesthetic power of Dolina Szwajcarska (Swiss Valley). Created as an orchard in the late 1700s, it was turned over for public use in 1827. Within years it’d assumed position as something of a social hub, with beer stalls and a bandstand pulling in the punters. Sensing a buck, more attractions were added, among them fire eaters, sword swallowers and an ice rink. In fact, it’s not hard to see it a precursor to last summer’s Moomin bar down in Powiśle – only superior. Originally covering an area of 4.5 hectares, the party was well truly pooped by the Germans. The proximity to Gestapo HQ on Szucha, and numerous other sinister Nazi institutions, made it something of a no-go zone, and after the war it was shrunk down to its current size. Now bereft of the enticements of old, it’s nonetheless one of Warsaw’s finest parks – a charming little oasis with winding paths, a sunken garden and a fountain featuring a pair of lip-sticked cherubs grappling with turtles and crocs.
Having passed a monument to a certain General Grot (a war hero killed in Sachsenhausen), you’ll find yourself on Ujazdowskie, an august boulevard bristling with national banners. Lined with intricate palaces, it’s something of an embassy row – and not without its story. For instance, check the commemorative boulder opposite number 23/25. That marks the spot where a group of Poles ambushed SS honcho Franz Kutschera on 1 February 1944, spraying his limo with gun fire. It was one of the most high profile assassinations seen in Warsaw, and not without consequence – the next day 100 random Poles were shot in revenge.
Further on, and the sheer ornamental value of the manors and mansions can’t fail but impress – so prepare for a short, sharp shock with the sight of the US Embassy (wave to the statue of Reagan opposite). Monumental in its ugliness, nay, catastrophic, one assumes this concrete carbuncle was built on a ruin. Ha! Wrong!! The Czetwertyński Palace which once stood here actually survived the war intact. Rented by its rightful owners to Polish Radio, the immediate post-war years saw the Czetwertyński’s rounded up and pulled in for spying… for the Americans. It was while battling for their name / survival, the yanks stepped in – not to help the Czetwertyński’s, but to buy their home while the family served time. The rest is history – with the Czetwertyński’s locked up the Americans demolished their palace and set about constructing the spy-proof bastion you see to this day. And what of the Czetwertyński’s? They’re still pursuing a restitution claim all these many years on.
The war figures highly round this part of town, and as you reach the Ujazdowskie / Wilcza turning you’ll note a small marker hanging from the wall. It’s round here hundreds of insurgents slipped down into the sewers on the night of 26 and 27 September 1944, escaping the Nazis as the Uprising drew to its bloody conclusion. But that’s not the only thing that sets Wilcza 2 apart. In pre-war times it was regarded as Warsaw’s most haunted house, manifested by the ghost of gentleman butchered by his servant in a blood-curdling way. Since the war all signs of this unhappy chappie have all but disappeared, replaced instead by the apparition of young German officer.
If you ignore the incredible piles of dog waste, and the brothel flyers scattered like confetti, then you’ll see Wilcza for what it is – a beautiful relic of bygone times. Not all of it survived the bombs, however, and one case in point is the building at 12. Bołesław Prus, the celebrated boy soldier / agoraphobic / best-selling writer, lived here (the marker incorrectly sites him as living here two years before he was born – doh), though you’re going to have to use your imagination on this one. The building is strictly post-war, and you’d never really guess that it was once the pad of a literary legend.
As you cross Krucza, you’ll pass Poland’s oldest dance school standing at Wilcza 19. Operating since 1929, it continues to do roaring trade. But contain yourself; this is no place for an impromptu moonwalk. Indeed, even Warsaw’s cheery troop of drunks tip toe past No. 21. Home to the local cop shop, it’s here Lech Wałęsa was briefly imprisoned after Martial Law was declared in ’81. Lucky for him his incarceration down here didn’t last long – not soon after, he was spirited to the secret govt. retreat of Arłamow. Described by Timothy Garton Ash as, “an apparatchiks Xanadu,” features of this little known retreat included a staff of Cuban prostitutes and a eunuch commander – I kid you not.
Having pondered that interesting interlude, get your mind back on Wilcza. No. 30 is currently in the hands of the squatters, and if you don’t mind the repugnant odors escaping from their trousers, you could do worse than pleading for an impromptu tour – their psychedelic murals are magnificent, though how long this remains Warsaw’s shout to Haight Ashbury is open to question – the local gendarmes are not happy with their presence.
Providing an interesting contrast to the shabby art nouveau splendor of Wilcza are pieces of the MDM development. On the corners, either side of Marszałkowska, find super Stalinist details – the first, a relief of two head scarfed peasants picking grapes then, on the other side, a great big clock that was brought from Sopot in several parts.
From there, you find yourself entering the vortex – this part of Wilcza might be low in sights, but it’s not low on bites… or booze. The bar scene has erupted round this way, with personal highlights including the expat intrigues of Warsaw Tortilla Factory, the regional beers of Kwadrat, and the leftfield atmosphere of Znajomi Znajomych. If you must, resist their temptations, and instead head back to the start. On the way, crossing Emilii Plater, you won’t miss the old style adverts on the walls of Emilii Plater 9. Originally painted during Tsarist times, the Cyrillic / Polish lettering announces the copper foundry business of Adolf Witt & Son; it’s a far cry from the modern billboards that cover the town.
And that’s not the only nod to the past. Soak in the atmosphere of the 30s in the Rialto Hotel (Wilcza 73). Decorated from top-to-bottom in art deco finds, this luxury hotel (random famous guest: Venus Williams) is straight from the pages of Jeeves & Wooster. That’s all the more amazing when you consider it was essentially a wrecked looking ruin at the start of the noughties. Hit hard during the war, it was only till recently the area got a brush – the results are evident by the posh set of flats opposite at No. 72, themselves featuring a preserved piece of bullet riddled wall.