Warsaw: a perennial box of surprises?

I did expect some grimness – and there is, of course, plenty of it. Consider the area around the Palace of Culture and Science, and the huge empty space around the building itself.

I also expected interesting cemeteries, having read Rutu Modan’s The Property and also having seen many interesting photographs by Roman and Wanda taken on November 1st. The visit to Cmentarz Powązkowski (Powązki Cemetery) on my first day there, a Sunday, was great. Those Polish red lanterns by the tombs, next to elaborate and lovingly kept altars.

It was unfortunately impossible to visit the Jewish Cemetery – it was closed to the public during the Passover holiday.


What I did not expect was the dimension of the parks – they are enormous, with old trees and plenty of water (apparently diverted from the Vistula River in the 17th Century by some Italian architects – or Polish architects with Italian training – for the Royal Palaces), their playfulness, their utter “Romanticism” (for lack of a better word; although of course they predate the idea of Romanticism itself by more than a century). Among the most beautiful urban parks I have ever seen, anywhere. The Royal parks of Warsaw, south of the center, are marvelous public spaces.

What I also did not necessarily expect was the good quality of food. This is something new. For decades, food in Poland had a particularly bad reputation. Even in 2009, when I was in Poland (not in Warsaw), food was ok – there were some good things but nothing prepared me for this explosion of fresh ingredients, of interesting and clever preparations, for the way food is presented. What was more surprising to me was how good “normal daily food” seemed to be, at least in the area where I stayed (a rather well-to-do part of the city, yes). The way they prepared their daily lunches seemed naturally good, not pretentious at all.


An area I did expect – from having read plenty of material about the post-WWII reconstruction – was a well-redone Old City. It is there, indeed – surprisingly well-done. One may enter from a tram station through an automatic staircase. That in itself is a bit surprising and announcing the fact that the Old City is made in the 1950’s based on etchings and paintings from the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries – with the original building techniques and materials.


Another big surprise was the area of the old buildings of the University. There I could not really know whether they are old or reconstructed — very-well — but I was very positively surprised by those buildings, public spaces, auditoriums. I cannot really place why at some point they almost seemed too well-kept, too renovated for a public university. Certainly in much better shape than most public universities (in New York, in Paris, in Barcelona, in Bogotá, in Buenos Aires, in Jerusalem)… Is this something new in Warsaw? Or is it something specific to Poland, the way people seem to keep in excellent shape those buildings? I felt surprised… in a positive way, but there is something unexplained there (to me).


And then again, recent history. And the ghetto, the ghetto’s absence. Now residential buildings from the 1950s or 60s, wide avenues where the lively (and dense, and ragbag) ghetto used to be. Wide boulevards where there must have been cobblers, klezmer musicians, small shops of all kinds of bric-à-brac, a whole life that completely disappeared.

That was very painful, when in a smooth tramway (the smoothness and easiness of Warsaw’s public transit system was yet another very good thing) we glided through the wide boulevards – empty on Sunday – and Roman told me “here was the ghetto”. I asked, “what do you mean, here?”. He said, “here”. I felt pain to see the nothingness that has replaced it. I fell silent for a while. As the smooth tramway ride left the area I realized how suffocating it is to go through a nothingness where between 1939 and 1943 a brutal, utter disaster happened.

I asked Roman whether something like the Berlin “stumbling blocks” (Stolpersteine) – those little pieces of pavement where the names of people who lived there and were killed or deported to the camps are engraved, sticking out a bit to make people “stumble” and remember – had been done there, in the Warsaw ghetto. He said “no… but maybe it should be done”.


At the Cmentarz Powązkowski


Those amazing parks of Warsaw


Eating in Warsaw (café food, not fancy places)


Stairway to… the Old City


The University of Warsaw (older area)


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Wide boulevards – not quite the ghetto area, but this is roughly how it looks now…