The D&O Diary’s European assignment continued last week with a stop for meetings in Warsaw, Poland, a city that absolutely confounded expectations. As befits a national capital of a country with a growing economy, Warsaw (in Polish, var-SHAW-vah) is a dynamic, energetic city, and full of history and interesting architecture. It also a surprisingly green city, with a huge, beautiful river, and vast parklands.
Following World War II, Poland was a part of the Eastern Bloc of countries. The remnants of the country’s Soviet era are still in evidence, although rapidly being modernized or expunged. Warsaw’s roadways still show the Soviets’ penchant for building wide boulevards, which today are choked with traffic, as shown in the first picture below. Many of city blocks still contain Soviet era concrete buildings, but many of those buildings are quickly being replaced by 21st century steel and glass towers. In the center of the city is what is still perhaps the city’s most well-known structure, the Palace of Culture and Science, originally dedicated to Josef Stalin. (The locals call it by a name that refers to a specific part of Stalin’s anatomy.) The building is still the tallest building in Poland, although the encroaching modern office towers seem to be giving it a run for its money.
The busy streets and the transformation from the Soviet era are consistent with my expectations. One part of the city I did not anticipate is how much green space it contains. On my first full day in the city, I walked to the Łazienki Krowlewskie (Royal Baths) park, about a mile south of my hotel. I had intended just to have a quick look, but it proved to be such a beautiful park that I wound up staying and exploring it for the better part of the afternoon. One of the most striking features in the wooded, 200-acre park is the baroque 17th century Palace on the Isle, which served as a summer residence for Polish monarchs. The park also includes a famous sculpture of Poland’s most famous composer, Frederik Chopin. It was, in fact, a perfect late summer day, well-suited for wandering around in the park.
I also visited Warsaw’s famous Old Town. I suspect that most people these days describing their visit to Warsaw would lead with a description of the Old Town. It certainly is beautiful and interesting, but I confess to having mixed feelings about the Old Town. The original structures in the Old Town were all destroyed in the Second World War. What is there now is almost entirely a reconstruction. To be sure, the Varsovians did an amazing job reconstructing their historic center city. Indeed, the success of the old city’s restoration is one of the reasons the Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The reconstructed old city quarter does have a convincing air of an antiquity.
But the hordes of tourists and the plethora of souvenir stores and shops selling ice cream also lend it a bit of a Disney World feel. The beautifully rebuilt older city is certainly an interesting place to stroll around on a summer evening. Or to sit in a sidewalk café and enjoy some of the excellent Polish beer. In fairness, I did in fact lead this post with a picture of one of old town’s most distinctive features – the picture at the top of the post shows the Palace Square, with the Sigismund Pillar on the left (memorializing Sigismund III, the first Polish monarch from the Swedish Vasa dynasty).
One of the things I wanted to do while I was Warsaw was to have a look at the Vistula River, and also to have a view of the city from the far side of the river. It proved to be more difficult than I had anticipated to get to the river – a wide, busy roadway divides the city from the river. I finally made my way to the riverside and then crossed over a busy bridge to have a look back at central Warsaw from Praga, on the far side of the river. It was here, in Praga, just across the river from Warsaw, that the Soviet army stopped in August 1944, when the Polish resistance Home Army rose up against the Nazi occupiers. The Soviet Army deliberately held back from aiding the Poles; the last thing in the world Stalin wanted was an independent and effective force on the ground in Poland. He was content to let the Nazis eliminate the Home Army.
To the surprise of both the Nazis and the Soviets, the Home Army fought valiantly and effectively, and it took the Nazis much longer than anyone anticipated to put down the rising. Hitler was so infuriated that that when the last of the resistance forces finally capitulated, he ordered the Nazi forces to destroy the remaining city – a task the Nazi troops completed with a grim effectiveness. In an era full of tragedy, the doomed ’44 Rising is among the most tragic.
The bravery of the resistance fighters lives on in Polish memory; the interlaced Kotwica mark, the Home Army’s symbol, can be found today on walls throughout the city. The symbol combines the letters P and W, to symbolize the phrase Polska Walcząca (“Fighting Poland”). The Soviet occupiers banned the symbol, but it lived on and it continues to serve as a sign for a variety of political causes.
Another vestige of the city’s complicated 20th century history is that memorials to the terrible events can be found throughout the city. Across the street from my hotel was a fascinating photo exhibit with huge photo enlargements of faces of the resistance fighters. It takes your breath away to realize how young they were. In the park next to my hotel was a huge painting depicting the civilian evacuation from the city at the outset of the rising; the artist was a small child at the time of the evacuation. In another part of the city, there is a dramatic memorial to the Warsaw Rising, and nearby a memorial to the separate 1943 Ghetto Rising.
At the end of the Second World War, the city was left in rubble. Much of its population was gone – dispersed or dead. Over 45 years as part of the repressive Soviet bloc followed. With the city’s complex and tragic past, it is a wonder to see what it has now become. The modern office buildings, the sleek new subway system, and the youthful crowds that throng the streets all testify to dynamic present and a promising future.
Because of the beautifully rebuilt old town, because of its parks, because of what the city has become, Warsaw is a great place to visit. But Warsaw is also a great place to visit because of what it represents as a symbol of resilience and courage.
Respect, Warsaw. Respect.
More Pictures of Warsaw: