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The Rambler :: blog

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Warsaw Part I 

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OK, I've found myself an internet cafe on Marszalkowska and since I've got a couple of hours before my flight and since this is the, er, 21st century baby, I'm blogging from Poland. Yeah.

I have a lot of notes here from Warsaw and the Festival, and I have every intention of writing them all up. If ever a city compels you to write, it's this one, so what follows is a warts-and-all travel diary, in several parts. I make no apologies for self-indulgence - this is a blog after all! Just be thankful that thus far I've spared you pictures of my cat.

[for the sake of an easy life, I'm leaving out Polish accents for the time being. I might go back and put them in at a later date]

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22 Sept 04
Room 262, Hotel Europejski
Krakowskie Przedmiescie

My first act in Poland is to find a way to break one of my 50 zloty notes so that I can buy a bus ticket from the airport into town. There's a small bookshop at Okecie airport, and I figure that a Polish edition of the first Lemony Snicket novel is as good a way to get some change as any other. It should help with the Polish too.

As it turns out, I forget to buy my ticket in advance, and the bus driver seems set on ignoring me. In fact, he closes the doors and pulls away, so I decide to chance a freebie. I take the bus all the way to the end of Krakowskie Przedmiescie and head into the old town, hoping to find the Warsaw Autumn offices on Rynek Starego Miasto open. On Plac Zambowy, outside the Royal Palace, a fusion band is playing on a small stage; banners and chalk on the pavement indicate that this is in aid of European no-car day - a fact I was completely unaware of on leaving London.

The Warsaw Autumn offices are at no.27, but I can only find nos.26 and 28, and no helpful plaques. I was prewarned that I might have to make my way through a restaurant to find the offices: in any case, most of the square looks shut for the night. I decide to find my hotel, and sort out passes and tickets tomorrow morning.

The Europejski proves tricky to find, and I almost accidentally stumble across it, even though it takes up an entire block. After waiting an age in the black-and-white marbled reception area I am served, and it turns out my name is not in their books, but they find me a room anyway. The room is compact, the corridors vast. Although the hotel is mid-19th century, its layout eerily echoes the priorities of Warsaw's Soviet town planners.

The David Crowley book I was reading on my way here highlighted the importance of building projects to Warsaw's identity; Warsaw cranesthe swarm of cranes around the Palace of Culture and Science reinforced this; and the construction trade magazine left in my hotel room further emphasised the point: "When will there be more cranes in Warsaw?" laments its editor, Magda Szczecinska-Konstantynowicz, "A city with cranes projecting onto the skyline seems to be a dynamic place that is prosperous, enjoying growth, and with the chance of a better future ... a few more cranes would give us a visual confirmation that the real estate market has finally woken up, along with the economy."

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Yet for all the rebuilding, Warsaw remains attached to its ruins. Last month was the 60th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising, and I have seen three new memorials already. One is temporary, and is outside St John's Cathedral in the old town. It was a pile of rubble with Polish flags, and rising above were banners with faces of those who had died in the fighting. On the Plac Powstancow Warszawy, next to the Warsaw Hotel building are two more permanent memorials. Plac Powstancow Warszawy memorialOne is a wedge shape, with a huge iron PW anchor motif on the front (PW stands for 'Warsaw Fighting', and the anchor mongram is the symbol of the Polish Home Army). Behind is a sort of counterweight of bricks and rubble, marking the dates 1944-2004. On the adjacent side of the square is a large marble and stone memorial with two eternal flames, an altar to those who died. The largest of these flames comes from a bowl shaped to look like a circle of bricks, supported by rifles standing on their ends. On both monuments people have left candles and flowers. One rose had miniature homemade barbed wire wrapped around it.

Plac Powstancow Warszawy memorial
I came across this square by accident, taking a random path from the Nowy Swiat restaurant where I had dinner. The restaurant had a Chopin soundtrack, and I was struck by how well I knew some of it - every now and then a prelude that my Dad used to practise would tear at me. I was surprised by this connection I suddenly had with the city, so to come upon these monuments almost immediately afterwards was heartbreaking.

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[continue with Part II here]


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