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Destinations · Europe · poland · Warsaw · Things to do ·

Things To Do

Author: Anothertravelguide.com0 COMMENTS

Things To Do

-EXPLORE THE PRAGA NEIGHBOURHOOD. As a result of its tortured history, Warsaw can seem like a giant jigsaw puzzle from which some pieces have unfortunately vanished, other pieces being stuffed into the gaps so that there wouldn't be a blank spot. More so than in other cities, things are hidden in the interiors. In the people, in the courtyards, in the vestibules. It's like a rebus in that the more you succeed in finding, the more eager you are to seek further.
Long a separate town, Praga joined the city only in the 18th century. On the right bank of the Vistula and a ways from what might be dubbed the centre, it was comparatively unscathed when central Warsaw was devastated in the Second World War. Praga has preserved its pre-war architecture and offers a completely different atmosphere. Only a decade ago it was an outlying district with a distinctly criminal reputation. Though there are still some streets where nocturnal wanderings aren't recommended by locals, the last few years have brought about a total transformation of Praga.

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It could now be called the epicentre of alternative culture in Warsaw. Artists' studios, galleries, clubs, bars and cafés abound, and fashion shows, festivals and theatre thrive. Though the transmogrification of warehouse districts and urban backwaters into neighbourhoods bristling with creativity has taken place since SoHo made its mark in 1960s New York, Warsaw's historic Praga borough possesses a unique authenticity. The feeling one gets, before being drawn into the interiors yet again, is that the exterior seemingly hasn't changed much. Gnawed upon by time and not dolled up, some of their windows bricked up, some of the balconies barely clinging to the façades, the walls, fences and every available surface sprayed with graffiti, the buildings that have held together nonetheless display their modernity with ubiquitous satellite dishes. It still savours of a separate town; with everything necessary available here, a trek to wherever the centre of Warsaw might be is unnecessary. Some locals rarely make the trek; once the new airport is completed, they might never cross the Vistula again. The streets of Praga formed the backdrop for Roman Polanski's The Pianist. The former Koneser vodka factory, built in 1897 and distilling such famous potions as Wyborowa and Zhubrovka, is now a centre for the artistic spirit. Taking up five hectares, it'd quite fabulous architecturally, its Gothic structures having survived the war almost untouched. As in many a corner of this district, there's an altar to the Virgin at Markowska and Ząbkowska streets. Candles burn and genuine Praga aborigines, cans of beer in hand, gently swaying, pass us by. The vast premises of the vodka factory are fairly empty. A lonely nymph carved of wood stands in the courtyard, covered with snow. On one side, beside a pair of statues of two boys, there's an antiquarian bookshop. Opening the door, one nearly trips over piles of books, countless volumes packed into shelves lining narrow, labyrinthine aisles not wide enough to turn around in, the owner crouching over bags containing yet another shipment of yet more books. The brick walls of the courtyard are decorated with graffiti, a sketch of the Dalai Lama peering out between cartoon heroes hidden behind heaps of snow. An iron door informs us that we've reached the Sygnatura Gallery. Like the rest of the district, it lives a fully autonomous life. Wandering in, we interrupt the owner's nap. She seemed quite comfortable on a couch covered with a red quilt. The gallery showcases new art from Warsaw and also offers various souvenirs = postcards, notepads, bags, and sundry other items that the proprietor says are purchased mostly by foreigners. Next door, behind a nearly identical iron door, is Magazyn Praga. This is doubtless the most striking store for leading edge design in Warsaw. One's first impression may be one of chaos, the stock arrayed on crates and old barrels and outré Socialist-retro magazine tables. Another look will tell you that nothing is even slightly out of place. The whole display is a carefully conceived whole, in other words. Everything here has character, and every item in this conceptual whole is discrete. Besides the latest in Polish design, one can find the latest from the rest of Europe - or, more specifically, whatever is fresh between the Scandinavians and the Czechs. There are new names here as well as names already well-known on the stage of European design, both unique and mass-produced. Furniture from the 1950s, 60s and 70s. There's smart stuff that could be flogged as knickknacks and precious goods that could qualify as investments. Functional décor and some items that are simply strange and apparently pretty useless. A wooden ruler shaped like a pistol, a bright red hanger that echoes the Stalinist architectural triumph, glass wine glasses that look plastic, a vase that looks like a pair of wellies?

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The former vodka factory also offers theatre, and in the summer the brick walls become screens for art films. The early bird in the transformation of the Praga borough was Fabryka Trzciny. Opening in 2003, it was the first non-governmental cultural centre in the city. Wojciech Trzciński, a well-known composer, musician and TV producer, was its creator. Like the Koneser, Fabryka Trzciny is a former factory. Built in 1916, it manufactured marmalade and later the popular Polish gym shoes known as pepegi. The industrial atmosphere remains; knots of pipes and ventilators have not been removed. The owner tells us that everybody thought he was crazy to try to start something in Praga... but the move is now seen as the thing to do. One of the gems at Fabryka Trzciny is the bar and concert hall Denaturat, where Cesária Évora once performed. The bar itself is a gigantic metal pipe, and one of the walls is lined with 4000 turpentine bottles. They don't actually contain turpentine, we are told, but in the violet light of evening this place is a performance in of itself. The Fabryka Trzciny hosts exhibits, concerts, performances, photo sessions, music festivals, and the University of Free Time. This last is a project created by people who have nothing to do with official Polish educational institutions. The idea is to create a completely new and free form of culture, art, entertainment and education - a platform for spending free time with a kind of constructive awareness. The factory also takes a contemporary approach to Polish cuisine in a quaint green wooden building, with the ambience of a home kitchen.

www.warszawskapraga.pl

- Warsaw is full of stories that never quite end and cannot be fully told. Ten minutes from Stalin's wedding cake, there's a very strange street - the ULICA PROZNA OR EMPTY STREET. Locals know it as the street of death. It's strangest in late evening, when the rest of the city sinks into slumber - shortly before midnight, when the sole survivor on this street, a café bearing the name of said street, is still open. This was once a grand residential street, as is evident from what remains of the façades. Though this was the Jewish ghetto under the Nazis, it was not harmed by bombs - but life here never returned after the war. The buildings fell into oblivion, their collapsing balconies supported by scaffolding. Portraits of those who once lived here have a spooky effect. The street is cursed, and neither private nor government projects have gotten off the ground. One side of the street belongs to the municipal government, the other being private, and the sides have been unable to decide upon a possible future. Once a year, during the Jewish festival, the street revives. Even if you disbelieve in ghosts, reaching the end of Empty Street to see flocks of jackdaws take wing at midnight is disturbing. A few hundred metres away is a statue of John Paul II, where candles are always burning, and the smattering of skyscrapers. Soon the Museum of Modern Art, one of the principal projects yet to be incarnated, will be found at the foot of Stalin's tower.

Posted February, 2010

 

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