Winter takes no prisoners in Warsaw. Prevailing winds tug freezing air down from Siberia and the city shivers. Archipelagoes of ice float on the Vistula. Pallid pedestrians shuffle along rimy pavements hoping that the next chunk of snow to shear off a tenement roof doesn’t have their name on it. It’s perhaps no surprise then, that the city’s inhabitants celebrate the arrival of spring with particular enthusiasm. On March 21, people throughout the Polish capital marked the Vernal Equinox with the ritual ‘Drowning of Marzanna’, in which the effigy of a Slavic goddess – the pagan embodiment of winter, death and all things funereal – is flung into the local river. The symbolism holds a special resonance in Warsaw, for few cities have overcome death quite so eloquently. Razed by the Nazis in 1944, the bricks that make up today’s Warsaw were all laid within the last 70 years. Reborn after the Second World War, in places meticulously restored, its near-annihilation spawned a capacity for reinvention that continues to this day. Here are some of the Phoenix City’s greatest acts of resurgence.
Razed: Warsaw Rising Museum (www.1944.pl): Not only is this widely regarded to be Warsaw’s best museum, its subject – the Polish resistance movement’s valiant but doomed attempt to retake their capital from the Nazis in the summer of 1944 – is central to the modern city’s story. Housed in the atmospheric bowels of a former tramway power-station, a series of multimedia displays immerse you in the hope, fear and desperation that lay behind this collective act of defiance. Walls brim with archive photos, films and televised eyewitness testimonies; a printing-press reels off propaganda pamphlets; the cavernous central atrium resounds with the thunder of exploding bombs. It’s a powerful tribute to an episode that remains a keen source of pride for Varsovians, but the outcome was defeat, and near-apocalypse. After 63 days of fighting, with the Poles finally routed, an enraged Hitler ordered SS demolition squads to dynamite Warsaw to the ground. In a side-room of the museum, The City of Ruins, a 3D film that flies you over a reconstruction of the resulting carnage, offers a startling glimpse of how far Warsaw had to return.
Restored: The Old Town: If Marzanna is the harbinger of death, then Syrenka – the Mermaid whose sword-wielding bronze statue presides over Market Square – is the symbol of Warsaw’s rebirth. As the tourist cafes encircling her fountain roll out the tables to signal the start of spring, it takes some effort to remember that in 1945, when Russian tanks trundled into this square, there was nothing to liberate but a desert of rubble. Everything you see of Warsaw’s World Heritage-listed Old Town today, from the narrow burgher houses to the red-brick buttresses of the Barbakan, was reconstituted in the decades to follow, its architecture based on old town plans and 18th century paintings by Bernardo Bellotto who shared his Uncle Canaletto’s talent for faithful rendering. Several other Polish towns donated millions of bricks salvaged from their own devastated buildings to aid the reconstruction. For a street-level view of what they had to work with, History Meeting House (www.dsh.waw.pl) is currently displaying a unique portfolio of color photos depicting post-war Warsaw’s ravaged streets as they were in 1947.
Reused: Warsaw Museum of Modern Art (www.artmuseum.pl): Away from the Old Town, the urgent need for housing after the war coupled with the prevailing brutalist aesthetic left less room for architectural sensitivity – in a 2009 Tripadvisor poll, Warsaw was voted the ugliest city in Europe. However, in keeping with the city’s flair for resilience, many of its more redeemable communist-era buildings have been spruced up and redefined. Among the most exciting examples of reclamation is the Warsaw Museum of Modern Art. Crouched beneath the skyscrapers of the booming business district, the modernist Emilia Building began life as a state-owned furniture emporium but was saved from the developer’s wrecking-ball when the museum took up temporary residence last September. Although the building’s future remains the subject of legal wrangling, for now its two open-planned floors make for a light and versatile gallery space. The museum is currently hosting Kinomuzeum, a festival of art cinema, but the year’s marquee event kicks off on May 17 with the opening of its first grand exhibition, featuring the best of contemporary Polish and international art.
Revitalized: Praga: Once synonymous with poverty and urban decay, Praga was one of the few areas to survive the Nazi demolitions. When Roman Polanski recreated wartime Warsaw for The Pianist, it was to the east side of the Vistula that he aimed his lens. But the Oscar-winning filmmaker is not the only creative soul to have sought inspiration here over the last decade. Like a more dilapidated version of London’s Shoreditch or East Berlin, Praga’s combination of cheap rents and defunct industrial space has helped to transform it into a hub of progressive culture and bohemian nightlife. Daytime highlights include the artists’ enclave around Studio Melon (www.studiomelon.pl) and the Neon Museum (www.neonmuzeum.org), a wonderful repository of electric signage. Bars and clubs can often be found clustered around shared, graffiti-daubed courtyards. Perennial favorites include Fabryka Trzciny (www.fabrykatrzciny.pl), Sklad Butelek (www.skladbutelek.pl) and W Oparach Absurdu (www.oparyabsurdu.pl).
Rising: Downtown: Take the elevator up to the 30th floor viewing balcony of the monolithic Palace of Culture and Science (http://www.pkin.pl) and you’ll be welcomed by sprawling panoramas of Warsaw’s recession-defying boom: a crop of high-rise office blocks and hotels now dominate the skyline; the glass hemispheres of the Golden Terraces shopping center glow with consumer fervor; gaping earthworks hint that a second metro line is on the way. The Palace – Stalin’s “gift” to Warsaw – seems an ever more anachronistic carbuncle, increasingly under assault from the capitalist totems in its midst. Yet a walk through all this modernity reveals hidden pasts, for this area was once the Warsaw Ghetto, where the city’s Jews were corralled during the Second World War. Tucked away off ulica Zlota, the last remnants of the ghetto wall now crumble in the shadow of Zlota 44, a 54-storey residential tower designed by the Ground-Zero architect Daniel Libeskind, a Polish-American Jew. Few sights provide a more poignant reflection on the city’s transformation, or better testify to the miracle of its recovery.