WARSAW has an air of prosperity.
The shops are full, the restaurants are busy, only a few people are begging on the street, and there’s lots of construction happening with architectural treasures surrounded by scaffolding and temporary walls around the big dig marking the route of the Polish capital’s new underground line.
While Warsaw is looking confidently towards the future, I can’t help but reminisce about the past as I walk along the main drag on an icy winter’s day.
As I wander I imagine the dark days of communism, when Stalin’s spies lingered in the doorways of the sober apartment blocks that loom over the footpath, and even further back to World War II when Hitler’s henchmen blew up almost every building in the city.
I pass the old communist party headquarters that’s now home to a Ferrari showroom; stop for lunch at the trendy restaurant in the kitchen of what was once the Eastern Bloc’s best Cold War hotel; and feel the bullet holes gouged in a wall during the Warsaw Uprising.
Visitors don’t have to go out of their way to connect with Warsaw’s 20th-century history with the streets of every neighbourhood telling a story of invasion, occupation, resistance and liberation.
An important chapter in the story of this European metropolis was written in 1944 – as the war in Europe drew to a close and the Russian army advanced to “liberate” the capital from the Nazis – when locals launched a campaign that would become known as the Warsaw Uprising.
“The Soviets were coming, but the Polish Underground wanted the Soviets to know we owned this place so started an uprising to defeat the Nazis without Russia’s help,” my guide Agnieszka explains as she takes me around the city’s pretty Old Town.
“Warsaw was supposed to be a Soviet city, we were supposed to be slave labour, so the Polish Underground fought the Germans here in 1944 and Hitler decided the city had to be punished for that rebellion so more than 85 per cent of our buildings were destroyed.
“He started with buildings that were significant to Poles, and the Royal Castle built in the 16th century was the heart of Warsaw so it was blown up as punishment. When they were done the Nazis left Warsaw, so when the Soviets arrived the city was empty, and during the communist times we had to celebrate the Soviet liberation of Warsaw but we don’t do that any more.”
Once the smoke cleared the residents set about rebuilding their city and started with the Royal Castle in the heart of the historic Old Town, rebuilding the fortress from paintings that survived the conflagration.
“It was important to Poland to rebuild the castle,” Agnieszka says. “It was done carefully, with every detail recreated as exactly as possible, and this happened in the years when there wasn’t a lot of money in Poland.”
Not far from the Royal Castle is the Old Town Square which is another phoenix restored from the rubble using old postcards, the Holy Cross Church saved by a sympathetic Nazi officer, the Warsaw Uprising Monument, and the Jewish Monument in the heart of what was the war-time city’s notorious Jewish Ghetto.
There’s now another stop for history buffs with the Museum of History of the Polish Jews – the newly opened state-of-the-art structure sits on what was the biggest Jewish ghetto in Nazi-occupied Europe. The new museum complements other institutions like the Warsaw Uprising Museum established on the 60th anniversary of the 1944 campaign, the Museum of Independence, and the Museum of the Polish Army dedicated to documenting the nation’s military from its formation in the 10th century through to WWII.
The devastation inflicted at the end of WWII means most of modern Warsaw was developed during the communist era, when city planners favoured stark and austere Stalinist buildings, but there’s one Soviet structure that stands out from the rest. The Palace of Culture and Science – called Pekin by the locals because the name is abbreviated to PKiN – was a gift from Joseph Stalin to the Polish people that took three years to build in the 1950s.
The elaborate landmark was used for “political purposes” before the Iron Curtain fell, so there was a movement to demolish it after the regime was removed, but it was decided the Palace should stand as a nod to Polish history and now the hall hosts concerts. It’s worth a stop as you walk between the modern shopping centres that now flank Stalin’s monstrosity.
It’s still possible to see some of the 15 per cent of buildings spared by the Nazis, with a collection of delightfully dishevelled Art Nouveau homes along the section of the Royal Route opposite the gardens on Ujazdow Ave. The Royal Route stretches from the Royal Castle to Wilanow Palace – the second home to a gaggle of Polish kings that was known as the “Polish Versailles” – it’s worth walking the avenue to gaze at what remains of the old city while detouring to explore the parks, museums and churches that border the footpaths.
The writer was a guest of Qatar Airways.
Qatar Airways flies from both Melbourne and Perth to Warsaw daily, travelling via Doha which will soon be home to a new airport, with the award-winning airline set to join the oneworld alliance later this year or early 2014.
When it comes to accommodation, the Hyatt Regency Warsaw is a modern hotel on the Royal Route, just a stone’s throw from Royal Gardens of Lazienki Park.
For meals At mealtime try U Kucharzy at Ossolinskich 7 where the chefs serve traditional Polish cuisine at tables scattered around the old hotel’s kitchen; Batida opposite the Hotel Bristol for pastries and the most indulgent hot chocolate; and the restaurant at Polonia Palace for an elegant experience.
For more details, go to the Warsaw Tourism website at has all the information you need to plan a visit to the Polish capital.