Praga has always been known as Warsaw’s ‘wild side’. Think criminal underclass, dilapidated tenement buildings and black market trade. At one time it was even known as the Bermuda Triangle. And although the artists and musicians have now moved in and given the place an edgier feel, there’s no denying you can feel the shift when you cross the Vistula and arrive in Praga.
Today, this is where the Pruski’s and I will be exploring but I arrive about half an hour before our meeting point time to do some exploring of my own. My Dziadzia’s (grandfather) war-time military documents note my Babcia’s (grandmother) last address in Poland as ulica Il Listopowde. There’s no further indication of whether that was in Warsaw proper or in Praga, but seeing as the Praga version comes up on all my Google searches, I can’t miss the opportunity to see if I can find the building.
I walk up and down Il Listopowde, knowing where the building should be in the scheme of those around it according to the street numbers, but I can only find empty spaces. (Google-searching again later it seems I walked about 500m short of the destination, but unfortunately didn’t make it back there before I left Poland).
Disappointed, I head to the Galeria Wilenska mall to wait for my cousins. A few moments later, we are crossing the road to ulica Targowa 59 to see where my great aunt, Ciocia Ana, lived most of her life. Ana spent the duration of WW2 living in Praga, after unsuccessfully trying to reach the rest of the family in Ostrow; though at a different address not far from here. Praga was relatively untouched during the war – if you compare it to Warsaw. For some reason it didn’t interest the Russians or the Germans, though I have no doubt life was seriously tough. Dad was fortunate to meet her on his first trip to Poland, but she died a few years after. I unfortunately never met her, which is a shame because I believe she would have had a book-load of stories to tell.
I have often wondered what it would have been like for her, sitting out the war here, not knowing what had happened to her family or whether she would ever see them again.
There are some other interesting things to see in Praga, but we need a fueling stop before we move on, so finding a Polish bakery we load up on pastries and lattes. The cakes are really good. On the whole, Polish cakes and pastries are not as sickly sweet as I’m used to, which is refreshing. My niece Lola is in love with Sernik, Polish cheesecake.
A short walk away lies the newly opened Vodka Museum and it’s been at the top of all our ‘to do’ lists prior to arriving in Warsaw.
Housed in the old Koneser Vodka Factory which has been beautifully restored to bring you the incredible story of Polish vodka, this museum is definitely worth the trip to the gritty side. Especially if you are a vodka fan.
First a short video is screened in the beautiful old cinema, outlining the history of Polish Vodka, and in particular the Wyborowa brand. Wyborowa is one of the most popular Polish Vodka’s (it’s a rye vodka) and was the first to become an international trademark.
Then you learn the even longer history of vodka itself, how it is distilled, how many types and brands there are and even partake in some little quizzes – including putting on some ‘alco goggles’.
Now that was an interesting experience and I’m proud to say I have never in my life been that drunk that my world looks like what I saw through those glasses!
The tour concludes with three tastings of different types and brands of vodka. The tastings included Wyborowa, Luksusova and Ostoya. Wyborowa,as I explained earlier, is a rye vodka. Luksusova is a potato bodka and Ostoya is a wheat vodka; the wheat is grown in the Bieszczady mountains (which I’ll visit later). I simply had no idea that different vodka’s tasted so completely different. I thought vodka, was vodka. It was at this point that my new appreciation for vodka began and I vowed never to drink rubbish vodka again.
By the way, my pick is go with the Ostoya. Can you guess which one was my least favourite.
An Uber-ride away, lies the Soho Factory – an ‘avant-guarde space for culture and business’. Soho seems to be a continually evolving space, but the one thing that has remained constant since the concept was created, is the Neon Museum.
This highly recommended museum is dedicated to the preservation of Cold War era signs. It’s a small space with a lot crammed in. Little placards explain the history of some of the signs here, advising which building the sign came from, which includes cities from all across Poland. There’s a small gift shop on site for those who like to take home souvenir mugs and the like.
Also on the grounds of Soho is restaurant Warsawa Wschodnia, sooo posh the waiter’s place the food on your plate for you, portion by portion, throwing unamused looks at those who attempt to do so themselves. In fact, it is one of Mateusz Gessler’s restaurants. The food, I ordered the Risotto with Boletus (mushroom risotto) was fantastic, but I’ve never fitted into a place less.
Warsawa Wschodnia is open 24/7. Unsual for such a dining experience, but as Mateusz explains; “there is always a good time for good food”. The restaurant is beautiful, with an industrial edge to it and I’d definitely go back – perhaps dressed a little better.
We bid our farewells at the tram stop, as the tracks differ for our journeys home. I’m looking forward to a quiet one tonight because tomorrow will be busy.
Nearing my apartment, a crowd is gathering for a concert in memory of the Warsaw Uprising, tomorrow being the actual day of commemoration. The concert is love songs from the Uprising.