Bright Lights on the Wild Side

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).

20180731_104731

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.

20180731_121017

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.

20180731_145132

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.

20180731_140554

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’.

20180731_142101

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.

20180731_143317

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.

20180731_161544

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.

 

 

Baby You Can Drive My Nysa

This morning we are in the hands of Adventure Warsaw to experience their “Off the Beaten Path” tour.  An our incredible journey starts in an original Polish van, the Nysa 522, symbol of Polish communist times.

DSC00583

Our guide is Adam, and there are two other guests along for the ride.  Given we are already in the area, we start of with the former ghetto area, which is not usually included.  Adam tells us we have to listen to the buildings and they will tell us their stories.

Walicow shouts its story loud and clear with bullet holes littering it’s armour.   A surviving fragment of the Jewish ghetto.

DSC00589 DSC00592

And the building across the road starred in a scene from Roman Polanski’s film, The Pianist.

DSC00599

People still live in these hulks of memory.

DSC00601 DSC00597

A bit further along, we come back to the spot Mum and I walked yesterday, Chlodna Street.  As well as the Footbridge of Memory and a few other sights, we also come across something I had trouble finding yesterday.  Etgar Keret’s house.  Keret is an author and he lives in a seriously, small, house.  It is one of the thinnest homes in the world.  Designed by architect Jakub Szczesny, the steel-framed construction is finished with Styrofoam and plywood with its widest point being 152cm and its narrowest just 92cm.  The house was built for Keret to use as a home in Warsaw.  When he’s out of town, the installation acts as a studio for visiting artists.  Found on what was the border between the large and small ghettos of Warsaw, the building can be found perched between a Communist era block and a pre-war tenement which provides the perfect social comment on the neighbourhood’s divided past.

DSC00618
Can you see it?

Leaving the area, this is where the trip starts to get funny.  Our Nysa has decided that it doesn’t want to run properly.  We jerk along for a bit, then stall.  Adam gets the van going again, but she is stalling every time we brake, which with the day’s traffic, is quite frequently.  And at every set of lights.  We name the car’s new mode ‘Eco-mode’, as we coast along each time she decides to konk out.

We visit the Jewish Quarter of Warsaw, taking in the Palace of Science and Culture, and other remnants of the past and points of interest, still rolling along.

DSC00625
A close up of post war Warsaw

DSC00624

We stall along the way into Praga.  Praga is famous for all the wrong reasons.  For decades she’s worn the stigma of being the most run down, dull and dangerous part of Warsaw with derelict streets ruled by the criminal underworld.  But now the artists and musicians have moved in and Praga is cool.  It’s also home to Praga zoo and a group of bears living in Praski Park.

DSC00690 DSC00692 DSC00704 DSC00710

Praga was relatively untouched during WWII.  My Babcia’s sister tied to travel to the countryside to meet up with the family, but it was too late and she couldn’t get out.  She remained in Warsaw for the remainder of the war and lived in Praga until her death a few years ago.  She was in her late 90’s.  They breed them tough out here.

We park our bright blue van on the footpath and head in to the milk bar for our lunch.  Milk bars (or ‘bar mleczny’) served traditional Polish cuisine to an endless stream of tramps, pensioners and students back in the socialist days, all for a meagre sum.  Poland’s first milk bar was actually opened in Kraków in 1948. Originally no hot dishes were served because this was a place where you went simply to enjoy milk.   They were the the Party’s attempt at popularising milk-drinking due to Poland’s surplus of dairy products.  And the food is ok.

DSC00697
Compot, juice with stewed fruit in it

DSC00701 DSC00693 DSC00694 DSC00699 DSC00700

When we return to our bright blue van, some bright spark has decided to park behind us, blocking us in on the footpath.  No worries, Adam has it covered…

Still sputtering and stalling, Adam creatively manages a 700-point turn in eco-mode to manoeuvre the van 180° to face the footpath in front of us, where will need to make our escape.  He deserves the massive round of applause he gets for that trick!

Lastly, we are invited for a shot of typical polish vodka in a communist style apartment, AKA Adventure Warsaw’s museum/office.  This is where we get to see all sorts of memorabilia from the era, some of it similar to the apartment in Krakow.  This tour was absolutely great, Adam was extremely knowledgeable, and not only in being able to drive the socialist relic of a van.  Like the Crazy Guides tour in Krakow, this was an amazing opportunity to see a different side of Poland.

DSC00719

Having had a quick fix while we were busy skulling vodka, the van is now running much better and safely and more promptly, returns us to our hotel, where Waldek is awaiting us, ready to take us to afternoon tea at Stan’s.

I can’t believe our time here is at an end.

When the war ended, the task of tracing family members began. Notes were pinned to trees, electric poles, fence, and buildings as a short of public lost and found. On the fences of all the train stations were hundreds of notices containing addresses of those searching for lost loved ones. Large crowds gathered in front of these ‘forwarding offices’ from morning til night. There were many that would never be found; people like my Dad’s father, Krzstopf.