We Wish We Were from Praga

The charming old buildings in Old Town Warsaw date all the way back to 1946. The Royal Castle dates back to 1984. Warsaw was bombed in 1939, and the Germans declared that Poland no longer existed. The Warsawians developed an insurgent force and staged an uprising in August 1944. They were fairly successful in resisting the Germans for about five or six weeks, until the town was basically razed. So much of what you see nowadays has been completely reconstructed. We started Tuesday with a visit to a small exhibition about the reconstruction. Then we walked through New Town, and Ray checked out the Marie Curie museum I’d visited in 2009. Continuing on our walk, we saw two monuments: a statue of a train car full of crosses, and another monument, in the approximate form factor of a large boxcar, to the 300,000 Jews from Warsaw ghetto. It is at the site of the railroad platform (Umschlagplatz) from which they were taken to Treblinka and Oswiecim to be gassed by the Nazis. We then visited the Jewish cemetery, with graves ranging from illegible to plain to fancy in a beautiful forest setting. This whole route was intended to end up at the fairly new Warsaw Uprising Museum, but it turns out it is closed on Tuesdays. Oops. So we headed towards the center of town, saw a little modern art museum, and looked at the Soviet socialist-realist Palace of Culture and Science building, now home to to a cinema, two museums, many offices, and a view on the top floor (which we didn’t bother with. All town photos from viewing platforms are the same).

Dinner Monday night, on the main tourist restaurant strip, featured a traditional rye soup, with white sausages and egg, which was very tasty. Everything else was fine, though not especially memorable. Dinner Tuesday night was across the street from there, and featured delicious apple cider, and various fillings in pierogis.

We weren’t able to get a dinner reservation at Atelier Amaro, allegedly Poland’s only Michelin-starred restaurant, but they suggested lunch. So on Wednesday morning, we took bus 116 to the Poster Museum in the Wilanow estate, which has as its exhibit just now the Poster Biennale. There were a couple hundred posters on display: it seemed a large percentage of them were advertising plays. One group of them did creative things with text, though they weren’t nearly as interesting as those in the New Gallery doing creative things with graphics. We had time to walk around the gardens of Wilanow before heading up to lunch. The return bus let us off at another set of posters along the edge of a park, all created by two Japanese artists: these were more interesting than most of the ones in the musuem.

Atelier Amaro’s subhead is “where nature meets science”. They like using their liquid nitrogen and their vacuum machine. We shared all six items on their menu: an example of one of them was a powder made out of smoked eel and horseradish, topped by edible flowers, with a cherry sauce poured next to it. Another was melt-in-your-mouth rabbit kidneys covered with some green sauce to make them the same color as the broad beans they were served with. Absolutely everything in the meal was stunning. The waiter took us downstairs to the tiny kitchen afterwards. What is it with these glorious restaurants and their tiny kitchens? True, Atelier Amaro is about the size of the Umschlagplatz monument, but I have a decent kitchen for one person and I can’t find a place to set down a pot:  I think that a Michelin Star means you have enough sense not to put junk mail on the counter.

After lunch, we hopped on a bus and dashed to the Uprising Museum, which opened in 2004. It is comprehensive, with tons of stuff to read and things to look at. Little drawers in the walls opened to show some person. Little eyepieces embedded in the wall revealed a video screen simulating a slideshow. All text was in Polish and English. Movies actually produced during the uprising, to raise the morale of the Warsaw citizens, were shown continuously. One wall showed a series of letters a German officer wrote back to his commander, at first quite frustrated at how prepared the insurgents were and how difficult it was to make any headway, but later starting to get more confident and pleased that they were able to squash the rebellion. And a six-minute 3-D flyover film of a model of what Warsaw must have looked like after it was bombed left a sad impression. The whole thing gives a pretty good education on what life was like during the war. Walking back from the museum, we had some further appetizers at a little wine bar a couple other guys who ate at Amaro suggested we check out.

Thursday we started with another uprising monument near our hotel, and a military-themed church I’d seen on my previous visit. Then we zoomed down to Savior Square, where some folks have erected a large rainbow arch in the square. It was in fine form, but apparently it frequently gets damaged: Warsaw and Poland have a ways to go as far as acceptance of gays is concerned. It’s the Roman Catholic Church, you could say, but the Church hasn’t affected their fondness for Copernicus. Then we got on the tram, and crossed the river to the “up and coming” Praga neighborhood.

Up and coming it is — there is construction everywhere. A little factory is being turned into Santana Row, with lofts and apartments around the outside, and stores in the middle. But there is still some culture: we peered into a photo studio, and the photographer invited us in to have our picture taken holding a “We wish we were from Praga” sign. She said she had filmed 300 people for the project. There are lots of cute little cafes with funny names like Absurdum and Sens Nonsensical. But our ultimate destination for the day was the Soho Factory nearby. In that complex, first we went to the Neon Museum, much like Buchstaben in Berlin, with a collection of neon letters off of buildings. Many of them had been restored, and were properly displayed in the building. There were a couple of galleries and a little store. And there was a restaraunt, with a sit-at-the-bar room open 24/7 for food, and a nicer more expensive sit-at-tables room. Its food was OK, but nothing moved us like everything at Amaro did. It’s Yoshi’s.

And then it was time for the jazz show, one day of the Warsaw Summer Jazz Days festival. It appeared to be presented by some well-known person: the official logo for the festival featured the hat this person wears. We are fans of Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin, and they opened the show, playing their polyrhythmic ambient composed sonic experience for about 80 minutes. Next was pianist Gerald Clayton, whose music sounded classical at times, but was all extremely pleasant with a lot of dynamic range. Last was Now Here, with Marc Cameron and Gary Peacock, basically three old men playing more traditional jazz, with muddled piano (one must be careful using the sustain pedal in a concrete factory), tons of melody on double-bass, and competent drums. Afterwards we found out how infrequently night buses run — we shared a taxi with someone, which only took us about halfway and we ended up walking 20 minutes anyway.

Friday was regimented with Swiss precision: breakfast at 9 (Old Town is deserted before then, and everything is closed), see as much of the Royal Castle as possible from 10 to 11:30, then get on the 12:00 bus across town to find our 1:00 bus which took us to Brest in Belarus. We did find the bus, spent about 3.5 hours driving and 2.5 hours at the border, and now we are here, back behind the Iron Curtain.