The colourful new face of Warsaw
Warsaw has a cheery new face but has not forgotten its dark history, making it a fascinating capital of many layers
Castle Square, Warsaw, Poland. Photograph: Getty Images
Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw
Before we begin: a little game. Close your eyes. What colour pops into your mind when you hear the word “Warsaw”. If the answer is grey, you are still a mental hostage of the Cold War and should keep reading.
I expected far more than 50 shades of grey when I arrived in Warsaw for the first time, late at night. It was 2001, I knew no one and had been parachuted in, with little preparation, to cover the general election the following day.
The austere facades didn’t disappoint in their greyness. The only colour on that trip came when the jubilant new prime minister, Leszek Miller, arrived in a Warsaw pub to enjoy a stout and sang the popular Polish ditty: I love you like I love Ireland.
Impressions of Warsaw from regular visits over the subsequent decade have merged in my mind like a stop-motion nature movie about a spectacular civic transformation. The colour palette has broadened and, on my last visit, my first as a tourist and not a harassed journalist on deadline, I felt as if I was watching a colourful butterfly emerge from a grey chrysalis.
The capital has undergone a massive civic face-peeling; stripping away decades of neglect to reveal hidden and revived splendour. There is an unmistakable whiff in the air that this great city, after pulling the short straw of history for centuries, finally has a great past ahead of it.
Veer off the main streets and you can still see old Warsaw – crumbling facades, washing lines, young seminarians hurrying around in cassocks – but on my recent visit, the city had put on a fresh face and happy families strolled along enjoying the ice-cream weather.
To orient yourself walk down the so-called Royal Route, beginning at Nowy Swiat (New World Street). An elegant stretch of low-rise city villas, this colourful strip of cafés and shops is one of the great European promenades and lends itself to strolling and people-watching. Though local stores are steadily being priced out by international brands, you can find local life by ducking into the courtyards: go through number 22 to find the Secret Garden area of dive bars – where vodka shots are 50 cent a go.
While most cities are a product of their past, Warsaw is a triumph over its troubled history. After six years of war-time occupation in 1945, the retreating Nazis obliterated the city street by street, building by building. The pre-war million-plus metropolis was left a smoking, haunted ghost town with fewer than 15 per cent of its buildings and just 1,000 people remaining.