Eastern European Expeditions: Warsaw and the Problem of ‘Old Towns’

After my rather petulant excursion to Nida, I spent some time in Vilnius. It was good, but I didn’t appreciate the over-20 drinking age. The city is an exemplar of the beauty of Baroque architecture, with some lovely churches and a very jazzy university complex. In Vilnius there exists something else very exciting. A micronation!

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love micronations, and the Republic of Uzupis is one of the finest there is. Situated in the former Jewish quarter of Vilnius, it is cut off from the main Old Town by the Vilnia river – the name just means ‘over the river’ in Lithuanian. Through the leafy bank of the river you can glimpse a couple of churches, but the separation ensures the place feels distinct, special. The micronation, like many others, is founded on principles of love, respect and creativity, exemplified by the pieces of modern sculpture and graffiti at every turn. Beyond the private little oasis of green that is the water’s edge, Uzupis boasts something even more enchanting: the largest array of constitution plaques in the world. Along a long wall, the Constitution of Uzupis, comprising 41 idiosyncratic commandments, is displayed about 25 times, each plaque in a different language. The plaques are stainless steel, so that when reading you are confronted with your own reflection, because, after all, Uzupis is for everyone. How nice. So nice, in fact, that the Dalai Lama has visited twice, planting a tree in 2018 that still grows through a bundle of prayer flags today.

Micronation aside over, after a quick visit to Lithuania’s favourite castle, Trakai, it was time to move into Poland. To save on accommodation I elected to take a night bus, although its arrival time in Warsaw somewhat countered the money saved. Pulling in to the central bus station at the ungodly hour of 5:30 am, I was stuck at a loose end of what to do. However, soon my tired eyes were blessed with the answer: the golden arches of a 24 hour Maccies. I grabbed some sustenance off the breakfast menu and sat down to enjoy with an insane view. The McDanks faced directly on to the Palace of Culture and Science, a gigantic Soviet Gothic structure built in Stalinist times in the same style as Moscow’s Seven Sisters. In the dawn light, it was both beautiful and terrifying.

After finishing my breakfast, some edgy teens, presumably struggling after a heavy night out, asked me what the hell I was doing there. “Searching for inner peace”, I said. It wasn’t far from the truth. Hunger sated, I took a stroll around the behemothic building before getting accosted by an inebriate. I set off for my hostel in the utterly fanciful hope that they would have a bed or at least a couch I could kip on. Kindly enough, they let me drop my bags before telling me to get lost and come back at a normal time. I waited out the long hour until Costa opened on a bench then drifted off in the safety of the coffee shop.

Eventually Costa staff turfed the weirdo asleep on the sofa out, so I started exploring. My first destination was Lazienki Park, a gorgeous space with several Victorian villas dotted about. I saw a couple of red squirrels too. I made it up to the Chopin Monument, which had a silly number of benches around it. I counted 58. That’s more than you need. From there, I took a stroll around the hostel’s local area, Srodmiescie Poludownie, or ‘South Downtown’ if Polish orthography makes you uncomfortable.

This was my favourite area of Warsaw. The massive blocks in grand post-war socialist realism style that lined the boulevards certainly pandered to my aesthetic bias. It could be that, in opposition to the quaint Hanseatic cities that I had been in previously, the feeling of being in a big city was welcome to a Londoner. It was nice not to feel like a tourist and simply experience the normal, functional side of a city. The epic lampposts were a plus.

The next day I set off north first to the National Museum and then on to the Old Town, finding myself in the enormously colourful and lively Castle and Market Squares. In the former someone was playing smooth jazz on a saxophone. However, something about it didn’t sit entirely right with me. Due to the entire area being flattened during WW2, it’s all been anachronistically rebuilt. It’s an understandable decision, reclaiming the country’s culture and seat of history would have had an invaluable effect even during post-war Soviet occupation.

The meaning of reconstructing the Old Town, even at the expense of coming across artificial, is on solid ground. Yet I found that a difficult thing to reconcile with my impression of the Old Town, which to me appeared purpose-built for tourism and shameless profiteering. Although by that point well-versed in the Old Town phenomenon, the vibe in Warsaw was distinctly different. It could have been the busyness, but I do feel like the aforementioned artificiality was at the head of the issue. I felt similarly in Krakow, even though that Old Town hadn’t really needed to be rebuilt, the city has of late turned into a party destination where people try and usher you into strip clubs the day you return from concentration camps. Both felt disingenuous, the present at odds with the past.

Perhaps that’s the issue of tourism in more popular places, especially those with as tragic a past as Poland. It’s paradoxical, the balance between preserving a destroyed past and making money off of it. So therein lies the Problem of ‘Old Towns’. Still go, Warsaw’s a brilliant place and I regret not spending more time there. I was going to tell you about the terrible haircut I received there too, but there isn’t the space. You’ll have to wait for that one. See ya.