If Warsaw still conjures up images of a backward East European
capital, then you haven’t been to Warsaw lately. In the past few
years, the capital has quietly transformed itself into a vibrant
modern city a business- and tourist-friendly destination on a par
with any major city in Europe.
Western companies are investing and stamping their mark on the
city. One obvious result of this is the number of hotel chains now
operating in the capital. Holiday Inn, Marriott, Novotel and
Mercure, among others are establishing themselves in Warsaw,
providing the business or leisure traveler with ample choice for
accommodations for all budget types.
But even as Warsaw looks West, it doesn’t seem to be at risk of
losing its “Polishness.”
It’s no surprise then that Varsovians gathered at the historical
Old Town Square a place that has seen its share of change to
celebrate the vote to join the E.U. in 2004, which will mark yet
another momentous change for the country.
The Old Town Square, or Rynek Starego Miasta, is also an ideal
place to start one’s visit of Warsaw because it encapsulates the
scope of Poland’s troubled history. The square was laid out in the
15th century, destroyed to rubble in World War II, but restored
brick by brick by the Poles to its prewar state.
In its current reincarnation, the Old Town enjoys a UNESCO World
Heritage site and is perhaps the liveliest part of Warsaw, with
restaurants and bars, boutiques and art galleries. The square is
adorned with colorful facades and apartments, and the cobbled
streets are usually bustling with musicians and artists. The
streets leading up to the square in the Old Town showcase buildings
built in Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque style. “It is an
outstanding example of a near-total reconstruction of a span of
history covering the 13th to the 20th century,” according to the
UNESCO World Heritage Committee.
Beyond Old Town, one finds reminders of the other, darker eras
of Warsaw’s past as in the Warsaw Ghetto. And near the area known
as New Town, one finds the massive two-part monument to the Warsaw
uprising of 1944, commemorating the attempt by Polish military and
citizens to push the Nazis out of Warsaw.
West of Old Town, modern skyscrapers are sprouting along the
skyline in the form of office buildings and hotels. The heart of
the modern city seems to beat strongest at the intersection of
Ulica Marszalkowska and Aleje Jerozolimskie streets, which meet at
the Rondo Dmowskiego (traffic circle), where daily life somehow
intersects with the past, present and future. There’s the Palace of
Culture to one side, a discreet monument to Poles killed by the
Nazis on the other. This place is also a major shopping and
transportation hub, with street trams, buses and the north-south
metro line at the intersection.
With places in Poland such as Krakow and Zakopane, Warsaw
perhaps may have a harder time competing for the more than 84
million tourists that visit the country every year. But to gain a
real sense of Poland’s rich and tumultuous history, you really
don’t even have to leave Warsaw.
Polish National Tourist Office: www.poland tour.org.