Gritty. Bo-ho. Up-and-coming. There are a lot of terms being tossed around to describe Prague (Praga), the eastern district of Warsaw and they’re all fairly apt. Also award-winning lifestyle website theculturetrip.com has picked that borough among Europe’s hippest districts. The website homed in on 11 other European hotspots, including London’s hipster mecca Dalston, Amsterdam-Noord, Berlin’s Kreuzberg and Gracia in Barcelona.
Warsaw’s wild side
Praga, which evaded the destruction meted out to most of the city during WWII, was nevertheless regarded as somewhat beyond the pale until a decade ago. The area used to be Warsaw’s hottest district for all the wrong reasons. It has long been regarded as off-limits to Western visitors thanks to its criminal underclass and imposing tower blocks. Some Varsovians still think that a night out in Prague is a bit too edgy for comfort, remembering the days when the neighbourhood’s soaring crime rate earned it the nickname “the Bermuda Triangle”. For decades, it was home to the poorest of Warsaw’s poor, and the derelict streets were ruled by the criminal underworld. That`s how times have changed. The eastern area hugging the Vistula river has blossomed into one of Europe’s creative hubs with many of its abandoned warehouses and disused factories being transformed into hip bars, clubs, restaurants and art spaces. Today, the district attracts young crowds of boho-types who rightly acknowledge that this up-and-coming district is where the pulse of Warsaw can really be found.
Prague is worth visiting especially if you prefer to see the city’s artsy underbelly and get away from the beaten tracks of Old Town. The borough is still at least five years away from being hipster-soaked Brooklyn or Boho Montmartre, but that’s exactly why now is the time to go: you will see the evolution in progress.
Where Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Jews lived together peacefully
Since 1432 until 1791 Prague was a separate city, attached to Warsaw in the late 18th century. You can still find many original pre-war apartment blocks, pavements and lampposts dotting the district. This was also once a neighbourhood of rich cultural diversity where Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Jews lived together peacefully and throughout the district there are traces of several beautiful places of worship, some still in existence.
Even as the cities of Warsaw and Prague developed during the Renaissance,
… no permanent bridge was ever built between them…
communication was by ferry or by crossing the ice in winter. There are still the elegant, Greek-temple-styled Water Chamber on Kłopotowskiego street, with its bas-relief of Neptune and his horse-drawn chariot, where the toll service for water crossings was managed. The first permanent bridge called Kierbedź Bridge was built in 1864.
There are the only remaining traces of Renaissance Prague on Ratuszowa Street, where the Church of Our Lady of Loreto stands. It was built in the first half of the 17th century, a pink cake-like structure with thick, squat towers framing its Greek temple-styled front face.
Genuinely antique and genuinely decrepit
The scene couldn’t have been more different from polished downtown Warsaw, where the almost total devastation of WWII has ensured that everything – including the “Old Town” – is brand new. Prague is both genuinely antique and genuinely decrepit. The beautiful old buildings are crumbling, rusting iron bars jut out from walls pitted by wartime bullets and the delicate art nouveau facades are thick with grime. But the streets themselves burst with life. This is a neighbourhood of small shops and street markets, where children play unattended in the alleys and every courtyard shelters an icon of the Virgin Mary.
After dark, Prague really shines. Its nightlife, weaving between the cutting-edge and the downright surreal, pulls in revellers from every corner of the city. The walls may be cracking, the furniture rarely matches and there’s a good chance the bartender is a volunteer, but for many, Prague’s bars and clubs fill a void left by Warsaw’s headlong race toward westernisation.
At The Fumes Of The Absurd
“W Oparach Absurdu” in English means “At The Fumes of The Absurd”. This is one of the most iconic bars in town. Owner Elzbieta Komorowska spent months hunting through antique shops and flea markets to decorate her wonderland, and the results are dizzying – religious icons, a plaster pig, Christmas ornaments and Persian carpets leave barely enough room for customers. But they pack them in all the same, and even manage to squeeze the occasional band on to a microscopic stage. There’s no cocktail menu, but be sure to sample Spider Drink, an eerie green-and-red mixture of banana, black currant and vodka that goes down too easily.
“Porto Praga” is the neighbourhood’s most decisive foray into highbrow dining. Warsaw’s cultural elite flock here to enjoy dishes from around the world, from Spanish veal to Balinese tuna tartar, as well as a raft of imaginative cocktails with names like “Strawberry Cheesecake.” Tucked into the last remnants of a 200-year-old steam mill, the restaurant’s interior has been fitted out with art nouveau elegance that provides a stark contrast to the rough tenements outside.
With a name that translates as “Bottle Warehouse”, Skład is housed in the bowels of a 1913 rubber factory. The bar’s mish-mash of old furniture, candle-lit corners and gregarious bar staff attract those looking to get as far away as possible from the gleam and glitz of central Warsaw.
This post-industrial complex hosts big names in techno and electro music, and is reminiscent of the warehouse techno clubs of Berlin.
“11 Listopada no. 22”
This address is home to several bars tucked into a small courtyard. Compared to clubs in the centre of Warsaw, these retro places are much cheaper and charge little or no fee for entry, so understandably their biggest clients are students. Located there are “Hydrozagadka”, “Saturator”, “Zwiążmnie”, and “Skład Butelek”.
The “Bee’s Dream” is a quirky two-floor club, bar, and beer garden where the toilets are in elevators and a bathtub sits lonely amongst the picnic tables outside. Summertime is best for a visit to “Sen”, the beer garden will be in full swing, the outdoor cinema will likely be screening a bizarre foreign film, and the staff will be grilling up sausages and veggies. You can soak up all the vodka for under the equivalent of 3 euro.
One of the main streets of old Prague, the oldest buildings are from the 19th century. Also one of the prominent landmarks in Warsaw, Zabkowska Street extends from the crossing point of Radzymińska Street and Kawęczyńska Street to Targowa Street. This pretty street has a magical ambience and is flocked by locals and tourists from across the world.
For many people this place is “The Prague Old Town”. Walking along Ząbkowska we can see how the Prague architecture evolved from the second half of the 19th century to now. The oldest surviving house on this street is a small ground-floor house (No. 14), which is from 1866. The house at No. 7 is from 1880 (though it has been restored) and is considered by many to be the most beautiful house of Ząbkowska Street. At No. 2 there is one of the most recognisable buildings in Prague – it’s a four-floor, renovated house, which dates from 1914.
This charming street has a cobbled surface which is why it is also referred to as the Cobbled Street.
The area where Markowska Street and Targowa Street meet housed the Zabkowskie turnpikes from 1770 to 1889. This is where fees were charged for merchants coming from the eastern cities, Bialystok and Grodno. When Szmulowizna (now a part of Prague which has got very bad reputation) was added to Warsaw, the turnpikes were wound up. In 1897, the place where turnpikes used to be was converted to an alcoholic plant which exists even now.
Do not miss out the old, dilapidated house that refused to be grazed down in spite of numerous efforts. The occupants of the terrible looking house were evicted in 1990 and it was only in 1999 that it was successfully demolished. Visit this charming street and enjoy the unique and interesting ambience here.
“Koneser” – old vodka factory
“Koneser” is situated at the heart of Ząbkowska Street. This is a complex of red brick buildings from the late 19th century, in which, for over a hundred years, an alcohol factory was located. It is one of the most valuable examples of industrial architecture, as some of the buildings are inspired by Gothic influences (the front gate often makes visitors think of a castle with a small turret).
This immense complex may look like the set of a Gothic horror film, but inside the old Koneser vodka distillery is a hive of creative activity. Two art galleries now call it a home, as well as a restaurant, a performance space and a small “design” shop selling everything from inflatable chandeliers to porcelain Wellington boots. A collection of wooden pallets out back morphs into an open-air cinema on summer evenings, where young Pragans nestle into fluffy cushions to watch art-house flicks projected on a brick wall.
The recipes of the products being made at the factory date back to the 1920s, and involve some of the best Polish vodkas: “Wyborowa” and “Żubrówka”. Other famous alcoholic products you should try are the lemon and grapefruit flavored vodkas (“Cytrynówka” and “Grejpfrutowka”) as well as the “Klubowy” brandy.
“Fabryka Trzciny” Art Centre
This is the city’s famous private art centre. Housed in a former factory from 1916, which used to produce marmalade, sausages and “pepegi” (a kind of “socialist trainer”). Today, the center consists of, among other things, an auditorium, a meeting room, a theatre and an exhibition halls, spaces used for film festivals, fashion shows, symposiums, conferences, training sessions and events organised for special occasions. This unusual venue is known for its avant-garde style, mixed with tradition and aspects of the original old factory.
The designers found ingenious ways to preserve the factory’s industrial character, and today you can sip cocktails in the “Stove Room,” dominated by an enormous brick stove squatting in the corner, and dance between walls covered in plugs, pressure gauges, rusted pipes and glowing glass bottles. Bands from around the world play here, and the parties go on until dawn.
The Soho Factory
The Soho Factory aspires to create in Warsaw a space for the artistic evolution of an industrial area, outside of the artificial context of a museum, modeled after New York City’s Soho. The project initiated by the Artanimacje association aims to revitalize and aesthetically transform Warsaw’s Prague quarter by introducing different projects such as the Soho Factory. The place hosts educational workshops, performance art exhibitions, music concerts, and other vibrant cultural events.
Różycki Bazaar (Bazar Różyckiego)
Bazar Różyckiego is the oldest existing market in the city. It was established in the 19th century and founded by Julian Różycki, who was a pharmacist and owner of several pharmacies. The bazaar was constructed in order to be a major trading center in Prague, originally it had seven indoor stalls.
This market played a big social role during WWII and its aftermath, providing people with ammunition and medical equipment. It was also one of the few places where Warsaw residents could buy goods, derived – with a bit of cunning and quite a lot of danger – from the German transport vehicles and stores.
After the war the bazaar really flourished. One could buy goods unavailable in state stores, which in the communist times, were often empty anyway.
Nowadays, around 300 sellers run their businesses at the market, offering various products such as clothes, food, and accessories. In 2008 the market ceased to be publicly owned and was returned to its original owners, the Różycki family.
Former Jewish bathhouse
This small building with a facade of red brick was built between 1910-1914, and designed by Naum Horstein. It originally served as a mikvah, that is a Jewish ritual bath. Before the Sabbath and important religious holidays, Jews cleaned away any spiritual impurity in this ‘special pool’. After the war, many things stood in the building, including Office of the Central Committee of Polish Jews, and then a kindergarten and secondary school. Today the building is owned by the Jewish Community, and houses a multicultural high school, named after Jacek Kuroń.
During its renovation in 2009, in the building’s courtyard was found a perfectly preserved pool, which had been used to store rainwater.
Besides the building is a small square, which until 1961 was the Prague synagogue. On the instructions of the then-authorities the temple was destroyed and the ruins were turned into a small hill, and next to it was built a children’s playground.
Former Water Chamber
This is one of the oldest and most valuable buildings on the right-bank of Warsaw. It’s also called the House of Columns. Built and designed by Antonio Corazzi between 1824-1825, it was for the City Department of Bridges. The building was situated at the entrance to the boat bridge, which was used to cross to the other side of the Vistula River, and it was there that tolls were paid. The chamber performed this function until 1864, when the first permanent crossing of the Vistula River was built – the Kierbedź Bridge. On the building’s facade is a carved relief by Tomasz Accardi, which represents Neptune’s (the god of the sea) chariot drawn by fish-tailed horses, and surrounded by dolphins. Also interesting are the cast-iron plates documenting the record heights of the Vistula’s water levels in 1813, 1839 and 1844.
In 2007-2008 the building underwent a general overhaul, currently, it houses a branch of the Warsaw City Office.
Monument of the Prague Backyard Orchestra (Pomnik Praskiej Kapeli Podwórkowej)
Revealed in 2006, this monument presents a neighbourhood band from the days when such musicians roamed the courtyards of Warsaw, especially in the Prague neighbourhood, and played popular Warsaw tunes. The band consists of an accordion player, violinist, guitarist, drummer, and a banjo player. A small square with benches surrounds the monument, where one can rest and listen to music, including tunes from the pre-war years. Simply send an SMS to 7141 with the text KAPELA along with the track number in the body of the message (100 titles available, track list appears on the drum).
The influence of Napoleon
In addition to a vibrant cultural life, Prague also boasts many beautiful stretches of green parkland. One such spot worth visiting is Park Praski, just outside the Zoological Gardens. In the early 19th century, this area of Prague was razed by Napoleon in preparation for new fortifications. The influence of Napoleon didn’t last long, and by the mid-19th century, city authorities decided to do something more recreational with the space. Today you can wander along vast stretches of pleasant tree-lined lawns, or see an open-air concert at the park’s outdoor stage.
The “Green” Pearl Of Prague
Another pearl of Prague is Skaryszewski Park, a massive stretch of green in the southern part of the district that includes tennis courts, a sports stadium, a rose garden, a children’s playground, a small lake and two picturesque ponds. Unlike many other parks in the city (the royal Łazienki park for example) you can fully enjoy yourself. That means walking on the grass is OK and there are plenty of paths for runners and cyclists. The park is also something of an open-air art gallery, featuring several beautiful works of sculpture created before the war by up-and-coming artists of the time.
Warsaw`s Zoo is home to over 5000 animals from all around the world. The Zoological Garden is big attraction for kids but also for adults as there are some interesting stories for the latters, too. During the war the zoo director Jan Żabiński and his family hid over 200 Jews from the Nazis.
The garden was founded in the year 1928 to house native animals of Poland such as storks, brown bears and otters. There you can also find many exotic animal species such as the Rothschild giraffes, African elephants, gibbons, Indian rhinoceros, reptiles, birds and tropical fish.
Beach on the Vistula (Plaża nad Wisłą)
The Vistula is nowhere near safe enough for swimming, but there are a few river-side getaways, particularly on the wilder, undeveloped right bank, that can successfully trick us into thinking we’re on a sparkling beach – and the view onto downtown Warsaw can’t be beaten.
The beach is several hundred meters long, and open only during summer. It hosts loads of visitors due to numerous attractions: lawn chairs, wicker baskets, volleyball and badminton fields, and in the evening, concerts and DJ’s. There is also the undeniable added charm of being able to get an unparalleled view of the Old Town, in all its splendor. On the Vistula River there are four other beaches, located on the Cypel Czerniakowski and Wał Miedzeszyński Street, which runs level with Kryniczna Street, Poniatówka near National Stadium, Żoliborz beach (ul. Wybrzeże Gdyńskie 2).
National Stadium – Rondo Waszyngtona
The stadium has a seating capacity of 58,145 which makes it the largest association football arena in Poland. Its construction started in 2008 and finished in November 2011. It is located on the site of the former 10th-Anniversary Stadium, on Aleja Zieleniecka in Praga Południe district, near the city center. The National Stadium hosted the opening match (a group match), the 2 group matches, a quarterfinal, and the semifinal of the UEFA Euro 2012, co-hosted by Poland and Ukraine. The stadium is equipped with a heated pitch, training pitch, façade lighting, and underground parking. It is a multipurpose venue able to host sporting events, concerts, cultural events, and conferences. The official stadium opening took place on 19 January 2012, and the first football match was played on 29 February 2012. The match between the Polish national football team and the Portuguese team ended with a 0–0 draw.
Prague is a perfect example of the change that’s taking place in the Warsaw of today – a city that’s prepared to revitalize traces of the old with currents of the new. The borough is still at least five years away from being hipster-soaked Brooklyn or Boho Montmartre but it`s closer and closer year by year. That`s why you must see the old Prague. It`s really worth visiting.
See you there!
By Agata Szostkowska
Photos: Michał Stanisławski
© Copyright www.communications-unlimited.nl, 2016. All rights reserved.
A wall altar
Koneser: old vodka factory, a hive of creative activities
Cathedral of St. Michael the Archangel and Florian the Martyr – Minor Basilica
Former Water Chamber, now The Registry Office.
Former Jewish bathhouse, now multicultural high school, named after Jacek Kuroń, one of the democratic leaders of opposition in the People’s Republic of Poland.
Monument of the Prague Backyard Orchestra. There were backyard orchestras in Warsaw both before and after the war.
One of the Pragan murals which were very popular after the war. There are lots of wall paintings, remains of the past.