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Benedict Cooper

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Track Records: Warsaw's Unexplored Other Half

Posted: 07/03/2012 7:00 am

They didn't seem to give a damn in Praga about the Euro 2012 spectacle. Poland's big moment as host of the lucrative soccer tournament passed with little comment or interest on this side of Warsaw, the less successful twin of the shining new city over the river.

I had walked around the trafficked areas of the city, which is big and busy and clean and friendly. It's very pro-Western and big on tourism, but I felt a slight detachment even as I ambled through old town. Deja vu sets in fast.

Film crews lined the bridge facing East but the cameras were trained on the slick reporters doing their pre-match thing with the stadium behind them. The cameras seemed angled specifically to avoid Praga, which never gets that much attention.

Stubbornly, I decided to go there myself. I took a long walk in the baking head across the Most Slasko-Dabrowski bridge over the Vistula and found myself in another place altogether.

You won't find anything familiar about Praga, however long you spend there. Largely saved from the type of mass destruction the war left in the West of Warsaw, Praga still has most of its original architecture. Ironically, it's older than the old town.

And you must say, in a perverse way, it has benefited from missing out on huge levels of regeneration, even though it's become Warsaw's far far poorer brother and probably needs some fresh blood.

They've got big problems with drugs, gang violence and general social problems, not helped by the fact that apparently the police tend to sweep it under the carpet when they can.

But the magnetism of the area is in part because of its second place status. Its rough edge and deprivation has forged a strange and unusual character which is there on the tatty streets for all to see.

As is so often the case, the harder way of life has bred a unique spirit that feels far more authentic than in the city's better half.

A crop of art galleries, studios, concert halls, live music venues and artisan bars and restaurants has taken root in the hard rubble and tough streets that you certainly won't find on the other side of the bridge.

It's how I imagine Brooklyn to be; feisty and a little hard, but with vivid character and a true community spirit. Perhaps it's what's remained of the soul of the city, the way of life that was there before progress changed its face.

The best thing to do is just wander aimlessly, and you'll be constantly met with little surprises long the way.

I stumbled across the Różycki Bazaar (Bazar Różyckiego), a curious little market with sellers offering everything from wigs to watches to wedding dresses out of ramshackle stalls with shabby corrugated iron roofs and flimsy wooden frames.

It's a real trip just to walk around and see this working market and the unconsciously colourful people scratching a living there.

And for sheer oddness, walk through the subway underneath Zabrowska and Torgowa - in the day time - and take a quick peek into some of the tiny shops there. The Champs Elysees it's not, but I liked it.

If you want to get a taste of the vibrant night life of Praga, probably the best place is the Fabryka Trzciny. It's a maze of small and medium live music venues and bars in a converted factory that dates back to 1916, and there's a really superb line-up of special one-off music and arts events on all the time.

Heading back to the West side of the city, a great little place for a spot of dinner is the Pierogi on Bednarska street. Frills there ain't - it's self service - but locals say they do the best dumplings in town and it's very cheap.

If you are into your politics you should take a walk around the Polish Parliament building, and the beautifully serene park behind it where you suddenly feel like you're in the countryside, not the centre of the Polish capital.

It's made slightly more disturbing to know that there are a couple of courtyards and grass verges that were the scenes of massacres during the war, but it just reminds you, as a girl I met and had a wonder around with while I was there put it, "Warsaw is one big graveyard".

There are plenty of bars and restaurants to choose from all over Warsaw so you won't struggle to have a good night out.

It's hardly a hidden gem but if you're going to Warsaw you should go the famous vodka bar part of the Kucharzy Restaurant on Ossolinksy Street. It's a small but roaring place with a hot and steamy atmosphere where they also sell herring and dumplings, the true taste of Warsaw.

If you want quirky little places that are unlikely to have any tourists in, check out Plan B bar near the Plac Zbawiciela, and a few others right around there.

These were a short walk from my hostel in Warsaw, Nathan's Villa, which puts you within walking distance of Plac Konstytucji, a good landmark and a hub of lots of activity.

I spent my last evening with a couple of girls I'd met the night before, and as I always tend to find myself in these bizarre situations, we had some drinks in a dingy smoky student bar near Warsaw University which they said the Polish name for means, 'Shithole'.

And speaking of bizarre, I met a guy in there who is trying to set up a cricket club in Warsaw. I'm getting to the point where nothing seems that strange anymore.

After a while in there we bought a few Tyskies and sat in the gardens of one of the university buildings where a graduation ball was going on, and as I was heading upstairs to the toilet I almost got knocked down by a procession of dancers spilling out of the main hall. The Polonez, as I found out it's called, is the traditional Polish party dance where couples run through a corridor of linked up arms to the sound of the music.

A fitting end to my time in Warsaw, I thought to myself, as I carried on walking.

So once again the time to heave my rucksack on my back comes around all too soon, with Moscow calling and a big slog coming up.

This leg is from Warsaw via Sestokai, Kaunas, Vilnius and a sleeper train to St Petersburg, the biggest stint so far but by no means the record holder once the whole journey's done.

 

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