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Warsaw Shines As a European Metropolis
Citizen reporter Derek Monroe walks us through the historical and present-day capital of Poland
Derek Monroe (internews)     Print Article 
Published 2005-01-09 17:25 (KST)   
Buildings in the central square
©2005 D. Monroe
As the capital of Poland, Warsaw's historical legacy has proven to be both a blessing and curse.

Warszawa (as it is known locally) is a teeming city of 1.6 million people. It has quickly undergone a transformation that is making it a showcase of economic activity for the rest of the country of 38 million.

Founded in the late part of the 15th century on the site of a fishing village along the Wisla River, the transfer of the Polish capital from Krakow to its present location was envisioned as a protective measure by moving the capital further inland. However, the move has been often been seen as the beginning of the end of Polish prosperity with all the wars and misfortunes that followed.

The Barbican is a 16th-century fortress that guarded the northern entrance to Warsaw.
©2005 pw.edu.pl
The rapidly growing city was repeatedly looted and devastated by foreign invasions, as well as suffering from years of infighting of the ruling political classes of nobles. When Poland ceased to exist for 123 years due to the country's partition in 1795 by its neighbors, Russia, Austria and Prussia, Warsaw along with Krakow played an important role by retaining its separate cultural and -- to certain extent -- political identity.

The country's rebirth in 1918 gave Warsaw a new lease on life as the heart of a new nation. But prosperity was again cut short by the outbreak of World War 2 that resulted in 90 percent of the city being destroyed -- the highest percentage of any city in the war.

As a result of the advance of the Soviet Red Army in the last months of World War 2, Poland became a Soviet satellite state. In order to preserve the unity of the country, the Soviet-backed government decided to rebuild the capital, leaving behind its controversial legacy.

The Old City (Stare Miasto) has been rebuilt in remarkable detail, though much of it on a smaller scale than before. Influenced by the social realism of the Soviet Union, the city has largely become an imported prefab jungle with buildings and monuments that proclaim the glory of Polish history and the new heroes of the working class.

These monuments still exist today, although under a thick layer of billboards advertising modern products and name brands.

The National Theatre
©2005 pw.edu.pl
By its own momentum and sheer size, Warsaw became a magnet for foreign investment, attracting the nation's best and brightest. The natural zeal of people of Warsaw for business and their growing affluence left the rest of country deeply jealous of the capital city.

Despite the national average of 19 percent unemployment, Warsaw has one of the lowest rates in the European Union and the city is a huge construction site; new infrastructure projects are in the works with an infusion of EU and private investment.

The city is the site of the national government, museums, foreign embassies and cultural venues. This has helped Warsaw shine throughout not only Poland, but all of Eastern Europe.

Despite its long and often troubled history -- which you can see in the domineering shape of Culture and Science Palace (given to Warsaw as gift from Stalin in the 1950s) -- Warsaw is a dynamic metropolis. Most visitors will find many amenities they are used to at home. From the cozy cafes and restaurants in Stare Miasto to the ultra modern U.S.-styled shopping centers called Janki or Galeria Mokotow, there is something for everyone.

The city's fashion district is located on Nowy Swiat Street. There are many trendy cafes and people passing their time people-watching or doing business. The recent inflow of foreign investment is very clearly visible in whole sections of the city being gentrified -- often to the chagrin of locals.

The best example of this is Chmielna Street, off Nowy Swiat. The traditional hangout of pubs and artistic areas has been totally taken over by expensive boutiques and Japanese restaurants with prices approaching New York or Tokyo levels.

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Getting around in Warsaw is made easy by an excellent transportation system comprised of a subway network, buses and trams. One-way, daily and weekly tickets are available, making this mode of transportation very inexpensive. Bus No.175 is an excellent way to get to and from Chopin Airport from any major location downtown. One has to keep in mind, however, that there are traffic jams in the city center, especially around the rush hours of 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Overall, to get a glimpse of life in new Poland, Warsaw is a must. However, to get the feel of the countryside, Warsaw isn't representative of the provinces, where life is much slower depending on the level of economic and industrial development.

Enjoy!

Derek's Warsaw Travel Tips

Currency: Polish Zloty (PLN) US$1=3.10 PLN

Costs: There is something for pretty much every budget, from youth hostels to super luxurious Westin, Marriott and Bristol hotels.

Culture: Performances by the Polish National Theatre and Philharmonic Orchestra, countless theatres, museums and alternative venues are on tap daily.

Nightlife: Comparable to neighboring countries of Czech Republic and Lithuania, there are live music venues that often feature big Western and Polish stars, as well as an alternative rock scene. The gay scene is small but quite visible.

Food: You can mostly find Northern European fare that is heavily centered on meat and potatoes with a customary dose of strong alcohol (vodka). Warsaw has, however, an amazing variety of Asian foods (Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese) that makes the city's dining choices as varied as anyone would find in Western Europe, but for a fraction of the cost.

Shopping: The city offers a variety of modern shopping centers that seem life-size replicas copied from the U.S. or U.K. Foreign visitors will find themselves right away at home as Polish shopping is dominated by chains like Auchan, Metro, Tesco, Carrefour and Geant. Foreigners qualify for a 22 percent VAT refund.

Best time to visit: Spring-Fall.

Things to watch for: A growing crime wave has scared away a lot of tourists from venturing into the city center late at night. Pickpockets on subway, trams and buses are also a problem. It's also highly advisable to use excellent and cheap public transport versus notoriously dishonest taxis. Unsuspecting foreign tourists can find themselves with the world's highest cab fare.
Derek Monroe is an international business consultant/installation artist based in Chicagoland, USA.
©2005 OhmyNews

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