I have been to Warsaw before but still feel a child like thrill as my train pulls into the city. I think because it was a long time goal, a reminder of my first foray to Europe, to Paris waiting for the train home at Gare du Nord. On the departure board there was no Crewe or Doncaster, or Swindon. Instead Brussels, Hannover, Berlin, Warsaw, Moscow. Exotic cities of the Old East.
I made the trip west to east before but this time I come from the north.
Warszawa Centralna is like Euston, a station of the sixties, a new main station for the intercity trains built post war amongst the ruins of the city. Between the departure hall and the underground platforms is a warren of passageways, lined with kiosks selling everything you want: cigarettes, flowers, bread, pastries, donuts and coffee; clothes, tights, knickers: one whole kiosk has a back wall of pink shoe boxes. I had forgotten these little Polish enterprises until I returned.
I didn’t do Warsaw justice when I first visited. In deep snow and a thickening blizzard I never really managed much further than the commercial district and the Nowy Swiat’s lively, modern, bright western style shops. And because the Old Town and it’s New Square were post war reconstructions, I dismissed them as of no historical worth. I imagined it like the Disney hyperbole of Epcot. Just how wrong could I have been?
At the end of the war Warsaw was in utter ruins. Bombed, fought over and willfully destroyed there was little left, just the rubble, mounds of bricks and not much else in the wartime Jewish Ghetto and the shelled skeletons of the rest of the city. Whilst most of Warsaw was re built from scratch in post war communist style, the old town square, the new town square and surrounding streets were re created, not really as they were before the war but as they were when originally built. Dark colours, but colour none the less, fine houses and beautiful churches all rebuilt so that you would never be aware of that intermediate past.
But it doesn’t hide the terror of that era, the mass deportation and slaughter of so many, the destruction of a pre-war Polish spring. It takes the rebuilt city to leave no trace of that. One building, brick and crumbling from the Ghetto; the old Polish bank, bombed, shot and in ruins, bullet holes still showing on the walls, and, surrounded by cranes, the old Warszawa Hotel. The rest is a mix of post war communist architecture, dominated by the Cultural Centre, a gift from Stalin, and recent buildings dominated by the commercial centre – all signs and brands from the West. Lively, bright and buzzing.
In an alcove near the Old Town on this freezing snowy night an old man plays folk songs on his guitar. Plaintive and romantic, they call you to stop quietly out of sight and listen as you gaze at the old buildings and blizzard swirling around the street lamps. I gave him a few zlotys, then changed my mind and bought a cd. He seemed awoken by this, enlivened. He played me snatches of the same folk song in English, French, and Byelorussian. Greensleeves. He was from Belarus. He played a quick Spanish phrase, cited John Williams, told me about his website and was off again into old eastern folk songs. Perhaps my zlotys were the only ones he earned that night for when my back was turned, he packed up and set off home as the snow continued to fall.