A shore thing: TFN explores Warsaw’s eastern beaches
Arriving at the beach under Poniatowski Bridge, in burning 35-degree heat, the sand is too hot to walk on barefoot. Even so, that has done little to deter the people that have flocked here in droves in search of a localized version of sun, sea and sand.
But what is it exactly that prompted National Geographic to place Warsaw in its Top Ten round-up of the best urban beaches in the world?
Heading straight to source, we are accosted almost immediately by one of two sun-soaked attendants we see patrolling the sands. Warsaw, we are told, is the only European capital with a wild river bank, a nature reserve and natural sandy beaches in the very heart of the city.
“It’s an urban phenomenon,” says Piotr, as he cools his feet in the lukewarm water.
He’s not wrong. The city’s beaches stretch from the far north of the city in Białołęka near the Maria Skłodowska-Curie Bridge, down through Rusałka Beach near the La Playa music club and Zoo, via the famous Poniatówka beach and on to Saska beach near Łazienkowski Bridge before meandering down to Romantyczna beach near the intersection of Romantyczna and Rychnowska streets in Wawer in the far south.
The right side of the river is a Natura 2000 area – a habitat for many breeding species of birds threatened with extinction. Cormorants, kingfishers and herons are all here, while otters, beavers and deer, boars and elk can also be spotted along the 10-kilometre cycle path that slashes between the trees that run along the river bank.
Warsaw’s environmental protection committee rescinded its ban on the consumption of alcohol on the city’s beaches earlier this year, but while swimming in the river is not officially allowed due to the strong current (and perhaps the excess alcohol consumption), there is still much to do.
The tradition of sunbathing on the capital’s east side dates back to the interwar period, when the richest and the poorest Varsovians alike would often wade into the waters of the Vistula, play badminton on the beaches or just sail off into the sunset.
And never was this truer than during the cruel heat wave that bore down on the city in 1936. “Summer entered the city, ignited tenement houses with its hot breath, ignited the burning coals of heat on the hard-panting streets,” wrote the Kurier Warszawski with no shortage of drama.
Among the places for sunbathing in pre-war Warsaw, the most popular beaches were in Saska Kępa: Poniatówka and a famous private beach run by the Kozłowski brothers, which stretched south of Poniatowski Bridge and where today one will find swimming pools along Wał Miedzeszyński, Poland’s longest road.
Before the war, the beach was a popular spot to ‘see and be seen’. Frequented by more affluent Warsaw residents, it reputedly drew a more affluent crowd because the stench of the river was less powerful here. Even so, the rich odour was not the only hazard at the time.
“Treacherous river currents, eddies and the lack of swimming skills posed a greater threat than city water,” wrote Gazeta Stołeczna in 1936.
For poorer Varsovians , there were two publicly accessible wild beaches – one in Golędzinów and the other at Siekierki – and these found themselves particularly mobbed during the roasting summer of 1939.
Even the occupation did not deter beachgoers – in a city whose social life had all but been extinguished, visiting the beach provided a sense of solace: it was one of few, simple pleasures that for a fleeting moment made the war feel far removed.
In the 1960s, the tradition of beach sunbathing in Warsaw all but vanished and the city’s beaches fell into decline. Driving this was a band on bathing something that had been spurred by the pollution that had resulted from Poland’s post-war industrialization.
From the turn of the millennium, the regeneration of the eastern beaches gathered pace. Included in this number were the beach known alternately (depending on who you speak to) as Rusałka Beach, the Zoo beach, or ‘the beach at La Playa’.
Famed for its parties, during quieter hours find Varsovians heading here for its great views of Old Town, just over the river.
The beach has changed beyond recognition in recent years. Showers and bicycle racks have been added, whilst beach access has been tidied up, levelled and paved. The most characteristic object here, however, is perhaps a living gazebo, a wicker work of art by Jacek Gądek.
A City of Warsaw project has also seen construction begin of a playground area built using natural materials – mainly wood, complemented by sand and plants. A floating pier will also be available for year-round use: in summer for swimmers and kayakers, and all-year round by walkers and tourists.
Poniatówka beach, a few kilometres south of Rusałka, lies under the main bridge connecting Warsaw downtown and the affluent, leafy suburb of Saska Kepa. It has its origins in the interwar period, but was revived in 2010.
According to Facebook, Poniatówka is one of the ten most popular spots in Europe, and that becomes all the more believable at the height of summer when locals descend en masse for barbecues at dusk.
The biggest of all the beaches, a sense of history is provided by the bullet holes that dent the bridge and serve as a reminder of its role in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising.
“I catch some rays here whenever I can” says Klaudyna from nearby Grochow. “I also bring my boys for a game of badminton,” she adds. Her 8-year old twins, Tymon and Nikodem, are busy building sand castles as we speak. And then knocking them down violently to raucous laughter.
People are dancing on the patio of the nearby club-cafe MOSiR bar and restaurant at the top of the beach as we speak. There is a gentle hum, a slight breeze and the welcoming waft of bonfire smoke.
Further south sits Saska Beach, the smallest beach in Warsaw, and a little further down is the Kora swimming pool. Located at Wał Miedzeszyński 345, its small bar recalls a slow day in Barbados, with a laid back 1970s feel. Surveying the scene, one can’t help but feel that the Kozłowski brothers would be proud.