Caught red-handed between the past and the future, Praga is a sensory explosion of noise and colour
At the risk of revealing myself to be a total and utter plonker (I am!), who doesn’t occasionally revel in the misfortune of others?
I ask this not because I’m a thoroughly nasty piece of work (though guess what, I am that as well), but because I can’t help but chortle when I cast my mind back to my favourite story about Warsaw’s Stara Praga.
It was well over 15-years back, and I was speaking to a diplomat who regaled a cautionary tale to me involving a group of embassy wives based out in Konstancin.
Seeking an illicit adventure, they decided to break from their morning vat of gin to instead travel to the other side of the river to see for themselves how real people lived. Dressing down in their cheapest Dior, they chuntered off on their odyssey in a convoy of fortified jeeps and blacked-out Daimlers; their titillation, however, soon turned to horror.
Crossing the bridge, they were seized by a collective panic attack and made the immediate decision to turn on their tail.
“They just about stopped short of calling in an air strike,” my friend added.
Although he was joking (I hope), it said much for the district’s malignant reputation. This was, we all knew, where angels feared to tread. Changes, though, have been meteoric. If Praga was once a byword for abandonment and decay, today it has become a calling card for the very concept of urban regeneration.
Interwoven with its unique character and sometimes sordid history, these factors have lent it a powerful individuality that sits in stark comparison to Warsaw’s other parts – just by being here, you feel you’re somewhere different. Just by being here, you feel you’re somewhere special.
First incorporated into Warsaw in 1791, it was the Industrial Revolution that saw the area bloom, its population ballooning from just 16,000 in the late 19th century to over 200,000 during the inter-war years.
Through sustaining its share of wounds and scratches during the war, it escaped the outright demolition that befell the left side, and through its architecture alone the spirit of yesteryear is never far away.
This manifests itself particularly well in the courtyard shrines that the district is famed for; often painstakingly elaborate, and occasionally embellished with surreal decorations, many of Praga’s 120 shrines were created as a direct response to the Nazi clampdown on the Catholic church; although surreptitiously, it was around these that Poles would gather to worship and meet.
Lovingly maintained to this day, more often than not they live sharply contrasted against their generally gloomy setting: dark, decrepit courtyards in which chirpy, unseen rascals catcall from the shadows.
Looking raw, dishevelled and unflinchingly knackered, you understand why Roman Polanski chose streets such as Mała to recreate the Ghetto whilst shooting The Pianist, and this authentic pre-war swagger has not been lost on other directors.
In this respect, is there a finer photographic secret than the whirly staircase at Kłopotowskiego 38? Mesmerizing in its spiralling beauty, and rated as one of Warsaw’s most Instagram-able attractions, its cast-iron steps have appeared in a string of cult oddities: for instance, The Man With The Magic Box, a Polish Academy Award winner about a time travelling janitor.
And here’s a point to ponder – through its pre-war authenticity, Praga’s true talent lies in allowing visitors that chance to glimpse a precious, dying past. Certainly, you get that feeling meandering the rabbit warren of alleys at Bazar Różyckiego.
Opened in 1882 by pharmacist Juliusz Różycki, the market is a shadow of its former self yet even now represents a thrilling deep dive into the area’s grainy past: once a hotbed of illicit activity, today make do instead browsing stalls manned by bantering traders selling rusting heaps of junk and piles of Chinese slippers. This is not your standard Warsaw shopping experience, and it’s all the better for it.
Gentrification, mind you, isn’t far away. Far-fetched as it sounds, plans have been mooted to transform it into a social hub that appears loosely inspired by Hala Koszyki. Despite the looming economic catastrophe posed by Covid, looking at the wider area, this could yet still happen.
Opening onto Brzeska, this street alone speaks loudly for the potential of Praga. Once regarded as “the most dangerous road in Warsaw”, although roaming delinquents are never far away neither, too, are signs of progress: a hipster ice cream joint, a super cool vegan spot inspired by the ruin bars of Budapest, and so on.
It is Koneser, though, that speaks the loudest for Praga’s revival. Once a Tsarist era vodka factory, it has blossomed to become an island of prosperity; a bastion of swanky eateries, upmarket stores, stylish offices and pristine apartments. And, given its heritage, the presence of an award-winning vodka museum has come as part-and-parcel.
But while it is the most striking example of redevelopment, Koneser has by no means been an aberration. Across the district, high profile renovations have been conducted on historic tenements, enthusiastically returning them to their full former glory.
True, worries have been voiced that these stand to displace the traditionally blue collar vibe, but for the time being a happy medium seems to exist – something well proved, pre-Covid, in the area’s scruffy, ragged bars: places in which locals and regulars drank and danced alongside Erasmus students, hoodlums, artists and media types in a state of cordial détente.
Yet even with the bars bolted shut (but not all of them, wink, wink), Praga’s eclectic character is evidenced everywhere you look. Caught red-handed between the past and the future, it’s a sensory explosion of noise and colour and blatant contradictions: where striking wall murals emblazoned on half-wrecked walls peer onto million zloty condos, and where posh artisan bakeries appear next to curiosity stores selling unwanted goods coated in cobwebs.
It’s enough to simply step from the metro into the shadows of the onion-domed Orthodox church to feel you’re somewhere different: it’s Warsaw alright, just not as you might know it.