Is New Town Warsaw’s best-kept secret? TFN’s Stuart Dowell finds out
Visiting Warsaw’s Old Town and marvelling at the beauty of the Baroque reconstructions is a pleasure at any time of year, but in the height of the summer the throngs of like-minded tourists can feel overwhelming.
The smart tourist, therefore, doesn’t linger among the multitudes, but instead heads through the fairy-tale Barbican to reach the peace and calm of the New Town.
The district can feel positively empty, yet it offers just as much as its better known neighbour. Compared to the crowds fighting for space to stand up on Piwna street and Castle square, the New Town could even rank as Warsaw’s best kept secret.
Also rebuilt in a historical style after the wartime destruction, its streets and square offer charm in abundance. Sharp-eyed strollers will notice a plethora of curious details on the building facades and scratch away at the surface and its fascinating history will unfold.
The area dates back to 1408 when it was established as a separate town as Old Warsaw was bursting at its seams. Without defensive walls, there was little protection against invaders, so it was poorer people who settled there, artisans and tradesmen, imbuing the district with an ‘otherness’ that can still be felt today.
It remained a separate town for several centuries, with its own leaders and town hall, and only became part of Warsaw as a result of the 3rd May Constitution passed in 1794.
The New Town’s central axis is Freta street, which bristles with architectural features and history.
At its start is the impressive Church of the Holy Spirit. In 1708, when Warsaw suffered from an outbreak of the plague it was from here that the Pauline brothers were said to have organised the first pilgrimage from Warsaw to the Jasna Góra monastery in Częstochowa to pray to the Virgin Mary to save them from the disease.
Ever since, the pilgrimage has become an important aspect of Polish culture and continues to this day.
All this is well-known and can be found in the history books, but look closer and you’ll see Warsaw’s smallest building with its own proper address (1 Długa street). The building currently houses a kiosk, a function it has served for much of its history.
Previously a wooden structure, in 1843 tobacco merchant Karol Banasch turned it into a brick building and sold cigars from it from as far away as Cuba.
Standing in front of the church, the charming Mostowa street plunges towards the river bending gracefully to the right. It should be familiar to film fans as it is a favourite location for directors.
It was used as the scene of the infamous explosion of a German mini-tank in Jan Komasa’s uprising epic Warsaw ’44, though the real-life event actually took place not far away on ul. Kilińskiego.
Mostowa, or Bridge street, takes its name from the wooden Zygmunt August bridge over the Vistula River, work on which was completed in 1573. It was the first permanent crossing over the river and the longest wooden crossing in Europe at the time at 500 metres.
The bridge was one of the greatest engineering works of the Polish Renaissance and one of the largest in Europe. It only lasted 30 years, as it was swept away by powerful ice floes.
At the bottom of the street, the bridge’s old gatehouse can still be seen. After the bridge was destroyed, the building was repurposed as a gunpowder store, and then in 1767 is became a prison, giving the neighbouring Boleść street its name after the Polish word Bolesny for pain.
Heading back up onto Freta, we find the home of Poland’s Nobel-winning scientist Maria Skłodowska Curie, who conducted pioneering research on radioactivity. The 15th century building at Freta 16 is home to a museum in her honour.
It contains examples of scientific equipment from the period; however, the actual tools she used in experiments are hidden away as they are dangerously radioactive. In fact, Maria’s body in the Pantheon in Paris needed to be buried in a lead-lined coffin as years of exposure to radioactive isotopes made her corpse a health risk.
Almost opposite at Freta 5, is the famous and richly decorated Samson Townhouse (the eponymous restaurant is next door). Two reliefs above the entrance doors show Samson fighting with a lion followed by Delia cutting off his power-giving hair.
A few steps north, the heart lightens at the sight of the New Town’s airy market square, a pleasant contrast to the boxed-in Old Town square.
In the south-western corner is an eclectic cast iron well from the second half of the 19th century placed in its current setting around 1957. On top is the coat of arms of the New Town – a maiden with a unicorn.
Further north is the shortest street in Poland. Blink and you’ll miss it. Samborska street is just 22 metres long and has no buildings assigned to it.
The name comes from the name of the Samborski family, which from the seventeenth century were the owners of the surrounding land.
According to historians, the street has existed since the second half of the 18th century. For many years it was fenced off and overgrown but know it is open. Most people in Warsaw have no idea that the street exists, so it is truly one of Warsaw’s best kept secrets.
Round the corner is Rajców street, which with its modern villas was an enclave for favoured Communists. Locals added two letters to the street’s name, dubbing it Zdrajców, the street of traitors. One notable former resident is Polish super-spy Ryszard Kuklińśki, who funnelled Soviet nuclear battle plans to the CIA in the 1970s.
Our tour concludes at the imposing Security Printing Works, which forms the northern border of the New Town. Its massive dimensions made it an ideal stronghold for the Home Army in 1944 when it tried to hold off the German onslaught, using it as a fortress.
The battle for the Old Town and New Town ended tragically at the beginning of September when the insurgents escaped from the district through the sewers and left the civilian population at the mercy of the Germans.
Evidence of the intensity of the fighting can be still be seen on the iron fencing around the printing works, which are scuffed and pocked from machinegun fire.
With its charm, beauty and undeniable interest, the New Town deserves a closer look and it will certainly repay the effort many times over.