Webber’s World: ‘Allow me to propose a toast to the bears of Bemowo!’
I’d be lying if I said that Bemowo didn’t get the best press; I’d be lying because the naked facts are, it doesn’t really get any press at all.
Slapped onto Warsaw’s western rump, you could even accuse it of being the city’s forgotten suburb: actually, one friend even described it to me as a soul-numbing district in which the only things people have to do are to sleep and die.
“And those are the lucky ones,” he added.
Perhaps conscious of this image problem, local authorities struck back at the end of November, unveiling a trail of bronze bears inspired by Wrocław’s epidemic of gnomes.
Now personally speaking, I hate those damned dwarves, but what I hate even more are the rash of copycats that have popped up like toast in Poland’s other cities – when I hear that another town has latched onto the craze, I can’t help but think that someone in marketing is being gravely uncreative.
In Bemowo’s case, however, I’m prepared to let it lie, and that’s because there’s actually a point to its pint-sized heroes. Modelled on Bemiś, a bear-like mascot first coined to promote the area by local councillor Jarosław Dąbrowski, there’s six in all, and each have been styled accordingly to pay homage to local acts, inventions, landmarks and icons.
Take Ringo, for example, a vest-wearing bear named not after the Beatle, but in honour of a game that was invented locally in 1959 by the fencer and journalist Włodzimierz Strzyżewski.
Involving rubber rings and badminton-style nets, the niche sport achieved cult fame in 1979 when Dwa plus Jeden featured W Ringo Graj Ze Mną (Play Ringo With Me) on the B-side of their record Ding Dong.
Then there’s Watek, a smart-looking chap with a peaked cap and a study book under his arm – he’s there to mark the presence of the nearby Military University of Technology, a mysterious institution credited with, among other things, the creation of Poland’s first laser in 1963, and, the following year, an analogue computer called the ELWAT.
And that, you see, is the magic of these bears – they cast a new light on what, at first glance, might appear to be a mundane swathe of Warsaw where nothing much happens.
For sure, that’s the case with Latarek, a goggled bear positioned by the area’s Babice Airport. You’ve probably never heard of that, and that stands to good reason. Established in 1916, it was excluded from maps after WWII with around 2,000 German POWs tasked with constructing further runways for military use.
To this day, rumours persist that the Soviets may have stored a nuclear bomb here at the height of the Cold War, and the whole secrecy and security masking Babice made it the airport of choice for visiting leaders such as Nikita Khrushchev and Charles de Gaulle.
Then the Vice-President, Richard Nixon, too, landed here in 1959, apparently only after the runway at Okęcie was judged to be too short for the plane that he flew in on.
Later, Babice earned its place in the pantheon of Warsaw legend when Michael Jackson performed in front of an estimated 120,000 in 1996.
At a time when Poland was taking its first bold steps into a brave, new world, the concert was seen as a seminal moment and, to some, recognition that the city had truly freed itself from its Communist shackles.
An extraordinary event (approximately 20,000 are said to have swarmed over the fences without tickets), Jacko’s trip remains fondly remembered, not least after he was spotted browsing the disco polo section of a record store.
With his visit clearly making a significant impact, the King of Pop returned the following year to Poland and reportedly expressed his will to purchase not just Warsaw’s Bristol Hotel, but to build a Disney-style amusement park that would be the largest in Central Europe – of the touted locations, Bemowo’s airport was shortlisted as a candidate only for the military to then scupper the deal.
Of course, that the military chose Bemowo in the first place was not coincidental, a point spotlighted by the presence of a bear called Radarek.
Looking cool with his headphones and flak jacket, Radarek pays tribute to the Transatlantic Radio Telegraph HQ that once stood in the area.
Opened in 1923, its guard regiment put up stiff resistance when the Germans laid siege to Warsaw in 1939 before surrendering on September 27th. For Warsaw’s new occupying force, uncovering the transmission facilities was akin to hitting the jackpot and for years after the station is said to have helped coordinate Kriegsmarine U-boats.
With the Red Army bludgeoning their way closer, 1945 saw German sappers obliterate the masts and fortifications, though the cracked ruins of these can still be found scattered generously around the Bemowo forest.
These wartime relics sit incongruously amid the thick vegetation, and it is not uncommon to see elk, deer and wild boars snuffling around them as they forage for food. That such raw natural beauty flourishes and thrives within the city limits is a paean to the greatness of Warszawa.
Yet so too is the lingering, lurking presence of Fort Bema. Marked by one more bear, this one with a kayak in reference to the zig-zagging moat surrounding the fort within, Bema was completed in 1890 to serve as part of a wider ring of Tsarist fortifications.
These were intended not just to withstand an attack on the city, but to also serve as a springboard to pacify any city insurrections.
Leading a varied life, the following decades saw it used as a Nazi weapons depot, a POW camp for Germans left behind in the retreat, a sub-section of Legia sports club and, this millennium, a spot for impromptu dance parties and other hedonistic activity.
Arguably, its finest hour was yet to come. For a four-year spell beginning in 2011, the fort’s gloomy interiors were transformed as the home of Galeria Forty/Forty.
Functioning as an unsupervised arts space, in the organisers words this ambitious project was “an attempt to reconcile the independence, spontaneity and anarchy of street art with the limitations imposed by a closed exhibition space.”
Inviting some of Poland’s most high profile street artists to leave their mark, it became a place of blistering creativity and radical expression the likes of which the city has rarely seen since.
To this day, vestiges of this past cling on, albeit often obscured by additions of a less talented nature. In spite of this, in a city that has undergone aggressive sanitisation in recent years, this former den of arts is a diamond in the rough.
Then again, so is Bemowo itself. Often, it is a challenge to see far beyond its anonymous towers, proud Legia graffiti and shuttered-up garages, but those willing to explore will uncover a place that’s truly special.
For definite, that is a description that can be applied to its sub-quarter of Boernerowo. Located right on the cusp of the forest itself, this picturesque district has the sedate appeal of a rural village.
Home to Osiedle Łączności, this housing estate was constructed in the 1930s for employees of the Ministry of Post & Telegraphs, with the architects endowing it with a high headcount of charming timber houses, cabins and chalets.
Ranging in size from 33 sq/m to 144 sq/m, 284 dwellings were built and sixty-two of these have survived to this day. Often fringed by fetching gardens, the restful atmosphere they exude peaks on streets like Telefoniczna and Bawełniana, making for an invigorating walk no matter the weather.
Charismatic in the extreme, it is a Warsaw that is rarely seen – and if I’m honest, were it not for the bears, I doubt I would have seen it myself. For that alone, allow me to propose a toast for the bears of Bemowo.