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Exploring the New Warsaw, Poland's Capital of Cool

From a chandeliered bar in a former Soviet monument to Cold War-era signs at a museum of neon, Warsaw is lighting up.

architects Marta Frejda and Michał Gratkowski at their restaurant Serwus.

Doubling down: architects Marta Frejda and Michał Gratkowski from the studio MFRMGR put a fresh spin on zapiekanka at their restaurant Serwus. (Photo: Gunnar Knechtel)

Vodka tonic in hand, I weave my way through a crowd of revellers wearing skinny jeans, deconstructed jackets and oversize eyeglasses, getting down to the sounds of electronic music. Not so different from my usual Friday nights out except that this dance hall is graced with neoclassical frescoes, chandeliers and marble columns that would normally inspire me to speak in hushed tones rather than party on and shout for another drink. The high-volume evening is unfolding at Bar Studio, a popular hangout for Warsaw’s young professionals that occupies a wing of the Palace of Culture and Science. The building itself is a relic from the Soviet era of socialist realist architecture, a 3,288-room “gift” from Stalin to the Polish people, who wound up footing the bill for its construction. It’s so immense, it splits the horizon with a tower surmounted by a second, smaller clock tower; you can see it, and it can see you, from anywhere in the city. Municipal authorities once considered camouflaging it by surrounding it with skyscrapers, but it’s hard to make a 42-floor structure disappear. So instead, locals now come here to dance the night away, perhaps even taking sweet revenge on the troubled times during which it was erected.

The Museum of the History of Polish Jews

The Museum of the History of Polish Jews is a window into the community’s past. (Photo: Gunnar Knechtel)

Getting up the next morning is a challenge, and I find myself regretting that one last vodka from the night before. My hotel isn’t the easiest spot to find; tucked away in the middle of a street lined with restaurants and bars in the historic Śródmieście neighbourhood, the restored building is beyond discreet. The Autor Rooms is a rarity in a city where virtually every private property was commandeered and subdivided into minuscule lodgings after the Second World War; its four “rooms” are actually huge apartments, complete with parquet floors dating to the late 1910s and high ceilings that I admire once I locate my glasses. Like the palace bar, this is another heritage-filled property revived by a younger generation of Varsovians. That renewed energy is palpable even to me, with my slight hangover.

Palace of Culture and Science; breakfast is served at Charlotte.

Left to Right: A tower of power, the 237-metre-tall Palace of Culture and Science reaches for the Warsaw sky; breakfast is served at Charlotte.

“There’s a desire here to transform things that were once forced on the people and to give them a new life,” says Lucy, the manager at reception, as she serves breakfast. The spread of fresh bread, twaróg (a white cheese similar to cottage cheese) and millet porridge is a hardy combination that fortifies me for a day of exploration. I sip the last of my coffee while lingering in the bright dining room, noticing the many nods to the golden age of Polish design from the 1950s to ’70s. A grandfather clock, salvaged from the National Library, steadily ticks on next to oval-backed chairs upholstered in green velvet that once belonged to the Grand Hotel (now the Mercure). Leading to the room is a set of French doors with mirrored panels; in the reflections, which expand the room tenfold and catch the buildings outside, I glimpse a mosaic of architectural styles.

Museum living

Clockwise from top Left: Light reading at the Neon Muzeum; shopping behind the curtain at Thisispaper; the Praga district has its ducks in a row; the entrance to the Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

A red-brick warehouse in the Praga neighbourhood casts light on another aspect of local history. This long-neglected area has been rebaptized the Soho Factory, in tribute to Andy Warhol’s studio and the renaissance of that New York neighbourhood. Fittingly, its former motorcycle factories, munitions works and machine rooms now host art galleries, architectural offices and fashion workshops. Against the facade of the Neon Muzeum, I catch sight of huge letters forming the word “Hermes” – a reference not to the luxury label but to a former department store. A guide explains that the exhibit by photographer Ilona Karwińska and designer David S. Hill includes about 100 lighted signs created mostly toward the end of the 1950s. The dark alleys of the hangar are illuminated solely by the multicoloured imaginings of some of the top designers, architects and chemists of the Cold War era. Shut behind its borders during that time, Poland at least allowed itself to dream of the outside world by using commercial neon signs as a form of artistic expression. They still give off a buzz of excitement, with exotic names jumping out at random: A fluorescent pink “Szanghaj” transports me to China, while the Western-style typeface of the “Restauracja Ambassador” suddenly makes me want to watch a Sergio Leone film.

Jakub Sobiepanek and Michał Włoch ;  All Saints Church.

Left to Right: With a remake of the RM58 chair, Jakub Sobiepanek and Michał Włoch take a seat in the design world; a statue of Pope John Paul II in front of All Saints Church.

Crossing Rydza-Śmigłego Park takes me to the west bank of the Vistula, the river that divides the city in two. I strain my ears in an attempt to hear the faraway echo of music coming from Syreni Śpiew, which means “siren song” in Polish – appropriate, as it is one of the most popular bars in town. From a distance, it looks like a block of concrete floating above the ground. Inside, the wood-panelled walls and requisite naked light bulbs hanging from the ceiling – decor musts of the 2000s – give it the faint air of a ship’s hold.

Old police car and Serwus

Left to Right: An old police car at Constitution Square; With a design that echoes the food stalls at Polish markets, Serwus begs for attention. (Photo: Gunnar Knechtel (Serwus))

This is the first time I’ve come to a bar to try out a chair, and to make sure I get my chance, I’m here before opening time. While the staff finishes setting up for the night, I take a seat near the window on an RM58, a shimmering black, moulded armchair with shell-like rounded lines. A few minutes later, Jakub Sobiepanek and Michał Włoch settle in next to me and literally rest on their laurels: The duo behind the Vzór firm made a name for themselves by putting this once iconic chair back on the market in 2012, recreating it, based on one of the original sketches dreamt up by Roman Modzelewski during the Cold War. “Poland is one of the biggest furniture exporters in the world, but we’re mostly known for producing work for big brands like Vitra and Ikea,” Sobiepanek tells me. “We wanted to pay tribute to Polish creators and craftspeople by launching products like this chair.” As the bar slowly starts to fill up with an impeccably coiffed clientele destined for the dance floor, we sink further into the seats. Fortunately, they don’t just look good; they feel good too.

Warsaw’s Old Town

Left to Right: After World War II, Warsaw’s Old Town was rebuilt with historical accuracy; Złota 44’s contemporary architecture stands in sharp contrast to the neighbouring Palace of Culture and Science.

The conversation has given me an appetite. I leave Sobiepanek and Włoch to have a bite at Solec 44, a cross between a casual games room and an haute cuisine restaurant, half-hidden near the train tracks. Once I finally find it and make my way up a stairwell, I’m greeted by Aleksander Baron. The graffiti artist-turned-chef has become a leading figure in the contemporary Polish food scene along with his partner, Katarzyna Federowicz. The chef has earned a reputation for using ingredients sourced from small, local producers, a practice that’s just starting to take hold in Warsaw. He deals personally with his suppliers, criss-crossing the entire country in order to find the perfect flour or the perfect cheese, like the chèvre sourced from Łomnicki, near Jelenia Góra, on the Czech border. I slip into an open spot at one of the tables while my neighbours get busy with an appetizer composed of an intact egg yolk gently sautéed in goose fat, then charred and served like a macaron. In the back, four customers are drinking beer at communal tables and playing Kraków 1325 AD, a board game that has them vying for control of the Polish capital in the Middle Ages. Soon my appetizer, a carp head served with smoked butter that the chef delivers to the table, is staring unnervingly back at me. To brace myself, I take a second gulp of 2014 Młody Ziemniak Vineta, a subtle vodka with rich, earthy notes made from new potatoes harvested in the Podlachie region, adjacent to Belarus and Ukraine. If Baron were appearing on an episode of Iron Chef, carp would be the secret ingredient; this month, it’s turning up in almost every dish on the menu, right through to dessert. Fortunately, Federowicz’s vodka and food pairings are giving me the courage to not only try fried carp roe with raspberry honey and reindeer lichen but also to ask for seconds.

Neon Muzeum

To the letter: sign language in front of the Neon Muzeum in Soho Factory.

Against the night sky, the Palace of Culture and Science appears to preside over the city like a huge wedding cake, topped by that all-seeing clock tower. It occurs to me that the only way to dodge its watch is to head up to the top of the palace itself. I pass through the massive front doors and ascend in a tiny elevator that is operated by a rather severe-looking employee. Up at the very top, the huge terrace that surrounds the building is bathed in green light, and I finally get an impressive view of the whole city. Over there in the distance I can see St. Augustine’s Church, one of a few structures left standing in the Warsaw ghetto after the Second World War. Closer by, the Złota 44 tower, designed by Polish-American architect Daniel Libeskind, reminds me of an Olympic torch, proudly defying the palace. After a few minutes of watching the skyline sparkle in the breeze, it’s time to head down to the first-floor bar where tonight young Varsovians are partying once again – but that’s assuming they ever stopped.

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