Having been to Warsaw, and visiting Old Town several times, I am surprised to find out Old Town is not really old town. It is fake, and apparently, full of secrets.
According to Anthony Paletta of the Daily Beast: Weathering is mild, features are sometimes a little too regular, masonry is in surprisingly strong shape. Contrast with Praga across the Vistula, a 19th century neighborhood that is full of crumbling buildings, and you’ll soon apprehend that something is up.
If the Old Town is very nice, it’s a simulacra from the early 1950s, when most buildings were rebuilt from skeletal or absent remains. Some were scrupulously reconstructed. Others were dreamt up as pastiches of the era. There is an element of Disneyland to the place, but with the bleakest possible prehistory of the obliteration of much of Warsaw in the Second World War. The reconstruction of the city’s Old Town, adjacent New Town (new as in the 18th century), and portions of the principal avenue Royal Route (a kingly route between palaces, whose reconstructed portions consist of Krakowskie Przedmieście and Ulica Nowy Świat) was an undertaking of grave importance to the postwar Polish state, a country whose capital had been turned into rubble.
It’s a fascinating and very appealing place, which tells two stories at once. It’s not fully a reconstruction as many buildings are entirely new aside from their facades and basements and some never existed at all, but most of it is about as faithful a reconstruction as documentation and resources could provide. Its aim was not to delude but to restore the cruelly-extinguished essence of a vanished place and today offers a vision of the Polish Commonwealth pre-1795 through the frame of the 1950s, a much better fate than just having a pure vintage vision of the 1950s.
Just amazing, since 25,000 buildings were destroyed in WW2, with less than 1000 remaining today. Warsaw was home to three large movements or battles. So massive was the destruction that Poles thought of moving the capital elsewhere. The postwar in the Eastern bloc was hardly a great time for rebuilding. Little did they realize the prewar city looked great compared to what would soon follow.
Again, Paletta: Warsaw’s historic reconstruction projects were an odd priority from a state generally eager to construct new socialist cities. Functional older buildings across Poland were being torn down for “rational” construction and decadent capitalist ornament was stripped from buildings not far away in the city. Communists wouldn’t generally dedicate substantial resources to the reconstruction of a past they would surely have thought reactionary, full of prosperous merchants’ homes and churches from the age of Polish kings (historic reconstruction in East Germany took some time longer to gather any steam). Yet the wrenching past rendered the weaving of a stronger link with Poland’s history a priority even to the Polish People’s Republic.
The Warsaw Old Town was a unique addition to the UNESCO World Heritage List in the 1980, for a body that generally looked askance on reconstructions, especially on those that took such occasional liberties as the Warsaw one. The listing acknowledged the process of the rebuilding itself, finding the project representative of “the inner strength and determination of the nation, which brought about the reconstruction of the heritage on a unique scale in the history of the world.”
For a tourist like me, I really enjoyed visiting Old Town. It is charming, with street side cafes, bars, and coffee houses. A short walk away is Madame Curie’s former home, now museum. The cobbled streets, old churches, and “new” buildings create a welcoming atmosphere for tourists. I am more than overjoyed they did this!
Perhaps this time, I will find a local to show me around? It should be great fun!