FX Excursions

FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.

Warsaw: Stroll Through History

Jul 1, 2009
2009 / July 2009

WarsawOn any given night in Warsaw, but especially on summer weekends, it seems most of Poland’s young entrepreneurs gather along Nowry Swiat Street, Trzech Krzyzy Square or Krakowskie Przedmiescie Street to celebrate life and love — often accomplished with good vodka, lots of music and noisy house parties in private banquet rooms that last long into the night.

When my son, Aaron, and I strolled through Warsaw’s invigorating entertainment districts, it wasn’t just the Poles who were crowding into the city’s trendy cafés, wine bars and restaurants, or lining up for choice tickets at the 19th-century Grand Theatre Opera House (www.teatrwielki.pl). We noticed other Europeans as well: young men in rowdy stag groups from England; fashionable Milanese partying along Foksal Street until sunrise; and German couples, tourist maps in hand, making their way through Warsaw’s UNESCO-designated Old Town, where clothing boutiques and gourmet restaurants, all priced in Polish zlotys, offered great bargains for visitors with euros or dollars to spend.

This sprawling Polish capital, the scene of so much human tragedy and physical devastation during World War II, has finally righted itself, becoming a modern, 21st-century European city. Today, Warsaw is where ambitious, hard-working Poles — and anyone else for that matter — can start a business, make money, enjoy his or her leisure time and become an integral part of this 700-year-old city. It is where intelligence, creative energy and humor now mean more than religion or political affiliations.

Magda Gessler and Michelle Smith are Warsaw residents who epitomize the city’s resurgence and vitality of the past decade. Gessler returned to Warsaw in the late 1980s, after living for many years in other parts of the world. She came back when she realized that Warsaw’s newfound business and cultural opportunities would suit her imaginative ideas and artistic flair. Smith, a Canadian, moved to Warsaw in 2002, sensing that the city’s thriving economy would find room for a talented English writer with Polish-language skills. Smith now runs a successful small company, adding a Polish husband and two young children to her busy life.

In the years following the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, Magda Gessler witnessed Warsaw’s renaissance firsthand. As Poland turned westward after years of Soviet control, the city began renovating its older communist-era buildings, restoring the picturesque Old Town district and creating a corporate culture where private entrepreneurship thrived.

In the new Warsaw anything was possible, and Gessler used her culinary and artistic skills to become a respected artist and caterer. Today, as the main interior designer and menu planner for AleGloria (www.alegloria.pl) and other popular Warsaw restaurants, Gessler lets her imagination run wild, creating unique interior spaces and unusual culinary fare, becoming one of Warsaw’s most well known business women.

“Things were very different in Warsaw right after communism,” said Gessler. “There were just a few private firms beginning to operate, and only a couple of places to have a good meal. Now there are lots of great restaurants and a lot of competition in all sorts of businesses. If you are hard-working and persistent, there is a lot of money to be made here; but it is difficult, especially these days with the slowdown in economic activity.”

When we visited the fashionable AleGloria in trendy Trzech Krzyzy Square, sleek European cars pulled up to the restaurant’s entrance as the top tier of Warsaw society, along with curious visitors like Aaron and me, arrived for an evening of “Polish culinary fusion.” Specialties here include deep-fried carp ribbons with wasabi and horseradish or Chicken DeVollaille on baked apple preserve with truffle oil, but tr aditional Polish cuisine is always present. Pierogi are prepared fresh, as are Polish soups, the traditional bigos (stews) and whole baked fish.

Poland, which joined NATO in 1999 and the European Union in 2004, is no longer hidden behind an Iron Curtain. Warsaw now attracts plenty of local and foreign investors who wait impatiently for Poland to start using the euro as official currency rather than the zloty, which continues to drop in value despite Poland’s relative prosperity compared to other East European countries.

Michelle Smith’s company, WordSmith Promotion (www.wordsmithpromotion.com) publishes high-quality, English-language print and electronic materials for Polish and foreign-based businesses looking to promote themselves in Poland. “Good English is becoming more of an issue, and as Poland prepares to host Euro 2012 [the European Football Championships], it will be crucial,” said Smith. “People were willing to accept less than great English in Poland 10 years ago, but now the grace period is over. Polish businesses must communicate in perfect English in their printed materials and websites.”

The city’s infrastructure has improved dramatically since 1989, and with a little practice reading train station names like Ursynow, Swietokrzyska and Dworzec Gdanski, it was easy for my son and me to navigate Warsaw’s relatively new (1995), one-line subway system, which is expanding in stops and starts to accommodate the city’s growing business and residential districts.

In neighborhoods like Mokotow and Saka Kempa, in the Praga district, the old-fashioned, early-20th-century buildings, once gray and gloomy, are now bustling with cafés, art galleries and funky boutiques. In Zoliborz and Kabaty, nearby suburbs where parks and trees provide a respite from the city’s urban pace, young professionals are moving into pricey residential flats.

Aaron and I were especially interested in seeing the remnants of the World War II-era Warsaw Ghetto. In 1940 Nazi occupiers ordered the city’s Jews to build a wall around one of the Jewish districts in the city, and within a few years almost 400,000 Polish Jews were crammed into this walled section of the city. Most of the Jews were eventually deported by rail cars to the Treblinka death camp, and after an unsuccessful uprising by the remaining survivors, the ghetto was leveled by the German army.

Today, there are few reminders of the ghetto’s location. A small part of the ghetto wall remains standing at 55 Sienna St., and city government officials, with the help of the Jewish Historical Institute, have introduced a “ghetto trail” along the former boundary lines, with historic markers and multi-language information boards. About 2,000 Jews currently live in Warsaw, and Jewish-owned businesses are flourishing in various parts of the city. “There are even Israeli entrepreneurs coming to Warsaw now,” said Piotr Kadlcik, a leader of the Jewish community in Warsaw. “There is little discrimination here, and Jews are sharing in the overall economic success of Warsaw’s business community.”

One of Warsaw’s newest tourist attractions will be the Museum of the History of Polish Jews (www.jewishmuseum.org.pl), a permanent, state-of-the-art, multimedia exhibit that will open in 2011 on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto. The modern structure was designed by Ilmari Ladhelma and Rainer Mahlamaki of Finland, its original 2008 opening date delayed due to the current economic crisis. The Warsaw Uprising Museum (www.1944.pl) opened in 2004, the 60th anniversary of Poland’s Home Army’s effort to liberate Warsaw from the occupying German Army, and is a must for visitors interested in Warsaw’s World War II history.

Everywhere we walked in Warsaw we glimpsed the Warsaw Mermaid, the city’s historic symbol displayed on its coat of arms and on signs throughout the capital, and the majestic Vistula River, which flows through the city’s center, carrying freight to the Baltic Sea. One is a light-hearted fantasy, the other rough and real — m uch like Warsaw today, where Varsovians are enjoying life to the fullest as they work hard to reap the rewards of their newfound freedoms.


Frederic Chopin International Airport (WAW) is less than seven miles from city center. The 20-minute trip costs about $20–25 by taxi, $10 by shuttle bus and just over $1 on the local city bus. Trains arrive several times daily from Berlin, Vienna and Prague. Visit www.poland-tourism.pl or www.polandembassy.org.


The Axis bar offers Poland’s largest selection of vodka, and the high-tech convention center is popular for corporate meetings. Close to Old Town. $$
Grzybowska 63
tel 48 22 356 5555

This grand 1913 Parisian-style hotel across from the Palace of Culture and Science is beautifully maintained and decorated. $$$
Aleje Jerozolimskie 45
tel 48 22 318 2800

The central business-district location is convenient; a health and fitness club and Latino/Polish brasserie are nice amenities. $$
Grzybowska 24
tel 48 22 321 8888


Sirloin beef and roasted salmon are specialties at this quiet and refined restaurant with 1930s-style décor. Good variety of drinks. $
Marszalkowska 140
tel 48 22 692 8676

Magda Gessler’s newest restaurant, located in Old Town, features an eclectic menu, 18th-century chandeliers and fireplace. $$
Rynek Starego Miasta 21
tel 48 22 635 1515

Poland’s famous chef Maciej Kuron offers great beef and fish in his restaurant, frequented by local artists and celebrities. $
Konopnickiej 6
tel 48 22 626 8907


FX Excursions

FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.


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