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The Warsaw Voice » Society » August 1, 2014
Book review
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Alternative Guide to Warsaw
August 1, 2014   
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So you’ve been in Warsaw for a while and think you’ve seen all there is to see? Well, think again because the Polish capital offers more than meets the eye. Some of its hidden delights are highlighted in a new book published by Agora, one of Poland’s largest media companies and owner of the country’s influential Gazeta Wyborcza daily.

The Do It in Warsaw! guide to the Polish capital, authored by Agnieszka Kowalska and Łukasz Kamiński, a pair of Warsaw-based Gazeta Wyborcza journalists, is now in its third edition. The book, with articles in both Polish and English, is targeted at those looking for an alternative take on the capital and who are ready to veer off the beaten track. While the Polish texts are informative and interesting, the English version leaves a lot to be desired. More on that later.

The book contains entertaining descriptions of some of the city’s most intriguing nooks and crannies, and it also offers ideas for things to do in the city. The publication also includes comments about Warsaw by various figures in the arts.

The authors offer tips on how to spend quality time in Warsaw: what to eat, where to go for entertainment, where to buy an attractive souvenir, in which theater to see a good show and, somewhat more controversially, what places to stay away from.

If you really want to experience Warsaw “in its full wonder,” the authors say, you should try something different, something that residents and visitors to the city do not normally do—like taking a six-hour walk along the Warsaw Escarpment area from the Citadel landmark in the Żoliborz district all the way to Królikarnia Palace in the Mokotów district without ever leaving the city’s plentiful green spaces. On this long, environmentally-friendly walking and cycling trail, lined with cultural institutions and cafes, you will discover that Warsaw has more greenery than most other capitals in Europe.

If you are an avid runner or cyclist and have some time on your hands while on a business trip here, you should also check out the Kabaty Forest on the southern fringes of the city or try the Bielany Forest in the north. Yet another mecca for local sports buffs is the Kampinoski National Park, a huge chunk of forest with fine walking and cycling trails on the northwestern outskirts of the city.

If you love nature, you should venture down to the Vistula River valley to catch a glimpse of some of the more than 40 species of small mammals living there, including beavers, otters and martens—quite an unusual sight within a big city.

If you are an architecture buff, don’t miss the world’s narrowest house—a curious structure squeezed into a gap between a 1960s-style apartment building at 22 Chłodna St. and a prewar tenement house at 74 Żelazna St. This unusual dwelling measures 72 cm at its narrowest point and 122 cm at its widest point.

Even familiar city landmarks such as the Palace of Culture and Science hold some unexpected attractions, Kowalska and Kamiński say. Take the elevator to the Palace’s 30th floor (114 meters above ground) to take a good look around the city and see how the Polish capital has changed since communism ended in this country in 1989. Alternatively, you can take in a bird’s eye view of the city from a garden on the roof of the University of Warsaw Library, one of Warsaw’s finest modern buildings. From there you can see the Vistula river up close and Świętokrzyski Bridge with its impressive pylon as well as the National Stadium and the brick towers of the neo-Gothic St. Florian’s Cathedral in the east-bank Praga neighborhood, in addition to a beautiful view of the Old and New Towns.

If you love antiques, make your way to the Koło flea market, where, for as little as a penny, you may be able to hunt down some old treasures such as vintage porcelain or glass.

Moreover, the authors say, don’t forget to see the sites where Polish-born director Roman Polanski filmed The Pianist—with Adrien Brody in the lead role as Władysław Szpilman, the gifted Polish pianist of Jewish origin. These locations include Mała and Stalowa streets in the Praga-Północ district, in addition to the city’s flagship Krakowskie Przedmieście thoroughfare. Polanski personally supervised the camera work together with cinematographer Allan Starski.

Those with a penchant for night life and clubbing should stop by Pożar w Burdelu (Fire in a Brothel), a venue that calls itself Warsaw’s first true cabaret and aims to forge a new identity for the Polish capital, Kowalska and Kamiński say.

If you’re on a tight budget, you can catch some shut-eye at the eco-friendly Wilson Hostel on Felińskiego Street near the Plac Wilsona metro station in the Żoliborz district. This Japanese-style capsule hostel has water heated by solar panels and water-saving systems combined with a wall of vegetation to filter the air.

Overall, the Polish capital has changed massively since Agora published the first edition of its Do It in Warsaw guide six years ago, according to Kowalska and Kamiński. It has “made its way closer to the Vistula river” and seen new restaurants and bars spring up as well as cool hip hop, rock, alternative, jazz and pop venues. It has exploded with music festivals and concerts. “Today it resembles a kaleidoscope gone wild with different shapes and colors. And it continues to fascinate residents and visitors alike,” the authors write.

While some “party and music landmarks” have vanished from the cityscape, many new venues such as the National Stadium have been built. The stadium was constructed especially for the Euro 2012 soccer tournament hosted by Poland and Ukraine, and now serves as a major concert venue for star performers such as Beyoncé, Paul McCartney and Depeche Mode.

Warsaw has also changed in terms of food, Kowalska and Kamiński say. Food fashions in the city come and go. Not long ago Warsaw was all about sushi and kebabs. Today hamburgers and breakfast meals reign, according to the authors, with hummus and zapiekanki, or toasted cheese sandwiches, waiting to take over.

A further change, the authors note, is that Warsaw’s bicycle routes have evolved. While the city’s bike path network is still a far cry from what cyclists can expect to see in Copenhagen, for example, “it is getting there,” they say, with a new rent-a-bike system launched by the city’s authorities a few years ago.

Now for some bad news. The book aims to “grasp Warsaw in its full wonder.” It does, but only the Polish version. The English version is a bit of a letdown. The translation appears to have often been left unedited and is riddled with all manner of problems. These include spelling mistakes (“hop hop” instead of “hip hop”); awkward style (“Practical Information and, Again, Places Recommended by Us”); use of the Polish-style uppercase “You” instead of the lowercase (“Mind You, You don’t have to visit the stadium to enjoy a proper concert”); sloppiness (“hosting world’s biggest stars, Beyonce, Paul McCartney, Depeche Mode”); and poor grammar combined with weird language, producing a surreal effect (“You can also go to ul. Poznańska 26 to the Pędzli i Szczotek Studio (1951) and buy a handmade boar hair from Szczecin paint brush from Mr. Ryszard”).

All these linguistic inadequacies disrupt the flow of the text and irritate the reader, which is surprising since Agora is one of the country’s largest publishing houses. It should have known better than to offer a rough draft instead of a finished product. While the Polish version of the guide reads well and leaves the reader entertained, the English version requires further work, and that’s putting it politely. Agora needs to do better in the next edition of the guide.

Grzegorz Siwicki

Zrób to w Warszawie! Do It in Warsaw!
A bilingual Polish-English alternative guide to the Polish capital, published by Agora SA, text by Agnieszka Kowalska and Łukasz Kamiński, Warsaw 2014, 313 pp.
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