Praga: Goethe once referred to it as, “the prettiest gem in the stone crown of the world.” He was, regrettably, writing about the Czech capital, not the Warsaw suburb found due east of the river. What would he have made of the Warsaw incarnation? Probably not much. Why? Because there really wasn’t much there. While the oldest recorded mention of Praga, PL dates from 1432, during Goethe’s lifetime the Warsaw district was little more than a sad, shattered shell.
Left in ruins by the Russkies in 1794, Napoleon added to the devastation thirteen years later when he ordered surviving buildings be pulled down to shore up the city’s defenses. It wasn’t until half a century later that the Industrial Revolution brought new bounce to Praga, bloating the area with chimney stacks and workshops. Since those times Praga’s fortunes have oscillated greatly, though it’s for decline and despair the area remains known.
While it survived the outright destruction that concluded WWII, it’s fate seemed sealed by a post-war plan to repopulate the district with out-of-towners and ne’er-do-wells. Following communism, while the rest of Warsaw fast-tracked itself on the road to riches, Praga was left in the deep freeze, a rotting remnant of the toxic past.
But the world’s a strange animal, and Praga stranger still. With the area in its death rattle the unexpected happened: regeneration, growth and a new lease of life. Forced out the center by rising rents Warsaw’s emerging band of artists and creatives claimed Praga as HQ, lending the place a ‘spirit of now’. Once wretched and repellent, today’s Praga is a hotbed of art and innovation. Radical and revolutionary, it’s a world away from the ivory towers and gated compounds of Warsaw’s new ’burbs. Still scuffed around the edges, the raffish, roguish qualities remain very much in evidence, adding an edge that begs comparisons with Berlin. With the rest of the capital deep in the process of homogenization, Praga stands proudly separate – an area where anything can happen (and usually does).
Praga begins here! Travelers in olde worlde Europe were once warned of hostile territories by signs declaring, ‘Here be Dragons’. No need for that here, though signs proclaiming the presence of brown bears could well be an idea. Since 1976 a bear called Miraż has lived on a glum island outpost between the zoo and the main road, with two more docile creatures – Turnia and Tatra – added to the pen in ’82. A popular meeting point, you’ll usually find a crowd of infants gathered round bear island, tempting the cuddly beasts with slices of cake.
Onwards, and the onion domed Orthodox Church is something of a Praga icon, and a throwback to when Warsaw fell under the hegemony of Imperial Russia. Unveiled in 1869, it’s interiors are a feast of excess, and include several objet d’art salvaged from the Nevsky Cathedral that once stood on pl. Piłsudskiego. Equally impressive is St. Florian’s Cathedral across the road; touting a 10,000 capacity, it was obliterated during the German retreat, and only rebuilt as recently as 1970. But before you get here, you’ll be passing Liceum im. Króla Władysława IV, a school whose alumni include pedagogue, author and martyr, Janusz Korczak – murdered in Treblinka along with the orphans in his care. Visit at noon and you’ll hear the clock tower playing a rendition of ‘the Praga song’ – whatever that may be.
As you make your way south toward the river you’ll go by the hospital. Earmarked for destruction by the retreating Nazis, it only survived after all spare dynamite was used to flatten St. Florian’s. A reminder of the occupation can be found on the corner of Panieńska and Jasinskiego in the form of a wartime bunker. Indeed, as the bullet holes imprinted on the nearby walls suggest, Praga too saw its fair share of action during the ’44 Uprising. For six days the locals valiantly battled, eventually being liberated in August by the Kościuszko division. As we all know, the left side of Warsaw wasn’t so lucky.
As you make your way to the monument which recalls these heroics, you may notice a classicist, Corazzi-designed building peering from amid the 70s towers. That’s the former ‘water chamber’ and you’ll find a metal plaque on the façade denoting just where flood levels reached in 1813, 1839 and 1844.
ul. Wybrzeże Szczecińskie
Boasting the most impossible address in Warsaw, the fearsome monument to the Kościuszko Infantry Division recalls the sacrifice made during their aborted attempt to relieve the west bank of Warsaw during the Uprising. Formed in the Soviet Union, this Polish unit was the first to enter Praga in 1944, and later fought in the Battle of Berlin. Just behind it, find a splendid burnt-out ruin, just typical of an area caught between the past and the present.
Positioned on the crossroads of Sierakowskiego and Okrzei stands the former Jewish Hall of Residence, a student dorm whose inter-war boarders included Menachem Begin – the future PM of Israel. It’s for another purpose it’s better known though, and a plaque recalls its use as an office/prison by the Soviet Secret Police – NKVD. The tablet commemorates all held, tortured and murdered here between 1944-1956.
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