Warsaw’s Wild Side

The Guardian

Some Varsavians still think that a night out in Praga is a bit too edgy for comfort, remembering the days when the neighbourhood’s soaring crime rate earned it the nickname “the Bermuda Triangle.” For decades it was home to the poorest of Warsaw’s poor, and the derelict streets were ruled by the criminal underworld.

But those who do venture across the Vistula River are finding that Praga is blossoming into one of New Europe’s most creative counter-culture capitals. Renovated pre-war factories and warehouses have become the favourite haunts of the artistic and trendy, as bars, clubs, galleries and restaurants pour in to transform the historic back alleys into a rich stew of creativity. These days Praga bubbles with a heady energy reminiscent of Berlin.

The scene couldn’t be more different from polished downtown Warsaw, where the almost total devastation of WWII has ensured that everything – including the “Old Town” – is brand-new. Praga is both genuinely antique and genuinely decrepit. The beautiful old buildings are crumbling, rusting iron bars jut out from walls pitted by wartime bullets and the delicate art nouveau facades are thick with grime. But the streets themselves seethe with life. This is a neighbourhood of small shops and street markets, where ragged children play unattended in the alleys and every courtyard shelters an icon of the Virgin Mary.

After dark, Praga really shines. Its nightlife, weaving fearlessly between the cutting-edge and the downright surreal, pulls in revellers from every corner of the city. The walls are cracking, the furniture rarely matches and there’s a good chance the bartender is a volunteer, but for many, Praga’s bars and clubs fill a void left by Warsaw’s headlong race toward Westernisation.

“This is the real city. Here you feel a pulse,” says local artist Marta Wojcicka. “I think that in 20 years it will be like Tribeca or Soho, but right now Praga is still the wild district of Warsaw.”

Fabryka Trzciny
Several years ago composer and producer Wojciech Trzcinski started a trend when he transformed this turn-of-the-century marmalade factory into the epicentre of Praga’s culture scene, including a restaurant, club and gallery. The designers found ingenious ways to preserve the factory’s industrial character, and today it is the height of hipster cool to sip cocktails in the “Stove Room,” dominated by an enormous brick stove squatting in the corner, and to dance between walls covered in plugs, pressure gauges, rusted pipes and glowing glass bottles. Bands from around the world play gigs here, and the parties go on until dawn.

Otwocka 14 (0048 (22) 619 05 13, http://www.fabrykatrzciny.pl)

Café Melon
Ten years ago when Iza Bil and Andrzej Wyszynski established Melon photography studio on Inzynierska, one of Praga’s dodgiest side-streets, their clients were afraid to come. Now around a dozen artists have set up shop nearby, and Melon has opened up into a trendy little café that doubles as a focal point for the local art world. Artists and passers-by sip lattes on the sidewalk, and inside the walls are adored with the work of Praga photographers and books with titles like “500 Teapots: Contemporary Explorations of a Timeless Design.”

Inzynierska 3 (0048 (22) 818 79 98, http://www.studiomelon.pl)

W Oparach Absurdu
If the five-foot plastic tarantula above the door doesn’t tip you off, the hordes inside will: this is one of the most iconic bars in town. Owner Elzbieta Komorowska spent months hunting through antique shops and flea markets to decorate her wonderland, and the results are dizzying– religious icons, a plaster pig, Christmas ornaments and Persian carpets leave barely enough room for customers. But they pack them in all the same, and even manage to squeeze the occasional band onto a microscopic stage. There’s no cocktail menu, but be sure to sample Spider Drink, an eerie green-and-red mixture of banana, black currant and vodka that goes down much too easily. And beware the enormous 50cl shots.

Zabkowska 6 (0048 660 780 319, http://www.oparyabsurdu.pl)

This immense red-brick complex may look like the set of a Gothic horror film, but inside the old Koneser vodka distillery is a riot of creative endeavour. Two art galleries now call it home, as well as a restaurant, a performance space and a small “design” shop selling everything from inflatable chandeliers to porcelain Wellington boots. A collection of wooden pallets out back morphs into an open-air cinema on summer evenings, where young Pragans nestle into fluffy cushions to watch art-house flicks projected on a brick wall.

Zabkowska 27-31 (0048 (22) 537 0227, http://www.latokonesera.pl)

Porto Praga
Opened last year by renowned restaurateur Richard Winkler, Porto Praga is the neighbourhood’s most decisive foray into high-brow dining. Warsaw’s cultural elite flock here to enjoy dishes from around the world, from Spanish veal to Balinese tuna tartar, as well as a raft of imaginative cocktails with names like “Strawberry Cheesecake.” Tucked into the last remnants of a 200 year-old steam mill, the restaurant’s interior has been fitted out with Art Nouveau elegance that provides a stark contrast to the rough tenements outside.

Stefana Okrzei 23 (0048 (22) 698 50 01, http://www.portopraga.pl)

Sklad Butilek
With a name that means “Bottle Warehouse” in Polish, Sklad is one of Praga’s murkiest, weirdest and most eminently hip hangouts. Housed in the bowels of a 1913 rubber factory, the bar’s mish-mash of old furniture, candle-lit corners and gregarious bar staff attract those looking to get as far away as possible from the gleam and glitz of central Warsaw . Jovial owners Magda and Olga celebrated Sklad’s third birthday with an acrobat from Cirque du Soleil and a line-up of local musicians wailing their ballads in the gloom of the basement club. Just for fun, a graffiti artist from Berlin showed up to scrawl on the walls.

11 Listopada 22 (0048 602 338 824, http://www.skladbutelek.pl)

Pasta Café
This little restaurant is perched on the very edges of Praga’s artistic Renaissance, in the residential mean streets where broken glass crunches underfoot and tattooed men sit tuning their cars. For local artists and their families, it’s an oasis of peace and tranquillity. Tasty meals and frothy cappuccinos are served in a simple garden behind an old wooden house, where couples take tea on the grass, extended families gather for long lunches and children play among the lawn chairs. It’s like a BBQ in a friend’s back yard, where no one minds if you stay all afternoon.

Kamionkowska 48A (0048 (22) 870 03 73, http://www.pastacafe.pl)

Getting there:
EasyJet flies to Warsaw from London (Luton) and Bristol for around £50 return.

Where to stay:
Hotel Praski, Solidarnosci 61 (0048 (22) 201 63 00, http://www.praski.pl) 230 zl (£57) for a double room with a view of the bear pit across the street.

For more information:

Published online by The Guardian (read)