Originally published by the now-defunct WiK English Edition, part of Poland’s reputed Wprost publishing house, in July 2006
Jana Pawla II: Warsaw’s Strip of Sleaze
The Polish capital entertains it citizens in amorphous fashion. Okay, there is a hub of sorts in the centre down ul. Mazowiecka and its environs but the district lacks variety in the range of pubs and clubs on offer. Most of them, to be frank, err on the aloof, with only Sheesha bar, (on ul. Sienkiwicza) and Klubo Kawiarna (on ul. Czackiego) eschewing the pomposity.
Not so far away – say a five to 10 minute cab journey – lies a burgeoning slice of life that still has eons to go before it starts taking on airs. Two years ago, the strip of Jana Pawła II between ul. Nowolipki and Aleje Solidarnosci was grimy, dull and was only lent character by the dozen or so sex shops that lined it sporadically. Then Café Furkot came along and from being just a ‘drag’, in both senses of the word, it gradually became a serious place to hang out.
Furkot has become the stuff of legend among the crowd who frequented the place soon after it opened. Staffed by the incomparable Tomek, it was the scene of many nights’ unstoppable partying, when customers put on their own music on and poured their own drinks and often forgot to pay for them. There were times when Tomek had to sleep on a customer’s settee – every regular was a true ‘local’ – so that he could get up in time to open the bar again at 9am, after closing up at 6 or 7am. Café Furkot seemed at that time to be less a drinking hole than scene of a weekly house party. Though it amounts to no more than the size of the average living room, Friday and Saturday nights would invariably see the place sway with dancers until Tomek’s fatigue suddenly got the better of him.
Alas, Furkot’s days of anarchy were not to last and with hindsight that was entirely predictable. The owners realized that Tomek’s free-for-alls were costing them more in takings than the bar’s rapid growth in popularity was worth. He had to go, they decided. These days, the legacy of the Furkot golden age is a camera just above the bar watching the staff’s every move.
Though it closes far earlier than before, it is still going strong and arguably its very presence in the first place revitalized the whole street. The owners obviously noticed this because last year they opened a second bar, ‘Biba’, - much on the same scale as Furkot – just a few doors away, which has become a civilized retreat for beer and conversation, a far cry from the halcyon days of its elder brother.
The Furkot/Biba owners have given the other bars on that south side of the street a right kick in the pants. Swingo – next door to Furkot and much bigger - was deemed the only place worth visiting a couple of years back on Jana Pawla by anyone with any semblance of taste. But with the advent of Furkot, it closed for a while last year to give itself a much-needed face lift. It also does happy hours in abundance, funnily enough.
Further up, there is the Diver bar, whose name, without the ‘r’, earlier summed up the place completely. Frequented mainly by the no-neck crowd it was the joint you’d cross over to the other side of the street to avoid. But now, with Furkot thinking about its bedtime, it is the latest-closing joint on the strip – and it only charges PLN 5 for a Krolewskie beer, just a notch below their competitors. The customers’ necks also seem to be getting longer.
The opposite side of the street is very different and give or take the odd sex shop, is dominated by kebab houses, the best of which is Sapko’s at number 41a. The consensus in Warsaw seems to be that that place on Marszalkowska opposite McDonalds, where the gullible and pigeons congregate, is the best in town. No way. Enter Sapko’s at a certain time of the day, with all those meaty, cheesy and tangy dishes blowing kisses at you from beneath the glass counter, then eating becomes a savage desire. The whole place also seems to be organised to military precision and is friendly to a fault too. You get a complimentary glass of tea with every meal which barely washes down the impossible portions the café insists on giving you.
Small, non-descript bars have been cropping up on the northern side of the street of late, but the stalwart remains ‘Guiseppe’, a beer lounge given over to karaoke, televised football matches and low-grade ribaldry. It looks dangerous but isn’t. It’s where a lot of working class Varsovians have fun and you could always go and join them if you so wish.
However, this writer has seen quite a few fights on this stretch of Warsaw and was himself once attacked late at night. With the growth of the area this should – and has – become far less common, but visitors should take heed. Jana Pawla has a very long way to go before it comes anyway near to resembling a tourist quarter.
But it might yet. It’s all in the name – John Paul II avenue. When the former pope died, thousands of Varsovians gathered to light candles and pay their respects on this very street. The scene was repeated in April this year on the anniversary of his death and you can still buy John Paul II candles from the off-licences, which have also sprouted up with abandon in the past two years, along with your beer and fags.
The sex shops blaring all their ‘Peep Show’ and ‘Striptease’ signs, as well as liberal displays of some of the paraphernalia on sale inside, somewhat undercut the piety many Varsovians have sought to re-claim for the street. During the mass mourning for the pontiff last year the stores actually covered their facades with tarpaulin as a bizarre mark of respect for someone who would have shut them down in an instant. The effect, weirdly, was to draw attention to the shop fronts. Until then, such had been their long-term presence that people just took them for granted. The other oddity is why the thousands or so mourners chose the sleaziest part of the street to pay their respects. Jana Pawla is an extremely long avenue so temporary shrines could have been set up just about anywhere. But no, Polish Catholics chose to light candles outside stores selling dildos.
There’s a lot going on in that part of town.