Friday 29 June 2012

Archive Article: Jana Pawla II: Warsaw’s Strip of Sleaze

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.

Archive Article: Lublin: Poland’s Eastern Gem

Originally published by the now-defunct WiK English Edition, part of Poland’s reputed Wprost publishing house, in June 2006

Lublin: Poland’s Eastern Gem

Lublin – 170 kilometers to the East of Warsaw and Poland’s ninth largest city, with a population of 400,000 – has been getting a raw deal of late. All but ignored by most standard travel guides and ignominiously labeled as the city with the lowest GDP in the whole of the European Union, the place would appear to be in need of a lift. While foreign investors are falling over themselves in western parts of the country, Lublin is hardly getting a look-in.

But all this could well be to its advantage, especially as far as the casual visitor is concerned. Forget about Krakow, Gdansk and Wroclaw, for a moment – with those vast pilgrimages of tourists nudging and barging their way past you. If you care for historical charm, a gentler variant of civic pride and the chance to plod around with all your holiday nerves intact, then Lublin’s the place.

Most of this, to be fair, is to be found in the city’s Old Town, which is among the smallest as they go in Poland. On one side it is almost immediately curtained by a sprawl of tower blocks; unusually for old towns in Poland these come up way too close. On the other, the narrow cobbled streets of the medieval quarter give way to Krakowskie Przedmiescie, the city’s main thoroughfare, which is the commercial heart of the city but also brims with its own noble, Renaissance architecture. Though the crumbling facades of the Old Town look poorer in comparison, it is to these that the tourist is inextricably drawn back to, perhaps after a ten minute meander down the avenue, your halting point being the grand statue of Marshal Pilsudski.

Lublin’s Old Town is irresistible precisely because it seems to be falling apart. Perhaps the unconscious urge in dashing back from Krakowskie Przedmiescie is to see as much of it as you can before it collapses into a heap. The other is that in their dilapidation the buildings ooze their history much more powerfully. The tourist industry demands that sooner or later Lublin’s Old Town will be spruced up – via an uglifying period of renovation, no doubt – but without its blemishes it will become just another postcard.

That’s from one who neither works nor lives there, however, and was punctuating short periods of his sauntering around, with long-term lounging in the bars, cafes and restaurants that lurk in every crevice. Though if you do manage to ignore the fraying of the brickwork – from the vantage point of an alfresco seat, beer in hand - what you will see is a multi-coloured collage, from one flawed beauty of a building to the next, which is a treat to the eyes.

Lublin Old Town is also a lot easier on the pocket than its more celebrated counterparts elsewhere in the country. The most expensive Zywiec is PLN 6.50 in the Irish Bar, for example. Elsewhere you’ll pay no more than PLN 5.

Perhaps the most pleasant outdoor dining and drinking experience came when we were lazing in the sun at Szeroka 28, the Old Town’s only Jewish restaurant. With that incomparably soothing Klezmer music seeping out of the speakers, we savoured every mouthful of our meal – garnished by a huge slice of orange and Mediterranean salad - and accompanied by a glass of excellent Israeli wine. Though we were only in Lublin for just over 24 hours, those moments were the ones most memorably soaked in leisure. 

Lublin’s Jewish past does not get the attention Krakow’s does but is rich nonetheless and Szeroka 28 is the most salient attempt in town to keep traditions alive. It puts on frequent concerts and the inside of the place is a glorious clutter of all things precious to Jewish culture. The owners are friendly to a fault too.

In 1921 almost 40 percent of Lublin’s population was Jewish. After the Nazi atrocities of World War II, they were reduced to a mere handful. Much of the city’s tourist revenue indeed comes from Jews visiting the city on heritage tours. But Szeroka 28 is basically their only meeting point in the Old Town.

It is a sad testimony to how mono-ethnic Poland has become, on one hand. On the other, Lublin’s Old Town, as the historical part of Poland’s link to its neighbours further east, is the ideal setting to sample fare from the Ukraine and beyond.

Take Przez Kresy in the Old Town Square, for example. Neat and tidy and tended to by one’s ideal of the sweet Slavonic waitress, you get to sample fare from all around the region at knock-down prices the owners don’t seem to be aware of. This is no milk bar, despite the modest menu. This is a carefully created atmosphere – with samovars on tables and all – that shows that Poland is in many ways is just as ‘Eastern European’ as its neighbours.

Deeper into Poland’s psyche lurks another Lublin gem, it too in the Old Town, yet utterly incongruous. We went in there simply because of the party atmosphere that beckoned us in from the street. It’s called Czarcia Lapa (Devil's Paw), and was full of overweight 50-year olds getting down to several sounds both current and old in rampant fashion. Helped on their way by the usual ‘Communist-man-on-a-keyboard’ they seemed to be having a whale of a time.

Such is the way things are in Lublin. It looks a mess, but that’s just part of the whole fun of being there.