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Signs of the times - Raffles Singapore is undergoing a major restoration

SIGNS OF THE TIMES

Words: Charlotte McManus    Photography: KALPESH LATHIGRA

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A host of dynamic new bars, restaurants, galleries and hip hotspots all show that Warsaw has a bright future as a must-visit destination while retaining an old-world charm

It’s a chilly afternoon in late winter when I touch down in Warsaw, a fast-changing city leaving behind its troubled past for a dynamic, optimistic present and even more promising future. Positioned on the intersection of Central Europe, the Polish capital — divided by the River Vistula — combines East and West, old and new, then and now.

I’m here to explore a city that, come December, will be home to the latest addition to the Raffles Hotel group: Raffles Europejski. Unlike the lauded charms of trop belle Paris or the sunny Seychelles, Warsaw is more of an up-and-coming destination, but there’s much to discover if you’re prepared to look a little deeper.

lighting up Poland’s intriguing past at the Neon Muzeum
the design store at Pies Czy Suka
a member of staff at Pies Czy Suka

Left to right: lighting up Poland’s intriguing past at the Neon Muzeum; the design store at Pies Czy Suka; one of its staff;

As my taxi speeds away from the airport, thick forest melting into urban sprawl, one immediately notices the unique mishmash of architecture, from Gothic churches and Soviet-era brutalist blocks to modern skyscrapers. Coming to a stop at Pilsudski Square, I check in at the Sofitel Warsaw Victoria, a modern city-slick hotel with marble surfaces, mallow-like beds and Lanvin toiletries in the bathrooms.

Time to head downtown. Those with historical interests should start with the grand Royal Route, but I’m keen to deviate off the beaten track. There’s a creative energy at the heart of 21st-century Warsaw; away from the main streets lies many a hidden gem. Explore alleys and side streets, where you are likely to stumble across an interesting bar or boutique.

Red banquette: The Salto restaurant
Barman: The Kita Koguta cocktail bar
Sign: Pies Czy Suka concept store
Men on guard: Park Ujazdowski

Left to right: the Salto restaurant; Kita Koguta cocktail bar; Pies Czy Suka; Park Ujazdowski

A sudden burst of rain interrupts play. With stomach grumbling, I push open the doors to Inny Wymiar (“Another Dimension”) on Swietokrzyska. Not yet three months old on the date of my visit, this contemporary restaurant offers an innovative twist on classic Polish cuisine. Glass-vased candles are scattered across surfaces, adding cosiness to the exposed-brick space, while the charmingly “Engrish” menu — describing “heatry” dinners and fine “ingridients” — soon gets the mouth watering. There’s something so comforting in taking refuge from the cold with chunky oxtail soup and a steaming pile of Polish dumplings served with mushrooms and blue cheese.

Suitably fed and watered, I head further south, the iconic Palace of Culture and Science — a “gift of friendship” from the USSR — looming in the distance. I wander into a small red-brick courtyard strung with lights, where chic fashion boutique RISK Made in Warsaw is tucked away. Polish Zloty burning a hole in my pocket, the understatedly elegant pieces, designed by Antonina Samecka and Klara Kowtun and produced by local craftsmen, are a sore temptation.

There’s a creative energy at the heart of 21st-century Warsaw

Round the corner, in another picturesque courtyard off Szpitaina, I come across a wonderfully offbeat concept store, Pies Czy Suka, housed in a renovated chocolate factory. It’s a knowingly cool, split-level space with an in-house design studio and the Pure Bar, offering tapas and experimental cocktails. Ornamental animal heads protrude from the whitewashed walls, while neon signs cast a red glow on to the late-night drinkers. The ponytailed bargirl explains that Pies Czy Suka is popular for dates, attracting well-heeled professionals. She also recommends the fragrant Gin Basil Smash, which takes me through to closing time.

A crisp, sunny day dawns: perfect for a visit to Warsaw’s Old Town, a 15-minute walk from the Sofitel. Although much of the area was rebuilt after the Second World War, it’s the most picturesque part of the city with pastel-coloured houses, palaces and museums grouped around squares such as the Rynek Starego Miasta (“Old Town Market Place”). Dotted around are shops-cum-galleries selling antiques, art and amber — the “Gold of the Baltic” — often made into fantastical sculptures of ships and snakes.

Though the Old Town can fall foul of tourist trap eateries, it is worth making a visit to Poland’s oldest chocolatier, E Wedel, in business since 1851. Along with a suitably well-stocked shop, there is a chocolate lounge, complete with ribbons and a fountain for added kitsch. I indulge in a glass of thick, dark, chilli-infused hot chocolate. Those with sweeter teeth will delight in the sugar-tastic tasting menus.

the city centre lies on the west bank of the Vistula river
an amuse bouche of dried pear chips at Salto

Left to right: the Polish capital’s city centre lies on the west bank of the Vistula river; an amuse bouche of dried pear chips at Salto

From the Old Town, I take a leisurely walk south to Powisle on the left bank of the Vistula. On Dobra, the University of Warsaw’s impressive library is worth a visit for its expansive roof garden and panoramic views. Near the riverside are urban apartments, edgy design stores and artisan coffee shops. I am told that Powisle’s sandy banks come alive in summer with trendy pop-ups and sunbathing young Varsovians. As it’s still winter, I make do with a pleasant stroll through leafy Park Ujazdowski nearby.

Podwale 25 restaurant in the Old Town
Argentinian chef Martin Gimenez-Castro

Left to right: the Podwale 25 restaurant in the Old Town serves Bavarian and Czech dishes; Argentinian chef Martin Gimenez-Castro, a Warsaw resident for more than 10 years, sees a fresh appetite for dining

Afterwards, I keep going west in search of dinner, ending up at Salto on Wilcza. This relaxed eatery has an art deco vibe. A colony of metal ants climbs the walls, which the knowledgeable sommelier — filling my glass with an excellent Riesling — tells me represents the teamwork of the restaurant.

Influenced by South America, the food is full of creative surprises. The tasting menu kicks off with a dried pear amuse bouche before seguing into smoking scallops, langoustine with passion fruit, a fat octopus tentacle served with an edible pebble, melt-in-the-mouth white grouper decorated with silver paper made from fish stock, goat with Jerusalem artichoke puree, and a wicked chocolate dessert with pistachio ice cream.

Chef Martin Gimenez-Castro welcomes me from the kitchen, all South American warmth. “I am Argentinian, but the food isn’t really Argentinian; it is mine. I represent nature in my food, taking inspiration from travel — I always try to find the sea,” he explains. “I’ve lived in Warsaw for more than 10 years and it has changed a lot... Food is in fashion now, so people have a new appreciation for our work. All the people coming to the city expect better quality experiences, so we need to be ready. I feel I am definitely in the right place at the right time.”

A short walk away — much needed after such an indulgent meal — I hit Plac Zbawiciela, home to a number of buzzy nightspots. Along with its food, Warsaw’s bar scene is booming. After hours, intimate French boulangerie Charlotte is transformed into a wine bar, carafes and candles jostling for space on tables filled with friends. With its dim lighting and influx of pouting girls in leather jackets, you could easily think you were in the heart of the Pigalle.

The night is drawing long, but there’s time for a nightcap; I head north to Kita Koguta on Krucza, where prosecco corks hang from the ceiling and larger-than-life murals decorate the walls. A cluster of cocktail aficionados is gathered, chatting loudly.

Marchin, one of the hosts — hipster-bearded and man-bunned, naturellement — comes to talk with me. “Warsaw’s bar scene has seen a dynamic change in the past two years, with new places popping up all the time. We are able to raise the bar with trends like reinvented classics. People have come to expect a certain kind of experience when eating out, which has become the same with cocktails. On weekends, people queue down the street and dance on the bar!”

Marchin advises me to visit Kita Koguta’s new sister bar, Kiti, a few doors down. Offering a taste of the tropics, this tiki-themed venue is another haunt frequented by the young and hip, though its bar staff are refreshingly friendly and keen to whip something up if it’s not on the menu. The Old Fashioned made with rum, dark molasses, honey, a spray of chocolate bitters and decorated with a purple hibiscus bloom, has to be tasted to be believed.

the Old Town has elements of Baroque, Gothic and neoclassical

Clockwise from top: the architecture of the Old Town has elements of Baroque, Gothic and neoclassical, as well as a host of shops selling antiques and art

the Old Town has a host of shops selling antiques and art
the Old Town has elements of Baroque, Gothic and neoclassical

The next day, I venture across the Vistula to Warsaw’s right bank, a short tram ride from the Old Town. Here is the expansive district of Praga (aka “Prague”), once a city in its own right. In the past Praga held a dubious reputation as a run-down slum, a shabby counterpart to the new-and-improved left bank rebuilds — but it remains a place where one can get a taste of the “real” Warsaw. A new generation of Varsovians has also prompted boho hotspots, as well as alternative galleries, restaurants, theatres and clubs from once-derelict factories and warehouses.

The Old Town is the most picturesque part of the city with pastel-coloured houses and museums

The further you head away from the river, the scruffier Praga gets with wartime bullet holes still peppering buildings. Yet there are hidden gems if you know where to look. It’s a hub for young creatives with the dilapidated buildings often used as a canvas for colourful street art, while pretty illuminated icons of the Virgin Mary are secreted within many an unassuming courtyard.

Turning on to Zabkowska, one of Warsaw’s oldest streets, I make a pit stop at Caffee Galeria Sztuki, tempted by the jazz soundtrack and sweet smell from the towering cakes on display. The waitress tells me that the café hosts book groups and free exhibitions; this kind of multifunctional creative space is typical of Praga. The café’s charmingly mismatched furniture — all polished wood tables and glass bead chandeliers — are in fact antiques, taken from a larger collection stocked and sold at nearby Galeria Stara Praga.

Curious, I head there next. Housed in a pre-war building, the “Old Prague” gallery — owned, like the café, by Filip Stanowski — is filled with pieces ranging from the Biedermeier period of Central Europe and art nouveau to Louis Philippe styles, with overstuffed leather armchairs and gilded mirrors galore.

With another short tram ride, I journey deeper into right-bank Warsaw, alighting in Kamionek to explore the Soho Factory, a complex of buildings revamped by entrepreneur Rafal Bauer to create an avant-garde hub of post-industrial, creative spaces in the manner of New York’s SoHo (à la Andy Warhol’s era). It’s home to a number of contemporary galleries, cutting-edge design studios, fashion brands and architects. Large metal sculptures make a statement about the grounds, while workers and visitors alike congregate at the many outside seating and relaxation areas.

Soho Factory is a complex of buildings

Clockwise from top: Soho Factory is a complex of buildings that’s home to galleries, design studios, fashion brands and architects with striking sculptures dotted throughout

Soho Factory contains striking sculptures dotted throughout
Soho Factory contains striking sculptures dotted throughout

Time for lunch. At the delightful Warszawa Wschodnia, open 24/7, diners are seated on tall chairs around an open kitchen as chefs whip up French-meets-Polish dishes before my eyes; guests can even prepare their own meal. I order light fish soup à la bouillabaisse and baked puffs with goat’s cheese, paired perfectly with a chilled Pinot Gris.

Soho Factory is a hub of post-industrial creative spaces in the manner of New York’s SoHo

After another quick caffeine fix at Kofi — its stripped-back, exposed-concrete hipster vibe and excellent flat white make it a must for serious java junkies — I make a beeline for the Neon Muzeum. This small yet unique institution curates and restores Cold War-era neon signs and electro-graphic artefacts from across Poland, preserving the heritage of the “great neonisation” movement rooted in the former Eastern Bloc. I am particularly drawn to the outline of a red mermaid or syrenka — the symbol of Warsaw.

Time is ticking on towards my flight home, but I manage to squeeze in dinner at Soho Factory’s Szklarnia. Festooned with fairy lights and lush foliage, this pretty eatery dishes up a Mediterranean-influenced menu made with fresh vegetables and herbs grown in its own garden. I feast on beef loin steak tartare with wild mushrooms and truffle-infused olive oil, followed by fried sturgeon fillet with artichoke and ginger ravioli.

My trip has gone by in a flash. Despite my chock-a-block schedule (and aching feet), I feel I have only scratched the surface of this exciting, evolving and often surprising city. With the opening of Raffles Europejski will come the perfect reason to return.

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