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In from the cold

From complete destruction by the Nazis to a Unesco listing, Warsaw has survived and thrived. Words and pictures by Tim Pile

 

There's a collective groan from the passengers as we approach Warsaw's Frederic Chopin Airport. A monochrome landscape floats in and out of focus as the pilot mumbles something about poor visibility due to the freezing fog.

The plane thumps onto the runway and a flight attendant announces that the temperature is minus 11 degrees Celsius, adding without irony: "Enjoy your stay in Poland."

The man sitting next to me has seen it all before. "Last year it got down to minus 22," he says, with a grimace.

Many places are enhanced by a light dusting of snow and Warsaw perhaps more than most. Along historic Nowy Swiat Street, the sturdy grey communist-era buildings and statues look almost festive. The thoroughfare forms part of the Royal Route and leads to the baroque and Renaissance facades of the Old Town.

Demolished by the German army dur- ing the second world war, the district was painstakingly reconstructed to resemble how it looked in the 18th century.

This was achieved by referring to meticulously detailed paintings by the likes of Italian artist Canaletto. The architects, craftsmen and historians did such a good job that the Old Town was granted Unesco World Heritage status in 1980.

By mid-afternoon the temperature has warmed to a balmy minus seven. T-shirt and shorts weather for Varsovians, as the inhabitants of Warsaw are known. I'm as far out of my climatic comfort zone as a tropical fish in the Baltic Sea.

The bleak weather contrasts with the cosiness of the coffee shops that line Nowy Swiat. As pedestrians trudge along the icy street negotiating freezing flurries of snow, customers a window pane away sit reading, chatting or updating their Facebook profiles in their underwear. Well, almost.

"You should have been here last year. It was minus 22," the barista says while I thaw enough to find a few zloty coins.

Outside, nimble-fingered buskers play on, somehow managing to keep frostbite at bay in a blizzard. Nearby, an ice-cream vendor has wisely diversi-fied into potato pancakes and mugs of steaming hot chocolate.

Polish cuisine is of the hearty "sticks to your ribs" variety. Pierogi or dumplings filled with potato and onion, meat or cabbage, are a national obsession. Soups appear on every menu and you're never far from a sizzling sausage stall.

The temperature drops to minus 16 overnight but the numbers have become meaningless. It doesn't feel noticeably colder the next morning as I board a tram across the Vistula River, to Praga.

The gritty neighbourhood has a bohemian atmosphere, with cafés, bars and converted loft apartments. Praga survived the German onslaught largely unscathed and its dilapidated pre-war tenements and derelict factories featured as convincing backdrops in Oscar-winning films Schindler's List and The Pianist.

Back in the Old Town Square, events have taken a surreal turn with the deafening arrival of hundreds of motorcyclists all dressed as Santa Claus. The MotoMikolajki initiative raises significant sums of money for children's charities in a series of co-ordinated Christmas conventions across Poland.

Funds collected and distributed, the red- and white-clad bikers hang around sharing a glass or two of grzane wino (mulled wine) while admiring each other's machines. It's all very convivial and no one seems to mind too much about the cold.

"The winter helps us appreciate our summers," a Father Christmas with rosy cheeks explains philosophically. "Did you know it reached minus 22 last year?"

English is widely spoken in Warsaw, which is just as well since Polish sounds as impenetrable as it looks. Fortunately, a handful of the most useful words are easy to decode. Restauracja Krokodyl has a great location on Market Square and, next door, an Irlandzki Pub serves cheap shots of wódka to keep hipotermia at bay.

In an agencja turystyczna a girl explains that Egypt is the most popular winter sun destination for frozen Poles.

"People are concerned about the political situation in North Africa but when it's this cold, they're prepared to take their chances with terrorists," she jokes.

Unstable political situations are nothing new in these parts, either. Poland suffered more casualties per capita than any other country during the second world war and Warsaw bore the brunt of Nazi ferocity. Two desperate uprisings - the first in 1943 by Jews imprisoned in the notorious Warsaw ghetto, the second a year later by Poles who took on the might of the German army - proved futile and merely enraged Hitler, who ordered the obliteration of the city.

The arctic temperatures add another appalling dimension to the suffering. How inhabitants already weakened by starvation and disease coped during the bitter winters is almost impossible to imagine.

When the Germans eventually retreated in 1945, the Russian army took over a virtually deserted city. Poland would remain under Soviet influence until Lech Walesa and his Solidarity party came to power in 1990. Cold-war relics still dominate parts of the capital, some more overstated than others.

It's hard to miss the Palace of Culture and Science. The soaring socialist structure was offered as a gift to the people of Warsaw by the Soviets. Known as "Stalin's syringe", it remains the tallest building in the country and despite not being universally loved, does at least offer good views from the terrace on the 30th floor.

The Russians and Germans aren't the only ones to have abandoned Warsaw en masse, however. The modern-day exodus of Poles seeking work in western Europe is a topic everyone seems to have an opinion about.

Anna works in my hotel and, despite having two part-time jobs she finds it hard to make ends meet. The sociology student recently split up with her boyfriend but it's not heartache that's making her miserable; rather her costs have escalated now that she lives alone.

Unlike many of her compatriots, though, Anna has no desire to join those heading abroad. Instead, she hopes that the best and brightest of her generation will stay and build a future for Poland.

They might need coaxing. Free winter holidays in Egypt should do it. Apparently, the temperature dropped to minus 22 last year.

 

Getting there: Qatar Airways (www.qatarairways.com/hk) flies daily from Hong Kong to Doha and on to Warsaw's Frederic Chopin Airport.

 

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