V is for VISTULA (Wisła) – The Wisła runs straight through Warsaw, south to north, heading for Gdansk. Whilst it is a significant feature of the city, it is more of an obstacle than an attraction. There is nothing especially pretty about it, there are no interesting developments on its banks and as the land is flat on both sides the river does not open up wide and interesting vistas from strategic vantage points. There is almost nothing to do ‘on’ the river either. No ferry rides or nice restaurants or tourist’s scenic tours, as far as I can see. You have to realise that this is most definitely NOT the Thames, Seine, Danube or any of the more worthwhile rivers flowing through the capitals of Europe. Not by a long chalk. In general terms, the west side of the river is where all the action is to be found. The east has some interesting parts but is generally seen as being poorer and a little bit smelly! For me, the most significant news item related to the Wisła has been the replacement of the old Syrena bridge with the new Most Świętokrzyski. The old bridge was erected by the army in 1985 supposedly only for use while the Poniatowski bridge was renovated. In fact, it lasted until the new bridge in that location was opened in 2000. I struggled to find pictures of the old army bridge, it was not very pretty so that’s perhaps why, but I did find a couple taken at time when the new bridge was built but the army bridge had not been demolished. (If anyone does have a good picture of the old army bridge, without the new bridge, would you let me know please).
Here follows the usual blurb about the Vistula: The largest river of Poland and of the Baltic sea drainage basin. Its branches include the Bug, Wieprz, San, Narew, Nida, Pilica, Brda, and Wierzyca rivers. It is 1,047km long and has a drainage basin of 194,500 square km. The source is found south of Bielsko-Biała on the northern slopes of the western Beskid range, in southern Poland, at an altitude of 1,106 metres. The average elevation of the Vistula basin is 590 feet above sea level; the mean river gradient is 0.10 percent, and the mean velocity is 2.6 feet per second. Climatic variations in the Vistula basin cause marked oscillations in the water level of the river, which averages 12 feet in the upper, 25 feet in the middle, and up to 33 feet in the lower reaches. Exceptionally heavy floods occurred in 1924, 1934, 1947, 1960, 1962, and 1970. Usually ice forms on the surface of the Vistula in the first half of January, breaking up toward the end of February. (not this year though) The mean annual temperature of the Vistula water is 46° F (8° C) in the upper reaches and 49° F (9° C). In winter the water temperature is 36° to 37° F (2° to 3° C); in summer it varies from 54° to 59° F (12° to 15° C). More than 40 kinds of fish exist in the Vistula. In the upper reach, turbot is the most common, with bream in the middle and lower reaches, and, in the waters of the estuary, salmon trout and vimba vimba. Despite the Vistula’s potential role as a transport link between the heavy industrial centres of southern Poland and the Baltic ports, navigational hazards have restricted its traffic.
W is for WARSAW GHETTO – Clearly, this is a topic for a few hundred books and not for this post, however, I should give it a mention as it is what many people visiting the city will have on their agenda. The ghetto was huge, the image below is a very helpful map for locating parts of the ghetto, click for large size. Some of the road layouts have changed since this time but you can work it out.
I didn’t know until looking at this map that what is now the Chinese Embassy is build on what used to be a brush factory (B). As far as I can tell, this factory was run by Walther Tobbens, a man who had been busy busy exploiting the plight of the Jews in Germany since 1933 and started operations here in 1941. At its height, Tobbens factories in the ghetto employed 6-8,000 people. As well a brushes, furs (Fritz Shultz company of Danzig (Gdansk)) & textiles were also produced in the ghetto. A days wages did not cover the cost of half a loaf of bread. Anyone with an eye on Chinese human rights issues will appreciate the irony of its Warsaw Embassy location.
I’ve actually spent a fair bit of my time in Warsaw in or very close to what was the old ghetto area. My in-laws actually live inside its boundaries, two of my offices have also been within the old ghetto area. One of the first things I did when I arrived was to try and find some remains of the ghetto. I followed the guide books carefully but was never really sure if I’d found something or not. Apparently there are remains of the old ghetto walls but I found them very hard to find.
X is for X MARKS THE SPOT – As the majority of the city was completely demolished during the war, especially the ghetto area above, this is the only way you are going to find what you’re looking for – “Here stood the yadda yadda” or “Here, in 1941, blah blah”. There are plaques and monuments scattered all over the city. For the Jewish history there is the “Path of Remembrance” that takes in such things as the location of the rail terminal for trains leaving to Auschwitz and many memorial stones discussing the events and heroes of the time. From a more Polish viewpoint there are memorial plaques all over the city usually commenting on who Hitler’s troops killed at this place and on what date. The one pictured below is a different style and content in that it talks about the immediate post-war period (1945-1954) and the thousands of Poles imprisoned, tortured and killed in this building by the “Ministry of Public Safety”, AKA communists stamping their authority on the city.
The sheer number of memorials really does give you a feeling for the history, in terms of the war and afterwards, of the city and the magnitude of personal suffering endured by the people of Warsaw. It is nice to see that most of them are well cared for, cleaned, repainted and have fresh flowers, flags and ribbons.
Y is for YOOF – There are a lot of young people in Warsaw, either for studying or for working. It is, in fact, hard to find people who were actually born and raised in Warsaw. The majority of people you talk to will have parents in far flung parts of Poland who they visit at times like Easter and Christmas or in the case of men, every two weeks to get their washing done! What’s nice about young people in Warsaw is that they don’t appear to be at all threatening. They drink, they take drugs, they have issues, but none of this seems to make them want to stab you with a screwdriver or give you any bother at all. I feel considerably safer here than I would do at home in the UK.
Z is for Z, Ź, Ż – What can I say? Polish is a strange language and with the letter Z being so popular they decided that they needed three of them! The first is a bit like a normal Z, the last sounds a bit like the “je” in the French “je ne sais quoi”, often confused in Polish with the letter combination RZ. The one in the middle is a kind of higher pitched version of the last one but has more of an “i” (as in igloo) going on at the end. Impossible for me to explain really! All you need to know is that every word, person, street or thing you are likely to encounter will have one of these letters at the beginning, a few in the middle and one at the end. Warsaw examples: I live in Żoliborz (similar sound at the beginning and end but one’s a Z and the others RZ, tricky eh?), I like to visit Łazienki park (bringing in another wild card with the ZI combination!), I often drive down Żelazna street (this one actually has a normally pronounced Z in the middle). I could go on all night, but I won’t.
Well, that’s the end of the alphabet, I hope you enjoyed it. When I’ve done a little research I’ll be back with “Warsaw by Numbers”. Stay tuned!
Personal blog’s here by the way.