Warsaw New Town

more than a year ago
Whether you hate them or really hate them, you have to give them their due; the mock executioners who stalk around the Barbican picking out victims do a pretty proficient job of deterring people from walking any further. So maybe it’s them, or maybe it’s because the name just doesn’t promise much; either way Warsaw’s New Town (Nowe Miasto) doesn’t see half the foot traffic of the Old Town. Positively empty at times this is one of Warsaw’s true unsung glories, and a delightful afterthought if you’ve just spent the afternoon buying useless trinkets in the Old Town to the south.

The New Town refers to the area just north of the Barbican walls, and just because the area makes use of the word ‘new,’ don’t think for a moment that you’re in one of the city's more modern districts. This settlement took root around the 15th century, essentially catering to the overspill of people in the Old Town. Unprotected from invaders it was here that the poorer element took quarters - namely the artisans, tradesmen and other miscellaneous classes not wealthy enough to afford frilly clothes. This was directly reflected in the buildings, many of which were only converted from timber into stone as late as the 18th century. Known for its wide streets, sprinkling of churches and raft of bars the New Town was the scene of ferocious fighting during the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, and while the post-war reconstruction work carried out here was not nearly as meticulous – or authentic – as in the Old Town, it still makes an interesting destination for would-be adventurers.

New Town Walking Tour

Your walk should begin at the junction of ul. Nowomiejska and ul. Podwale at the gates of the Barbican, itself rebuilt after the war using bricks spirited from the city of Wrocław. Avoid the aforementioned hooded executioners by making a beeline for ulica Mostowa to your right. Set on a cobbled hill, Mostowa once led to Warsaw’s first bridge. Built in 1573 the wooden effort was, according to some sources anyhow, the longest in Europe at the time. This essentially became Warsaw’s link to the outside world, and the fact that the street was the first in Warsaw to be paved reflects its importance. Defending it from nasty invaders was imperative, and so it was that the Mostowa Gate was built at the bottom. Known as the Stara Prochownia (Old Gunpowder Store), the gate – originally constructed in 1581 – was first used as a fortress. Later it would function as a gunpowder store, before being turned into a dank 17th century prison. Rebuilt after the war the building has functioned as a theatre since 1965, and is known for its edgy repertoire.

While walking back in the direction you came, do take time to check out the buildings lining Mostowa. Take for example the building at number 2. Here you’ll find a plaque honouring some teenage combatants who died during the war – nothing unusual in that, so you’d think, but look closer and you’ll see the tablet was added during Stalin’s time, hence the Soviet stars in the corners. Considering the Polish contribution to the war was all but brushed over by the Kremlin this is quite a rarity. Some of the houses can also be noted for their wall mosaics, and they don’t get much better than Zofia Kowalska’s effort on the corner of number 9.

As you reach the top of Mostowa you’ll find yourself looking straight at the Church of the Holy Spirit (ul. Długa 3). This place has had bad luck in spades. The original wooden effort was burnt to a cinder by the Swedes in 1655. The locals couldn’t afford a new one, so King Kazimierz donated the plot to the Pauline monks of Częstochowa. They rebuilt the church in Baroque style following designs by Józef Piola, completing their work in 1711, and since then it has become custom for locals to make an annual pilgrimage to Częstochowa from this very spot. The stairs were added in 1845, and soon after so was Warsaw’s smallest house – right on the corner on ul. Długa 1. The whole lot was destroyed during the war, but rebuilt – itsy bitsy house included. Today it functions as a pokey kiosk, and you won’t find a more historic place to stock up on smokes. Even better, look directly opposite this house on Długa and cast your eyes two floors up to see a super little wall painting of an owl peering from the wall.

Make a right onto ul. Freta, and you'll come to a standstill straight away in front of the St. Hyacinth Church. Construction on this paper white marvel started in the early 17th century, though was disrupted by plague. In the true spirit of show business the show had to go on indeed, and the monks continued preaching to the sore-ridden masses through holes in the wall. Today the chancel includes fragments of 17th century tombstones that were smashed during the wartime destruction.

Swiftly on, amid the galleries and antique stores you’ll find Marie Curie’s birthplace at number 16. This has now been turned into a museum to honour the lass who discovered Radium and Polonium. If you’re in the museum mood then make time for the Museum of Asia and Pacific at number 5, an exotic diversion that will remind you just how chilly it is outside. Continue moving forward until you come to the area's main square, Rynek Nowego Miasta. This was originally mapped out in 1408, and between 1680 and 1818 a town hall stood at the centre. This whole area was completely destroyed during the war, and the rebuilding project was put into the hands of Mieczysław Kuźma and his team of budding architects. Reconstructed between 1952 and 1957 they followed the original street plan, but unlike in the Old Town, they didn't follow the actual style of the buildings which once stood here. Instead what you’ll find today is an interesting collection of pseudo-townhouses, many of which are decorated with murals and reliefs. Only the house on the corner of Freta and the square looks like it should, with the design directly swiped from a Canaletto recovered after the war. The cast-iron well you see dates from the 19th century, and was scavenged from the ruins and unveiled in 1958.

Looking down the far end of the square you’ll come across the domed St. Casimir's Church, and you’ll get an idea of the restoration work involved when you move your frame inside – on the notice board, surrounded by ecclesiastical gossip, you’ll see a picture of the wreck that stood here in 1944. Originally designed by Tylman van Gameren in 1688 this place served as a field hospital during the Uprising. A direct hit on August 4, 1944, took the lives of four priests, 35 nuns and over 1,000 insurgents sheltering inside. Dug from the debris were a charred wooden cross, 18th century organ and bell, and the tombstone of Karolina Sobieska de Bouillon. Maria Zachwatowiczowa took charge of the reconstruction, basing her project on design blueprints dating from the 1930s.

From here follow your compass round the corner – head down the street directly to the right of St. Casimir's to reach St. Benno’s, a cute gem of a church originally built to serve Warsaw’s German community. Napoleon and his cronies expelled these Redemptionists in 1808, and from then on the church served as a civil building. That it was once a German place of worship did nothing to save it from the Nazis, and it too found itself being bombed to pieces. Reconstruction began in 1955, and it was finally consecrated on June 22, 1958 – the 150th anniversary of the expulsion of the original monks. Carry on down ul. Piesza and you’ll find yourself in front of Warsaw’s finest church – The Church of the Visitation of the Virgin Mary (Przyrynek 2). Built in 1411 this red brick wonder has been meticulously reconstructed, and its shaded courtyards and gardens are among the most romantic in town; walk behind
it for excellent views of Warsaw’s right bank.

Flap the map around to get your bearings, then head to ul. Kościelna. An interesting side trip is a quick exploration of the street leading to the square – here you’ll find some fantastic Socialist Realist housing, complete with fine intricacies; check out the surrealist clock at number 6, or the fox above the doorway of number 25. If you head down Kościelna towards the river you’ll find yourself in a prime location for watching the Multimedia Fountain Park shows that run from May through September. Head in the other direction on ul. Kościelna and you’ll find one of Warsaw’s best hotels, Le Regina, at number 12 - this is the ultimate Rolls Royce of boutique living.

Things hot up once more on reaching the crossroads of Kościelna and Zakroczymska – look at the bullet marks left on the corner. Facing you is the St. Francis Seraph Church, where you can view a glass coffin containing the bony remains of St. Vitalis; the church also enters these pages on account of being the first church to hold mass following the Nazi flight.

Turn up your collar and keep on walking, your exploration hasn’t finished just yet. At ul. Zakroczymska 6 stands the Sapiehów Palace, completed in 1746 to the sketches of Jan Zygmunt Deybel. Baroque in some sections, Rococo in others, this pinkish palace served as residence for the Lithuanian Sapieha family, before briefly operating as a rather flamboyant-looking barracks. Maria Zachwatowiczowa was in charge of the rebuilding, and her feminine touch is evident in the busts balanced on top. Originally these depicted men; now you’ll find some of them modelled on her daughters.

If there’s helicopters hovering in the air and lots of men biting each other that’s because there’s a match down the road. Polonia Warszawa play on ul. Konwiktorska, and their stadium merits attention for the fact that for nearly half a decade the local side were unwittingly playing on a pitch with several unexploded bombs buried beneath it; little wonder the players seemed reluctant to run around.

Follow Konwiktorska to your right until you reach a tiny side street, ul. Edwarda Fandamińskiego, named after one of the Ghetto fighters who perished during the Jewish Uprising in 1943. Beyond the graffiti and weeds you’ll soon come across ul. Wojtowska to
your left, and one of Warsaw’s most underrated pieces of public art – a fountain with a bear on top waggling his bum in the air. What does it mean? - we’ve no idea, but it sure looks good. And with that your whistle stop tour comes to a close. A bit of nifty map work takes you back to ul. Freta, and from there the opportunity to reward yourself for being a diligent tourist by drinking in one of the many hostelries.


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