New money in the Old Town: Eastern European expensive is not the same as London expensive, or so Angela Lambert thought till she spent a weekend among Warsaw's yuppies

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The Independent Travel
POLITICS abhors a vacuum, and in the short time since Communism collapsed in Poland, capitalism has come rushing in to fill the void. It seems only months ago that friends in the West were sending food parcels to the desperately needy Poles; today Warsaw is filled with Polish 'yuppies' - about 50,000 of them already, estimates one young Polish banker. They can rarely afford to buy their own houses or flats - freehold property is in short supply - and most have to rent or live with their parents.

This means they have comparatively high disposable incomes. The first priority is a showy car. Poles cruise the streets in new Mercedes and wear elegant French and Italian clothes, which cost proportionately far more in Warsaw than in London, Paris or Rome.

They wave from open-topped sports cars and sip deliciously potent vodka cocktails in parkside cafes such as the Belvedere at Lazienki Park, or country clubs such as the Revita, 15 miles south of Warsaw. Reluctant to bring friends home, they socialise in public: for this material success needs to flaunt itself after decades of austerity.

Many, perhaps even most, of these young Polish entrepreneurs are the children of the former Communist elite, the so-called nomenklatura, who have adapted like so many vicars of Bray to the new realities. Their elders, conditioned by the inertia bred by years of docility and lack of incentive, find it harder to achieve the new goals.

These young free-marketeers are cosmopolitan linguists, quick to seize the opportunities that the West's infatuation with the newly free Eastern European countries has created. There are already 1.7 million private businesses in Poland, besides farming, employing at least 2.5 million and perhaps as many four million. More than 58 per cent of the workforce now falls within the private sector, the highest proportion in any central European economy.

Matthew Olex-Szczytowski is an Anglo-Polish banker who moves easily between the two cultures. He lives in London and Warsaw, and has observed the rise of Polish yuppies over the past two or three years. 'There are no 'old rich' in Poland; the aristocracy exists in name only,' he says. 'The Polish are pragmatists, and there is no desire for a witch-hunt among the old Communist elite. Only those who obtained large houses corruptly are viewed with hostility, for houses are the rarest commodity in today's Poland. Everything else can be had, at a price.'

The rate of change makes Warsaw an exciting place. It is a city in transition, with three distinct phases coexisting and overlapping. It retains much of the old central European, pre-Communist atmosphere. Many buildings still bear witness to 50 years of Communist architecture, in the suburbs with their grey slabs of workers' housing, and in the city centre, with monuments and skyscrapers purporting to celebrate the people's culture. And evidence of Western influence is now visible: already there is a McDonald's, opened on 18 June, a Christian Dior shop and the best restaurant I have eaten in for years.

Local friends had suggested we eat in the main square of the Old Town of Warsaw, at a restaurant called Fukier. They warned me its wines were comparatively pricey but I brushed this aside. Having paid pounds 18 for a spectacular dinner for three in Budapest last year, I knew Eastern European expensive was not the same as London expensive.

Fukier was set in the roofless central courtyard of a richly decorated old house . . . though in Warsaw, as I was to discover, 'old' has a double meaning. It was a balmy night in early August. Dining in the open air, overhung by delicate cast-iron balconies and entertained by a violinist, was a delight. The food was a sophisticated cross between Polish cooking and nouvelle cuisine; portions were small but exquisitely presented. The wine list offered French, Italian, Spanish and American wines, but a Polish friend recommended the Spanish for value. Heads together, noughts dancing before my eyes (there are 25,000 zloty to the pound), we selected a rare old rioja gran reserva, at pounds 7 a bottle. It was delicious. Between the four of us we easily got through two. The food got better and better.

At midnight, I beckoned the waiter. The bill came to several million zloty. 'What does it mean in English?' I asked. About pounds 260, was the answer. Our rare old riojas had cost pounds 70 a bottle.

We walked into the Old Town Square, ringed with four- and five-storey houses built for prosperous 17th- and 18th-century merchants. Painted in those rosy browns and pinks and faded mushroom and ochre that are distinctively Eastern European, they are often decorated with baroque flowers and fruit, scrolls and curlicues, interspersed with more sober patterns.

'Nothing here,' my friends said, 'is more than 50 years old.'

It is hard to believe, so complete is the optical illusion created by these handsome buildings and the cobbled square; but the fact is that, starting in the late Forties, the Poles rebuilt the beautiful old city that Hitler's retreating troops had razed in August 1944.

From maps and paintings, photographs and architectural drawings, they recreated the old quarter. Where the city wall meandered, half-ruined, along one edge of the Old Town, they rebuilt it as it would have looked in late 1944. Even though the rational mind knows this, the eye does not accept it. The Old Town looks as it has looked for centuries, as though Hitler's barbarity had never been: which is, of course, what the Poles intended.

From there we made our way to the monument to the Warsaw Uprising which rears up suddenly and brutally from the black stones of Krasinskich Square, off Bonifraterska Street. It shows heroic resistance figures emerging from the sewers, where many hid during the the doomed uprising, or defiantly brandishing weapons. All around the monument, people had placed flowers of red and white, Poland's national colours. It turned out my visit coincided with the 48th anniversary of the start of the uprising.

The uprising took place with 38,000 soldiers, 4,000 of whom were women, and enough weapons to hold out for perhaps four days. They fought the German army for 32 days, and finally surrendered after eight weeks, on 4 October 1944. By then 250,000 Poles, mainly civilians, had died. In 1945, when the Germans were finally routed, 95 per cent of old Warsaw had been laid waste: a pointless reprisal against the Poles for trying to liberate their city. The uprising explains the passionate energy with which post-Communist Poles are building their new country today.

The following afternoon my hosts and I made our way to Powazki cemetery, where the victims of the German army are buried. There was to be a ceremony at 5pm - the moment when, on 1 August 1944, the uprising began.

People were sombrely dressed in their best clothes, despite the muggy heat; most carried red and white flowers and candles to light at the graves. The Polish national anthem - banned for many years - was played, and a father snatched the cap off his son's head. The startled boy straightened to attention.

Old combatants in black suits, small medals in their lapels, moved shakily through the crowd, which parted to make way for them. Around the monument itself, flags and banners fell in folds. The wreath-laying, accompanied by a muffled drum-roll, lasted for more than half an hour; as it ended the band played the Polish song of freedom, composed in 1836. The crowd began to hum softly; the humming grew louder, a few people added the words, and by the end several thousand were singing. I had never heard this happen spontaneously before, and it was deeply moving.

Afterwards I talked to Pavel Depta, who had travelled from Colorado for this occasion. He was 16 in 1944, fighting in one of the many Boy Scout troops that ran clandestine messages and errands throughout the war. His father had been with the British Army; his mother, left behind in Poland, was captured and escaped four times before she gained her freedom. All three had lost touch but were reunited in 1947. Pavel recognised his father, whom he had not seen for six years; but his father at first refused to believe this 19-year-old was his lost child. Now in his mid-sixties, Pavel still remembered that reunion as the greatest moment of his life.

The following day, Sunday, the morning was spent strolling through the Old Town. Afterwards we drove along the Vistula (the river that flows through Warsaw and is known dismissively by locals as the 'Pustula' because of its pollution) to one of the many country clubs that ring the city. My English friends chose to join the Revita Club because it is open to Poles; shamefully, many such clubs only accept 'ex-pats' - chiefly English and American - as members.

The Revita spreads across several pine-scented acres and includes a gym, tennis courts, a riding stable with a score of horses, a lake, and sloping green lawns shaded by tall fragrant trees. The clubhouse is a wooden building, its balcony and veranda hung with bright geraniums. Lunch was laid inside: a selection of delicious salads and cold meats whose price was calculated by the novel method of weighing the heaped plate.

Young Poles in tight jodhpurs and crisp Airtex shirts or silk blouses wandered across to the riding stables, cocktails in hand. They could have stepped straight out of a Jaeger or Ralph Lauren advertisement. I recalled to my shame wondering whether to bring some basic food supplies for my friends. Even a weekend in Warsaw is enough to reveal one's ignorance, and the pleasantest possible way of curing it.

FACT FILE

Getting there: Fregata Travel, 100 Dean Street, London W1 (071-734 5101), or 117 Withington Road, Manchester MI6 (061 226 7227) offer return flights to Warsaw at pounds 220 (August) with BA or the Polish airline, Lot. No visa is necessary for British visitors.

Currency: You cannot buy zloty in Britain. Take sterling traveller's cheques and change them at any large hotel, bank or exchange office. August 1992 rate: 25,000 zloty = pounds 1. The currency black market hardly operates and is both illegal and risky.

Hotels: A pretty, comfortable hotel offering modest rates and excellent value is the Jan Sobieski (010 48 2 658 4444 - dial 2 for seven-digit numbers and 22 for six-digit ones). There are several expensive Westernised hotels - notably the Victoria, ul Krolewska 11 (278011); the Marriott, al Jerozolimskie 65/79 (306306); or the once-grand Europejski, ul Krakowskie Przedmiescie 13 (265051). Opening in November is the smart and newly restored Hotel Bristol. To stay with Poles in their own homes for pounds 6-pounds 10 a night, try the Romeo & Juliet bureau (292993).

Restaurants: Fukier, 27 Old Town Square (311013). Pricey but superb. Also expensive and good: Ambassador (259961) and Wilanow (421363). Cafes offer street life and good value. Do not be put off by the noughts; two glasses of wine, two beers and two coffees in a chic cafe will cost about pounds 5.

Things to buy: Bed and table linen and towels are cheap but high quality; so is glass (heavy glass decanters cost about pounds 7) and transparent Polish amber jewellery. Stay away from 'works of art' (mostly they are cheap fakes and, if genuine, illegal to export).

(Photographs omitted)

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