A Sunday in Warsaw: Milk Bars and The Magic of Old Things

A few months ago we found our invitation lying on our London doormat, and ever since then we have been looking forward to a weekend in Warsaw celebrating the wedding of our friends Danny and Karo.

The day of our departure was then upon us and, as usual, we scurried around packing bags and getting the apartment ready for our AirBnb guests, all of which resulted in yet another run through London Stansted Airport (running through Stansted has resulted in 80% of my workouts the past couple of months). After a quick flight from London and a short drive from Warsaw Modlin Airport, we parked our car in Podwale street outside the Old Town, famously reconstructed after its 13th century former self as it was completely in ruins after WWII. A short stroll led us to our AirBnb in the Old Town square, which turned out pretty awesome – another AirBnB victory for the books!

Our neighbourhood for the weekend
Our neighbourhood for the weekend

Friday afternoon was for exploring Old Town and drinking vodka, Saturday was for wedding celebrations and making new friends, so when Sunday rolled by, in order to get the most of the weekend we had left, I referred to our favourite new travel book:

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And, as Barbara Ireland recommends it, we took our leftover Zlotys, hopped in our car and headed to a fleamarket called Kolo Bazar. After aiding Google Translator at a parking area, we finally paid and walked across the street to where we saw the tops of some gazebos peeking out.

Disclaimer: In a desperate attempt to give a glimpse of what the market is like, I included multiple photos in this post, but nothing can really quite capture the feeling that is the Kolo Bazar. 

What we walked into was a social arena so different in so many nuanced ways from anything we have seen before, we felt as though we had entered a parallel world where old men in fur hats and/or old army gear with tattoos on their fingers sell anything from old Prussian helmets, gas masks, military regalia, to foxes and mongoose made into scarves, taxidermied fish, violins and trumpets, and vintage record players, while Polish radio plays 80s and 90s American music in the background. The winter sun is caught in its reflections in crystal decanters and swaying Prussian lamps, and sharp glimpses off the edges of vintage swords, pistols, and axes. It is a wonderful balance between the chaos that would erupt from bringing all objects in one place and the precision of carefully curated displays.

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We find ourselves completely distracted and also totally engaged, not once looking at each other or even our feet, but rather our heads turn from side to side constantly, in a feeble attempt to take in and see everything. We slowly start asking prices – I’m mostly interested in decanters, taxidermy, and antlers; Joel mostly looking at old coins, tobacco pipes, and beer jugs. Mostly the vendors say something in Polish, sometimes they trace the price on your palm, but the best thing to do is having your cellphone calculator ready.

We have almost always lived in neighbourhoods with a ton of markets (or bazaars) close by, but they were almost always a backdrop for trendy hipsterism (except for Istanbul). Kolo Bazar is not trendy at all – there are no vegan treats for sale, no fairtrade coffee, no branding, no indy live band in the background, no jewellery-design girls, craft beer or high-priced leather goods and vintage clothing – Kolo Bazar is so definitely uncool. Rather, it is a tradition enacted in a few square meters, where some old men bring some things vintage (like pre-war grandfather clocks), and some things not-so-vintage (like a G.I. Joe doll dressed in knitted doll clothing), waiting it out in the back of their mini buses or in a chair in the sun, selling it to you only if you seem interested. It was for sure the best market we’ve ever been to and one of the clear highlights of our weekend in Warsaw.

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After losing track of time at the market, we followed 36 Hours in Europe to Bar Zabkowsky – one of Warsaw’s milk bars. While most milk bars have disappeared, a few remain and still the run the way they used during Poland’s Communist era, which is when they were established and subsidised by the government during a major food shortage. Bar Zabkowsky is like a time capsule, and Joel and I lined up with the senior citizens at the register to order some dirt cheap cafeteria food. Again, thanks to Barbara Ireland and 36 Hours in Europe, I knew to ask the lady at the cash register for their English menu. We pointed at some stuff, hung around until an English-speaking local told us to hand our slip to the hair-netted lady behind the pick-up counter, who promptly dished our soup. We hung around some more, waiting for our dumplings, and then some grouchy old Polish guy stole and ate our first order of dumplings. The milk bar lady kinda shouted something at him and he retorted and kept on eating while he waited for his take-aways. The food is good but won’t win any awards; the experience of going to a milk bar, and knowing the part it played in Polish history, is really what warrants a visit.

Please note the mannequin in the back right corner
Please note the mannequin in the back right corner

After hitting up the Museum of the Polish Uprising, which is free on Sundays, showing the birdman in Old Town square slow mo videos of his pigeons, and doing just a little bit sale-shopping, we managed to squeeze in the extra jackets and coats in our little carry-ons and headed back to the airport, and back to London.

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The streets of Stare Miasto (Old Town)
The streets of Stare Miasto (Old Town)

And more Kolo Bazaar photos :)

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The beautiful, colourful Old Town of Warsaw
The beautiful, colourful Old Town of Warsaw

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