Art and soul of the city

Words: Alex Webber


Opening its doors in 2018, Raffles Europejski Warsaw has been restored to its original splendour, bringing the Polish capital’s glamorous grande dame back to the heart of the city in which it has always played such an important role

Warsaw, Poland: the ultimate urban puzzle. Once known as the Paris of the East, the city of Chopin has seen and survived it all. An intensely complex town, its multifaceted personality is a product of the vicissitudes of time: the physical and emotional trauma of the Second World War still lies close to the surface and likewise the lingering imprint of communism. But psychologically, these struggles have traditionally found themselves countered by the romantic vision of Warsaw’s imperial age, not to mention the glory of the inter-war golden years. More recently, indelible marks have been left by her raw, and at times wild, interpretation of capitalism.

Today, a confluence of these factors has fashioned a city of intense contrasts and contradictions; although 21st-century Warsaw is a thrilling cauldron of ambition and confidence, behind the swagger lies a capital that is fiercely proud and protective of its past. And come this year, it will also be home to the newest hotel in the Raffles family: Raffles Europejski Warsaw.

In many ways, the Europejski building, which opened as a hotel in 1857, reflects all of this. Located in the centre of the city’s most exclusive district and iconic in every respect, it hasn’t just witnessed history, but also played an active role in its creation. In 1861, up to a third of Warsaw’s population was said to have filed through the entrance to mourn the victims of a Tsarist massacre, an event that would lead to a popular revolt against the ruling Russians two years later.

Above: Opening of the hotel 1857 (Raffles images courtesy of Raffles Hotels & Resorts)

Just over a century on, the hotel saw action of a different kind when the Rolling Stones came to town and became the first major Western band to cross the Iron Curtain; during their riotous visit, they based themselves in the Europejski. The hotel was further thrust into the spotlight when, in 1964, while in Poland on a concert tour, world-famous German actress Marlene Dietrich stayed at the hotel — although legend has it that she was dissatisfied that the elevator did not accommodate her rather voluminous fur coat and dress (measuring four metres long and three metres wide). That same year, popular American politician Robert Kennedy also stayed at the Europejski with his family, touring the city to an enthusiastic reception from its residents. Later, in 1979, Pope John Paul II held a mass in the historic square to its flank, speaking to a crowd of more than half-a-million people.

Above: Robert Kennedy (Raffles images courtesy of Raffles Hotels & Resorts); Marlene Dietrich (The Print Collector /Alamy stock photo); Mick Jagger in 1967 (Photo12 / Alamy stock photo)

These events, and many more besides, have created a specific aura that surrounds the Europejski. However, despite its role in local lore, perhaps what is most revealing about the hotel is the place it holds in personal reminiscence. Swiss publisher Vera Michalski-Hoffmann, who has a majority stake in the Europejski building, is the principal investor in the Raffles Europejski Warsaw, which is also supported by the heirs of the Przeździecki and Czetwertyński families who founded the original hotel. From the moment she married her Polish husband, Jan, in 1983, she became a frequent visitor to the Polish capital. “At first, we used to stay at the Hotel Europejski, which was then the place to be,” she recalls. The lobby bar was the meeting point where many a deal was concluded, while the corner restaurant was a very popular lunch place where famous writers, actors and directors, straight from the stage or the film set, mingled with their audience.”

The Europejski offered a rare chink of glamour during the communist era, yet this period took a considerable gloss off what was once one of Europe’s premier hotels. Completed in 1857 to the Neo- Renaissance design of architect Henryk Marconi, his plans were inspired by, among others, Rome’s Palazzo Farnese and Venice’s Palazinna Maironi.

Interiors, meanwhile, were studded with the lavish frescoes and stucco work of such luminaries as Karol and Ferrante Marconi. Buoyed into action by the unveiling of the Bristol Hotel across the road, the opening decades of the 20th century saw more major work conducted, enabling the Europejski to retain its reputation as Warsaw’s top hotel. Although it survived the Luftwaffe’s aerial campaign in 1939, five years later it was reduced to a smouldering skeleton by the retreating Germany army. Hurriedly reconstructed in the post-war years, it served first as a military academy before resuming the function of a hotel in 1962.

Above: Warsaw was destroyed by the Germans in 1945 (Raffles images courtesy of Raffles Hotels & Resorts); Europejski building (Raffles images courtesy of Raffles Hotels & Resorts)

Constrained by budgetary and ideological limits, the Europejski adopted a look far removed from its earlier sumptuous incarnation: with the original details lost in the flames of war, the hotel endured a stern socialist re-haul. By the start of the millennium, the once grande dame of Polish hospitality was now a glum ghost.

Now, under the majority ownership of Michalski- Hoffmann and the stewardship of Raffles, the Europejski is being restored to its former glory at the heart of the city. Its new incarnation will include 106 spacious guest rooms and elegantly appointed suites, a grill restaurant serving Polish-influenced cuisine, a Long Bar and a Humidor that continue Raffles’ long tradition of convivial hospitality. There will also be a patisserie, in-house spa and a swimming pool.

“Maintaining the cultural heritage by restoring this historical landmark to its original splendour has been of paramount importance,” says Michalski-Hoffmann. “As investors, it was important to us since this unique object deserves to be treated with the utmost respect. However, the future of this emblematic building is equally important to the community of Warsaw.”

Given the very nature of this structure, resurrecting the Europejski has not been easy. “We worked hand-in-hand with the conservator of monuments,” says Julien Barbotin-Larrieu, Chairman of the management board for the building’s owning company, H.E.S.A. “With a building of this stature, it is our responsibility to preserve its heritage. As such, the biggest challenge we’ve faced is time. Raffles Europejski Warsaw has been six years in the making. To put that in context, that is the same length of time it would usually take to build a 1,000-room hotel from scratch.”

From the outset, the ambition went beyond merely launching a top-class hotel; the project has revolved around creating a unique place that can be used as a calling card for Warsaw and even Poland itself. “This will be the only hotel of such calibre in the country,” says Thomas Guss, Raffles Europejski Warsaw’s newly appointed General Manager. “It’s a labour of love that seeks to create an emotional connection not only with its guests, but also with the people of Poland.”

Playing a key role is Slovak-born designer Boris Kudlička of the firm WWAA: “The building has been an important part of Polish culture, tradition and history — decisions were made here that impacted the nation. It was therefore important to reflect the Polish essence at the heart of the object.” Doing so has meant a complete departure from the conventional monotony that defines so many luxury hotels. Instead, emphasis has been placed on showcasing local craft and heritage. “Through the design, we’ve tried to establish a space in which everyone can feel the continuity of Polish history — a space that is beyond an individual’s own life.”

Above: Europejski Warsaw showcases local crafts such as woodcarvings (Kpzfoto / Alamy stock photo)

This has entailed returning to the hotel’s early days, removing the 1960s adaptations and re-establishing the proportions of the pre-war Europejski. “But this hasn’t just been about recreating the past,” says Kudlička. “We needed to write a ‘new story for an old hotel’ and continue the traditions of craft and design, yet transfer them to the modern world.”

Achieving this harmony between old and new has been a complicated balancing act involving a keen eye for detail. “At times it has been a challenge to find materials that will last with time and usage,” says the designer. “For instance, we’ve used a lot of brass, but finding solutions that keep it looking fresh and pristine was a process that took months.”

And there has been much emphasis on the hotel’s other core facilities. Set to offer guests a multitude of cakes, pastries, chocolates and ice creams, the Patisserie is seen as an opportunity to revive the Europejski’s heyday. “In the past, people would queue outside the door to collect the best desserts in Warsaw,” says Guss, “so we’re looking to recreate that nostalgic spirit.” Likewise, the signature restaurant, flowing out on to the terrace, will be a key element and provide a unique place to sample Polish gastronomy.

Above: Europejski Warsaw‘s patisserie offers cakes, pastries and ice cream (Raffles images courtesy of Raffles Hotels & Resorts)

Featuring a statement mural designed by visual artist and painter Jarosław Fliciński, the Long Bar is destined to become the place to be during the cocktail hour. Inspired by the motion of billowing curtains, the Polish artist’s work is consistent with the philosophy of the overall project: “Bars are very special places, so I wanted to create something harmonious yet energetic that would compel people to return,” says Fliciński.

Indeed, the hotel has been constructed as a haven for local creativity, continuing its strong associations with Polish art. In the 1880s, Józef Chełmowski, Antoni Piotrowski, Adam Chmielowski and Stanisław Witkiewicz used the building’s upper floor as their studio and, today, guests will discover original artworks by contemporary artists in every room.

Above: Europejski Warsaw is proud to highlight the work of local Polish artists (Chris Tubbs Photography); The Europejski Warsaw rooms provide an inviting ambience for visitors (Chris Tubbs Photography)

Curated by a former director of the Zachęta National Gallery of Art, the Raffles Europejski Warsaw’s wall of art promises to be a significant component of the hotel. Showcasing work by nearly 120 Polish artists, it will, in the words of Michalski-Hoffmann, “become a magnet for international travellers interested in contemporary art”. Among the many artists to go on display are painter Włodzimierz Zakrzewski, Rafał Dominik, known for his sculptures, multimedia artist Joanna Rajkowska and Turner Prize nominee Goshka Macuga, alongside video artist Agnieszka Polska, painter Tadeusz Kantor and Ewa Axelrad, who creates striking sculptures and installations.

“The core of the collection consists of the latest works of art created when the hotel is opening a new chapter in its history. The collection is unique because it presents an overview of Polish art created in the second decade of the 21st century, which eclipses all other collections,” says curator Anda Rottenberg.

“The intention was to make this the first collection of contemporary art in a Warsaw hotel that refers to the city’s rich history, as well as to the local context,” adds fellow curator Barbara Piwowarska. “The idea was to select currently significant works by artists from Warsaw that are a vivid narrative in the hotel interiors — a counterpoint to the eclectic, historically styled decor.”

Local craftsmanship is a key feature in the hotel and careful restoration is apparent in everything from the swimming pool to ceiling rose detailing; the spa reception features a 1961 mosaic by Krystyna Kozłowska, originally in the hotel lobby before the 2013 renovation, while the mosaic in the office lobby is a homage to Bohdan Pniewski, the modernist architect who rebuilt the Europejski after the Second World War. Poland’s famed wood is seen in blackened oak flooring and the restaurant will feature a bold blue and white decor inspired by traditional Polish pottery. References to Warsaw run throughout, including marble etched with the city skyline in bathrooms and an art installation of the Vistula river at the reception desk.

Proudly Polish, Raffles Europejski Warsaw is on course to become a game changer. What was formerly a hallmark of the past has become a symbol of the future, encapsulating a city in full flourish.

You might also like...