Saturday, 17 May 2008

Poland 3: Bears of Warsaw

What's more interesting than the classic attractions of a city, the sights that are always there? Perhaps the sights that aren't always there, temporary attractions that come and go, and can't be captured in the pages of a guidebook.

I arrived in Warsaw by train on Tuesday afternoon, reaching the main street through the labyrinthine subterranean corridors beneath Warszawa Centralna, the sinister communist-era main train station.

This part of Warsaw is quite unattractive: a mess of heavy traffic, including cars, trams and buses, proceeding at pace along broad Aleje Jerozolimskie. Set back from the road are unpleasant examples of architecture from various eras, from communist icons to recently built capitalist skyscrapers.

But I was heading for the best part of town, the Old Town district which was meticulously reconstructed from rubble after World War II. The ever-reliable bus 175, which runs from the airport to the city at the normal public transport price (take note, Australian cities), let me off a short distance from the Old Town, so I started to walk toward the Royal Castle.

And then I discovered the temporary attraction du jour: a set of 200 or so bears, lifesize and made of some tough fibreglass-like material. Turned out it was a UNICEF fundraising project, and each bear had been decorated by an artist from a country belonging to the UN. It was fascinating wandering along looking at the artists' choices, seeing whether or not they reflected his/her country or just individual taste.

From the minimalism of the Japanese bear to the elaborate decoration of the Albanian one, it was an intriguing interlude. But it became compulsive... every time I passed the bears in the following days, I realised I hadn't seen the Polish bear yet, or the Sudanese one, or the Indian one, and so forth. Took shots of all the ones I was interested in, eventually.

It reminded me of other times in the past when I'd lobbed into a city to discover a temporary attraction, usually of an artistic nature, and took advantage of that lucky intersection of time and space. Off the top of my head, there was an Andy Warhol exhibition in Vienna, a tattoo convention in French Polynesia, a Picasso showing in Sydney, a Dali exhibition in London, and a mail art display in Cairo.

Sometimes, it's the fleeting sights that you remember the longest.