WARSAW IN POLE POSITION

Warsaw is a city that is just begging to be explored on foot. A Warsaw tourism flyer in the plane’s seat pocket listed more than 30 must-sees in the city – from baroque palaces and cathedrals and at least a dozen museums and concert halls to glitzy modern malls and a spectacular tower, plumb in the centre of the city. One should not miss the classical music concert to get a feel of Poland. Polish co-passenger advises that classical music concert sure to be happening in any of the halls in the city.

warsawmusic and art

Warsaw is truly a fascinating ode to music and the arts. In fact, the moment you land, you will realise the importance and respect music is accorded. The airport takes its name from the city’s famous son, pianist and composer, Fryderyk Chopin, and it supports the National Fryderyk Chopin Institute and its Chopin and his Europe festival every year, as a banner hanging outside arrivals announces.

old town real feel of poland

Heading to the hotel, you will be struck by the architecture – socialist grey, drab and blocky – a throwback to the four decades of communism. On the way, you would spot one apartment that stood out due to its more modern facade. That is the Wilcza 72. It is a set of luxury condos. Notice the bullet pockmarked facade? That is a piece of wall from a building that was destroyed during the Second World War, now preserved behind glass.

Such remnants of history frequently present themselves in the mosaic of modern-day Polish architecture, giving the city a quaintly interesting mix of the old and the new. But while some pieces of bullet and bomb-ravaged walls have been neatly preserved for posterity, there are a few iconic structures of history that many Poles prefer to mask rather than exhibit.

palace of cultur and sciencesquare market

The Palace of Culture and Science that stands bang opposite the hotel, the Intercontinental, is one such example. At first glance this is simply an awesome structure that soars 231 metres high and occupies pride of place in the capital city’s square but, “it was a gift from Stalin and was used as the communist party headquarters. It was something we did not want,” says guide. The guide explains part of it was built using bricks taken from the rubble of buildings that were destroyed during the Second World War and “is a constant reminder of the devastation and of a past the Poles want to leave behind”.

The Palace also houses a clock tower that was apparently inspired by the New York Empire State Building. Stalin is said to have sent a secret team to New York to study the structure and methods employed to build it, then commissioned the Soviet architect Lev Rudnev to design a similar building, mixing it with Polish architectural building.

Many Poles at the time sneered at it because they felt it to be a monument representing Soviet domination, and the feeling still persists, with palace nicknamed, among others, Stalin’s Syringe and Pajac (meaning clown).

If you want to have the best view of the city, go to the terrace on the 30th floor, the guide suggested. It is the one place in the city where the building does not obscure the view.

Contrary to local jokes, the palace exudes an intriguing charm all of its own. The ground floor is a maze of rooms and corridors with ancient-looking lifts (and an elderly lift operator). But is also boasts cinemas, theatres, museums, bookshops, souvenir stores and a university – Collegium Civitas – spread across two floors.

The palace boasts 3288 rooms and has played host to not just communist party meetings but also some of the most famous events in Eastern Europe, including a concert by the Rolling Stones in 1967 and the Miss World pageant in 2006.

A 10-minute walk away flows one of the most famous rivers of Poland – the Vistula. Beginning its journey from the Beskidy Mountains in southern Poland, it cuts through Krakow before emptying into the Baltic Sea. “The Vistula once played a major part in shaping the history of Warsaw,” says the guide. “Stalin’s Red Army positioned itself on the right bank and waited and watched while Germany decimated the city on the left bank during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944.”

For those who dozed off during the world history classes in school, the Warsaw uprising was the most tragic episode in the city’s history. Unwilling to wait out the Nazi occupation during the Second World War, the people of Warsaw rose up in revolt, enraging Adolf Hitler, who set about wiping out the city with bullets and bombs. More than 200,000 civilians were estimated to have been killed, mostly in mass executions, while any structure even remotely deemed cultural was dynamited and entire districts set ablaze. “Around 90 per cent of the city was reduced to rubble,” says the guide.

War over, Poland came under Communist rule, which lasted until 1989. But since then Poland has embraced westernisation with open arms – evident by, among other things, the large number of malls that have mushroomed all over the city.

Warsaw today is a picture postcard of a European Union nation’s success story. “It is the only EU member to have ducked the global economic downturn in recent years,” says Robert. But while industrialists and investors are flocking to Poland, keen to set up ventures and make the most of the business – friendly climate, there is a lot for tourists to enjoy too.

One of the best ways to get an idea of the real Poland is to take a trip to the Old Town, which dates back to the 13th century and once housed quaint castles, spectacular churches and a thriving market. Unfortunately it was one of the areas that sustained the most damage during the Uprising.

In Old Town, you will see the ancient buildings, these are new buildings reconstructed painstakingly using ancient etchings, paintings and photographs of the Old Town as blueprints.

Original bricks and decorative elements were sifted from the rubble and reused to give the buildings an authentic appearance. Completed as late as 1962, the historic centre quickly found a place on Unesco’s World Heritage List, which includes such diverse places as East Africa’s Serengeti, the Pyramids of Egypt and the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. The UN body, whose aim is to protect and preserve cultural and natural heritage spots around the world, named the Old Town as an area of outstanding value to humanity.

At the entrance stands a 22-metre-tall pillar on which rests a bronze statue of King Zygmunt Waza, the monarch who moved the capital of Poland from Krakow to Warsaw in 1596. A large market square filled with souvenir stores and restaurants which is a tourist magnet, and one could spend hours there sipping a cappuccino and people-watching.

One among the 10 per cent of buildings that were not destroyed during the war bears the address of one of the most famous women in the world. No 16, Freta Street, which stands on a narrow road leading from the Old Town to the adjacent New Town, was the birthplace of Madame Marie Curie – the first woman to win a Noble Prize (for the discovery of radium and polonium). On the balcony was a bright red bougainvillea in full bloom.

A tower-like gateway connects the Old Town to the New Town and close to the gate is a statue of the mermaid Syrena, who is said to have lived in the river Vistula. Syrena was responsible for luring a brother and sister – Wars and Sawa – to found the town named, yes, Warszawa.

After a short walk around the Old Town, you will be back on the bus to explore the rest of the city. Once you entered Krakowskie Przedmiescie Street, the guide instructed to look right to see the Holy Cross Church – an important place for Chopin lovers because part of his body is buried here. When Chopin died in October 1849 in France, where he and his family had moved from Warsaw, his body was laid to rest in Pere Lachaise Cemetery Paris. But in accordance with his wish, his heart was brought back to Warsaw and buried here.

The next day, you will be off to Oslztyn, the capital of the Warmia and Mazury Province in the north-eastern part of Poland that is known as the region of a thousand lakes. Home to cathedrals and ancient market squares, the one structure that attracts tourists is the Gothic castle of the Warmia Chapter, build during the 14th century.

statue of copernicusbridge over river lyna

At the entrance of the castle is a statue of Nicolaus Copernicus, the Polish mathematician, physician, polyglot and astronomer who revolutionised the concepts of the universe placing the sun, and not the earth, at the centre. Copernicus resided at Oslztyn Castle as economic administrator of Warmia and his room can still be viewed – complete with his astronomical table, the only surviving tool of his in the world.

Today the castle is a popular venue for concerts, art exhibitors, lectures, scientific sessions and film shows. Tourists are allowed entry on certain days when they can even try on medieval armoury and costumes.

There a bridge over the river Lyna with hundreds of padlocks hanging from its railings. There is a tradition here that those in love who attach a padlock to the railing and throw the key into the river Lyna below will stay together for ever, says the guide.

Courtesy by G.N.

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