This article was first published in the February 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine
Can I start with a confession? On the (ashamedly) few occasions I have contemplated Poland as a destination for a city break, I have been drawn to the old-world ambience of Kraków. However, as 2018 marked the centenary of Poland declaring its independence from the German, Austrian and Russian empires, it seemed the perfect year to explore the country’s capital. And, as I soon discovered, Warsaw is a revelation.
My perception of Warsaw had long been dominated by the horrors of the decimation of the city’s Jewish population during the Second World War and its near-total physical destruction at the hands of the Nazis, as well as the crushing austerity of the communist era that followed. However, the city has risen from the ashes. The renaissance of its historic centre – comprising the Old Town, New Town and the buildings lining its grand thoroughfare, Krakowskie PrzedmieŚcie – is nothing short of astonishing, and has earned the city Unesco World Cultural Heritage recognition.
The best way to get a flavour of Warsaw’s regeneration is to take a stroll through this partially pedestrianised historic centre (as distinct from the modern commercial centre), past the solid ramparts of the Barbican, the city walls and the numerous churches with their lavishly decorated interiors. Temptation lurks around every corner. There are craft emporiums (amber jewellery is highly prized) and eateries serving local delicacies and traditional sweets (wuzetka and zygmuntówka cakes), invariably accompanied by liberal dollops of cream!
The whole area is an arch itectural treat, packed with beautiful merchant houses and squares with elegant facades. The largest and loveliest of these is the Old Town Market Place, with its statue of Syrenka, the ‘Mermaid of Warsaw’, symbol of the city. From many points in the Old and New Towns you can walk to the Vistula river, the banks of which have been rejuvenated with an esplanade, parks and arcades.
Perhaps one of the most majestic of all Warsaw’s landmarks is the Royal Castle, originally dating from the 17th century but rebuilt in the 1970s. This, the former official residence of Polish monarchs, is well worth a tour. I particularly enjoyed the collection of paintings by the 18th-century artist Bernardo Bellotto, nephew of the famous Canaletto, whose depictions of Warsaw were so accurate that they were used to aid the city’s postwar reconstruction. Art lovers should also visit the impressive National Museum, which houses Jan Matejko’s famous 1878 painting Battle of Grunwald (shown left).
Maria Skłodowska – better known as Marie Curie – has long been one of my heroes, and so it was exciting to explore the museum dedicated to the first female Nobel laureate, situated in the New Town in the building of her birth.
If Curie is among Warsaw’s best-known daughters, then the composer and pianist Fryderyk Chopin is certainly among its favourite sons – and the Polish capital abounds with tributes to his musical genius. I visited a number of these, armed with a booklet from the tourist office. Among the most memorable is Holy Cross church, which houses an urn containing Chopin’s heart, embedded in the left pillar of the main nave.
The church is sited on Krakowskie PrzedmieŚcie, which is home to an array of magnificent structures, including the Presidential Palace and the University of Warsaw. From here, you can get a bus to the sprawling Łazienki Park to view an evocative monumental statue of Chopin lost in thought under the boughs of a willow tree. Open-air concerts are held in the park every Sunday in the summer. Despite the heavens opening on the day I was there, it would be hard to imagine a more romantic setting for the great composer’s music.
Warsaw may have been rebuilt from the rubble of the Second World War, but that conflict is still woven into the fabric of the city. Those keen to discover the distinctive imprint of those terrible years should visit the only surviving fragment of the ghetto wall that enclosed the city’s Jewish population, now sandwiched between Sienna and Złota streets. Amid its contemporary suburban setting, I found it almost surreal to try to imagine the horrors that took place in this city within a city.
You can gain a fuller appreciation of wartime Warsaw by visiting two museums: the POLIN (Hebrew for ‘rest here’) Museum of the History of Polish Jews, housed in a modernist gem of a building; and the Warsaw Rising Museum, which commemorates the Polish resistance’s full-scale but ultimately futile attempt to liberate the city from the Nazis in 1944.
Warsaw’s postwar past also casts a long shadow over the city – and nowhere is this more conspicuous than in the form of the city’s tallest building, the Palace of Culture and Science. Gifted by the nations of the USSR, this archetypal example of a socialist-realist tower block was meant to represent the spirit of progress. Despite repeated calls for its demolition, today the palace’s almost 3,000 rooms house multiple cinemas, theatres, museums, orchestras, and municipal offices. But the highlight surely has to be the viewing platform, from where I got a fine view of a city that offers a compelling mix of old and new.
Chandrika Kaul is reader in modern history at the University of St Andrews.
Advice for travellers
Best time to go
Temperatures vary wildly in Warsaw: while the summer months are balmy and often wet, the mercury can dip below zero from December to February. A peak-season visit means you can catch the feted open-air Chopin recitals – but the city is magical in the snow, with Christmas lights wreathing those famous squares.
Warsaw Chopin airport operates flights from Heathrow, Gatwick and other UK locations such as Liverpool. The city’s bus, metro and tram lines run on a shared ticketing system, with good-value day and weekend passes available. Over 70s travel for free!
What to pack
Phrase book, walking shoes, waterproofs and warm clothing, depending on the season.
What to bring back
Amber jewellery, vodka and – rich donuts made with cream fillings – could make you very popular.
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