Warsaw, a city where legend and history collide

Warsaw is a city rich in legend. This includes the twins, Wars and Sawa, after whom the city is allegedly named. The story involves the improbable tale of King Kazimierz (the Restorer) receiving the simple hospitality of a poor fisherman, becoming the godfather to the fisherman’s twins, instructing them to be christened Wars and Sawa, and then granting the fisherman the lands around his hut – the future site of Warsaw that would bear the names of his twins.

Royal Castle, Warsaw, Poland

Old Town, Rynek Starego Miasta, Warsaw, Poland

Warsaw Mermaid, Old Town, Rynek Starego Miasta, Warsaw, Poland

Royal Castle, Warsaw, Poland

Old Town, Warsaw, Poland

City Walls, Old Town, Warsaw, Poland

Perhaps the most famous, and certainly one of the least likely, myths is of the Warsaw Mermaid. She can be found in numerous guises across the city, including on the city’s coat of arms, but most prominently in the centre of the main square of Warsaw’s Old Town. The story tells of a mermaid that was discovered by fishermen on the Vistula River. They planned to capture her but so mesmerising was her singing that, instead, they fell in love.

A rich (and presumably deaf) merchant did capture and imprison her, but hearing her cries of woe the fishermen released her. Ever since, and with sword in hand, she has watched over and protected the city (clearly she was on vacation in both 1939 and 1944). The Warsaw legend sometimes claims she is the sister of Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid, separated when they took different routes from the Baltic Sea.

The square in which she currently stands is almost as unlikely as the mermaid herself. The historic heart of Warsaw’s Old Town, Rynek Starego Miasta, dates to the 13th century. But what you see today is a 1950s reconstruction of 18th century Warsaw. Following the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, the Nazis destroyed almost the entire city. The fighting lasted for 63 hellish days, afterwards Nazi reprisals saw 90 percent of Warsaw demolished. Mass executions murdered around 200,000 Polish civilians.

I’d arrived in Warsaw Old Town early on Saturday morning, crossing the Vistula from the Praga neighbourhood. It was a good time to wander streets still free of the mass of tourists who crowd in here later in the day. My plan was simple, explore the old town and then make my way to the classic example of Soviet-era architecture, the Palace of Culture and Science. Two extremes of Warsaw’s historic architecture ironically dating from the same 1950s period.

The Old Town is a compact but enchanting maze of narrow streets, churches and tall houses, with the hulking mass of the Royal Castle dominating one side of the area. It’s worth a few hours of walking the streets and admiring the details on the building facades. If you continue north, passing through the old city walls and Barbican gate, the area known as the New Town is also filled with interesting historic replicas and was a little quieter.

I made a small detour to the Supreme Court of Poland, which is supremely ugly but sits next to a dramatic Memorial to the Warsaw Uprising. The memorial was unveiled for the Uprising’s 45th anniversary in 1989. The two parts of the sculpture show Polish fighters as they flee a collapsing building, and a smaller group as they descend into the sewers where they continued to fight. It’s a very moving artwork. From here I spotted other sculptures of metal winged horses outside the Krasinski Palace.

Memorial to the Warsaw Uprising, Warsaw, Poland

Memorial to the Warsaw Uprising, Warsaw, Poland

Memorial to the Warsaw Uprising, Warsaw, Poland

Memorial to the Warsaw Uprising, Warsaw, Poland

Palace of Culture and Science, Warsaw, Poland

Winged Horses, Warsaw, Poland

Afterwards, I doubled-back on myself and headed to the Palace of Culture and Science. This once hated symbol of communism – a ‘gift from the Soviet people’ – has witnessed a rebirth similar to Warsaw’s own, and is now a youthful cultural venue. That said, it is hard to get away from the fact that it’s a piece of brutalist Soviet architecture which, at 237 meters in height, continues to dominate the cityscape. I mooched around for a bit before going for a late lunch and a stroll over the Vistula back to the Praga district.

4 thoughts on “Warsaw, a city where legend and history collide

  1. Do you know why nearly all still living Jews (more than 150,000) left and fled Poland after 1946? Not because of the Nazis, but due to a pogrom by Polish people in 1946 costing the lives of more than 60 Jewish people. A history not mentioned in Poland usually.

  2. Even passing through Warsaw en route to Krakow I couldn’t miss the Palace of Culture and Science. It’s enormous. And does every Polish town have an absurdly unlikely foundation myth, I wonder. Because Krakow certainly does, though I have to say Warsaw’s sounds way dafter.

    • It’s an immense building, you feel very small stood at the bottom of it. It was clearly meant to send a message. I read somewhere that Stalin had sent architects and engineers to New York to learn the secrets of building skyscrapers. This was the result. It reminded me of some of the Soviet architecture in Berlin.

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