I arrived in Warsaw at an opportune moment. Days of rain momentarily giving way to sunlight. People crowded onto the streets to enjoy the warm weather, giving the city a welcoming feeling. It also brought a far right march of Polish knuckle-heads onto the streets. They were protesting, as far as I could tell, about the injustices of the European Union. It may have its issues, but the EU has been vital to Poland’s emergence out of the social and economic abyss of communism.
Poland’s far right have a friend in the current ruling party and populist government. In pale imitation of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, they are systematically trying to silence all opposition, attack media and capture the Polish state for their own ends. I was trying to enjoy my weekend, so I gave the protest a wide berth, but it underscores that even tourists can’t ignore the reactionary politics of some EU countries.
My trip to Warsaw began in the palace where Chopin played his first public concert, and my last day in the city became entwined with Poland’s most famous musical son. In truth, it’s not difficult to bump into Chopin-related things in Warsaw: tourist concerts are common, there are many statues and an excellent museum. The museum, housed in an attractive mansion, tells his story from cradle to grave. It has plenty of his original possessions, including a lock of hair.
I arrived at the museum after a walk along what must be Warsaw’s most elegant street, Krakowskie Przedmieście. Known as the Royal Route, and pedestrianised at weekends, the street is flanked by former palaces, attractive churches and the Polish Academy of Sciences. Here stands a statue of Renaissance-era astronomer, Nicolaus Copernicus, who discovered that the earth rotated around the sun, not the other way around. His ideas revolutionised science and the statue includes a model of the solar system.
Across the road is Warsaw’s most famous church, the Holy Cross, a Chopin pilgrimage site. The composer may be buried in the Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris but, a little ghoulishly, his heart is buried in this church. Home is where the heart is, as they say. I spent a few hours in this fascinating area before making my way to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the vast Soviet-era Piłsudski Square. People were whizzing around on electric scooters – a plague of which seems to have descended on Warsaw.
Piłsudski Square connects to the Saxon Garden, one of Warsaw’s many lovely parks. I walked from here towards the distant Warsaw Uprising Museum and came across a seemingly out of place statue celebrating the American War of Independence. This was a memorial to Tadeusz Kościuszko, a Polish-Lithuanian war hero who famously played an important role fighting for the Continental Army against the British. He was a friend of Thomas Jefferson and a skilled military engineer.
The walk to the Warsaw Uprising Museum was fascinating, taking me through the area that had been the Warsaw Ghetto. Today, little remains of the ghetto where, in 1940, the Nazis crowded in over 450,000 Jews. Some 80,000 would die here from disease or starvation thanks to the appalling conditions inflicted upon them. Over 242,000 Jews were deported to Treblinka death camp in 1942, when a second wave of deportations began in 1943, those left fought back in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
They knew the uprising was doomed, but fought all the same. In an eerie foreboding of Warsaw’s fate, the Nazis destroyed the ghetto block by block, killing around 13,000 Jews, before raising the area to the ground. The boundaries of the ghetto are marked by a memorial boundary. Finally, I arrived at the Warsaw Uprising Museum only to find a queue of over 150 people outside (I counted). I made a snap decision to visit on my next trip to the city and headed off in search of food.