Warsaw, the city of Chopin and cultural divides

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.

Nicolaus Copernicus statue and Holy Cross Church, Warsaw, Poland

Krasinski Palace, Warsaw, Poland

Street art, Warsaw, Poland

Cherries, Warsaw, Poland

Krakowskie Przedmieście, Warsaw, Poland

Krakowskie Przedmieście, Warsaw, Poland

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.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Warsaw, Poland

Warsaw, Poland

Chopin’s Heart, Warsaw, Poland

Warsaw Ghetto Memorial, Warsaw, Poland

Warsaw Ghetto Memorial, Warsaw, Poland

Street art, Warsaw, Poland

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.

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.

A Warsaw weekend

Warsaw is one of those cities that I wish I’d visited 30 years ago, just to get a true sense of how far the city has come since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of communism in Poland. The city I visited for the first time a few weeks ago is a vibrant, stylish place filled with history and a cultural life that is complemented by a dizzying array of cafes, bars and restaurants serving excellent food. This contrasts sharply with the impression I still have of the city from news coverage in the 1980s.

The Warsaw Mermaid, Warsaw, Poland

Zoo entrance, Warsaw, Poland

Monument to the Heroes of Warsaw, Warsaw, Poland

Praga, Warsaw, Poland

Warsaw, Poland

Warsaw, Poland

In Holidays in Hell, eminently punchable American political satirist, P. J. O’Rourke, wrote about a 1987 trip to Warsaw for Rolling Stone magazine. “What do they do for fun in Warsaw?” is a sharp-tongued critique of the effects of forty years of communism on the city and its people. Unflatteringly, he wrote, “…they seem to have built the city for broad-shouldered, quick-breeding New Masses who never showed up. Meanwhile, a sparse stand-in population rattles around – tired looking, tending to middle age, not completely clean.”

Thirty years after the Solidarity Movement helped bring communist rule to an end in Poland, the Warsaw O’Rourke satirised is barely recognisable. I’d been in the city for a few days of meetings – the only benefit of which was that they were held in the building where, on 24 February 1818, pianist and composer Frédéric Chopin gave his first public concert. Work finished, I was left with a weekend to explore one of Europe’s most storied cities – Warsaw has seen some history, much of it disastrous for it and its citizens.

If Warsaw’s past is littered with tragedy, presently it is an inspiringly energetic and fun city that seems to have left the past behind without forgetting it. I found myself in it’s historic old town late on a Friday afternoon. The medieval town square, the Rynek Starego Miasta Warszawa, was busy with people enjoying the sun. The Old Town only covers a small area today, but that doesn’t make it any less remarkable. In 1944, after the failed Warsaw Uprising, the German military systematically destroyed virtually every building.

What you see today was painstakingly rebuilt after the Second World War based on paintings of the medieval city. It gives a glimpse of the city that might have arrived in the 21st century had history been kinder to it. I walked through a small area of the Old Town on my way to the Vistula River, and the Śląsko-Dąbrowski Bridge. I was staying on the other side of the Vistula in Praga, a hip and rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood that comes with the added advantage of not having been reduced to rubble by the Nazis.

Warsaw, Poland

Chopin Museum, Warsaw, Poland

Old Town, Warsaw, Poland

Praga, Warsaw, Poland

Warsaw, Poland

Warsaw, Poland

Praga is an area with few traditional tourist sights, but it’s a fascinating slice of Warsaw life, filled with good restaurants and trendy bars. A youthful crowd was enjoying after-work drinks and the streets were buzzing with energy. It seemed a world away from the stately Old Town, and I was glad to be staying far from the tourist hoards, even if it meant a bit of a journey into the city proper. I checked into my hotel and hit the streets to explore Praga’s eating and drinking options and had my first taste of Polish soul food: pierogi.

Steamed dumplings served with onions fried in lard may not be to everyone’s taste, but washed down with Polish beer it felt like I’d finally arrived. I ordered another helping, drank in Praga’s lively atmosphere, and planned my 48 hours in the city.