What I saw in Warsaw Poland
The train ride on PolRail from Poznan to Warsaw took approximately four hours. The ride itself was comfortable with lots of snacking on board! I am staying at the IBIS Warszawa, a budget hotel chain located near the gateway to Warsaw’s Old Town.
It’s a cold and wet day in Warsaw with the outside temperature at 2C. The city is devoid of crowds, partly because of the Easter holidays.
Warsaw has seen its share of destruction over the years. The most destructive events include the Deluge, the Great Northern War (1702, 1704, 1705), War of the Polish Succession, the Warsaw Uprising (1794) the Battle of Praga and the Massacre of Praga Inhabitants, the November Uprising, January Uprising, World Wars , the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and Warsaw Uprising (after which the German occupiers razed the city). During this time, Warsaw was passed back and forth like a sack of potatoes all the while sustaining heavy economic and physical damage and labeled as the “Most Destroyed City in the World“. Post wars, Warsaw was finally left to pick up the pieces and move forward.
Today, the city or Stare Miasto has being turned into a fascinating, colourful, picturesque place, earning itself the distinction of being a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Old Town is surrounded by 14th century fortification walls that enclose a rich heritage of Poland’s history and culture. I join a walking tour at the middle of the square to learn about the history of this much admired city.
We walk the winding cobblestone streets, with its ornate tenement facades and picturesque plazas that glisten in the rain. The tall and stately Sigismund’s Column, constructed in the middle of the 17th century, commemorates the Polish king Sigismund III Vasa who is known for having moved the capital from Krakow to Warsaw. This Corinthian column holds a bronze sculpture of the king in his armor that dominates the skyline of the Old Town as if to say “we have risen from ruin” but is famous for his immortal quote, “Did you ever see Warsaw as beautiful as you saw her tonight?”
Behind this column is the massive red-coloured Royal Residence (or castle) that was built between the 16th and 18th centuries. This residence was reconstructed from a pile of rubble at an incredible cost. Dating back to the 14th century, the castle has been the residence of Polish kings, the president and then the seat of parliament. Today, it is a museum (unfortunately, it’s closed today), displaying the Kings’ apartments and chambers, heavily adorned with paintings of famous Polish moments. Maps on the wall reflect Poland’s greatest days, when it stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea.
Down Krakowskie Przedmiescie street is the Presidential Palace, used during the 17th century by noblemen and subsequently, Polish presidents. The bronze monument standing in front the palace depicts prince Józef Poniatowski, the commander-in-chief of the Polish army during the difficult times of the early 19th century.
In the middle of this square is a solitary church bell. This 17th century bell was never commissioned and locals believe that it grants wishes if one touches the top of the bell and walks around it. Let’s see….
The Poles are very proud of one of their best known citizens, Marie Curie. The house where she was born in 1867 has now been turned into a museum, which displays, among other things, her dress and personal belongings. My guide reminds me of something quite unique about this family. Madame Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize…in fact, the only woman to win it twice! That’s not all, her family has won five Nobel Prizes in total: She won two, her husband, Pierre Curie, won one. Her daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie, won the Chemistry Prize in 1935 with her husband. Her second daughter was also the director of UNICEF when it won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1965. Imagine what that dinner table conversation was like!
There is another stark reminder of the 1944 uprising when Warsaw was occupied by Nazi forces for five years. During this dark time, the Polish Resistance Movement fought an uphill battle against the German forces occupying the city. Around 16,000 resistance fighters and somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 civilians perished. People and information were smuggled into the sewers in an attempt to reach freedom.
Today, this memorial honours those who fought against Nazi occupation and the threat of a Soviet takeover. The 33-foot-tall bronze sculpture was unveiled in 1989 and depicts a group of fighters in active combat while running beneath the ruins of a falling building. A smaller structure shows insurgents entering a manhole, which pays tribute to the way the Poles made use of the city’s sewer system.
One of the oldest churches in Warsaw, the arch-cathedral of St John the Baptist dates back to the 14th century. Over the years, it has been remodelled many times. This church is also the place where kings and queens were crowned, and many famous Poles are buried, and holds a pre-eminent place in Polish history. I am lucky to have been able to attend Easter service in here.
The Mermaid is a mythological creature and was declared the official symbol of the city of Warsaw in the 18th century.
This church was yet another secret meeting place during World War II. It was built in the first half of the 18th century, during the dark times of the Russian, Prussian and Austrian occupation of the Polish territory, and in order to commemorate the Russian tsar Alexander I.
Despite its dark history, Warsaw has risen into a beautiful city that is full of character and charm. I find the people to be brusque and restrained but was reminded that this is a post-communism trait, and not intentional!