AN HISTORICAL CAPITAL WHICH, LIKE THE PHOENIX, IS REBORN FROM ITS ASHES
After a cheap, moderately comfortable and very long (about 7 hours) bus trip from Vilnius, I arrived around 10pm at Warsaw Central Station. Even if I had the opportunity to sleep a little during the journey, I am relatively tired and have only one desire: to rest. So I start looking for my hotel, Mamaison Residence Diana Varsovie and after finding it without any issue, I quickly take a shower and collapsed on the bed, having first set my alarm clock quite early the next day.
Driiiiing! It is 7:00, let’s get up! Well rested, I have a very quick breakfast and then head to the Old Town of Warsaw. I intend to go around it with the help of a very detailed map that I picked up at the hotel. The tour consists of a loop that starts from the Royal Castle and then come back after a stint in the New Town.
The Old Town is the oldest part of Warsaw and at the same time its historical and cultural center. Founded in the 13th century as a fortified city, it was surrounded by walls and was almost completely destroyed during the Second World War. Fortunately, thanks to its near perfect reconstruction, its was reborn and was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today, it is one of the most vibrant areas of the city, including art galleries, cafes and restaurants.
When I arrive on the square outside the castle, I have a look to a large column with a character represented at the top. It’s time to get out my little travel guide that will follow me throughout the day.
This is the Column of Sigismund III Vasa, the oldest secular monument in Warsaw which was erected by king Władysław IV in 1644 to glorify the memory of his father who moved the capital from Krakow to Warsaw. The monument is 22 meters high and the statue of King measuring 275 centimeters. Sigismund III holds in his right hand a sword which symbolizes the valor and in his left hand a cross, the symbol of the eternal will to fight evil. According to a legend, if the sword is pointing downwards, it announces a calamity that will soon befall the city.
Just in front of this column is the magnificent Royal Castle. A must do!
Built in the early 15th century, it officialy became a royal residence when King Sigismund III Waza moved the capital from Krakow to Warsaw. The castle was transformed several times, but completely destroyed during the Second World War. It was rebuilt with the fragments that were found on site and is primarily a museum today. Two paintings by Rembrandt and paintings by Bernard Belotto called “Canaletto” are the pearls of its collection. The paintings of Canaletto, who painted the 18th century Warsaw, were a great help during the rebuilding of the city after the war.
Now, my journey through the streets of the Old Town of Warsaw really starts. I can see St. Martin church through an alley, a well-known shooting spot for this church.
It is located on Piwna Street which, with its 250 meters, is the longest street in the Old Town. The church founded in 1356 by Prince of Mazovia Ziemowit and his wife Euphemia was rebuilt several times. The main building currently shows a Baroque style (18th century). This church is distinguished by its ecumenical masses and its role related to the fulfillment of his pastoral ministry, addressed to the people from the intelligentsia of Warsaw. In the 70s and 80s, the church gathered the oppositional groups to the government.
Continuing my way, I pass just next to the great Cathedral Basilica of St-Jean-Baptiste, modestly tight between two other buildings.
This cathedral was built in its current form (instead of a small wooden chapel) in the 14th century as a parish church. Over time, it grew in importance until it became the most dominant church in Poland. It was the place for weddings, coronations and burials of kings. The basilica is the tomb of the primate Stefan Wyszynski, and inside the crypts are the graves of Mazovia princes, archbishops of Warsaw, the last Polish king Stanisław August Poniatowski, the President of Poland Gabriel Narutowicz and the writer Henryk Sienkiewicz – Nobel laureate. In summer, the place welcomes organ concerts.
Just next door is the church Our Lady of Grace, built in the late Renaissance style between 1609 and 1629, thanks to the donations of King Sigismund III.
On the altar of early Baroque style is the famous painting of the Holy Benevolent Virgin, the Patroness of Warsaw. It was the gift of Pope Innocent X for the Polish King Jan Kazimierz. In front of the church, there is a statue of a lying bear. According to a legend, it is a shy prince who awaits the woman whose love could give him back its human appearance.
I am still following my map, quite useful so far and arrive on a small square in the shape of a triangle called “Kanonia.”
Its name comes from the 17th century houses that belonged to the canons of the chapter of Warsaw. Formerly, it was a parish cemetery from which remains a Baroque figure of Our Lady dating from the 18th century. In the middle of the square is a bronze bell from the 17th century, which has never been suspended in any church. According to a belief, if one makes a whole turn of this bell three times, this brings good luck. Being alone at this time on the place, I want to perform this action. The future will tell me if this really works, but I cannot complain about my luck so far! Here we find the narrowest house in Warsaw (you can see in the photo above, on the left corner). It was a ploy by its owner because the property tax at that time depended on the width of the building facade. I wonder if the inside is as narrow as the exterior!
I get back on the main street by which I arrived and continued my way. I quickly arrived on the Old Town Market Square, established between the 14th and the 15th century.
Formerly, festivities, fairs and even executions were organized here. The place owes its style from the 17th century houses. The central part of the square was occupied by the Town Hall, dismantled in 1817. The houses around the Market Square were mostly destroyed in 1944. It was rebuilt after the war as they were in the first half of the 17th and 18th century.
According to the legend, in the basement of a house on this place, somewhere on Dekert side, at the corner of the Vicious Circle lived a terrifying creature called Basilisk. The monster was guarding fabulous treasures and, with his eyes which turn people into stone, he killed on site every person who had the boldness to venture there. One day however, the Basilisk was defeated by a traveling tailor who had a strange idea and showed him a mirror. The Basilisk, petrified by his own eyes, turn into stone and never threatened the inhabitants of the city. Today, one can see there a sign representing the Basilisk: it is the emblem of a famous restaurant in Warsaw.
The center of the old market also included a very famous statue, the one of the Mermaid.
The monument is surrounded by a fountain where you can cool off during the summer days. This is a faithful copy of the original which was transferred to the court of the Historical Museum of the City of Warsaw nearby, due to several acts of vandalism.
According to the legend, it is precisely at the foot of the Old Town of Warsaw that she came out of the water to get some rest on a sandy shore. The place she saw pleased her so much that she decided to stay. When they saw someone waving the waves of the Vistula, tied their nets and freeing fish, the fishermen who lived on these lands wanted to arrest the culprit to stop all of this once and for all. However, when they heard the beautiful song of the siren, they gave up all their projects. They fell in love with the beautiful creature who, from that moment, sang to them every night. Her beautiful voice made their life better. Yet one day, a rich merchant who was walking along the Vistula River saw the mermaid. He wanted to catch and imprison her to be able to show her at fairs and carnivals with the intention to make lots of money. No sooner said than done. By trickery, he grabbed the siren and shut her up in a hut without food nor a single drop of water. A young farmhand, himself the son of a fisherman heard the siren complaints. One night, with the help of his friends, he freed the creature. As a sign of gratitude, she promised to rescue them whenever they would need help. This is why the Warsaw mermaid is armed with a sword and a shield, which she uses to defend the city and its inhabitants.
On one side of the square is the Historical Museum of the City of Warsaw which occupies more than a dozen houses rebuilt after the war.
The exhibition presents the history of the city from its inception to modern times. In the Cinema Museum, one can see a documentary about the 1939-1945 Warsaw. This is a very interesting exhibition. Once on the market place again, I noticed a viewpoint with an unusual name on my map, just behind the market place. After a 2 minute walk, here I am… on the Manure Mountain (or Gnojna Góra in Polish).
The name comes from a garbage dump that was there from the Middle Ages until the second half of the 18th century. Today, it is a panoramic terrace from which extends a view of the Vistula and the right bank of the city. A little further, I finally get close to the Barbican and the ramparts, indicating the boundary between the Old Town and New Town.
These are the remains of the walls of Warsaw, made in 1548 by J. Baptiste Venetian. Inside the Barbican (the passage from the Old to the New City), one can see an exhibition illustrating the history of urban fortifications with models of the towers and walls. Outside one can find, as today, some sellers paintings, figurines, postcards and other souvenirs.
Here we are in the New Town, where the loop of my excursion will be done to get back to my starting point. Just after the walls, the first building that we can see is the Church of the Holy Spirit.
The first wooden church was already built there in the 14th century. The current building in baroque style reminiscent the one by Pauline Fathers, in the early 18th century. For almost 300 years, it is from this church that starts at the beginning of August the largest walking pilgrimage visiting the shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary to Częstochowa.
I continue my visit on Freta Avenue and stop by the Maria Sklodowska-Curie (or Marie Curie) Museum.
It is located in a mansion of the 18th century, the birthplace of Maria Sklodowska. It houses an exhibition dedicated to the life and activity of the famous scholarly, twice Nobel Laureate (Physics and Chemistry). She ran the world first studies devoted to the use of radium in cancer therapy (radiotherapy).
At the end of this street, I arrive on the New Town Square Market. Founded in the 15th, the square was rectangular and almost twice as large as the one of the Old Town. In the middle of the square was the town hall demolished in 1818. Today, a small well is situated in the middle of the square, decorated with the arms of the New Town, a young girl and a unicorn. Behind the well and at the other end of the square is St. Casimir Church.
At first it was a residence of the magnates. It was purchased by Queen Marie Casimire Sobieska (Marysieńka) and transformed into a church. During the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, the hospital for insurgents and shelter for civilians were there. Following the bombing, hundreds of people were killed.
I continue my way, always with the help of my map and arrive on Krasiński square. Two major elements on this site are the Church of Our Lady Queen of Poland and the Monument to the Warsaw Uprising.
Built in 1642 for the Piarist order and then burned by the Swedes, the church was rebuilt in the Baroque style. After the November Uprising, the church was transformed into Orthodox temple. The Baroque interior was removed and bells were installed in the towers, covered by characteristic domes. Their sound was to stifle the patriotic feelings. After regaining independence, the church was entrusted to the military. Since 1920, it operates as a garrison church and since 1991 as the Army Camp Polish Cathedral. Opposite the church is the Monument of the Warsaw Uprising.
The monument was erected in memory of the heroes of the Warsaw Uprising in 1944 who sacrificed their lives for their country by delivering an unequal battle with the occupiers for 63 days. Going back towards my starting point, I pass two monuments mentioned on my map. The first is the one of Jan Kiliński – The heroic shoemaker.
He was the commander of the people of Warsaw during the Kościuszko Uprising (18th century) and was involved in plots against the Russian occupier, one of three state invading Poland. Jan Kiliński was a shoemaker. During the German occupation in World War II, in retaliation after the removal of the German inscription of the monument of Nicolaus Copernicus, the monument of Kiliński was dismantled and taken away. The underground organizations of the Polish resistance discovered the place where the monument was hidden: in the basement of the National Museum. And then on the walls of the Museum appeared the following inscription: “People of Warsaw, I’m here – Jan Kiliński”. The monument of Mikołaj Kopernik “reacts” also “to avenge the removal of the Kiliński monument: “I order that the winter lasts 6 weeks longer. Signed Nicholas Copernicus, astronomer” announced the inscriptions placed on the walls of Warsaw. And the amazing thing is that the winter of 1942 was actually longer and more rigorous than usual.
The second monument is the Little Insurgent.
This is a statue of a young boy wearing a military helmet which is too big for him. It was built to commemorate young heroes fighting against the occupiers during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. The monument was inaugurated in 1983 by Dr. Jan Świderski, cardiologist, former scout and a 14 insurgent-old at the time of the uprising. He was a liaison officer with the pseudonym “Lubicz” in the “Gustaw” battalion of the National Army. Behind the monument on the wall of the Barbican, there is a plate on which the words of one of the most famous songs of the insurgents are engraved: “We’re the children of Warsaw, going into battle – for every stone of our city, we will give our blood “.
And here I am, back at the foot of the Column of Sigismund III Vasa. Before starting the second part of my visit in Warsaw, I rely on the terrace of a nearby restaurant, while enjoying a local specialty.
Now begins the second part of the visit, the Royal Road.
This is the most famous and most prestigious promenade of the capital. Since the 16th century, it was used by Polish kings to move from their official residence of the Royal Palace, located at the entrance to the Old City until the summer residence of Wilanów Palace, located outside of the city at this time. Now, the whole route is included in the perimeter of the city. It serves primarily as tourist and commercial axis and passes through different streets and avenues. On this 10km route, there are much representative buildings from different periods of the history of the city.
First of all, I go to the top of a small tower located next to St. Anne Church, as banners stipulate that we can go up there to have a picturesque view of the Old City. And once at the top, the least we can say is that the view is great indeed!
I go back down and began my journey on the Royal Road. Right next to the tower is St. Anne Church.
Built during the second half of the 15th century, this Gothic church was a gift to the College of Bernardine. It was destroyed and rebuilt several times in different styles. Behind its current facade of neo-classical style hides a rich baroque interior. The church located near the largest universities in Warsaw became the university temple and its belfry is crowned with a panoramic terrace. I didn’t go there because I had just come down from another point of view, placed higher up than the church.
A few steps away is the monument of Adam Mickiewicz, of which we can see an almost identical version in Krakow.
This monument of the greatest romantic poet was unveiled in 1898, the day of the centenary of his birth, to the time of the Russification of the Polish people after the January Uprising. The monument was “the hero” of the events of March 1968. This is here that a famous protest was organized against the lifting of the poster for the show “The Ailleux” in the National Theatre at the request of the Embassy of the Soviet Union.
This 10km avenue promises to be a very long journey! I continue my way and arrive in front of the Presidential Palace.
It is the largest palace in Warsaw. It was built in the years 1643-1645 and fills several longstanding public functions. It owes its present neoclassical form after a processing done in the early 19th century after the purchase of the palace by the Government of the Kingdom of Congress. It was the seat of the first government after the restoration of independence in 1918. It was in its rooms that was signed the Treaty of Warsaw in 1955, the mutual relations normalization treaty with Germany in 1970 and it was in this building that was conducted the “Round Table” in 1989. Since 1994, it is the residence of the President of Poland.
In the courtyard of the Presidential Palace is the statue of Prince Józef Poniatowski, a great patriot, Minister of War and Commander in Chief of the army who lived between the late 18th and early 19th century.
This statue is sculpted to the example of the one of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelian. For a long time, this monument did not have its own place. The Czar of Russia banned its inauguration by special order and the monument was then transported to the fortress of Modlin and after, Belarus in the residence of General Ivan Paszkiewicz – the friend of the Tsar. The monument returned to Poland in 1922. It was placed in the courtyard of the Royal Castle and on Saski (“Piłsudskiego” nowadays) square 1923. During the Second World War, it was completely destroyed. The new molding, conducted according to the model of the Museum of Copenhagen in the early 50s was the King of Denmark donated to the Polish nation.
A few minutes later, I pass next to a monumental building with specific architecture. I then noticed that it is a hotel, Bristol Hotel.
One of the oldest and the most luxurious hotels in Warsaw, which dates back to the late 19th and the early 20th century when Ignacy Jan Paderewski (the famous pianist and later Prime Minister of Poland) bought a parcel land for its construction. Since its opening in 1901, it was the place of balls and elegant receptions, as well as places to meet eminent representatives of the world of culture, art and politics. The painter Wojciech Kossak had his studio and Jan Kiepura sang from the balcony. Among the guests of the hotel were among others Józef Piłsudski, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and more recently Tina Turner and Woody Allen.
I just walk away a little from the Royal Road to see Marshal Józef Pilsudski Square, where stands a cross-monument and the Monument to the Unknown Soldier.
It is a symbolic tomb erected to commemorate the anonymous heroes who died fighting for the independence of Poland. The tomb is located under the arches of the old Saski Palace, which was destroyed during the Second World War. On the grave, an eternal flame burns and Polish honor guard constantly watches over it.
I go back on the Royal Road and continue my walk. I pass by a garden and the statue of Bolesław Prus.
This is one of the greatest writers of the era of Polish positivism (1847-1912). One of his best known works is “Lalka” (“The Doll”), the novel closely related to Warsaw. It recounts in a suggestive way the life of the city in the 19th century. The tomb of the writer is at the Powązki cemetery. A few steps further, I came across another church, the one of the protection of St. Joseph.
Built in the 17th century, it has retained its original interior until today. Indeed, the church in which Fryderyk Chopin played the organ survived the bombings during the Second World War. This location is also important for the residents of Warsaw, because it is in the Monastery of the Sisters of the Visitation adjoining the church that the priest and poet Jan Twardowski lived, and it is here that he wrote his poems and pronounced his unforgettable sermons. Right next to the church is the monument of Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski. Primate of Poland between 1948 and 1981, he was named “the Primate of the Millennium” for his merits for the country and for the Catholic Church, in the words of Pope John Paul II, who said that “a Primate as Wyszynski appears only once every thousand years. “
After a short break in a local bar, I hit the road again to the Palace Staszic.
It was built in the early 19th century from the initiative of Stanisław Staszic, a priest and a prominent figure, to house the Friends of Science Society. Prior to this position was the Orthodox Church and then the ruined monastery of the Dominican fathers. During the division of Poland after the dissolution of the Society, the Palace was transformed in the Byzantine-Russian decorative style. It housed the Russian Orthodox church and college, which should recall the Orthodox origins of this place. Today, the Polish Academy of Sciences and the Warsaw Scientific Society have their headquarters here.
A little further, I finally enter into that famous quarter of the city which is almost entirely green. Large sets of parks, each one larger that the previous one. In the first of them, Ujazdowski park, I pass the Monument of Ignacy Jan Paderewski.
It is the monument of the co-author of the independent Polish state after the First World War, and the famous pianist and composer, politician and social activist. I then arrive to what will be my favorite place in Warsaw: the Monumental Ensemble of Palaces and Parks “Łazienki Królewskie”.
This is one of the finest complexes of this type in Europe. Formerly, this woodland was where the hunts of the kings took place. The last king of Poland Stanisław August Poniatowski – great admirer and patron of art – created there the largest and the most beautiful garden in Warsaw. The name Łazienki (“bathroom” in Polish) just comes from bathrooms that were converted into a palace. On the ground of the park, there are several old buildings, the most important of which is the royal summer residence – the Palace on the Island. Other buildings also deserve the visitor’s attention: the Myślewicki palace where lived the courtiers of the king, the Old and the New Orangery, the Old and the New “Kordegarda” (Guard Corps), the Little White House, the Great Officine (Podchorążówka – the old kitchen of the palace, transformed in 1822 into Higher Officers School). Today, these buildings are home to culture-related institutions.
Łazienki Park is a favorite place for walkers and many come here every Sunday. In the park, you may be able to see squirrels and even peacocks that live there freely.
The squirrels are not too shy to approach you if you offer them some nuts or acorns. I was lucky enough for the pictures as you can see below, my camera in one hand and the other busy to feed the charming animal… A great moment!
Right next to one of the entrances to the park, I came across a map of Warsaw. Perfect, I just need to locate my last goal of the day, but it was a surprise to discover that there is still more than 6km to walk there… I have nothing against a little walk, but it is already the middle of the afternoon and I feel that my legs have been used quite enough. Also I inquire somehow from the locals the position of the nearest bus stop. After finding someone speaking some English, I’m properly directed to the place, with in bonus the number of the bus I have to take. I do not wait long: after 3 minutes, there it comes. While I set near the driver, I asked him to let me know when will be in Wilanów. Not sure he understood me, but the bus finally stops about 15 minutes, and the driver turned to me and point the outside of the bus. I then follow a 5 minute path to my destination. Fortunately, it is well indicated.
On the way to Wilanów Palace, I stop in front of another St. Anne Church.
It was built in the 17th century. Inside, one can admire the beautiful and ancient decorations and the sarcophagi and epitaphs of Wilanów owners, whose graves are located in the crypt under the chapel. The stations of the cross from the 19th century are placed around the church. During the First and Second World War, the church was looted and devastated. During the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, the Nazis shut up the residents of Warsaw and its surroundings in this church, more especially the representatives of the intelligentsia.
A little further is the Mausoleum of Stanisław and Aleksandra Potocki.
This is the mausoleum of the owners of Wilanów, built in 1823-1826 according to the project of Henryk Marconi in neo-Gothic style. And finally, here I am in front of Wilanów Palace!
It was the summer residence of King Jan III Sobieski, King Augustus II as well as the great magnates families. The name of the residence, as well as the whole neighborhood, comes from the expression Villa Nova. This is the name that was given by King Sobieski to these lands for the construction of the palace at the time of their purchases in the 17th century.
The impressive building of the royal palace connects the elements of the nobility mansion, the Italian villa and the palace of French King Louis XIV. The palace is one of the most beautiful monuments of European baroque style and demonstrates the golden period of the Republic of Poland. It was enlarged by its owners. The interiors with their original decor and rich equipment represent styles of three eras. The oldest are the royal apartments of the Baroque style, located in the main building. The interior in the south wing represent the 18th century style and rooms decorated by the Potocki family in the 19th century occupy the north wing. It should be mentioned that in 1805, Stanisław Potocki (the owner of Wilanów at the time) gave a public access to his collection of works of art, creating one of the first museums in Poland. Today it is home to more than 60 paintings of great value.
And now, the sunset is clearly there and I take the bus again (easy now that I know how it works!) towards the city center. From there, I found a small tavern (of which I unfortunately don’t remember the name) and eat a very good “goulash”. After that, I returned slowly but surely to my hotel after this wonderful day!