In June of last year, I received a call from my nephew in Poland that my brother was gravely ill. I made travel arrangements in all haste. I had been to Poland only once before about six years ago. At that time, my brother and I visited WW II Majdanek concentration camp. My stopover was very short and we spent most of the time reminiscing and swapping life-stories.
This time, it was with trepidation that I travelled to Warsaw, taking the sleeper compartment on the night train. The trip took about 15 hours. I had never met my nephew. Would he recognize me from pictures I had sent him? Would I recognize him? And there, at the train station we found each other and chatted as if we had known each other for ever! The initial awkwardness only lasted a few minutes and was soon replaced by mutual curiosity. We took turns exchanging family stories until we reached my brother’s and his wife’s home.
I was shocked to see how poorly my brother was doing. A few days earlier, doctors had inserted a stent and now, as the day progressed, I witnessed its results in just a few hours! As the day wore on, colour was returning to my brother’s cheeks; his eyes came back to life and his condition improved dramatically.
During my week-long visit, we savoured every moment at our disposal. I also hung out with my nephew, his wife and daughter and spent time getting to know them. On the Saturday, the four of us headed for Warsaw. My nephew wanted to show me around and I was duly impressed with the city’s rich and turbulent history. Seeing Warsaw through the eyes of my nephew and his wife made the experience the more engaging.
(Warsaw population 1,738,000 – Poland’s population 38,116,976)
Syrenska Warszawska – Warsaw’s Mermaid
As soon as we drove across the bridge over the Vistula River, there she stood, in all her magnificence, brandishing a sword and ready to protect the city and its residents. The mermaid took many forms over the years, ad her present portrayal had its beginnings in 1622. According to medieval tradition, the city’s coat of arms were added around 1390. And earlier, smaller but nonetheless important sculpture from the 13th. Century, stands at the centre of the Old Town Market Square. She is surrounded by Renaissance and Baroque houses; the earlier 15th. century Gothic homes had all been destroyed in the 1607 fire.
Legend has it that the mermaid stopped at a riverbank near the Old Town to take a rest. She liked her surroundings so much that she decided to stay. Fishermen who were finding their nets entangled, decided to trap her. However, after hearing her sing, they were so captivated by her voice that they fell in love with her. A merchant caught and imprisoned the mermaid to have her all to himself. When the fishermen heard her cries, they rushed to her rescue and freed her. Since then, she has been protecting the city and its inhabitants with her sword and shield at the ready (you’ll notice the shield on the smaller statue).
The Old Market Place
was bustling with Varsovians and tourists. Many chose to people-watch while enjoying food and refreshments at the many café and restaurant terraces alongside the buildings. Jazz bands and other local groups regaled visitors and citizens with their music and art displays. It was difficult to imagine how often Old and New Warsaw had been destroyed by wars and uprisings, only to reemerge as the Phoenix (a name also used for Warsaw). The reconstruction and ongoing renovations are a testament to the strength and character of its people.
At the separation of the Old and New Town stands the Barbican fortification (the feature picture), built in 1548 by Giovanni Battista. The Venetian architect was also responsible for the reconstruction of the crumbling defensive walls. For a brief period in time the fortress was occupied by fusiliers and was later turned into a housing complex. Following the ravages of war and the insurrection, the city decided to rebuilt the tower as a tourist attraction. We could still see sections of the city walls along our walk.
The Field Cathedral of the Polish Army
is Warsaw’s Garrison church and cathedral of the Polish Army. At the front is a sculpture of the Holy Mary flanked by two towers. Once inside, we stand in awe by the military memorabilia, as the armour seen here. In a separate area, an eagle hovers high above, as if ensuring respect and reflection for the fallen whose names are inscribed on the wall plaques.
In the main part of the church, one of the many weddings was coming to a close. My nephew explained how the summer months with and “r” in it are seen as bringing luck and therefore popular for weddings. June and August have an “r” in Polish. I saw 7 weddings throughout our city walk, and at one church more than ten priests were being consecrated.
We quickly exited the cathedral before getting caught by the mass of celebrants. Once outside, we crossed the street to admire the monument to the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. As I looked up, a drone that I had spotted recording the wedding guests outside the cathedral, was now following our every move. It seemed to be playing tit for tat as I had been photographing the drone. It was quite unnerving nonetheless; no worries about privacy issues for the drone operator. . . I was tempted to call him on it but let it pass and chalked it up to an amusing moment.
Back to the monument, I noticed that it was divided in two parts. According to the commemorative table, one set of sculptures represents an attack by an insurgent and the other, larger one, an exodus. At the time of the uprising, the ranks of insurgents had swelled to 50,000 troops. The fight against German occupation was fierce and lasted 62 days. The poorly armed insurgents were no match for the superior German military weaponry and tanks. They were defeated in the end, along with thousands of civilians.
The 1989 monument evokes mixed feelings among Varsovians. Some applaud it while others think it should never have seen the light of day and is an embarrassment.
The Royal Castle
is an imposing late Renaissance structure situated at Castle Square at the entrance of the Old Town. Over the centuries this castle was home to Polish monarchs. During WW II it was occupied by the German Governor General. It was almost entirely destroyed after the 1944 Uprising and 1971-1984 rebuilt to its former elegance. Today it forms part of the Warsaw UNESCO World Heritage. Below is a before and after picture showing the extent of destruction and reconstruction.
Sigismund’s Columns stand proud at Castle Square, where Old Town and New Town meet.
Warsaw New Town
which isn’t really that new, dates from the 15th. Century.
There were too many churches to detail; I chose to showcase the ones with historical or architectural interest.
St. Anne’s Church
A notable structure is St. Anne’s Church, which dates from 1454. Like the rest of the city’s structure, it underwent many renovations over the centuries with the last reconstruction in 1788. During the war St. Anne’s church was somehow spared the destruction suffered by many other buildings and churches.
Church of St. Casimir
is another church with a fascinating history. Queen Maria Kazimira Sobieska, bought the building from a wealthy businessman who, at the same time, was its original resident. The queen turned the structure into the present church. It operated as a hospital for the rebels of the 1944 Uprising and provided shelter for Warsaw’s citizenry.
Church of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary
is one of the oldest churches in Warsaw. Purported to have been built over an ancient pagan temple, Mary’s Church was consecrated in 1411. The tower was built later, in 1518 and is one of the more remarkable and visible landmarks of Warsaw. This church also, sustained considerable damage during the war and was later reconstructed.
St. John’s Cathedral and Arch-cathedral
the only one to be named as arch-cathedral, although it is one of three cathedrals. I find the tower to be quite unique and fascinating, and in all respects different from the other churches. A Gothic structure of the 14th. Century, it was rebuilt after the war using old pictures as architectural guidelines, to restore it to the original style. At least this was the intent, whether or not it is truly faithful to the original 14th. Century structure can only be suspected.
Church of the Holiest Saviour
Driving down towards the Arts Centre, I was struck by this beautiful Renaissance and Baroque Church built at the turn of the 1900s to commemorate the new century. It too was devastated by aerial attacks and underwent post war reconstruction. When I stopped to think about it, I was astounded how patriotism fuelled motivation, resolve and tenacity. So many elegant structures arose once again out of the rubble of many wars! It speaks to the fundamental hope and desire for survival that resides deep in each of us. It also speaks to the determination of Varsovians to see their city shine.
Although I’ll have to reserve in depth exploration of all that relates to my absolute favourite composer, Frédéric Chopin, I had nonetheless a quick look at the palace where he gave his first public concert. Born in 1810, he wrote his first composition at 7. As a young girl and young woman I loved playing his Études, Nocturnes https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dhp_wYUDgc0 and Polonaises – www.youtube.com/watch?v=hbnunexhlXM . The Revolutionary (Étude 10, Opus12) was my frequent companion whenever there were familial disagreements. I would channel my frustration or anger pouring it all into this piece – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1SoeLPKzeNw . From time to time I get pangs of longing and wish for a piano, so that I can once again immerse myself in Chopin’s music.
One of the many statues we passed, was dedicated to Jan Kilinski, born in 1760. Eight years after settling in Warsaw, he became a master shoemaker. Over time he grew in prominence and was thrice elected member of the city council. During the 1791 Uprising he formed and led a division of National Militia, and was joined by the Polish Army in their struggle against the Russian occupiers.
Let’s not forget the famous scientist and physicist Marie Curie born at Warsaw in November 1867. The first to win the Nobel prize in Physics and first in obtaining a second Nobel prize, this one in Chemistry, and who later developed the X-Rays.
We arrived at Tanzienski Palace, which is now home to an arts centre and restaurant. There we ended the day, enjoying the tranquil scenery and each other’s company accompanied by good food and excellent wine.
I shall be forever thankful that the critical circumstances that brought me to Poland, were also propitious to a live encounter with my nephew and his family. I shall also be ever grateful for his call, as six months later my brother’s health took a turn or the worse. In December 2017, he passed away very quickly without my having been ale to be at his bedside. Instead of dwelling on not being with him at the end, I shall cherish the precious time we had in June.