The heart of Poland

K.J.S. Chatrath comes back richer after a visit to the Polish capital Warsaw, steeped in culture and history

The Old Town Square
Warsaw’s HEARTBEAT: The Old Town Square. — Photos by the writer

As the one and a half hours’ Finnair flight from Helsinki to Warsaw was readying to touch Warsaw, the hostess told us that we were about to land at the Frederic Chopin airport.

Chopin, the musical genius belonged to Warsaw and besides the airport named after him, there is an impressive Frederic Chopin Monument in the Royal Lazienki. Actually it is a replica made in 1957–1958. The original by Wac?aw Szymanowski was created around 1904 and officially opened in 1926. It was destroyed in 1940. The present statue is on the same pedestal where the original stood, and is surrounded by green lawns and thick trees.

Frederic Francois Chopin was born in Zelazowa Wola, west of Warsaw on March 1, 1810, to a Polish mother and a French expatriate father. He died of pulmonary tuberculosis on October 17, 1849, at the age of 39. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest composers for piano.

Fact file

  • How to get there: A number of airways give connections from Delhi with economy return fare for about Rs 35,000
  • Accommodation: Metrople just near the Palace of Culture (the same building houses a Casino) & MDM. These are three-star ($75 for a night) hotels near tram, bus and metro lines. There are Indian restaurants within walking distance from both these hotels Transport: Tramways, buses and metro. Walking through the town is a pleasure.
  • Best time to visit: June to August when the weather is good and there are Chopin concerts and music festivals.

Another Pole whose statue stands prominently in Warsaw is that of Nickolao Copernico (Nicolaus Copernicus, 1473–1543). An astronomer and a mathematician, he was the proponent of the view that the earth moves around its axis daily and it also moves around the stationary sun in a yearly motion. This heliocentric (revolving around the sun) theory contradicted the ideas of Greek-Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy (second century AD), who stated that the earth was the centre of the universe. This view of Copernicus was not acceptable to the Catholic Church, which believed that the earth was the centre of the universe. Copernicus therefore had to claim that he was proposing "a simpler way of predicting the positions of the planets," not necessarily a different world-system. One of the important implications of the theory of Copernicus was that it made possible to predict where the planets would be at a given point of time.

Another personality gifted to the world by Warsaw was the famous Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie, who was born on November 7, 1867. Her name at birth was Maria Sklodowska. Subsequently, she shifted to France in 1891. Her family and friends called her by a nickname, Manya. Her birthplace has been converted into a museum.

The expression "During the Soviet era" comes up again and again in conversation. And practically wherever you go in Warsaw, the tall Palace of Culture and Science built by the Soviets serves as a reminder of the days gone by. Called the Palac Kultury i Nauki in Polish, its construction started in 1952 and finished in 1955. Still the tallest building in Poland, it was a gift from the Soviet Union to the people of Poland and was originally called the Joseph Stalin Palace of Culture and Science, but when Stalin went out of favour, the words "Joseph Stalin" were dropped from its name.

The Palace of Culture and Science is the tallest building in Poland
The Palace of Culture and Science is the tallest building in Poland.

There’s a certain vivacity and dynamism in Warsaw. The impression one gets is one of a country on the move. The traffic is fast and continuous. I preferred using the slower-moving trams to be able to see the town in a leisurely manner.

One of the important landmarks in Warsaw is the Royal Castle. It was built as a residence for the King of Poland, Sigmund III. It was the residence of monarchs from 1596 to 1795 and the residence of the Polish President in 1918. During World War II, Germans bombing destroyed it. Subsequently, it was fully rebuilt. It now houses an important museum.

Perhaps nothing illustrates the sad history of Poland more poignantly than the Memorial to the Heroes of the Ghetto in Warsaw. The Umschlagplatz is the place where the Nazis brought the Jews who were from there taken to the concentrations camps the same day. When the Ghetto Uprising started on April 19, 1943, there were only about 200 Jews still left in the camp who decided to put up a resistance. Germans had to struggle hard to control it and it was only on May 16, 1943, that they were able to quell the movement. The nearby monument is the work of sculptor Nathan Rappaport and is sometimes referred to as the Nathan Rappaport Memorial. Its back side depicts a line of Jews marching to their death in a concentration camp.

Warsaw’s Old Town, called Stare Miasto in Polish, was completely destroyed in World War II but some of it has been rebuilt to look like the original. Old Town is in the Heritage List of UNESCO. Warsaw, like a good number of European cities, is spread over two sides of a river — the Vistula. On the right bank of the river lie the residential areas. On the left bank is the old town and most of the touristy sites.

Warsaw is full of amazing sights. One such site is the very unusual looking statue of Stefan Starzynski, not too far from the House of Culture and Science. He was a soldier, politician and economist and credited with having rebuilt Warsaw.

Before leaving Warsaw, I bought an audio CD, Valses brillantes – Sonates, by Chopin played on the piano by Dinu Lipatti, as a souvenir of my short visit to this wonderful city.