In 1994, I visited the city of Krakow, Poland, a magnificent cultural gem. I loved the architecture and the dramatic skyline of the former capital city. I always felt that I had missed out by not visiting Warsaw, the nation’s current capital. My trip to Berlin gave me the chance to rectify that error. I took a five-hour train from one city to the other. I would have my chance to see the city, twenty years late!
Growing up in the United States, I did not form a significant impression of Poland. I knew its annexation was the flashpoint that had drawn the United Kingdom into World War II, and I had heard of Solidarity‘s role in defeating Communism, but I knew little else. In fact, Poland’s commonwealth with Lithuania in 1569 made the region one of the most populous and powerful in Europe. Warsaw only became the capital in 1596 under Sigismund III Vasa, partly in response to this union. The “Old Town” of Warsaw was established during the 13th century, and it was fortified with brick walls in 1339. The “New Town,” just north of the Old, was developed in the 15th century. These two areas were the ones my tour of the city emphasized.We should start by dispelling a myth created by innumerable “Pollock Jokes.” Poland has given birth to some of the greatest thinkers in world history. Copernicus, for example, was born in 1473, living in the era when Columbus sailed to the New World. By age 35, he had inferred a heliocentric model of our solar system that was completely at odds with established doctrine. Marie Curie, one of only four people to win the Nobel Prize twice, was a seminal researcher in the field of radioactivity. She was forced out of Poland by one of its tragic eighteenth-century “partitions,” but she maintained connection with the country throughout her life in France. We think of Alan Turing as one of the great code-breakers of World War II, but in fact he profited enormously from the efforts of three young Polish mathematicians at the start of the war. The monument to this team is in Poznan rather than Warsaw, but Warsaw features a science museum for Copernicus and a museum in the birthplace of Marie Curie, as well.
My walk started at the train station, situated near the foot of the massive Palace of Culture and Science. Coming from a five-hour train ride, I skipped the opportunity to see the city from the 30th floor. Instead I headed to the Hostel Camera, where I had booked three nights (for the same cost as one night at the hostel adjoining Berlin’s hauptbahnhof). I walked approximately the same distance further to reach Nowy Świat (New World Street), leading to the heart of the tourist district. The statue of Copernicus above told me that I was heading in the right direction. Nearby was the Museum of the composer Frédéric Chopin. I was really disappointed by this one; the music is lovely, of course, but I see it as a warning sign when museums insist that every visitor should have his or her “own experience” of the subject. I want timelines and facts laid out clearly, not an entire room dedicated to the death of a person that neglects to report facts such as the cause (tuberculosis) or his age (39). All those amazing interactive displays are less impressive with “out of order” signs.
Warsaw offers a surprising number of monuments and statues. Some, such as the Monument to the Fallen and Murdered in the East, are truly epic in scale (this statue of a rail car full of crosses rolling across massive rails runs a full city block). Others, such as a statue of Ronald Reagan (in honor of his efforts to combat communism), are more compact. I appreciated the range of styles represented. While Reagan is rendered quite realistically, the image of Walerian Łukasiński (1786-1868) in the New Town is highly stylized.
My walk brought me to either the most church-like museum or the most war-like church I have ever seen. The Museum of the Military Ordinariate is a branch of the Historical Museum of Warsaw. It focuses on the role of chaplains in warfare. The apse of the associated Military Cathedral of the Polish Army was filled with armaments from many ages. Its mighty doors bore the slogan “Milito Pro Christo.” Unsurprisingly, the cathedral includes a chapel near its entrance to mourn the martyrs of the Katyń Massacre. I had previously seen a monument for this tragedy in New Jersey, of all places. Happily, the museum in the crypt was open without an admission fee. Among the weapons was one that made me think of the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch.
Having emerged in Old Town, I could see the Royal Castle, a pillar topped by a figure of King Sigismund III Vasa, guild halls, a theatre complex, and remnants of the brick wall that once surrounded the Old Town. I should explain, though, that none of these buildings are original. Almost the entire historic town center was destroyed by the Nazis in 1944 to suppress the rebellious Poles. Undeterred, the country rallied after the war to rebuild the entire center in the way it would have appeared in the late 18th century, culminating in the finished reconstruction of the Royal Castle in 1984. In recognition of this effort, UNESCO has named the entire center a World Heritage Site.
I was able to be part of the tour of the Royal Castle on October 21, 2016. Its history started in the 14th century with the construction of the Great Tower. The 16th and 17th centuries, though, marked its expansion to the scale seen today. The wings form a pentagon enclosing a large central courtyard. The Swedish Wars destroyed the castle in the mid 17th century, but the efforts of artists in the second half of the 18th century created the Great Apartment and King’s Apartment. Because the castle is a complete reconstruction, the tour is able to span a considerable part of the floor where the throne room was located.
I rather liked one of the larger chambers in the castle. It was a Senate room. How many castles house both the king and the representatives of the people? This is just one of several distinctive characteristics of the Polish government. In 1791, they even created a modern constitution to govern the nation (though it had little chance to take hold).
All told, Warsaw was filled with picturesque buildings, monuments, and museums. I hope that more tourists will come to experience the city. In my next two posts, I will examine several key moments from the history of the city. For now, though, I will leave you with this image showing the 1780 Church of the Carmelites, surrounded by October colors.