“Let me ask you a question – can you tell me which part of this house is original and which portion is reconstructed ?” I am in Warsaw, the Polish capital and Hana, who calls herself a “funny guide” has just posed this question to me. It is a lovely day with blue skies and cotton candy clouds and the the rays of the sun has just stroked the walls of this old building, painted in shades of peach and designed in a combination of Gothic and Renaissance styles. We are walking in the Warsaw Old Town or Stare Miastro, and there is an old world charm that oozes from every stone wall in Poland. And yet every brick has been recreated here to take you back to the medieval era when it was originally built. The Old Town which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the places to visit in Warsaw and one of the most popular Warsaw tourist attractions.
The facade of the building is filled with sculptures and carvings and they look rather identical on either side of the building. There is hardly a crack on the walls nor can I see the paint peeling off. The quaint doors open to a different world . I shake my head at Hana and ask her to explain. She points out to a few inscriptions carved on one side of the building near the door which is missing on the other. And I realize that it is this portion of the building that has been recreated. But for a lay person, it looks just like one seamless building with barely a distinction between the old and the new.
Standing there I wonder if I am lost in a fairy tale world with a magical atmosphere. I cannot believe that this was once a war torn city, ravaged and destroyed during the World War 2. Almost every part of the city was wiped beyond recognition . The Old and New Towns were demolished . And yet they were recreated from the scratch, just like the way the people have rebuilt their lives as well from the pain and torture they experienced during the World War 2 and the Communist rule . In a way, the building is like a metaphor for their lives. Although the old wounds are still there, you can barely tell as the Polish are always smiling and friendly, opening their minds to change and doors to strangers .
I have been in Warsaw for just an hour and my guide Hana is a great storyteller and together we rediscover the hidden gems of this beautiful town, often dubbed as the Paris of the East Europe and is known for its Baroque elegance . We wander around the Polish capital, journeying down to the Middle Ages but come back to the torturous era of the recent wars. We walk around the Vistula River, which is one of the things to do in Warsaw. The banks of the river have been battlefields. The river itself has slowly divided the city into two parts and each has its own personality. We travel around the city, listening to tales of mermaids, exploring castles and palaces and other places to see in Warsaw while Hana keeps regaling me with stories. You can also hear some of these stories on my Podcast – Travel With Lakshmi on Storytel, which can be downloaded on your mobile app.
We look beyond the usual sights and head to churches where battles were fought and hearts were hidden. I see stars with astronomer Nicolas Copernicus, while listen to the heart wrenching story of the composer, Frederic Chopin. We sip vodka, which is almost like a national drink of the Poles since the medieval times and go on a musical tour in the city, where stone benches turn into melodious juke boxes. There are hidden surprises everywhere as we go beyond Warsaw tourist attractions and discover something new for Warsaw is both a young and an old city.
Warsaw Old Town
It is a riot of colours at the Old Town Market Place, a square where the Old and New Towns meet in Warsaw, the Polish capital. This is the main square and one of the popular places to visit in Warsaw. A horse drawn carriage whisks us away transporting me to the medieval times when the town was originally built. The New Town is not really new but is barely a few years younger than the Old Town, both dating back to the Middle Ages. The houses designed in Gothic and Renaissance styles stand huddled together, painted in various hues. Once upon a time, this was the very nucleus of the city and the hub of the merchants, today it is thronged by both locals and tourists as its one of the main Warsaw tourist attractions.
Standing at the threshold where the gates to the towns greet me, I am lost in the beauty of this charming town. But this fairy tale land has a dark gory history . These bricks which were the very foundation of the city were rebuilt from scratch after they were demolished completely during the World War 11. And layered in these old city walls, one of the places to see in Warsaw are annals of history that you can never forget .History has not been kind to the Polish. They were brutally destroyed during the second world war but it is the betrayal of the Russians who watched the Germans destroy them that devastated me. “While the Polish were killed everyday by the Germans, the Russians just stood on the other bank of the river and watched us being killed and destroyed . And then they attacked us, “ says Hana
Poland lost more than just lives during the wars, especially when the Russians invaded them after the Nazis lost their battle . But they did not allow the wars to break their spirit . Literally rising from the ashes they rebuilt their towns, brick by brick . In most of the buildings, the original bricks from the rubble were used to ensure that the reconstruction was almost authentic. The old layout of the streets were maintained as well and old paintings guided the town planners to recreate them and they were rebuilt in Baroque style.
Legend of the Mermaid
I love legends and folklore as they form a part of the cultural fabric of the city . The Mermaid or Syrenka standing in the middle of the square in Warsaw Old Town is more than just a pretty damsel but a warrior princess . She is even represented in the city’s coat of arms . Apparently in the medieval times the coat of arms had a mythical creature that seemed like a mermaid with the body of a female with fish tail and covered with scales of a dragon . The fresh water mermaid eventually became the symbol of the city and is a guardian angel and she is one of the must see Warsaw tourist attractions.
The story goes that she was the favourite of the fishermen and used to sing songs and entertain them. A merchant however captured her and took her to the Old Town, but a fisherman’s son set her free. Since that day, she has promised to be defend their town.
Unfortunately when Warsaw was ravaged by the Germans during the Second World War and later on by the Russians , the locals believe that the mermaid had inadvertently gone to visit her little sister – The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen. “It was such bad timing but we have all forgiven her . Now that she is back , we believe she will protect us from any harm ,” says Hana . I love the way the Polish even forgave their mythical guardian angel and put the past behind them.
There is another endearing legend behind the origin of Warsaw. The local king of Poland, some say Kazimierz was once sailing from his capital at Krakow along the Vistula. Hungry and tired, he stopped at a fisherman’s house who served him some fresh fish they had just caught. Moved by the hospitality, the king offered him gold, but the fisherman refused saying that it was his duty. The king realized that the fisherman’s wife had just given birth to twins and they barely had any money for even christening them. He immediately named the boy – Wars and the girl, Sawa and even became their godfather. He bestowed the land around the Vistula to the fisherman called Piotr Warsz or Royal Fisherman. The fishing village eventually grew into the city – Warsawa .
The Royal Castle
Travel is all about stories and sometimes they soften the cruel blow of history. Hana and I continue walking around until we come to the Castle Square ,where the Royal Castle, one of the places to visit in Warsaw stands. This is the very nucleus of the city when the kings decided to move their capital from Krakow to Warsaw in the Middle Ages and the Old and New Towns grew around it. Standing in the middle of the Caste Square is the 22 metres tall Corinthian Column called Sigismund’s Column, one of the places to see in Warsaw dedicated to the king who moved the capital of Poland from Krakow to Warsaw. According to Hana, it was a fire started accidentally by the king, who was also an alchemist that made them change the capital.
The Royal Castle, one of the Warsaw tourist attractions dominates the entire square. Locals are enjoying the warmth of the sun as the children run around the balloon man who seems to be attracting a lot of attention with colourful balloons fluttering in the breeze.There are several shops, cafes, bars and restaurants while a local farmer’s market is being set up as I walk around.
The Royal Castle is a castle residency and one of the fascinating castles of Poland which was the official residence of the kings and it was the centre of attention until the mid twentieth century when the Nazi Germans burnt it down . The castle was entirely destroyed and reconstructed, just like the rest of the city with fragments that were found in the rubble. The brick facade is iconic and is a symbol of the Polish capital along with the column that stands in the square. There is a tower at the end of the facade and you can see Sigismund’s Tower right at the centre. Standing tall is the 60 metre tall clock tower that I cannot take my eyes off. The legendary Royal Castle is now a museum and it has its own legends. For someone who loves intrigue and haunted stories, I find this one very fascinating.
One of the kings was mourning his dead wife and he was told by one of his nobles that a medium could make him see her. Eager to get a glimpse of her, the king sat in front of a magic mirror and she apparently appeared in front of him. Some say that it was a ploy by the nobles and the apparition was that of his mistress who was made to look like the late queen. Even today people apparently see a form in the “magic mirror.”
But pottering around aimlessly I realize the Old Town leads to the New Town separated by the old city walls and the Barbican fortification, one of the places to visit in Warsaw. Souvenir shops are everywhere and the tourists are milling around me. I long for some quiet and all of a sudden, an arch appears in front of me. We wander around aimlessly, losing ourselves in detours . I learn that this is called the Canon Square and it connects to the Castle Square by a corridor. The secret path was used by the royalty after a failed assassination attempt on one of the kings by a subject.
Canon Square is located right beside the St John’s Cathedral, one of Warsaw tourist attractions and it is believed that the king was entering the church when he was attacked. The corridor was then created exclusively for the royalty. While the original church dated to the medieval era, it has been reconstructed as well after the bombardment.
But it is the square itself that beckons me. There are beautiful homes here, that take you back to the merchant town houses of the 17th century. It is hard to imagine that this was once a cemetery. The silence here is a complete contrast from the neighbouring square. Hana points out the thinnest house here but my attention is taken by a large bronze bell cast by Daniel Thym, who also designed the Sigismund Column in the Castle Square. Hana tells me that this bright and shiny bell, has the power to make your wishes come true. So I follow the tradition by circling it and touching it while thinking of my wish . And on that note I leave the Old Town.
What are your favourite places to visit in Warsaw and your favourite Warsaw tourist attractions ? Coming up – The Royal Mile, the Wilanow Palace, Lazienki Park and Chopin’s heart wrenching story and more museums .
Photos courtesy Sharath Krishnamuthy. We were invited by Polish Tourism Board to spend a week in Poland and explore Krakow, Warsaw and Wroclaw.