Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Warsaw, Poland

Warsaw is about a 7-hour train ride from Brno with a change in Břeclav 

Warszawa is the capital and largest city in Poland.  With a population of 1.7 million it is the 6th largest city in the EU.

Warsaw 1945
Warsaw has been around roughly 1,400 years and it has been Poland's capital since 1596.  Throughout its long history it has survived many wars.  This is why Warsaw has been called "Phoenix City".  You can appreciate the nickname when you consider that after WWII, 85% of the city had been destroyed and then rebuilt.  So even though practically every building only dates back to the postwar era, the eclectic mix of architecture – Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Neoclassical, was all painstakingly restored.  

The Old Town was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980.

The Royal Castle was originally built in the 15th century.  Between 1971 and 1988 the castle was rebuilt using original remains and rubble.

The King Kygmunt III Waza column is the oldest and, at 22 meters (72 feet), the tallest non-church monument in the city.  It was originally raised in 1644 to honor the king who in 1596 moved the capital from Kraków to Warsaw.  The statue holds a sword in its right hand and the legend goes that if the King's sword falls downward then disaster will follow.

The Basilica Cathedral of the Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist was originally a 14th century parish church.  Eventually it became the most important church in Poland.  There are several tombs here belonging to dukes, archbishops, a former president and the last Polish king.

The Shrine of Our Lady of Grace the Patron of Warsaw was built from 1609 to 1629.  Reconstruction of the church lasted until 1957.  In front of the church is a stone bear.  Legend has it that it is really a shy prince who is waiting for the one woman whose love can restore him to manhood.

In the middle of a small triangular square is a huge 17th century bronze bell.  It has never hung in any church.  Apparently you will get good luck if you circle around it three times.

Narrow house in the center
This square is home to the narrowest house in the city.  Or at least the front of the house is narrow because in the old days, the wider the external façade of the house, the more taxes the owner had to pay.  So the landlord, very cleverly, made the front narrow while the back side is huge.

The Old Town Market Square was founded in the 13th-14th centuries.  It used to be Warsaw's main square.  It was completely destroyed after the war.  The reconstruction has given the square its 17th and 18th century appearance back.

The square is home to the Mermaid Statue.  This one is actually a copy and the original Warsaw Mermaid is at the Historical Museum.

During the war, 30% of the population was Jewish and were moved in to the Warsaw Ghetto.  In April 1943, Jewish fighters launched the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.  It's amazing that the resistance fighters held out for so long in spite of being both outnumbered and outgunned.  Almost all of the survivors, roughly 150,000 to 200,000, were killed.  The city wasn't finally liberated until 1945.

The Little Insurgent Monument, in the Old Town, honors the heroic children who fought against fascism during the Warsaw Uprising.

Warsaw's New Town isn't really that new.  It was founded at the end of the 14th century.  Like the rest of the city, all of the "old" buildings are all post-war reconstructions.  This is where our hotel was and there are lots of little sidewalk restaurants and cafés.

The Church of the Holy Spirit is a Baroque church that was originally built in the 18th century.  It was rebuilt in 1956.  Every August, for almost 300 years, there is an annual pilgrimage to the Marian shrine in Częstochowa that departs from the front of this church.

The Marie Curie Museum is located in the 18th century house where she was born.  Born Maria Skłodowska, she is the only woman to have been awarded the Nobel Prize twice and the only winner ever to be honored in two different natural science fields physics and chemistry.

The Warsaw Uprising monument honors the thousands of people who gave up their lives in the fight for their homeland.  The fighting went on for 63 days until they were finally beaten by the Nazis.  The Warsaw Rising Museum was opened on the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of fighting.  Here's a Rick Steves video I found on YouTube that tells more about what happened.
©Rick Steves

The Presidential Palace has been the official work place for the president since 1994.  It is one of the largest palaces in the city.  However, it is not the official residence of the president.  The Prince Józef Poniatowski monument was erected in 1965.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was laid here in 1925.  The remains are of a defender of Lwów from WWI.  There is an urn with soil from every 20th century battlefield where Polish troops died in battle.  A military honor guard stands watch by an eternal flame.

The new National Stadium was recently built for the 2012 European Football Championship that Poland co-hosted with Ukraine.  The retractable roof opens in 15 minutes.

The most visible landmark in the city is the Palace of Culture and Science.  Construction began in 1952 and lasted until 1955.  It was a gift from Joseph Stalin to the people of Poland and was built by 3,500 workers from the USSR.  At 231 meters (757 feet) it is the tallest building in Poland and the 8th tallest in the EU.  Many people originally hated the building because it was considered to be a symbol of Soviet oppression. 

One of the things that I was really looking forward to seeing was the Fryderyk Chopin museum.  It is supposed to be the most modern biographical museum in Europe with multimedia exhibits and touch screens.  It was a big disappointment.  Everything is accessed by using an electronic card but the flow of the museum was very difficult to navigate.

I would have been better off just reading a book about Chopin and listening to his music on my iPod.  Even though this was the only let down in Warsaw, I did get a photo of Chopin and I both throwing the Peace sign.

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