Poland Warsaw CastleSquare - Feature
The historic Castle Square of Warsaw. The Royal Castle (right), which housed Polish monarchs, is now a museum, and the Sigimund Column can be seen across it. The buildings and castle were destroyed in the World Wars, but were rebuilt. Image Credit: Shyam A. Krishna/Gulf News

Poland! It was never on my travel list. In my mind, it’s an East European country ravaged by world wars. So when I was assigned a trip to Poland, I hesitated briefly. Then I said to myself: I know very little about the country, so let this be a voyage of discovery.

A fantastic voyage of discovery it was. Over seven days, Poland surprised and enchanted me with its history, culture, architecture, natural beauty, fresh fruits and cuisine. The swing through Warsaw, Gdansk, Gdynia, Lodz and Wroclaw lent me a new perspective. I saw a modern country with good infrastructure, clean roads, green vistas, rolling fields, ancient baroque-style palaces, ornate churches, centuries-old architecture and fantastic food.

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I would have liked a more immersive experience because there was so much to see and take in. I wanted to sit at one of the wayside restaurants in Wroclaw and watch the world go by with a beverage in hand. Take a stroll through Piotrkowska Street in Lodz. Stand a bit longer on the Orlowo Pier in Gdynia with the wind in my face and watch the Baltic Sea. And Gdansk, where do I even start? The charming port city brims with history.

Poland is no stranger to history, and the past is inextricably entwined in its capital, Warsaw. A city that was destroyed in the Second World War and rebuilt from the ruins, it is a testament to the resilience of the Poles, who repeatedly bounced back from the horrors of wars and partitions. Time stands still in Warsaw, particularly in the Old Town.

Brutal wars and a painful past may be a recurring theme in Poland, but Frederic Chopin occupies pride of place in Polish tourism. Rightly so, because he is the most famous Pole in the world. People throng Chopin concerts worldwide, but some don’t even know he’s Polish. Chopin spent his later years in France and is buried in Paris, hence the confusion.

Chopin’s long shadow

Chopin is everywhere in Poland. I arrived at the Frederic Chopin International Airport in Warsaw. A visit to the Holy Cross Church brought me closer to Chopin’s heart. Literally. It resides in one of the church’s pillars after being smuggled into Poland, past Soviet border guards by his sister, as Chopin requested before his death.

Stepping outside the church, I came across the Chopin benches. The black granite benches, found in 15 places in Warsaw, play Chopin’s works and offer a map to other bench locations. Walking past them, I found a Chopin lodging where he lived as a young man. Heading to the Royal Lazienki Park, I found a sculpture of Chopin sitting under a willow. An outdoor concert was underway.

A 60km trip to Zelazowa Wola brought me to Chopin’s birthplace (he was born in 1810). A lone building with all things Chopin remains on the premises. Aleksandra Swigut, a pianist, played a couple of the maestro’s works. Warsaw is also home to a Chopin Museum. But there’s much more to Poland than Chopin.

Image Credit: Syyed de la Llata/Gulf News
Unesco world heritage sites generally are of archaeological significance. But Warsaw’s historic city centre is an exception: all the structures were built in the 20th century, although some have a 14th-century feel about them. Poland rebuilt the city with popular donations after Nazi troops systematically demolished 80-90% of the buildings when Poles earned German leader Adolf Hitler’s wrath with the Warsaw uprising of 1944.
After the war, Poland mobilised its people to rebuild Warsaw with the rallying cry: “The entire nation builds its capital.” The rebuild of Old Town started in 1945, and most of the work was completed in less than ten years, although additional reconstruction continued into the1980s, reports say. Pre-war photographs, architectural drawings and 18th-century paintings by Italian artists Marcello Bacciarelli and Bernardo Bellotto acted as visual guides in the reconstruction.
Undamaged bricks, slabs and fragments were used in the reconstruction. The project was completed with the reopening of the Royal Castle in 1984. With that, Warsaw and Poland reclaimed their past and pride.

A stroll through Old Town, Warsaw

A monument that pays tribute to David Copernicus stands prominently at Krakowskie Przedmiescie Street, Warsaw. He’s the Pole who taught us that Earth revolves around the Sun and not the other way around.

Further away is the Royal Castle, a sprawling brick-red building that dominates Castle Square, where Sigismund’s Column haughtily pierces the sky. Difficult to believe that the buildings were rebuilt structures after Germans dynamited the originals following Adolf Hitler’s fury at the Poles’ stubborn resistance.

A few steps away, the Warsaw Mermaid awaited at the Old Town Square, with a shield aloft and swinging sword over her head. Moving away, I came across the home (now a museum) of Marie Sklodowska-Curie, a Nobel winner in Physics (for the study of spontaneous radioactivity) and Chemistry (discovery of Radium and Polonium, the metal is named after her homeland).

Warsaw Mermaid Poland
The Warsaw Mermaid at the Old Town Square. The most popular of all the mermaids of Warsaw, an icon of the city also finds place on the coat of arms. Image Credit: Shyam A. Krishna/Gulf News
Mermaids, there are aplenty in Warsaw, the capital of Poland. But the Syrenka (mermaid in Polish) in Old Town is the most famous. Where did these half-woman half-fish creatures come from? Apparently, there’s no single answer.
Popular legend has it that two mermaid sisters swam across the Baltic Sea and parted ways at Gdansk: one went to Copenhagen, and the other came down the Vistula River and rested near the Old Town in Warsaw. Impressed with the place, she decided to stay, but the fishermen were unhappy with her for freeing fish from their nets. Her beauty and singing won them, but a greedy merchant kidnapped her to make money on travelling shows at fairs. A fisherman’s son rescued her, and a grateful mermaid vowed to defend the village that became Warsaw.
Another one says that when a prince lost his way on a hunting trip, the mermaid shot arrows into the sky to guide him to safety. The third tale is about a griffin (a mythical animal with the head and wings of an eagle and the body, hind legs, and tail of a lion) who defended the city and accompanied fishermen into the Baltic. During a trip, he fell in love with a mermaid, and the two returned to live in Warsaw. The griffin died in the battle with the Swedes, and the mermaid took up arms to defend the city. The grateful people made her the symbol of Warsaw and placed her in the coat of arms.
Stories there are many more, and each is fiercely disputed, according to reports. Mermaids too are many in Warsaw. The one at Old Town Square attracts the most tourists, another one can be spotted near the Swietokrzyski Bridge, and a third stands near the Markiewicz viaduct. More lesser-known statues of mermaids are sighted around the city.

Some grim moments at the boundary of a former Jewish Warsaw Ghetto were followed by a trip to the magnificent Wilanow Palace, a baroque-style summer residence of King Jan III Sobieski built in the 17th century.

Another palace loomed in Lazienki Krolewskie, or the Royal Baths Park: the Palace on the Isle, which dates back to the 17th century. Initially a Baroque Bathouse Pavilion, it was converted into a neoclassical palace before it became a museum.

The marvels of Gdansk

Slate grey skies with dark clouds and a steady drizzle greeted me in Gdynia. The chilly winds failed to thwart a lazy walk over the 180-metre Orlowo Pier, the wooden structure built during the First World War. A coffee warmed me for a spot of forest-bathing as I hiked the nature reserve with the affable Marek Kaminski, the Guinness record-holder who has been to both the poles.

Soon I stepped into Gdansk, a seaside city steeped in history. All the ruins were rebuilt in precisely the same manner. I walked the streets in awe, marvelling at the buildings but not fully knowing the weight of history and a past that tied Gdynia and Gdansk to the start of the Second World War.

Gdansk is the land of Lech Walesa, the man with a walrus moustache, who led the Solidarity Movement from the docks and rose to become the country’s first democratically elected president. I knew that. But I didn’t know of another Gdansk son, Daniel Fahrenheit, who is more known for devising the Fahrenheit temperature scale and less for inventing the mercury-in-glass thermometer.

The city is also the capital of amber, a fossilised resin from coniferous trees. So a visit to Amber Museum is mandatory. It traces the trade and history of amber from 8000 BC and is a virtual repository of all things amber.

Lodz and the gnomes of Wroclaw

Lodz was the next stop, where the Herbst Palace Museum looked frozen in time with all the curios, antiques and ornate furniture. Lodz is pronounced Wuj and written Łódź in Polish. Being a textile manufacturing centre, Lodz is a fashion capital, and a long walk through Piotrkowska Street is also a must for film buffs. It didn’t happen due to a time crunch. The Lodz film school helped film directors Roman Polanski, Andrzej Wajda and Krzysztof Kieslowski learn the craft.

The land of gnomes, Wroclaw, beckoned me. Statues of little people are found everywhere in the city: in the alleys, doorways, street corners and even the city centre. Although more of a tourist gimmick now, its origins lie in the underground protest movement during the days of communism.

Wroclaw in Lower Silesia is adorned with beautiful buildings, especially around the Rynek (Market Square). Many colourful buildings were rebuilt after the wars but retained their appeal. A buggy ride helped us whistle past many landmarks, but we did make it to the Hydropolis (a water research centre) and the Raclawice Panorama, which houses a 360-degree 3D painting. It’s not a technological marvel but an artwork that fuses art on canvas and real-life objects to depict the 1794 Battle of Raclawice.

A stay at the Ksiaz Castle hotel was a throwback to the past, but the spooky night tour of the 13th-century castle produced spine-chilling encounters with four ghosts of people who served the House of Hochberg. The German and Soviet forces ravaged much of the castle during the wars, and rumours abound that a lost Nazi gold train is buried near the castle.

I didn’t find the gold train but was treated to Poland’s bounty. The seven days sure did change my perception of the country. There’s much more to see and enjoy. So I will be back.

Jen-koo-yeh Polska (Thank you Poland).