It’s hard to believe modern, pulsing Warsaw was reduced to rubble just 70 years ago, almost completely and systematically destroyed by the Nazis near the end of World War II. Today, glimmering office and hotel towers line central arteries. Trams packed with rush-hour commuters crisscross city thoroughfares. The prominent 1950s Palace of Culture and Science – the Communist-era, Stalinist-style skyscraper similar to Moscow’s Seven Sister buildings – is now the city’s most recognizable landmark.
“When you think of Paris, you think maybe the most romantic city in the world, while people go to Rome to see art and sculpture,” says Warsaw tour guide Pawel Szczerkowski. “But I think the essence of Warsaw is to see the most reconstructed city in the world that’s still continuing to this day.”
My favorite part of Warsaw is the so-called Royal Way and Old Town lined with 17th and 18th century buildings, including the many Baroque churches and the central, wide-walled Royal Castle. The irony here, however, is that just about all of those old building are relatively new, with only a few having survived the war. Many were painstakingly rebuilt to almost precise specifications as the way they looked in the 18th century, using – as part of architectural reference guides – the original 18th century city view paintings by one of my favorite painters, the Old Master Bernardo Bellotto.
Nicknamed Canaletto, Bellotto used the name of his famous Venetian uncle who painted city views with the same architectural precision. Bellotto, the court painter for King Stanislaw August Poniatowski from 1768 until the artist’s death in 1780, painted more than 20 city views with stately palaces and churches in muted hues, city streets with noblemen in carriages, and Warsaw residents in scenes of everyday life. Today, the paintings line the walls in the Royal Castle’s “Canaletto Room.”
“Bellotto’s importance during rebuilding was that buildings that existed on his canvases had been remodeled in the 19th century, so photographs showed the buildings in their newer form,” explains Iwona Libucha, the Royal Castle’s Educational Department Curator. “So closely observing his paintings helped architects discover how those buildings looked when they were first built.”
“The rebuilding of the Royal Castle and talks about rebuilding were going on throughout my childhood,” she continues. “I remember very well the empty square and the outline of foundations and stones of different color.” Rebuilding began in the late 1940s.
At four different locations along Krakowskie Przedmieście, namely the Royal Way that leads into Old Town, sit four replicas of Bellotto’s paintings in glass cases. Each depicts the 18th century city view of that particular corner, showing how remarkably similar today’s Old Town compares with the city more than 200 years ago. Two of those views include the Carmelite Church with its neo-classical façade, and the nearby Church of the Visitation with its multi-columned façade.
“Bellotto painted the two churches that were not destroyed in the war because the Nazis used the nearby Hotel Bristol as their headquarters,” explains Iwona. “And the troops that were responsible for the destruction of the city after the Warsaw Uprising were stationed there. Both churches were too close to the hotel.” Today, the Hotel Bristol is Warsaw’s finest.
FAVORITE SON, CHOPIN
A third Bellotto street view includes the late 17th century Church of the Holy Cross, which brings to light Warsaw’s favorite son. Within a pillar in the church’s nave is an urn with the heart of 19th century composer Fryderyk Chopin. “Chopin wished that his heart would come back to his hometown so it was smuggled to Warsaw,” says Pawel, noting it was the composer’s sister who brought it back after he died in Paris. “She broke sanitation rules smuggling the heart illegally through several borders.”
“Last year, the pillar was opened and the heart was taken out and checked by forensic doctors,” continues Pawel. “They did it for the first time since World War II when the heart was taken out then and saved before the church was destroyed. After 70 years, they took it out again and the doctors announced it’s still inside the same jar his sister put it in. And in that jar, it’s still inside the same 70 percent French cognac she put it in. It’s in perfect condition because of such strong alcohol.”
As for Chopin’s influences on tourism today, there are benches around Old Town where you can press a button and hear recordings of his polonaises, mazurkas and other compositions. The rebuilt Ostrogski Castle not too far from the Royal Way houses the Chopin Museum and includes original hand-written scores, manuscripts and sketches by the composer. Downstairs, you can listen to excerpts from his compositions with headphones.
“Chopin didn’t like to be pictured with the piano as he thought such pictures would turn the attention away from his music to his person, and he didn’t want that,” says museum tour guide Jan Lech. “He avoided public concertos for the same reason and chose to perform in living rooms – intimately, quietly and intellectually.”
As for sightseeing in Warsaw, I recommend touring the Royal Castle, a visit to the National Museum with its extensive fine arts collection, and the Warsaw Uprising Monument on the edge of Old Town. The monument depicts the Poles’ unsuccessful rebellion against the Nazis in 1944.
There’s also the new Museum of the History of the Polish Jews, opened in 2014. In the heart of the former Jewish Ghetto, the museum highlights different eras of Poland’s Jewish history up to and after the tumultuous events of World War II, including the 1943 Jewish Ghetto Uprising. A monument dedicated to those who fought for freedom is just outside the museum on Ghetto Heroes Square.