Tag Archives: Poland

Story published!

Wawel Castle and Cathedral. Photo by Richard Varr

Wawel Castle and Cathedral. Photo by Richard Varr

My story, Krakow from Above: Tower Views of the Medieval City, has been published on the travel website http://www.GoWorldTravel.com  Here’s the link to the story:  http://www.goworldtravel.com/travel-krakow-poland/

View of Market Square from the Cafe Szal. Photo by Richard Varr

View of Market Square from the Cafe Szal. Photo by Richard Varr

Warsaw: Rebuilt with the Help of an Artist’s Eye

Old Town Warsaw from above. Photo by Richard Varr

Old Town Warsaw from above. Photo by Richard Varr

Palace of Culture and Science. Photo by Richard Varr

Palace of Culture and Science. Photo by Richard Varr

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.

 

Modern Warsaw. Photo by Richard Varr

Modern Warsaw. Photo by Richard Varr

“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.”

 

Old Town. Photo by Richard Varr

Old Town with Royal Castle on the right. Photo by Richard Varr

Old Town from above. Photo by Richard Varr

Royal Way from above. Photo by Richard Varr

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.

Bellotto's view of the Royal Way. Courtesy Royal Castle, Warsaw.

Bellotto’s view of the Royal Way. Courtesy Royal Castle, Warsaw.

Bellotto self portrait, painting detail. National Museum, Warsaw

Bellotto self portrait, painting detail. National Museum, Warsaw

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.”

Canaletto Room, Royal Castle. Photo by Richard Varr

Canaletto Room, Royal Castle. Photo by Richard Varr

“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.”

Another Royal Way view by Bellotto, compared with present day view below. Courtesy Royal Castle, Warsaw

Another Royal Way view by Bellotto, compared with present day view below. Courtesy Royal Castle, Warsaw

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Present day view of the above painting. Notice the column has been moved. Photo by Richard Varr

“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.

Bellotto replica of the Church of the Visitation with present day church. Photo by Richard Varr

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's view painting of the Church of the Visitation. Courtesy Royal Castle, Warsaw

Bellotto’s view painting of the Church of the Visitation. Courtesy Royal Castle, Warsaw

Church of the Visitation, today. Photo by Richard Varr

Church of the Visitation today, surviving World War II destruction. Photo by Richard Varr

“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.

Bellotto's view of the Royal Way with Church of the Holy Cross.  Courtesy Royal Castle, Warsaw.

Bellotto’s view of the Royal Way with Church of the Holy Cross. Courtesy Royal Castle, Warsaw.

 

View today with Bellotto replica. Photo by Richard Varr

View today with Bellotto replica. Photo by Richard Varr

FAVORITE SON, CHOPIN

Pillar containing Chopin's heart. Photo by Richard Varr

Pillar containing Chopin’s heart. Photo by Richard Varr

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.”

Chopin Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

Chopin Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

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.

Inside Chopin Museum with original piano played by him. Photo by Richard Varr

Inside Chopin Museum with original piano played by him. Photo by Richard Varr

“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.”

Inside the Royal Castle. Photo by Richard Varr

Inside the Royal Castle. Photo by Richard Varr

Warsaw Uprising Monument. Photo by Richard Varr

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.

Warsaw Uprising Monument. Photo by Richard Varr

Warsaw Uprising Monument. Photo by Richard Varr

IMG_2151There’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.

The new Museum of the History of the Polish Jews, opened in 2014.

The new Museum of the History of the Polish Jews, opened in 2014. Photo by Richard Varr

 

GDANSK’S European Solidarity Center – Reflections of a Revolution

Private message board in the European Solidarity Center. Photo by Richard Varr

Private message board in the European Solidarity Center. Photo by Richard Varr

Many know Gdansk as the place that led to the fall of the Iron Curtain. It’s where bold strikes by Polish shipyard workers, led by Lech Walesa in the 1980s, created the Solidarity movement resulting in them successfully unionizing under the threatening watch of Poland’s Communist government. As a journalism student back then, I remember watching developments on television news programs night after night and wondering whether army tanks would roll in and crack down on the strikers.

Courtesy European Solidarity Center

Courtesy European Solidarity Center

Shipyard vehicle. Photo by Richard Varr

Shipyard vehicle. Photo by Richard Varr

Opened in 2014, the European Solidarity Center highlights those events with archive video, interactive exhibits and actual shipyard artifacts including an overhead crane, helmets, lockers and even a shipyard vehicle similar to ones that Lech Walesa would stand on to announce new developments to the anxious workers cramming the shipyard grounds. “In 1980, the shipyard was the company that had 17,000 employees. It was a city within the city,” says spokeswoman Magdalena Charkin-Jaszcza.

 

Original plywood with 21 Demands. Photo by Richard Varr

Original plywood with 21 Demands. Photo by Richard Varr

Courtesy European Solidarity Center

Courtesy European Solidarity Center

There are also the original plywood panels on which the workers scribbled their 21 demands including the right to form free trade unions, the right to strike and guaranteeing strikers’ safety, freedom of speech and print, and to release political prisoners who were fired during earlier strikes. I particularly liked archival video of Lech Walesa and his fellow strikers – in smoky rooms for long hours – negotiating with government representatives to form a trade union.

Courtesy European Solidarity Center

Courtesy European Solidarity Center

Another exhibit room represents how important it was that people joined the strikers in support of Solidarity. “What we are trying show here is the only way Solidarity could be created was that 10 million stood together to join the movement,” explains Magdalena. “What really created Solidarity was those people coming together and changing the world around them.”

President Lech Walesa addressing the U.S. Congress. Photo by Richard Varr

President Lech Walesa addressing the U.S. Congress. Photo by Richard Varr

Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers. Photo by Richard Varr

Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers. Photo by Richard Varr

Other rooms include exhibits on when the Communist government imposed martial law and outlawed the unions, Polish-born Pope John Paul II’s influence on the movement, and exhibits on those killed when the government cracked down on protesting workers in 1970. Outside the center is the 130-foot-high Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers.

Poland’s Malbork Castle – The Impenetrable Medieval Fortress

Malbork Castle. Photo by Richard Varr

Malbork Castle. Photo by Richard Varr

Statues of Teutonic Knights. Photo by Richard Varr

Statues of Teutonic Knights. Photo by Richard Varr

About an hour south of Gdansk is impressive Malbork Castle, one of the largest brick castles in the world. Malbork was the 14th and 15th century headquarters of the Teutonic Knights, a religious order of former Crusaders. With its drawbridges, high walls and grand halls with vaulted ceilings, this enormous castle is a throwback to northern Poland’s Middle Ages. External and internal moats helped make the castle impenetrable.

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Photo by Richard Varr

Photo Richard Varr

“To enter the castle, one would have to pass through five gates,” says castle tour guide Jagoda Dyl. “The castle was surrounded by rings of thick walls and was so strong that it was never taken by force in medieval times.” At many places throughout the castle, there is a clear delineation of old, worn brick facades and newer bricks, marking the lines of where reconstruction took place in both the 19th century and after World War II.

Photo by Richard Varr

Photo by Richard Varr

Photo by Richard Varr

Photo by Richard Varr

Highlights include the dormitories, chapels and a refectory for the order’s ruling monks. There’s also a treasury with authentic period coins on display, a unique system of heating rocks that radiated heat through floor vents, and an amber collection (see my amber blog that follows), since amber was the main source of income. “The Teutonic Knights were so rich because they traded on the grand scale with wood and amber,” explains Jagoda. “In the 14th century, they had the richest country in Europe.”

Photo by Richard Varr

Photo by Richard Varr

SOPOT: Poland’s Jewel on the Baltic Sea

Sopot Marina. Photo by Richard Varr

Sopot Marina. Photo by Richard Varr

My tour of Gdansk included a visit to the charming and pulsing Baltic Sea resort town of Sopot, reminding me of Northeastern U.S. beach towns. Instead of strolling along Atlantic City’s Boardwalk, for example, I walked Sopot’s wooden pier – the longest in Europe at 511 meters – shooting out from Sopot’s central beaches and stretching out to a marina at its end.

On the Pier. Photo by Richard Varr

On the Pier. Photo by Richard Varr

Crooked House. Photo by Richard Varr

Crooked House. Photo by Richard Varr

Near the palace-like Grand Hotel, the main avenue for strolling is the pedestrian Bohaterów Monte Cassino Street, the perfect place to have an ice cream or stop and sip cool drinks. An unusual sight along Monte Cassino is the so-called Crooked House, reminding me of the wavy architecture of Antoni Gaudi’s Casa Battló or Casa Milà in Barcelona.

Hippodrome, Sopot. Photo by Richard Varr

Hippodrome, Sopot. Photo by Richard Varr

I also toured the wide-open spaces of the Sopot Hippodrome, where they have horse-jumping competitions and racing. “We organize not only horse events, but also dog exhibitions and others events including masses and concerts,” says city spokeswoman Magdalena Jachim. “There’s even a spa for horses in the new stables.” Sopot also has theater, performing arts and concerts, a museum and art galleries, and of course, a grand spa.

Olympian Premyslaw Miarczyzski. Courtesy Arek Fedusio, Sopot Sailing Club.

Olympian Premyslaw Miarczynski. Courtesy Arek Fedusio, Sopot Sailing Club.

Sopot Sailing Club: Where Olympians Train

Sopot Sailing Club. Photo by Richard Varr

Sopot Sailing Club. Photo by Richard Varr

The Sopot Sailing Club is Poland’s largest windsurfing center, used by Polish Olympians in the sport as well as tourists wanting to rent equipment and surf the Baltic’s often chilly waters. “We have different levels of teaching from small kids to adults,” says Club Commander Piotr Hlavaty. “Our main goal is to send windsurfers to the Olympic Games,” he adds, noting that Olympian windsurfers have won two bronze medals.

Photo courtesy Sopot Sailing Club.

Photo courtesy Sopot Sailing Club.

During my visit, I was lucky enough to meet one of them, four-time Olympian Przemyslaw Miarczynski, as he was suiting up for a sail. “You feel free – that’s the point,” says Miarczynski who won the bronze medal in the 2012 London Olympics. “Sometimes, if you’re not training, you go out on the water just to be with nature. It’s a very individual sport. I started when I was eight years old, and now I’m 36, so I’ve been doing this for almost 30 years.”

Courtesy Sopot Sailing Club

Courtesy Sopot Sailing Club

“One word – freedom,” is also how Commander Hlavaty describes the thrill of windsurfing. “You lose your time. You are free on the sea. You do what you want, sail where you want.”

Amber: ‘Gold’ of the Poland’s Baltic Region

Jurassic Park? Raw Amber stone with insect in the Amber Museum, Gdansk. Photo by Richard Varr

Jurassic Park? Raw amber stone with insect in the Amber Museum, Gdansk. Photo by Richard Varr

Pendant at S&A Jewellery Design, Gdynia. Photo by Richard Varr

Pendant at S&A Jewellery Design, Gdynia. Photo by Richard Varr

The golden and contrasting darker-streaked hues within amber jewelry surely caught my eye when visiting Poland’s Gdansk region. I never quite fully realized the beauty of highly polished amber stones with their naturally formed impurities that give the stones such unique design and grandeur, thus making them so precious and expensive. “Amber is the region’s gold,” says Gdansk tour guide Jacek Skibiňski. “It’s only here that the world’s best amber is found.”

Millennium Gallery, Gdansk. Photo by Richard Varr

Millennium Gallery, Gdansk. Photo by Richard Varr

A look around some of the jewelry stores reveals just that, with amber necklaces running into the thousands of dollars. At the Millennium Gallery, just steps from the historic Green Gate along Gdansk’s pedestrian riverfront, jeweler Dominika Bielicka-Sobieska conducts a demonstration (YouTube link below) on how to test for the authenticity of amber.

“Amber floats in a solution of 20 percent salt water,” she explains. “It also burns with an aromatic odor. This is the way we can distinguish real amber from fake, because amber is so precious that you can find plenty of imitations.”

Amber jewelry at S&A Jewellery Design, Gdynia. Photo by Richard Varr

Amber jewelry at S&A Jewellery Design, Gdynia. Photo by Richard Varr

Polished amber stones in the Amber Museum, Gdansk. Photo by Richard Varr

Polished amber stones in the Amber Museum, Gdansk. Photo by Richard Varr

Most of the amber found along the northern coast of Poland is about 40-45 million years old, formed from tree resin released during catastrophic events. Some of the amber stones come from deep within the Baltic Sea, usually washed up after a storm, while much is still buried underground. Naturally forming, amber has many impurities in it like sand and insects (yes, as seen in the movie Jurassic Park).

Raw Amber stone in the Amber Museum, Gdansk. Photo by Richard Varr

Raw Amber stone in the Amber Museum, Gdansk. Photo by Richard Varr

18th century amber cabinet at Malbork Castle. Photo by Richard Varr

18th century amber cabinet at Malbork Castle. Photo by Richard Varr

Prison Tower, Gdansk. Photo by Richard Varr

Prison Tower, Gdansk. Photo by Richard Varr

“When you go to the beach after a storm, amber may look like a piece of wood,” notes Bielicka-Sobieska. “But when you pick it up, it’s very light.” White amber is around 50 million years old, she says, while green amber came later often filled with air bubbles, grass and plants. Insects including flies and mosquitoes are clearly seen in some pieces. There are more than 200 shades, while the 40-45 million-year-old cognac-colored amber is the most popular.

Gdansk from atop the Prison Tower. Photo by Richard Varr

Gdansk from atop the Prison Tower. Photo by Richard Varr

Amber-plated guitar in the Amber Museum, Gdansk. Photo by Richard Varr

Amber-plated guitar in the Amber Museum, Gdansk. Photo by Richard Varr

Beer stein in the Amber Museum, Gdansk. Photo by Richard Varr

Beer stein in the Amber Museum, Gdansk. Photo by Richard Varr

Housed in the medieval Prison Tower dating back to the 14th century, Gdansk’s Amber Museum showcases amber goblets, candelabra, beer steins, model ships and even an amber-plated Stratocaster guitar. I also found another incredible amber display at Malbork, the 13th century castle of the Teutonic Knights, an hour or less south of Gdansk. “In medieval times, they made jewelry, beads for rosaries and covers of books from amber,” explains Malbork Castle guide Jagoda Dyl. “And there are stories of people believing amber cured headaches, earaches and stomachaches, and they would rub amber liquid into their joints.”

Pendant at S&A Jewellery Design, Gdynia. Photo by Richard Varr

Pendant at S&A Jewellery Design, Gdynia. Photo by Richard Varr

I also toured the amber factory at S&A Jewelry Design in the nearby port city of Gdynia, where workers sand and polish raw resins into glimmering smooth stones – some of the biggest jewels I’ve seen – often found in pendants running up to $50,000 USD or more. Amber thrills women shoppers, while men carry small pieces – often raw nuggets – for luck, according to company’s President of the Board Adam Pstragowski. “The ladies love amber – they’re beautiful light stones that bring positive energy,” he says. “My little stone has traveled with me around the world for 25 years.”

Amber jewelry at S&A Jewellery Design, Gdynia. Photo by Richard Varr

Amber jewelry at S&A Jewellery Design, Gdynia. Photo by Richard Varr

VIDEO

Dominika Bielicka-Sobieska of Millennium Gallery conducts a demonstration on how to test for the authenticity of amber.