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What makes Warsaw different from the rest of the Polish cities is the confluence of various events that have left their mark in the architecture, monuments, culture and language of this historically rich city. From the Polish monarchs to the rise of Hitler and the subsequent fall of the Soviet union, Warsaw has been through it all – making it an ideal location to go back in time and witness the tumultuous past that has scarred the nation for many many years. In one of my travels across Europe, I found myself in Warsaw, walking past the Saxon gardens, cobbled streets, pastel buildings and open-air cafes. It was March and Warsaw was enshrouded in the cold, dark and barren winter months. I knew this was going to be a different kind of experience and as it turns out, I was right.
Walking my way towards the old town square, I crossed the presidential palace and stopped for lunch at a Polish dumpling joint. The faint notes of Chopin’s Fantasie impromptu could be heard all around the place and the entire town square was drowned in the prowess of his melancholic and passionate composition. Born and raised in Poland, Frédéric Chopin is heard in every nook and corner of the city and is still hailed as one of the most influential composers of the Romantic era.
The Royal castle in Warsaw is one of the primary attractions of the city and lies in the premises of the old town. It served as a royal residence to the Polish kings from the 16th to the 18th century and is an open museum that was rebuilt from scratch at the end of the second world war. It houses a large number of invaluable artefacts that were hidden from the Germans during the invasion of Poland. At the centre of the town square, lies the Sigismund’s Column that marks the change of the Polish capital from Krakow to Warsaw. Much of the city was destroyed during the war and this charming old town bears witness to the Warsaw that is now bygones.
Closer to the old town square lies the old town square market that is similar in colour, structure and gaiety to the other countries of central Europe. On a day with warmer temperatures, the market square is the centre of Warsaw’s activities and hosts a large number of restaurants, street arts and exhibitions throughout the year. In December, the square becomes a bustling little place for tourists and the famous Christmas market attracts visitors from all over the city. During my time there, I was not so lucky and was greeted with wind-driven rains and deserted streets; the unceasing winds and scattered showers lowered the temperatures and kept people indoors.
Even in the midst of icy winds and bitter rains, someone was playing the Raindrop Prelude, Op 28 in the old town market square. I have heard the composition many times in the past but never have I heard it in the birthplace of Chopin on a freezing, wet and rainy morning. His music can bring out the best in almost any situation and those 20 minutes of rain, accompanied by the sweet melody of the prelude lit up an otherwise empty, cold and sombre town square.
In Warsaw, the atrocities of the war can be seen and felt at large. Europe was at war and Germany, Italy, France, Britain and Soviet Russia made pawns out of the smaller nations of Central Europe. The Polish fought bravely against the German invasion of Poland in 1939, but was ultimately defeated which led to its capture and occupation by the more powerful German forces. Through war memorials, edicts, tombstones and the POLIN Jewish museum, Warsaw tells tales of the death, destruction and devastation inflicted on the lives of numerous Polish citizens during the war.
Close to the National Archaeological Museum lies a monument dedicated to the Battle of Monte Cassino erected in Carrara marble. A unique structure, this 12-metre column represents a headless Nike and honours the Polish soldiers who had fought with the Allied forces against the Germans. The five emblems at the bottom of the monument represents the five Polish units that took part in the battle. A Polish eagle, a figure of Mother Mary and an urn containing ashes of the fallen heroes also adorn this disfigured structure.
The POLIN Jewish museum is constructed on the site of the former Warsaw ghetto and contains the possessions of the Polish Jews that were stolen from numerous families but were never returned to their rightful owners. If we are to believe the frightening reports, the holocaust resulted in the death of three million Polish Jews and exterminated 90 % of Poland’s Jewish population.
Walking through the Łazienki Park on a bleak and frosty winter morning, the bare and eroded trees took many shapes and the impending gloom gave rise to visions of the series of unfortunate events that befell the country, its land and its people. A city that has seen the rise and fall of various empires, Warsaw warns us of the repercussions of an ever increasing need for power, greed and ambition – lest we forget and repeat the horrifying occurrences of a brutal and unforgettable past.