Warsaw is a great city that I always enjoy visiting. Due to the almost complete destruction of Warsaw by the Nazi Wehrmacht, not much of old Warsaw remains. However, It has a lot to offer and visitors are often surprised at how much they like spending time here.
For some, standing on top of the Palace of Science and Culture is the best view of Warsaw. The rebuilding of the city since 1945, both during the communist regime and later after the fall communism, has left the city with a wide range of architectural styles. But also hidden under all this rebuilding is some amazing history.
In the Warsaw Uprising Museum, you can explore the rising against the German occupation in 1944, while in the Polin Museum, Jewish history is followed from their first arrival in Poland to the Nazi final solution. For lovers of music, the Chopin Museum is an attraction although Chopin’s music is best enjoyed at one of the many concert venues in town.
If it’s your first time in Warsaw, take a wander around Old Town, perhaps visiting the Royal palace or go for a walk to Chopins Monument in Łazineki Park. Perhaps visit one of the museums and finish it all off some great Pierogis and a cool beer.
History of Warsaw’s Old Town.
Although there is some evidence of early human activity in the area around Warsaw, the first fortified settlement took place in the area between the 9th and 12th centuries. In the 13th century, as these early settlements came under attack by nearby clans, a new fortified settlement was needed.
In 1300, Boleslaw II of Masovia, established a new settlement focused around the small fishing village of Warszowa. He set about fortifying the town and records show the existence of a castellany buy 1313. By the time St John’s Cathedral was completed in 1390, Warsaw had become one of the seats of the Dukes of Masovia.
Warsaw slowly developed into a prosperous city of craftsmen. By 1413, Warsaw had become the capital of the Masovian Dynasty and had a population of 4,500 people. During the 15th Century, as the city grew, space became scarce and citizens felt that old town was full. To deal with the growing numbers and new arrivals, a New Town with its own town charter and council was established.
The old town flourished in the following centuries, but by 1910, it had become a slum neighborhood, while some parts of the old town had become a red-light district. The poverty of the area vividly described in ‘the Strong and the Weak’ by the Yiddish author Alter Kacyzne. He described the abject poverty of the mixed Jewish and Christian poor, living in the small tenements created in former wealthy palaces.
When in 1918, the royal castle became the seat of the Polish President, efforts began to refurbish the area. However, these works were interrupted by the invasion of Poland in 1939. As German forces advanced on Warsaw, in one of the first terror bombing campaigns of the war, the German Luftwaffe targeted residential Warsaw as well as Old Town and the Royal Palace.
In the summer of 1944, the people of Warsaw rose in resistance to the occupying Nazi forces. Initially successful in wresting control of the city from the Germans, the revolt was ruthlessly put down by the German military. It is estimated that 16,000 resistance fighters and 200,000 civilians, perished in the fighting. In the aftermath, German forces were ordered to destroy the remaining old town.
When the war was over, the city started the meticulous work of rebuilding the old town. Using prewar paintings, photos and architectural drawings, as well as any materials that could be saved, the city tried to rebuild the old town as exactly as possible. In 1980, Warsaw’s old town was seen as “an outstanding example of a near-total reconstruction of a span of history covering the 13th to the 20th century” and was placed on the UNESCO list of world heritage sites.
When coming from the center of modern Warsaw this is the first square you will encounter. Bordered on two sides by the Royal Castle and the buildings of the old town, this square lies at the heart of Warsaw history. Formerly the location of Krakow gate, it has borne witness to the development of Warsaw from its earliest days.
Twenty-two meters above the square, Sigismund’s Colum stands tall. This well-known landmark of Warsaw was erected in 1664 and depicts King Sigismund III Vasa who is responsible for moving Poland’s capital from Krakow to Warsaw.
St Johns Cathedral
Originally built in the 14th century, this church became the Coronation Church and burial place of the Masovian Dukes. Over the years, the church has seen many changes. Famously, an 80-meter corridor linking it to the royal palace was built in 1620 by Queen Anne Jagiellonka, after an attempt was made outside the church to assassinate King Sigismund III.
In 1944, The Cathedral bore witness to bitter fighting between insurgents of the Warsaw Uprising and the German forces. It was this church that famously saw an explosive laden tank driven into the building and detonated. Although severely damaged by the explosion, after the uprising was put down, the occupying forces drilled holes in the walls and all but destroyed the few walls that remained.
The church we see today is a reconstruction. The architects and town planners have tried to recreate the church as it would have been in the 14th century, using illustrations from the 17th century as a basis.
Old Town Market Place
From the 13th to the 18th century, this square was the beating heart of Warsaw and the old town. Here merchants and traders met and sold each other goods. over time, the influence of the merchants and Guilds grew. A town hall was built in 1429, the square developed into an administrative center and became the setting for fairs and public events.
Damaged in early bombing during the Nazi invasion of 1939, the town square was practically leveled during the Warsaw Uprising and its aftermath. Reconstructed between 1948 and 1953, the sights we see today are based on the look of the square in the 17th century. In the center of the Square since 1855, is the statue of the Warsaw Mermaid by Konstanty Hegel.
The Royal Castle
From 1600s until the final partition of Poland in 1795, the Royal Castle of Warsaw was the home of the royal family of Poland. Originally a fortified set of buildings of the Masovian Dukes, in the 1600s it replaced Wawel Castle in Kraków as the royal seat. At the same time it became the seat of the Parliament and Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
Throughout its history, it has witnessed the growth of Warsaw and seen many of Poland’s Historic events. It was here that Europe’s first constitution was drafted, while during the partition of Poland it was home to the Imperial Russian administration. During the First World War, the German administration took over the castle. When Poland regained her independence in 1918, the castle became the official home of the President of Poland.
A History of Destruction
The castle was destroyed twice in its history, the first time was during the Swedish invasion of Poland 1655, known as the Deluge. In the following years, troops of the marauding Swedish army, sacked and looted the castle. During this period, the castle was converted to be a temporary field hospital. Countless works of art were destroyed or removed. These included pictures, tapestries furniture and even whole floors.
The castle was again heavily damaged during the early days of the Second World War. Almost immediately after occupying the city, the Nazi regime set about demolishing the remaining castle. Adolf Hitler gave orders to blow up the palace in October 1939, however, it took time to prepare the palace for its destruction.
In the following months, units of the army, assisted by art historians, removed a large number of artworks, marble, and sculptures to be moved into the Third Reich. Only after this, did soldiers prepare the walls by drilling hundreds of holes for charges. The final destruction of the castle took place in 1944, after the Warsaw Uprising. The destruction was complete, a six-hundred-year history was a pile of rubble.
Almost immediately after World War II was over, efforts were made to start the reconstruction. In 1949, the Polish Parliament initiated the reconstruction of the castle. But it would take until 1971 for work to start, financed through voluntary contributions from inside Poland and abroad. Finished in 1984, the castle has been filled with over 800 works of art donated by Poles from around the world.
The Royal Route
A few years ago a client of mine asked me why he had found several different versions of the Royal Route when he was researching his visit of Warsaw. In fact, there do seem to be several different versions ranging in length and complexity from 1.5 kilometers to 13 kilometers in length.
For me the Royal Route consist of the 1.5 kilometers from the Old Town to the Royal Łazineki Park. Follow Karkowskie Przedmieśki passing the Warsaw University, Church of St Anne, and the Copernicus Monument to Nowy Świat street. Nowy Świat is full of great cafes and bars where you could grab a lunch or dinner. From there follow Aleje Ujazdowskie street, passing St Alexanders church and the Three Cross monument to the Royal Łazineki Park, home of the Łazineki Palace and Warsaw’s famous Chopin monument.
The history of pierogi is hidden in time. This simple dish of unleavened dough wrapped around a sweet or savory filling is likely to have come from central eastern Europe. As a result, many countries of this region claim to be the original home of the Pierogi.
In parts of Poland, they tell a tale of Hyacinth, a Dominican priest who visited Kościelec, in 1238. His visit coincided with a storm that destroyed the local crop. He told the people to pray and the next day the crops rose back up. From those crops the townsfolk made the first pierogi for Saint Hyacinth.
Over time, they have become a huge part of Polish culture. It is to me unimaginable to not see pierogis at every family event and community festival. In fact, there special pierogi recipes that I have only tasted at weddings and wakes.
Typically, pierogis are filled with potatoes and cream cheese while others are filled with mushrooms or meat. You can have them boiled or fried and with a selection of toppings, although for me, a little bit of melted butter is enough. Whatever the origin, and whatever the filling, they taste really good!
Thanks, Pieter, for the history lesson. Haven’t been to Poland, but it looks very interesting. Appreciate all the reconstruction of historical sites. Can’t wait to travel again. My passport needs some exercise!