Warsaw’s Old Town

Old Town Warsaw is a picture perfect re-creation of its former splendor. The large, walkable area is filled cobblestone streets, heritage homes and even a castle. Warsaw’s Historic Centre will keep you busy for a couple of days.

Most of the buildings in Warsaw, including its historic centre, were almost completely flattened during World War II. Near the end of the war Polish resistance forces fought the Nazis in an effort to save their city and country from Nazi control. Unknown to them at the time the Soviet army was waiting on the city’s edge, allowing the Nazis to have their last successful battle before the end of the war. The uprising lasted 65 days and by the end, almost all of its historic core was destroyed.

Most of the historic buildings were rebuilt between the end of the war and the mid 1960s, often using original materials that had been recovered. Today the centre represents the resilience of the Polish people.

Old Town Market Place

The site of Warsaw’s original settlement in the 1300s has seen its share of hardships. Damaged by fire, the original 14th century Gothic buildings were lost hundreds of years ago. After the fire it was rebuilt in the Renaissance architectural style. In the 17th century its look changed again when a new developer rebuilt the square. This time burgher houses, preferred by the city’s elites, were built around the square’s rim. All of those buildings were destroyed in the Second World War so today the small square is wrapped in an artificial version of those 17th century Baroque style buildings. Most of them are now restaurants whose patios extend into the square.

A mermaid statue in the middle of Old Town Market Place seems out of place in landlocked Warsaw until you hear its legend. In the 17th century a wealthy merchant caught a mermaid in the Vistula River and held her captive. Fishermen heard her cries and helped the mermaid escape. Since then she vowed to protect Warsaw and its residents and has became the symbol of Warsaw.

In the blocks surrounding the square, more 17th century-style buildings line the cobblestone streets. Walking through Old Town felt a bit like walking through a movie set. The buildings were all rebuilt to look exactly like they had before the bombing, but they tended to look a little too perfect. It seemed more like a museum than an actual lived-in Old Town, even though it is a functioning part of the city.

Castle Square

The original Royal Castle was built for Polish monarchs in the 16th century and redesigned many times over the centuries. Today, the rebuilt castle serves as a museum and centre piece to the large Castle Square. In front of it the prestigious street, Krakowskie Przedmieście, hosts very picturesque rowhouses painted in pretty, pastels.

Instead of patios, Castle Square was filled with all types of street performers. Some were singers, some were comedians, others were violinists. No matter if they were talented or not, each had a swarm of people enjoying their entertainment. We visited on a Sunday and it seemed as if all of Warsaw had come to visit this living museum.

Beside the castle is St. Anne’s church. From the top of its tower, we looked down upon the buildings of Old Town.

The tower provided a good vantage point to confirm that Old Town was a re-creation. Unlike Kraków, where you could see how the city expanded over the centuries by the slow change in the age of the buildings as you walked away from the walled city. In Warsaw, the change is much more dramatic. From the tower we could see the plain, uniform buildings, typical of the Soviet occupation, in the next block behind Old Town. We noticed the same, sudden change as we walked into the historic area.

In addition to a castle, the Old City was originally surrounded by a large protective wall. A lot of it has been rebuilt today including a large barbican.

As well as historical buildings there are many monuments and statues in downtown Warsaw. Some commemorate saints and famous Polish poets. The majority though, honour freedom fighters who fought for Poland’s independence over the centuries.

We also noticed that there are a lot of parks in Warsaw. It made for lovely walks from our hotel to Old Town and around the downtown. We timed it well because the gardens were full of tulips and many of the trees and shrubs were covered in sweet smelling flowers.

One of those parks is Łazienki Park (Łazienki Królewskie). At its centre is the pretty Palace on the Isle (Pałac na Wyspie). It was originally built in the 1600s to be a Bath House for a wealthy count. Bathhouses seemed to be a trend at the time. A hundred years later the reigning king modified it to be his summer palace.

Today its a beautiful park with walking trails, outdoor concert venues and many monuments. It would have been a lovely day for us were it not for the constant downpour. The swans and colourful mandarin ducks didn’t seem to mind the rain as much as we did.

Palace of Culture and Science

The second tallest building in Poland, Palace of Culture and Science, was a gift from the Soviet Union to Poland in the 1950s. It’s quite ornate for a skyscraper with 550 ornamental sculptures decorating the building’s façade. There are other, similar ornate skyscrapers in Moscow, Riga and Bucharest. It’s said that the Soviets built them to mimic high-rises in Manhattan. It was originally detested by the citizens of Warsaw for what it represented. After the break up of the eastern block there was even a movement to have the building torn down. Today however, it has become a draw for tourists and a part of the country’s history.

Although we did enjoy Warsaw, the historic centre feels very contrived. Our recommendation is to visit Warsaw before Krakow, otherwise you may be disappointed.

Coming Next – A Day in Historic Riga

For pictures from other blogs go to Gallery at monkeystale.ca

To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.

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