“WHEN in Rome, do as the Romans do,” goes the adage on following the customs of the land you’re in.
Well, they didn’t count on this Filipina touching down in Warsaw and doing whatever she wanted to do in Poland’s capital.
So on a spectacularly sunny day in June, when hatless visitors braved the sun’s piercing rays to see the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Pilsudski Square, I stood my ground as the only person in Warsaw to use an umbrella on a rainless day.
My sisters tried to increase their distance from me as we explored Warsaw’s largest square and the Saxon Garden behind it, where I was sorely tempted to use my umbrella to whack a pair of young lovers who could not take enough selfies in front of the garden. Wilting in the heat, I prayed that their ardor for each other would burn them up so they would disappear and I could finally have my turn to take photos.
Actually, we just chanced upon the garden and the monument to the unnamed soldiers who died for Poland, as we took a shortcut through the square to get to the Old Town (Stare Miasto) that our guide had taken us to earlier.
Our guide, Margaret, was a gifted storyteller. She recounted how the Nazis destroyed 85 percent of Warsaw, including the Old Town and the Royal Castle at the entrance to the Old Town, in 1944 in reprisal for Polish resistance to the German occupation during World War 2.
She was a teacher, it turned out, which is probably why she treated us like students, that is, like a captive audience who could not enter the castle or the shade if she had not yet finished giving us our history lesson.
“(Nazi dictator Adolf) Hitler had his men put dynamite in thousands of holes in every building,” Margaret said, gesturing at buildings here and there.
As the sun blazed overhead, she continued with her recollections of playing on the ruins as a child, saying it took 30 years to rebuild Castle Square, the historic square in front of the Royal Castle that we were now receiving her lecture on.
Luckily, she did not go on to tell us who she dated as a young adult or the first jobs she took, or we would all have been seared to the bone by the time we got to how she became our present-day tour guide.
Mermaid and Marie
Roasting aside, Margaret was wonderful. In the Old Town, she took us to see a mermaid.
The mermaid is the symbol of Warsaw, and the one at the Old Town Market Square was cast in zinc. Unlike the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen fashioned like a damsel in distress, this one, with raised sword and shield, looking poised to strike, was the city’s protector.
Margaret also took us to the 14th-century Cathedral of St. John containing the tombs of musicians, statesmen, presidents and the last king of Poland, none of whom we recognized.
It was only when we crossed to the New Town district that we finally heard the name of a Pole we recognized—Marie Curie, the two-time Nobel laureate who discovered polonium and radium. Her house on Freta Street is now a museum dedicated to her life and work.
The New Town is actually not much older than the Old Town, which is the oldest part of Warsaw. It is just so called for being the first part of the city to be built outside the old city wall, where a nearby barbican today stands as an attraction in its own right.
The Barbican is a remnant of the fortifications encircling Warsaw in the 16th century. It was also the site where we lost a member of our tour group, an elderly man who lost track of the time—and the way—taking photos. To everyone’s relief, he reappeared after a few frantic minutes.
At the Royal Castle, the former residence of Polish rulers that is now also a museum, we surveyed some of its 2,000 paintings and 100 clocks, and various halls and chambers, including the king’s bedchamber that featured a very short bed as, in those days, “people slept half-sitting because they believed that you lay flat only when dead,” Margaret said.
The castle was the residence of Polish kings from the 16th to the 18th centuries and later, Polish presidents, including Lech Walesa. It was the site of the Nato Summit last July and the G7 summit in 2014 (renamed from G8 after Russia was suspended for annexing Crimea).
An interesting tidbit from our “history teacher”: Poland was the only country in Europe where kings were elected. They were elected by nobles and high officials.
Glory and tragedy
The glory of Warsaw shows not only in its rebuilt Royal Castle but also in the Royal Way, a series of streets going south from Castle Square.
Created after the capital was moved from Krakow to Warsaw in 1596, the Royal Way is the city’s most elegant avenue, containing embassies, government buildings and historical landmarks including the Presidential Palace, the official seat of Poland’s president since 1994; and the Church of the Holy Cross, where (not for the squeamish) the heart of the Polish composer and pianist Frederic Chopin is entombed in a pillar. He had lived in a house close by.
Warsaw’s glories are as great as its torments, however, so less than a kilometer from Castle Square stands the Memorial to the Warsaw Uprising remembering the 200,000 Warsaw residents who died during the two-month uprising in 1944 against the Nazi occupation.
Another reminder of Warsaw’s tragic past is the Ghetto Heroes Monument that commemorates the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising resisting the deportation of Jews to death camps. The monument stands on the former site of the ghetto built in 1940 to confine some 450,000 Jews in Warsaw, 150,000 of whom died on site while 300,000 were taken to Nazi extermination camps.
I am a great lover of music, so when our tour director Viktor told us that our Warsaw tour had a Chopin concert thrown in, this thrifty tourist welcomed the news like manna from heaven.
The Polish Concert Agency presented a woman who had won several competitions and recorded 30 Chopin CDs. Her fingers flew effortlessly across the keys, but I still hailed the arrival of the intermission because it meant we were already halfway through her performance.
I never said I loved classical music. What I love is being EDUCATED on classical music FOR FREE. No offense to the great composer, but my heart beats more to the tunes of J-Lo and Christina Aguilera.
Well, for those who don’t want a free education for a whole hour, there are 15 specially made benches all over Warsaw that, at the tap of a button, will play 30-second fragments of Chopin’s music. Each of the elegant black polished granite benches plays a different tune. Now that’s what I call classic.
Like Chopin’s music, Warsaw reminds us that the strains of the past—haunting, agitating, soaring—resist forgetting.