This summer seemed to go by so quickly. Being stuck at home for months, the days blurred together. Big vacation plans were out the window this year. Our trip last summer was the polar opposite, so I began to reminisce and go through photos from our trip. We traveled to Warsaw, Poland to visit my husband’s parents. While we mainly stayed put with my in-laws in Warsaw, we were able to take a short trip to visit Cracow (Kraków), Oświęcim (location of the Memorial and Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau WWII Nazi concentration camp), Wieliczka (salt mines), and Częstochowa (home of the Jasna Góra monastery), which are a couple of hours south of Warsaw.
The photo above is a photo of the Castle Square in Old Town Warsaw. The buildings in Old Town are reconstructions; 90 percent of the buildings in Warsaw were destroyed in World War II. On the other side of the square is the reconstructed Royal Castle, pictured below.
In the center of the Castle Square (Plac Zamkowy) is King Sigismund’s Column (Kolumna Zygmunta) which stands 72 feet high. It was erected by King Sigismund III Vasa’s son, King Władysław IV Vasa in 1644. King Zygmunt moved Poland’s capital from Cracow to Warsaw in 1595. The granite column you see in the photo today is not the original but instead the third one built to support the bronze statue of King Zygmunt.
We ended up going inside the Royal Castle for a tour. The entrance is not from the street but instead from the courtyard in the middle of the Castle itself.
Here is a look at a couple of rooms inside the Castle:
Below is one of the many throne rooms we came across.
Of course, there were plenty of clocks.
There were several tapestries to admire.
Below is a photo of a huge historical painting from 1872 by Jan Matejko called, “Stefan Batory Pod Pskowen.” It depicts peace negotiations between Stefan Batory and the Russian Czar, Ivan IV Vasilyevich (i.e., Ivan the Terrible). Stefan Batory was born in 1533 of the noble Hungarian Báthory family. He was elected King of Poland in 1575 (reigning until his death in 1586), and was also Grand Duke of Lithuania and Prince of Transylvania at the same time. The scene takes place at the end of the 1578-1582 Livonian Campaign. The Tsar is kneeling before the Polish King and presenting him with salt and bread. In the background, you can see the famous Hussars (winged horsemen). The campaign ended with the Truce of Jam Zapolski, which was signed in 1582 in favor of Poland.
If you get a chance to visit the Royal Castle, be sure to go to the floor below the main floor. The rooms are dark and the walls are adorned with many wonderful paintings to appreciate, including a couple of beautiful paintings by Rembrandt. The photo below is one such painting (or at least 3/4 of it).
There are several monuments worth seeing in Warsaw in addition to that of King Zygmunt. Another is a huge one of the Renaissance mathematician and astronomer, Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), and also the monument in the photo below of the poet, Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855).
Along the main street from the Column of Zygmunt (Krakowskie Przedmieście, Royal Avenue), you’ll come across many places of interest, such as Warsaw University and the Warsaw museum (below).
There are also plenty of restaurants and cafes with pleasant outdoor seating, ice cream stands, and doughnut shops (my favorite). One feature of the city that struck me is that many public spaces are adorned with flowers. We found that this is true of many Polish cities and towns.
One stop on Royal Avenue that we absolutely had to make was to Holy Cross Church (Bazylika Świętego Krzyża), where the heart of child prodigy, Romantic composer, poet of the piano, and musical genius, Frederic Chopin, is interred (see photo below). Chopin’s body is buried in Paris, France, where he died. While Chopin’s wish was for his body to be buried with his family in Powązki cemetery in Warsaw, only his heart made it to Warsaw. The story of why Chopin’s heart is in Poland (smuggled into Poland by his sister Ludwika in 1850) and how it survived Tsarist Poland and WWII is intriguing and worth a read in this February 2020 article, ““Home is where the heart lies: the amazing story of Chopin’s heart.” [A couple of tidbits from the article are: the heart was removed from Chopin’s body because Chopin feared being buried alive, and his sister smuggled his heart back to Poland under her skirt in a jar of cognac! ]
The Holy Cross Church is a beautiful church in the Baroque style. Aside from paintings of saints, a particular feature that struck us were plaques with epitaphs commemorating historical figures and events reflecting Poland’s struggles for freedom–such as during WWII. You can view the plaques at this link to the church’s website: Holy Cross Church. The plaques had special significance for us because at the time we visited Poland last year, it was the anniversary of the beginning of WWII. Radio and television programs described the terror that fell upon Poland on September 1, 1939, when Nazi Germany invaded from the West and later, on September 17th, the Soviet Union invaded from the East. We heard chilling descriptions of specific invasions, such an invasion of Nazis into a village where residents were forcibly taken out of their homes in the middle of the night and shot to death in the street. If you stroll down a street in Old Town Warsaw, you are likely to come across a plaque affixed to a building wall commemorating WWII. There are around 160 such plaques left in Warsaw, down from 200. These are known as Tchorek Plaques and they contain epitaphs commemorating executions or battles that occurred during WWII. The plaques are named after sculptor, Karol Tchorek, who was the winner of a nationwide contest in 1948 to design the plaques. The general design is a Maltese Cross. The plaques say something like, “This site is blessed by the blood of fallen Poles fighting for the freedom of their homeland . . . . On September 1, 1944, ‘Hitlerowscy’ murdered approximately 430 people.” Here is a recent article on the Warsaw Uprising that is worth a read: Warsaw Uprising: How Wounds WWII Still Affect Poland that mention the plaques and contain incredible photos from the war.
About 29 miles west of Warsaw is Chopin’s childhood home at Żelazowa Wola, which we absolutely had to visit with our children since Chopin is our favorite composer. Chopin was born on March 1, 1810, left Poland in 1830 at age 20 (less than a month before the failed November 1830 Uprising against the Russian Empire) aiming for Italy but ending up in France, and died of complications from chronic tuberculosis in Paris on October 17, 1849. He lived a short life, plagued by illness, but the mark he made on classical music and the piano was epic.
After leaving Poland, sadly never able to return, Chopin performed in only 30 public concerts, preferring the intimate setting of the salon for performances. He supported himself financially by giving piano lessons and the sale of his compositions. Chopin’s last public performance was in London’s Guildhall on November 16, 1848. It is said that he weighed 99 pounds at the time and was very ill.
Our visit at Chopin’s birthplace was wonderful. The grounds at Żelazowa Wola, include a small manor house, museum, concert hall, cafe, and gardens complete with a variety of plant species and water features, including the Utrata River. It’s a beautiful setting and the museum adds flair to the experience by playing Chopin’s music in the background. Summer concerts have been held there since 1954 (May to September).
Inside the house, you can take a peak into a handful of rooms. They are small in size and contain just enough furnishings and decorations to not overwhelm visitors. Wall hangings include portraits of Chopin’s family (father, mother, and three sisters – one older and two younger) and other period pieces, like the Black Madonna of Częstochowa below. However, there are no original pieces from the family, and the layout of the house is not the original.
The main room that we were interested in was the music room, which contains a 19th century piano as well as a modern piano for the Chopin concert series. The piano that Chopin performed on was a Pleyel piano. Pleyel is a French piano company established in 1807 and headquartered in Paris, France. It ran a concert hall, where Chopin performed. It was the go-to piano of 19th Century celebrities such as Chopin, Debussy, and Grieg. The company continues to manufacture pianos to this day. Here is a link to their website: Pleyel Pianos.
We came across a print of a famous depiction of Chopin by Delacroix. The original is oil on canvas, painted in 1838. The original was not just a portrait of Chopin, but instead it was a painting of both Chopin and the writer, Amantine Dupin (pen name, George Sands). Chopin is supposed to be performing at the piano while George Sands is attentively listening. Delacroix did not finish the painting – it was missing the piano. After Delacroix’s death in 1863, the painting was split into two and the portrait of Chopin alone was auctioned off in 1874. It found its way to the Louvre in 1907, which is still the painting’s home.
Outside the manor house are four monuments to Chopin in the gardens. I liked the sculpture of Chopin below in particular; it expresses the genius within.
This marks the end of our trip to Żelazowa Wola and end of Part 1 in this series of articles. Part 2 will include photos from our trip to Cracow, Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi concentration camp), the salt mines in Wieliczka, and the monastery in Częstochowa. Stay tuned!