Last year, for three cold, wintry days, I found myself stalking a man. I couldn’t help it; his presence was everywhere – on benches, in the park, museums and in the churches.
It is expected when you are a genius. A beautiful city, Poland’s capital is not as compelling or historically relevant as Krakow. But, it has Fryderyk Chopin.
The city’s most famous son wasn’t born here but his genius was discovered and nurtured in the Warsaw’s salons, churches and concert halls. It was here that he learned to play the piano, and gave his first concert when just eight. He spent the first half of his life in the city and his heart lies here, quite literally.
Today, it is possible to walk in the footsteps of the composer. Armed with a guide book and an app, I set out to discover the genius in the city that was once his home.
I stumbled onto one of Chopin’s resting places by accident. Walking along the beautiful Krakowskie Przedmieście, I take a pit stop at the Holy Cross Church. In the early 19th century, this baroque church was the largest Catholic place of worship in Warsaw.
It was packed with tourists, who weren’t there to pray but to pay homage. They were busy admiring the church’s plain white pillars, one of which had Chopin’s heart interred within it. The pillar is simple, with a carved bust of the composer and two cherubs. The church was significant to the Chopin family – Fryderyk’s sisters, Izabella and Emilia, were baptised in it. Although the composer’s remains are in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, his heart lies in Warsaw.
A little down the road is another church of importance. The 17th century Visitationist Church was built for French nuns and has survived World War II with majority of its original furnishings, including a rococo boat-shaped pulpit. It was here that Chopin played the organ – which is still intact – as a pupil of the Warsaw Lyceum. A plaque outside confirms this fact. My guidebook tells me that it was while playing in this church that he met his first love, Konstancja, who sang at mass. Needless to say, he made sure Sunday mass was quite the experience.
As I leave the church, Chopin’s Largo in E Flat Major fills the evening air, mellowing out the sounds of traffic and chatter. The source for this is a smooth cast iron black stone bench. These benches – 15 in all – are spread through the city and act as musical signposts to signify important sites in his life. There are 15 of them are spread across the city. Designed by Professor Jerzy Porębski, these benches come with a button, which plays music for 30 seconds; a route map and an explanation (in English and Polish) about the site’s relevance.
The coolest part though is that the benches have photo codes, which gave me access to an instant audio and visual Chopin guide, and other melodies.
If Chopin grew up performing at the Holy Cross Church, he probably played games and took walks in the Saxon Garden; the family lived near the park. The city’s oldest public garden, it gets its name from the Saxon figures that lead up to Warsaw’s first city fountain, and a marble sundial.
In those days, the Saxon Palace complex housed the school Warsaw Lyceum. Fryderyk’s father was a French language teacher, and the family lived in the staff quarters. It was here that Chopin composed his first pieces, with the aid of his father and teacher. The Saxon Palace was completely destroyed during WW II, only the triple arch remained. Today, the remains of the palace hold the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, dedicated to the unknown soldiers who have given their lives for Poland.
Fryderyk Chopin Museum
The Chopin museum is a four-floor structure in the Ostrogski Palace. The museum opened in 2010 and houses the largest collection of Chopin memorabilia in the world.
Here, I get a comprehensive and interactive look into the musical genius’ life, from birth to death. The museum is multimedia – there are e-books, audio-visuals, and touchscreen options. There are games too – on one floor is a musical version of Twister, which has me jumping from one spot to another creating my own compositions. Microphones hanging from the ceiling recorded exclamations, sounds of laughter or music depending on the exhibit. Another section allows me to open drawers, which display a sheet of music while speakers play its musical notes. I spent the most time learning about the women in his life – there were many – through photos, letters, sketches and notes.
The museum is based on the family’s collection of mementos – letters, autograph music manuscripts, books. Some of the weirder exhibits include his school exercise books, a lock of dark brown hair, a gold watch he received from an admiring singer, a gold barrel-shaped pendant with his monogram, and dried flowers from his deathbed. There is also a detailed recreation of his Paris drawing room, with the Pleyel grand paino, which he played in the final two years of his life.
Łazienki Royal Park
The Łazienki Royal Park is a stunning palace and garden complex, built in the 17th century as the summer residence of the last king of Poland. A vast expanse of trees and shaded paths reveal places of interest: a baroque bathing pavilion (which gives the park its name), the Palace on the Isle, a little White House, a water tower and an old guardhouse, among others.
The park is home to Warsaw’s most iconic and visited structures, sculptor Wacław Szymanowski’s monument of Chopin. It shows him sitting beneath a stylised willow tree, with a Polish eagle’s head at the corner. The sculpture was erected in 1926 before being one of the first structures demolished by the Nazis. After the war, it was rebuilt thanks to an original mould, and placed on a red sandstone pedestal and basin.
Every year, concerts are held at the foot of the monument. When I visit, it is filled with tourists sunning themselves on the manicured lawns. It is easy to imagine pianists filling the park with sweet melodies in front of a captive audience, while Chopin watches benevolently from above.
Log on to www.chopin.warsawtour.pl
[A version of this story appeared in the Indian Express: My heart beats for Warsaw, on January 7, 2018.]