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Chopin’s Warsaw

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.

The churches

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.

Chopin played in the choir for masses held at Visitationist Church.

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. 

Musical signposts

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. 

Saxon palace/garden

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.  

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Wacław Szymanowski’s monument of Chopin.

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.]

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Going underground in Brno

The Moravian capital of Brno, Czech Republic’s second largest city, has much to offer those looking for a break from Prague. Their biggest attractions are down under. There is a has a thriving underground network of crypts, museums, and even a hotel, showcasing bones, Cold War mementos, and torture devices.

This is a three-part story. Read part 2: The Labyrinth underneath the Vegetable Market.

Church of St. James Ossuary

It is the second-largest ossuary in Europe, after Paris. Yet, as I tour the crypt beneath the Church of St James, I’m underwhelmed. The entire place is about 100 metres in length, with just a main chamber and two side passages.  

Then, I take a closer look at the walls and the pillars. They’re made up of the remains of 50,000 people – skulls bones, tinted yellow because of lack of exposure to sunlight. They stare at me, hollow-eyed and un-moving.

In the central chamber, I come across the creepiest chapel – it has a life-size cross and pulpit and ‘walls’ made of bones; in the far corner is a small stained glass mural. Nearby are two glass coffins – one has the skeleton of a grown man, and the other, the bones of a 13-year-old child.

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The central chamber has a small chapel and brackets holding candles, which in the evening, throw light and shadows across the skulls.

There are glass cases and thin railings shielding the bones but, they’re well within reach. Around me, many are surreptitiously touching them. The thought of disturbing the tightly packed bones and have them fall on my head is enough to turn me away. At the end of one passage, is a pyramid of just skulls, some of which still have decayed teeth in them, making it seem like they’re grinning at me.

A few modern sculptures, in black, provide visual relief, including a statue of a guardian angel. The other relief is tonal – somber music composed especially for the especially for the ossuary, streams over the speakers.

The tour is self-guided. I refer to a pamphlet and elsewhere, displays in Czech and English. The sheer volume of the bones does most of the talking. The original crypt was built in the 17th century to accommodate the remains from the cemetery of the church of St James. The initial three rooms filled up quickly and had to be expanded to accommodate more bones. These were victims of the biggest serial killers of the time: plague, cholera, the Thirty Years’ War and the Swedish siege of Brno. Once the ossuary was full, it was covered up and lay in oblivion for 200 years. It was discovered in 2001 as part of a land survey. Researchers spent a decade gathering the remains, cleaning them and rearranging them back. The ossuary opened to the public in 2012. 

It’s not just all bones. Along the passages are tombstones, from the original graves. At the entrance is a mini exhibition, showing old photos of the church and cemetery.

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My tour has taken me just 20 minutes but, I’m glad to leave. As I walk out, I silently say the Latin prayer inscribed on the marble wall outside: Eternal rest grant unto them….

The ossuary is located at Jakubské náměstí; it is closed on Monday; 9.30 am to 6 pm (Tuesday to Sunday). Cost 70 Kč to 140 Kč. 

These wonderful photos are courtesy Michal Růžička, TIC Brno

Still life in Prague

It isn’t often that I see naked men on the street. These two stand proud in the courtyard of the museum dedicated to Franz Kafka. The tourists milling about aren’t interested in learning about the life of the tortured genius. Their voyeurism is basic. They watch in delight as the men move their bronze penises to spell out quotes from famous city residents. On moving closer, I realise the men are urinating into a puddle shaped like the map of the Czech Republic.

‘The Piss’ is one of the more whimsical works of contemporary and controversial artist, David Černý. When it was created in 2004, many said he was showing his displeasure at his country joining the European Union. Others said it was a reference to the many invaders in Czech history. I soon learn that the artist, like his mechanical figures, enjoys pissing people off.

Černý’s art is a social commentary and the city of his birth, Prague, is his playground.

The Czech capital is rich in historic imagery, from the Baroque statues that line Charles Bridge to the horse-riding monument at Wenceslas Square. The public art at Prague’s squares, parks and streets is alternative and experimental, amusing and irreverent, playful and provocative.

A troubled past

On a narrow alleyway near the Old Town Square, a glance upward reveals the figure of a man about to commit suicide. This is the ‘Man Hanging Out’, or what the locals call ‘Hanging Man’. Another Černý special, it has a bearded Sigmund Freud hanging by his right hand, at the end of a beam. This sculpture hints at the hopelessness of the psychoanalyst’s life and his phobia of dying. The other meaning is more symbolic. Černy called Freud “the intellectual face of the 20th century” and perhaps, this is the artist’s way of pondering the role of intellectuals in this century.

Hanging man

The Hanging Man is such a lifelike figure that when it was first put up, local police got a lot of calls about a man committing suicide.

I leave Freud hanging and head out in search of another troubled genius. Self-doubt and depression had plagued Kafka all his life. Černý represents this through an 11-m, 45-tonne stainless-steel kinetic bust of the writer. The ‘Head of Franz Kafka’ rests near the office where he was a clerk. The head consists of 42 motorised layers that move independently, metamorphosing into the writer’s face only for a split second.

Another strange tribute to Kafka lies in the old Jewish Quarter, in the neighbourhood where he lived, worked and wrote. In it, sculptor Jaroslav Róna has a mini version of the writer riding on the shoulders of an empty suit, a reference to a passage in Kafka’s short story, Description of a Struggle. It’s a surreal tribute, slightly ruined by tourists touching the statue’s feet and sitting on each other’s shoulders, mimicking the pose. I wonder if it would depress Kafka to see this base devaluation of art.

Kafka monument

“I leapt onto the shoulders of my acquaintance, and by digging my fists into his back I urged him into a trot..”

In the streets of Mala Strana or Lesser Quarter is a monument that truly does depress. At the base of Petřín Hill, I climb the stairs to find six naked figures. Unlike the gleeful naked men in ‘The Piss’, these men are zombie-like, their faces a mask of pain and despair. This is Czech sculptor Olbram Zoubek’s ‘Memorial to the Victims of Communism’. The six figures, in different stages of disintegration, descend a flight of stairs. A bronze strip tells us of the losses — 205,486 arrested; 170,938 forced into exile; 4,500 dead in prisons; 327 shot while trying to flee and 248 executed. Only one figure is whole; the rest are missing body parts, and the last one has just limbs. For a monument that’s a sombre reminder of the perils of despotism, the setting couldn’t be more picturesque — the surrounding garden and paths are blooming with colour.

Local legends

The most scenic view is at Prague’s oldest bridge, the Charles Bridge. I weave my way through street musicians, artists and selfie-sticks to admire the 30 Baroque statues lining its balustrade. I’m searching for a legend, which I find at the feet of the statue of St John of Nepomuk. John was a priest in Prague, under King Wenceslas IV. He was thrown into the river for refusing to divulge the queen’s confessions to the king, who suspected her of having an affair. It is believed that touching the plaque commemorating his martyrdom brings good luck. The brass portion I run my hand over is smooth, and gleams bright against the blackened surroundings. Nearby is a plaque of a dog, whose shining body indicates that it also receives attention.

St John statue

Locals dismiss this legend associated with the statue putting it down to a tourists phenomenon.

My favourite legend in the city involves a statue of a ghost. This creepy cloaked figure sits outside the Estates Theater in the Old Town, where composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart conducted the première of his opera Don Giovanni in 1787. The creation of Austrian artist Anna Chromy, it is said to represent the opera’s character, Il Commendatore, who appears as a ghost.

The cloaked figure has no face and is empty inside, possibly an allusion to the emptiness of Don Giovanni’s soul. Local legend has it that pictures taken without a flash reveal the image of a face inside the empty cloak. My photos reveal nothing but a black hole but I revel in the possibility of a spectre haunting this ghostly figure.

Il Commendatore

The artist created a similar Cloak of Peace (Pieta) in Salzburg.

 

It’s what makes Prague a fascinating city. Every statue has a story to tell, even if some are more believable than others.

Hoi An: The town that time forgot

Early morning, Hoi An resembles a vintage postcard of a sleepy, riverside town. One where boats gently bob on the river, cyclists speed past on cobbled pathways, a light breeze sets lanterns aflutter and non la (conical leaf hat) clad locals go about their daily work.

I am on the banks of the Thu Bon River, revelling in the quiet when it is broken by a loud, mechanical voice. It welcomes people to the Ancient Town (and advises them to buy tickets before entering, the proceeds of which go into its maintenance). It stops as abruptly as it started. 

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The bridge that separates the Ancient town from Cam Nam islet

It may seem like a lot, paying just to walk about the old town area but then, Hoi An exists largely because of tourism. It wasn’t always like this:

AsideHistory lesson – Hoi An was once a prosperous trading port in the fifteenth century called Faifo (meaning seaside town). In the eighteenth century, the nearby port of Da Nang became the new center of trade and Hoi An lost all its glory. It has thus remained untouched for over 200 years. In 1999, UNESCO declared the Ancient Town a World Heritage Site, bringing it intothe limelight.

Tourism is today town’s bread and better and everything within it functions to serve that purpose. Now the tourists don’t stop coming.

The Ancient Town

The most popular attraction in Hoi An is the Ancient Town, a two sq km area steeped in historical monuments. My entry tickets gives me access to any five attractions within the old town (of the 21 in total), leaving me to choose between museums, old family houses, meeting halls, temples and observing local traditions and culture. My favourite structure is the Japanese covered wooden bridge or the Chua Cau Bridge. It is located at the beginning of the old town and at any moment is abuzz with tourist chatter, couples taking selfies, and vendors hawking street food nearby. Legend has it that a mythical dragon, its head in India and spine running along the Vietnamese coast, caused earthquakes in Japan when it moved. The Japanese solved this by building the bridge on the dragon’s spine to kill it. There’s a small faded shrine inside the bridge where I am invited to offer incense to appease the beast. 

A stroll around the old town introduces me to what is popularly known as the Hoi An style – a mix of European, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese and French architectural influences. There are century-old houses, some preserved and some crumbling, red and gold Chinese temples or assembly halls, wooden shophouses with French shuttered windows, wooden facades and balconies, European-style brick buildings, intricately carved beams and aged timber structures. The easiest way to get about is by walking or renting a cycle (most homestays or hotels offer them on rent); the Ancient Town is a pedestrian-only zone. 

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library

Bep Truong on Tran Phu street is a coffee shop, restaurant and bookstore (with free WiFi)

Almost all of the old wooden shophouses have been converted to businesses aimed at tourists – tailoring shops and boutiques, souvenir stores, restaurants and cafés, and art galleries. There are a few preserved family houses, with high compound walls, sometimes a chapel, and almost always with a garden abundant in bougainvillea and frangipani.

Tourist wares    

Being on the banks of a river means much of the town’s activities are centred in this area – the most expensive places boast a ‘river view’ and there are even tiny restaurants locating on bobbing boats.

boat

Take a boar ride down the length of the Thu Bon river, especially at dusk

Tailoring was once a traditional craft with a long history, tailors were in high demand when the town was an international port. The master craftsmen were known for being able to replicate any design. Today, every second shop is a tailor’s shop, looking to cash in on the influx of tourists interested in custom-made clothing and shoes. Remember, always bargain. 

The spurt in tourism in the last decade has seen various activities catered specifically to them, from musical bingo nights to backpacker areas and a night market. In 2011, the tiny islet of An Hoi, once home to a banana plantation was cleared out and space was made for quaint guesthouses, fancy hotels and riverside bars and restaurants. It is this space that hosts the a vibrant night market, where they sell cheap souvenirs, jewellery, trinkets, clothes, and the centre of attraction, handmade lanterns. 

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Lanterns for sale at the night market

There are lanterns everywhere in Hoi An, they bedeck its streets, its shops, and its homes. When lit, they become a signal of sorts, of the town bursting to life. That’s when bars and restaurants are crowded with tourists enjoying happy hour discounts, fresh seafood and good music.  The lanterns bathe the town in warm glow, playing off the light of floating candles – a tourist gimmick that traps me into sending off a paper boat onto the river for ‘good luck’.

As I sit by the riverside, drinking local Tiger beer (at Rs 12 a glass) and listening to a banjo player serenade a couple on a boat, I realise that I don’t need fake good luck charms to be happy. I already am. 



TL:DR

  • The entry ticket to Ancient Town is about 120,000 VND (Vietnamese Dong) or about Rs 360 – this was three years back. It gives you access to five heritage spots in the old town 
  • The old town is pedestrian-only but you can rent cycles to move about
  • At night, the lighting of lanterns signifies the beginning of happy hours and festivities, that go on till early morning
  • Visit the night market at An Hoi islet to buy cheap souvenirs and lanterns