Tag Archives: Warsaw

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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Science day out: Copernicus

It all started with a conversation with my couchsurfing hosts in Warsaw. I asked them to suggest a place I could spend my morning exploring. I was expecting a park or garden but they looked at each other and answered in one voice: Copernicus.  

The science museum/ centre is located on the banks of the Vistula River and is a favourite with locals and tourists alike. In fact, every schoolkid has spent hours, if not days, at the centre. “It’s the best way to pass your time, and you get to learn so much,” said Kasia. “You need three whole days to be able to explore the whole place.”

After spending three hours, I realised Kasia was right: it was impossible to truly explore Copernicus when against a half-day deadline. I tried.

Copernicus may be a science centre but the glass and steel building has exhibitions, a planetarium – showing 2D and 3D films, and weekend workshops. At then entrance is an interactive robot that will sing songs if you ask nicely. 

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A two-storey high Foucault pendulum, greets you as you enter the atrium

It is a kingdom of interactive experiments, over 400, covering astronomy, physics, chemistry, music, robotics, history and psychology over 22.000 m². It is geared to kids, but you will spot adults having a lot of fun too.

The exhibits I visited were On the Move – focussing on motion; on The Roots of Civilization exhibit looks at the development of mankind and inventions though history; the Re: generation Zone is for older kids and explores psychology, sociology, economics and biotechnology; Lightzone for those who like crime mysteries; Humans and the Environment for in-depth knowledge about humankind (the mind and body) and their relationship with the environment. 

In my three hours there I explored mirrors and their impact on light and movement, saw my name spelled in Egyptian hieroglyphics, saw a fire tornado, helped fill water and examine its effect on turbines, created 10-feet and higher soap walls using soapy water, became a DJ, conducted an orchestra, experienced an earthquake, and got my photo clicked in an astronaut suit! 

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Yep, that’s me!

My favourite exhibits were Electrobard – a robot poet, who writes and recites poems on request; the pschology section that tested my memory and observation skills – I was really bad at spotting clues at a crime scene but got full marks on the memory and song puzzles and a stairmaster that allowed me to create electricity. 

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Mirror selfies get a whole new meaning here!

There’s also an outdoor gallery, ampitheatre, labratories and a rooftop garden, which I didn’t get time to explore. Go here to view a fun video.  

Go to Copernicus if you want to experience push-the-buttons-and-see-what-happens exhibits and learn how science can actually be fun. Bonus: every exhibit is in English and Polish. 


How to get there: The centre is a five-minute walk from the Centrum Nauki Kopernik subway (metro) station; via bus it is bus no. 118, 127, 105 (Biblioteka Uniwersytecka bus stop) and bus no 185 (Metro Centrum Nauki Kopernik). 

Log on to Copernicus for more details. 

Milk bar: Prasowy

It was, to use Twitter parlance, a #ftw (for the win) moment.

The day: 19 of my Euro trip
I was at: Prasowy, one of Warsaw’s popular milk bars
My achievement: I had successfully ordered a typical Polish meal and I could eat everything on the plate.

You see, I had walked past Prasowy once before and couldn’t muster up the courage to enter for fear of ordering something I couldn’t eat. It was only two days earlier, I had visited another milk bar and ordered Flaczki, what I thought was a beef soup but was actually tripe (I couldn’t eat the meat). This time, I was prepared – I had scanned the menu at my couchsurfing hosts’s home, made a note of translations and made note of exactly what to order.  prasowy
Prasowy is the hippest milk bar in Warsaw. It has a menu that changes daily – written on a chalkboard, all-white interiors and Ikea furniture. An open kitchen gives a glimpse of the variety of food (no, you can’t point and order) and they make all their dishes by hand. They host cultural events too and a notice-board has details of citywide events.

My meal was simple and consisted of food that is staple to the Polish lunch table. There was Gołąbki – minced pork mixed with onions and sticky rice in a cabbage roll; Zupa Pomidorowa or Pomidorowka – a rich tomato soup cooked in meat stock and served with either rice or potatoes or, in this case, pasta; and Ćwikła – a Polish and Western Ukrainian salad similar to a relish made with grated beets and horseradish.
The cost: 17 zloty (approx. Rs 350)
The experience: Priceless!

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Clockwise from left: Cabbage rice rolls, tomato soup with pasta and beetroot salad

Aside: Bar Mleczny or milk bars are essentially ex-Socialist era workers’ canteens. The food here was subsidised by the government with the idea of allowing poor wage-workers a good, nutritious meal. The milk refers to the largely dairy-based content of the meals. These days, from about 2010 onwards, they’ve transformed into homely cafeterias, offering local fare at cheap rates. 

Street eats: Gofry

This is a Gofry. The snack ties in with the Polish love for all things sweet. It is simply a waffle or a waffle sandwich that is topped with everything sweet possible: think whipped cream, jam, Nutella, fresh fruits. It is sinful and delicious, if you ignore the amount of sugar that’s going in your body. 

I was recommended this snack by my couchsurfing hosts, who even told me precisely where to get it. It was a tiny stall, a hole in a window, at the first turning near  Łazienki Park. My hosts had written down exactly what I should order and so I did – a gofry with whipped cream and every fruit available. I ate every last bite, after carefully removing most of the whipped cream. The pancake was soft and crunchy and combined with the cold whipped cream and fruits made for a tasty and very filling snack.