Our next stop was the gigantic 780-foot tall Palace of Culture and Science, a symbol of Soviet domination over Poland, constructed in the mid 50s in the typical grandiose-style of approved architecture. Although disliked by Varsovians, the palace today houses a Cinema, Theatre and museums. The terrace on the 30th floor draws tourists from around the world for a panoramic view the city.
The contents and collections of the Warsaw University Library were moved from a nearby traditional, pre-WWI building into a grand new edifice completed in 2002, which includes a beautiful roof garden where visitors are welcome to walk, sit or relax on grounds that span 2.5 acres of interconnected paths, waterfalls and bridges. The garden offers access to a wonderful view of the city as well.
The stunning Art Nouveau bronze sculpture of Frederick Chopin on the grounds of the Royal Lazienki Museum, formerly the residence of the last King of Poland becomes the setting for lively concerts during the summer. The plaster cast survived Nazi bombs in 1939, and the statue was recast in bronze in 1958.
The capital’s Old Town, 85% of which was leveled during and after the the Polish Uprising in 1944, was reconstructed between 1950 and 1963. Amazingly, large-scale, detailed paintings by the 18th century artist Bernardo Bellotto survived and provided the blueprint to recreate the Town’s Mannerist, Baroque and Gothic traditions. His artworks and those of old masters are housed in the reconstructed Royal Castle, built during the 16th century Golden Age of Poland that produced architectural elements for aesthetic effect regardless of their function. The Castle served as the residence of Polish presidents from 1926 until the 1939 invasion.
One of Warsaw’s most notable landmarks, the statue of King Sigismund III Vasa who moved the capital from Krakow to Warsaw in 1596 soars into the sky atop a Gothic column. Having undergone extensive renovation and repair since its erection in the 17th century, the statue and column suffered extensive damage in 1944 and was rebuilt in 1949. Nearby, sections of the 500-year old defensive wall are clearly defined by metal plates in the mortar. For a comprehensive listing of the city, visit www.warsawguide.com
MUSEUMS AND SITES
Across the Vistula River is the Bauhaus-style home of activists, Jan and Antonia Zabinski and their children, Ryszard and Teresa (The Zookeeper’s Wife, by Diane Ackerman). Jan was captured by the Germans during the 1944 Uprising and released after the war, while Antonia and Ryszard continued the work of hiding Jews and political insurgents in their home or in empty animal pens. Ryszard maintained the home post WWII until funds were received through the Council to Aid Jews.
Viewers at the Warsaw Uprising Museum are awed by a replica of a B-24 Liberator. While seeing film footage on a panoramic screen, I felt as though I were seated in the belly of the plane witnessing the actual bombing of Warsaw. The museum contains photos of resistance fighters exiting the sewers to cross Nazi lines and of men and women who were killed during the Uprising.
Glass panels illuminate the galleries and saturate the colors of exquisitely carved Judaica in the Polin Museum. Copies of manuscripts emphasize a millennium of abundant vitality of the Polish and Eastern European Jews and their contributions to the nation. Daffodils, symbols of the Star of David, adorn statues outside and are worn as corsages each year by Varsovians to commemorate the Warsaw Uprising.
The bitter cold rain at Krakow befitted the tenor of Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps (www.auschwitz.org). We arrived at the city by fast train and were transported to the barbed-wire camps. No still image or film can ever replace walking into barracks piled high with personal effects and documentation of the cruelty, torture, terror and death that befell people of Jewish origin, homosexuals, political prisoners, children and anyone deemed to be useless to or enemies of the Third Reich, including Polish citizens. Martin, our guide, deserved highest praise for unbiased, unemotional explanations at the camps.
The rain cleared by the time we reached the Wieliczka Salt mine, where miners carved lifelike vignettes of every subject imaginable. We descended 530 feet by elevator into a tunnel, climbed farther down and walked through a maze of tunnels. Our guide mentioned that in 1992 a portion of the mine was flooded, dissolving generations of miners’ carvings. Still, spanning 800 years, the galleries, chapels and sculptures of individual saints, a Pope (John Paul II) and the beautiful, world renowned cathedral continue to awe visitors. The unbelievable feat of creativity today is a favorite venue for weddings. www.Wieliczka-saltmine.com
Historic landmarks are located in the medieval Town Square in Krakow. Of particular note, and an excellent example of High Gothic architecture is St. Mary’s altar by sculptor Veit Stoss. Innumerable figures and ornaments are constructed into an overwhelming effervescent decorative ensemble. The central triptych contains more than 50 painted wooden figures of the life and death of Christ, his mother Mary, the Apostles and saints. The altarpiece had been dismantled by Polish nationals, plundered by the Nazis, located in the Nuremberg Castle basement and returned to Krakow, where it was restored in 1957.
During the 13th century, the Cloth Hall (Sukiennice) nearby was the center of international commerce, with spices, silk and leather brought from the east and traded for textiles and salt from the Wieliczka Salt mine. After periods of decline, the Hall was renovated. Today, in addition to hosting distinguished guests, stalls on either side of the long, ornate aisles offer for sale everything from aromatics to zircons. The floor above is an annex of the National Museum and houses a fantastic collection of 19th century Polish painting and sculpture. (Closed Mondays.)
Although the Polish people possess a modern spirit, it’s not a bad sign to see they also commemorate the past. For more information, visit www.poland.travel