One of the great pleasures of Warsaw is to stroll along the Royal Route considered by many to be the prettiest street in Poland.
The Royal Route –Trakt Królewski in Polish – was the road once taken by Poland’s kings from the Royal Castle in the old town to the palace in Wilanów. It was rebuilt after World War II and is lined with royal residences. The Royal Castle, home of the ancient Polish monarchs on Castle Square (below), is dominated by a huge column carrying a sculpture of King Segismundo III. He carries a sword and a cross symbolizing the war and Catholic character that has characterized the history of Poland.
This Royal Route is divided into two parts. The first is the Krakowskie Przedmiescie, with buildings such as the beautiful Carmelite Church topped by a green globe representing the Earth; Namiestnikowski Palace, the residence of the President; the University of Warsaw; and the neoclassic Palacio Staszic, which is the seat of the Polish Academy of Science. In front of this last is an impressive statue in honor of a Pole who transformed our ideas of astronomy: Nicolás Copérnico.
Nearby is the Church of the Holy Cross, a Baroque temple that holds the heart of Frederic Chopin. A group of students stand around a teacher under the composer’s large tombstone, topped by his bust. “Only his heart is buried here,” says the teacher. “The rest is buried in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. Chopin asked in his will that his heart be removed and returned to his homeland.” I see a sign, reading: “This way to Chopin's heart.” A short walk away in Ostrogski Palace is the Chopin Museum dedicated to his life and work. I admire the last piano he used in his Paris studio and study a copy of his 1849 death mask.
The other stretch of the Royal Route is Nowy Swiat, well known for its large number of restaurants, cafés and bars. In one of them, the near-mythical A. Blikle café (above) that has been serving coffee and traditional pastry to Varsovians since 1869, I meet with Juan Polanski. He is a Spanish Jew of Polish origin, who has been studying Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto.
The café has a Viennese-style interior and a line of locals waiting for takeaway orders. “It stayed open even under the Communist regime,” says Juan. “Partly because it was popular with people such as General Charles de Gaulle and [Polish-American pianist] Arthur Rubinstein, and maybe because the politicians all liked their cakes.”