Photo by Lucas Vallecillos
Recreating the heavily bombed city center of Warsaw as it was before World War II was a titanic effort.
Architects made a rigorous study of all the documentation they could find, including paintings by Canaletto, old photographs, prints, drawings, sketches by architecture students, and even people’s memories. Whenever possible, materials was recovered from the rubble.
In less than a decade, thousands of volunteers had reconstructed the old town – Stare Miasto – with so much attention to historical accuracy that it was declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 1980.
“The love of the people of Warsaw for their city, not to mention their identity, drove the reconstruction,” says my friend, Anna. “They had financial help from many Poles in exile and supportive foreign organizations.”
My walk with Anna and Agata – another friend – takes us to this district, where the houses of the wealthiest and most influential of Warsaw’s 18th-century families have risen from the rubble. A fountain at its heart holds a beautiful statue of a mermaid that is the symbol of Warsaw. Legend has it says that in gratitude to the Varsovians, who freed her from the clutches of a wealthy merchant who had caught her, the siren promised that whenever the city needed help, she would be there to defend it. The city’s coat of arms shows her, armed with shield and sword, and ready to keep her promise.
The market square is the liveliest part of the historical center, where visitors and locals gather to eat at one of the many restaurants, stroll around, or simply sit on a bench to contemplate life. I watch a painter, sitting on a chair under an umbrella, working on a beautiful watercolor that I cannot resist buying. In fact, I decide to buy two, one each to give as a gift later to Anna and Agata. But first I have to eat something to regain my strength after the hours of walking.
I make for Udekerta, one of the best restaurants for traditional Polish cuisine in the city, recognized with a Michelin star. “I suggest bigos [hunter’s stew], our national dish,” says the waiter. “It is a delicious recipe using meat and sauerkraut.” I must look unimpressed because he goes on. “Or there is pierogi: pasta filled with meat and vegetables. It is a bit like ravioli. You will love it!”
Afterward, I walk along the Camino Real, considered by many to be the prettiest street in Poland. It was also rebuilt after World War II and owes its name to the ancient royal residences which line it. The major one is the Real Castillo, home of the ancient Polish monarchs on Plaza de Castillo, which 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.
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