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Warsaw hosts 170-hour party for Chopin

Free round-the-clock concerts held to mark composer's 200th birthday

Piano music has lured walkers on Warsaw's Royal Route in to a special event over the past week: a Chopin concert, day and night, free of charge.

You could have heard jazz star Grazyna Auguscik as she improvised over Chopin melodies, or an unknown young pianist playing nocturnes at 3am to curled-up couples and solitary night-owls. Nearly 300 musicians signed up to play at "The Longest Birthday", the idea for which came from the doubt surrounding the composer's actual date of birth.

Church records put it at 22 February, but Fryderyk Chopin and his family always said it was 1 March. In any case, it was 200 years ago, and Poles are determined to celebrate. The government has designated 2010 Official Chopin Year, and a "celebrations committee" is co-ordinating events around the world.

Its chair, former Polish culture minister Waldemar Dabrowski, said they are also using the event to encourage more people to visit Poland. "This is part of a wider programme to attract tourists, because in many regions Chopin is the main attraction for people who come here." Born near Warsaw, the composer spent most of his adult life in France, but was well-established as a piano talent by the time he left Poland in 1830.

Helping to guide tourists around the city is a trail called "Chopin's Warsaw". The Chopin Museum has been refurbished and is now double its original size. It features hi-tech audio installations and 3D recreations of the composer's life, as well as a vast collection, including Chopin's last piano and his death mask. The museum's grand opening was held yesterday, although it will not open to the public until April.

A series of "birthday concerts" by big names, including conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim, attracted visitors to the Warsaw Philharmonic Hall this week. These culminated in a gala concert last night featuring the Chinese virtuoso pianist Li Yundi and an orchestra of period instruments.

But for Varsovians, the real delight was the 170-hour musical marathon. An estimated 25,000 people attended – to the astonishment of the organisers – what was originally seen as a fringe event. "I didn't think people would come but people are coming every day, it's just great," said Aleksandra Sobon, a young pianist who played to 10 people for three hours on Sunday morning, and then again to rather more people yesterday.

In the visitors' book in the hall, one request appears again and again: "Make this an annual event!"