The Traveller's Guide To: Chopin
The 200th anniversary of the composer's birth sees celebrations across Europe.
Saturday 30 January 2010
What's the celebration?
This year is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Frederic Chopin. It will be celebrated in style with concerts and exhibitions around the world, but nowhere more enthusiastically than in Poland. Although his father was French, Chopin had a Polish mother and spent the first 20 years of his life in the country of his birth. Accordingly, 2010 has been designated by the Polish authorities as Chopin Year, and a programme of cultural events is planned; details are available from Chopin2010.pl . In addition, extensive restoration work has been taking place at many of the locations associated with the composer, in Warsaw and elsewhere. According to Waldemar Dabrowski, a former government minister and chair of the Celebrations Committee, "the Chopin heritage in Poland will be fully renovated".
Frederic Chopin was seven months old when his family moved to the Polish capital, living first in an apartment in the Saxon Palace. All that remains of this building is the colonnade that surrounds the tomb of the unknown soldier on Marshal Pilsudski Square, but the Saxon Gardens, that were attached to the palace, are still popular with local people, particularly at weekends.
From the Saxon Palace, the family moved to an apartment in the grounds of the university, and then to 5 Ul Krakowskie Przedmiescie (00 48 22 3200275; nifc.pl), on the second floor of what is now the Academy of Fine Arts building. The Parlour, which formed part of this apartment, is open 10am-6pm Monday to Friday, admission PLN3 (£0.65), free on Wednesdays. Although it contains no original artefacts or furniture, it has been recreated according to a drawing of the room done by a friend of Chopin in 1832.
The road on which this apartment is located is known as the Royal Way, and is the main thoroughfare through the city centre. Among a number of buildings here that have connections with Chopin are the Radziwill Palace – a white, colonnaded building with an equestrian statue of Prince Poniatowski outside. An eight-year old Chopin gave his first public performance here; the Warsaw Pact was signed here; and Lech Walesa chose it as the residence of the Polish president. Next door is the Church of the Nuns of the Visitation, where Chopin played the organ as a boy.
A newly renovated Fryderyk Chopin Museum will reopen on 1 March just off the Royal Way at 1 Ul Okolnik (00 48 22 8265935; nifc.pl/museum). It will consist of four floors of interactive exhibits and an extensive collection of documents, manuscripts and mementoes. Opening hours and ticket prices have yet to be announced.
Can I hear some music?
Every Sunday during the summer, at noon and 4pm, piano recitals are held in Warsaw's Lazienkowski Park, which is accessible from the old town on bus number 180. These are extremely popular so it is advisable to arrive early to get a good place. The concerts are held in front of the memorial to Chopin, who is depicted sitting under a type of willow tree found in his native Mazowia. He has his head turned to one side as if he is listening, and his hands are poised as if about to play the piano. The park opens daily from 6am to sunset.
The exact date of Chopin's birth is uncertain – it was either 22 February or 1 March. Either way, it will be marked this year with a series of recitals and orchestral concerts between those dates at the Warsaw Philharmonic Hall on Ul Jasna 5 (00 48 22 55 17 130). Among the pianists who will be playing are Martha Argerich, Evgeny Kissin and Daniel Barenboim. Tickets can be booked online at bilecik.info, and are available from PLN100 (£21). From 3-23 October, the 16th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano competition will take place in the same venue. The international music festival, "Chopin and his Europe", established in 2005, will be take place in Warsaw throughout August; full details from en.chopin.nifc.pl/chopin2010.
Where was he born?
In the village of Zelazowa Wola, some 35 miles west of Warsaw in the region of Mazowia. The flat Mazowian landscape is not the most attractive in Poland, but it provides an easy rural escape from the city. The house in which Chopin was born has been rebuilt several times, and is currently undergoing restoration work in honour of this year's anniversary. Both the house (00 48 46 863 33 00; nifc.pl) and the surrounding park will reopen on 23 April, 9am-5.30pm daily except Monday (until 4pm from mid-October to mid-April). Admission will cost PLN12 (£2.60).
Chopin's parents were married in a lovely late-Gothic church in Brochow, a few miles north of Zelazowa Wola. Recently restored, it is a simple building with an ornate ceiling and a plaque commemorating Chopin's baptism, which also took place here.
Among the places in Mazowia where the composer spent his holidays is Sanniki, whose folk traditions are thought to have inspired his music. Concerts are held at the palace on Ul Warszawska (00 48 24 277 6851) on the first Sunday of the month from March to September.
The town of Sochaczew, 54km west of Warsaw, is the gateway to Mazowia's Chopin country. It can be reached from the capital in less than an hour; trains depart from Warsaw Centralna and Srodmiescie stations. From Sochaczew railway staton there are connecting buses to Zelazowa Wola. Among the organised tours available are half-day trips offered by Polish Landscape (00 48 22 824 3911; polish-landscape.pl). These depart every Saturday from hotels in central Warsaw; PLN190 (£40.50).
Sochaczew is a good base for exploring the region, and accommodation is available in the town at the Hotel Chopin (Ul Traugutta 21; 00 48 46 862 59 99; hotelchopin.pl), where double rooms start at PLN220 (£47). In the main Kosciuszki square is a museum, commemorating the battle fought in the town in 1939, in which Poland was defeated by the German army. In the same square is the Cafe Lukrecja, whose speciality is a rich, chocolate "mazurek" cake, adapted from a traditional recipe to commemorate the Chopin anniversary.
Chopin left Poland for western Europe in late 1830. His travels took him to Berlin, Vienna, Karlsbad, where he saw his parents for the last time, and Dresden, where he proposed to Maria Wodzinski – although he was never to marry her.
He settled in Paris, where he made his concert debut in 1832. He earned a living through composing and giving piano lessons, and he occasionally performed at the Salle Pleyel. At the time this was a small space that could seat 300 people. It has had several reconstructions since Chopin's day, but remains an important music venue in the heart of the French capital at 252 rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré (00 33 1 42 56 13 13; sallepleyel.fr). On 1 March the Polish pianist, Krystian Zimerman, will be giving an anniversary recital there. Paris is easily accessible by air from many UK airports, or by Eurostar trains (08432 186 186; eurostar.com) from London.
For a decade, Choping was involved with the French novelist, George Sand, and spent time with her at her estate in Nohant. The chateau was built in the 18th century, and was where she wrote her novels and entertained writers and musicians: not just Chopin, but others includ-ing Liszt and Delacroix. The chateau and gardens are nowV C a national monument (00 33 2 54 31 06 04; maison-george-sand.monuments-nationaux.fr), and open to the public daily, 10am-12.30pm and 2-5pm from October to March; longer hours during the rest of the year, admission €7. It is located in the lush countryside of the Vallée Noire, in central France.
Nearby in the Romanesque church of St Martin in the village of Nohant-Vic, is an astonishing collection of 12th century frescoes, which were saved following the intervention of George Sand. Nohant is between Tours and Clermont-Ferrand, and is 5km from La Chatre.
Did he ever return to Poland?
Yes and no. Chopin died, aged 39, in Paris in his apartment at 12 Place Vendôme – an elegant square lined with magnificent 17th-century architecture, in the middle of which is a column decorated with military scenes and topped with a statue depicting Napoleon dressed as Caesar.
The composer's funeral took place in the Madeleine church, built in the style of a Greek temple in Place de la Madeleine; open daily 9.30am-7pm. He was buried at Père Lachaise cemetery, the graveyard to the east of the city that has become a place of pilgrimage for visitors seeking out the graves of, among others, Abelard and Heloise, Edith Piaf and Jim Morrison. Chopin's grave is in Division 11.
The entrance to the cemetery is opposite Père-Lachaise metro station. It opens 8am-6pm Monday-Friday, from 8.30am on Saturdays, and from 9am on Sundays; admission free.
But Chopin's heart returned to Poland. It was removed from his body and, according to his wishes, was taken back to Warsaw, where it is buried within in a pillar in the Holy Cross church at 3 Krakowskie Przedmiescie. The pillar is the first on the left-hand side of the nave, and is marked with a bas-relief depicting the composer's head, and a small plaque written in Polish and English. One of the most important churches in Poland because of the role it has played in a number of important historical events, the Holy Cross (00 48 22 556 88 20; swkrzyz.pl) opens 9am-5pm daily.
How do I get to Warsaw?
The Polish capital is accessible from the UK with daily flights operated from Gatwick by Aer Lingus (0871 718 2020; aerlingus.com; to 27 March), and from Heathrow by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and the Polish carrier LOT (0845 601 0949; lot.com). Many international chains have hotels in the city centre, but one of the best establishments in town is Le Regina, located in an 18th century palace on the edge of the Old Town at Koscielna 12 (00 48 22 531 6000; leregina.com). Facilities include a swimming pool and sauna. Pawel Oszczyka, who presides over the Rotisserie restaurant, is one of the finest chefs in Poland. Rooms are available from €107 in the low season; breakfast is an extra €20.
The Baltic Travel Company (08456 800 0642; baltictravelcompany.com) is among several companies offering short breaks to Warsaw. These are usually tailor-made, but a three-night trip, including bed and breakfast accommodation in a four-star hotel, with flights, could cost about £400 per person.
Kirker Holidays (020-7593 1899; kirkerholidays.co.uk) has a six-night trip to Warsaw, departing on 25 August, which includes a day trip to Krakow, as well as a visit to Chopin's birthplace and tickets for several concerts. The holiday is available from £1,766, which also includes return flights, bed and breakfast accommodation and some meals.
The writer travelled to Warsaw with Aer Lingus
Island life: Valdemossa
Chopin and his mistress, George Sand, spent a winter together in Valdemossa, on the rocky, western side of Mallorca. They stayed in the 14th century Carthusian Monastery, then owned by the government, which rented rooms to travellers. Chopin's accommodation, Cell 4, is more spacious than it might sound, consisting of three rooms and a vegetable garden. The upright Pleyel piano, which he had sent over from Paris, is still in the cell. The building also houses the Municipal Museum, with an extensive art collection. The monastery, in Plaza de la Cartuja (00 34 971 612106; museochopin.com), opens 9.30am-6.30pm Mon-Sat, 10am-1pm Sun from April to September, closing at 5.30pm in October and March, at 5pm in November and February. In December and January it opens 9.30am-3pm Mon-Sat; €8.50.
The poor standard of the accommodation did nothing to help Chopin's health. Modern visitors can fare better by staying nearby at the Cases de C'as Garriguer (00 34 971 61 23 00; vistamarhotel. es). This converted farmhouse has 10 rooms, from €120.
Valdemossa is 18km north of Palma, which is served by a range of airlines from around the UK.
The romantic refugee In London
Chopin first visited Britain in 1837, and returned in 1848, when he fled the revolution then taking place in Paris. He gave his last concerts here, including a final performance at London's Guildhall. Rare recordings of these performances, as well as original manuscripts of several of his best-known compositions, will be part of an exhibition, "Chopin: the Romantic Refugee", which takes place at the British Library, adjacent to St Pancras station in central London (01937 546060; bl.uk), from 1 March until 16 May. The exhibition will be open 9.30am-6pm Monday, Wednesday-Friday, 9.30am-8pm on Tuesdays, 11am-5pm at weekends, admission £10.
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