Warsaw looks just as it did in Chopin's day. Well, almost

On the eve of the great composer's 200th birthday, Adrian Mourby sees how the city where he grew up has emerged from centuries of war and ruin
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The Independent Travel

If Frédéric Chopin were to return to Warsaw on his 200th birthday next week he might think he recognised the place. The old medieval city and the mansions along ul Krakowskie Przedmiescie look remarkably like they did when Chopin was born on 22 February 1810, and when he left this gracious city for ever 20 years later.

The extraordinary truth, however, is that 85 per cent of old Warsaw is new-build, resurrected in the long cold years after the Second World War. In 1944, after the Russians let the Warsaw rising fail, keeping their tanks at a safe distance across the Vistula river, Adolf Hitler ordered the rebellious city demolished. The population was moved out and special Verbrennungs und Vernichtungskomando ("Burning and Destruction units") went from building to building dynamiting the city that Chopin knew.

After the Germans retreated, the Red Army moved in and Polish freedom, for which Britain and France had gone to war in 1939, was swallowed up in one gulp by what was – ironically – to become known in later years as the Warsaw Pact. The denizens of Warsaw had no wish to be Soviet citizens but they also had no choice. The way they chose to rebel was subtle; they rebuilt their old city, brick by brick. "Just as it was," they vowed. It was the meticulous bricklayers, carpenters and masons of Warsaw who taught other wrecked European cities – St Petersburg, Riga, Dresden – how you rebuild the past.

Walking down ul Krakowskie Przedmiescie today, with the ghost of Chopin by my side, I'd defy him to spot which buildings survived and which were pieced back together from the rubble. Ironically, the Radziwill – or Presidential – Palace, which was the venue for young Chopin's first public recital in 1818, was one of the few buildings to survive intact.

In his day, this restrained piece of Corinthian Neo-Classicism was the residence of the Russian governor of Poland. During the brief years of independence after the First World War, the Radziwill was the seat of the Polish government. After the invasion of 1939 it became the city's Deutsches Haus. Hermann Goering was very taken with it and the Nazis even improved the building, uncovering paintings on the staircase and renovating the Rococo interior.

After the uprising, the Wehrmacht spared this palace and the Hotel Bristol next door. The Bristol, a temple to Art Deco, was the social centre of Warsaw during the Roaring Twenties. The indefatigable Ignacy Jan Paderweski, Polish pianist, foreign minister and premier, was one of its main shareholders. He even named it, having noticed on his travels that The Bristol was, invariably, the best hotel in any city.

During the Soviet era, The Bristol was starved of investment, infested with fleas and plummeted to two-star status. It was refurbished with private money as soon as the Warsaw Pact fell apart and was reopened in 1993 by Margaret Thatcher.

Krakowskie Przedmiescie runs from the old royal palace out of Warsaw in the direction of Krakow. In search of other Chopin sites, I follow it south, passing the Baroque Church of the Nuns of the Visitation, where the teenage composer played the organ during his schooldays. No one is quite sure why this church was spared in 1944 – maybe the Verbrennungs und Vernichtungskomando spent too long next door in The Bristol.

Next come the buildings of Warsaw University, established in 1816 by permission of Tsar Alexander I, who was fresh from seeing off Napoleon. This elegant white and cream Neo-Classical campus was created out of buildings belonging to the Warsaw Lyceum where Chopin's father taught. Soon after the family moved to Warsaw they were given a series of rooms on the second floor of one of the Kazimierzowski Palace's annexes, now part of the university administration. Here I see a white plaque commemorating the first-floor apartment where the young prodigy lived from 1817 to 1827.

In 1944, the University was used as a German barracks with bunkers and machine-gun emplacements dug into its lawns. It was repeatedly, and unsuccessfully, attacked by students who were part of the uprising. Sixty-three professors and innumerable students were killed. The University lost 60 per cent of its buildings and 80 per cent of its collection of books and works of art. Today, the campus is a serene, tree-lined place, although for the first time I sense that some of the buildings are over-restored. They just look too damn good for their 200 years.

Opposite the University gates, on the other side of Krakowskie Przedmiescie, stands the Krasinski Palace, another Neo-Classical block in white and cream, which is the seat of Warsaw's Fine Arts Academy. A second white plaque announces that when the Chopins left the Kazimierzowski Palace they moved into an apartment here, on the second floor. The 17-year-old Frédéric was given an attic room of his own. "There I am to have an old piano and an old bureau," he wrote. "It is to be my place of refuge."

In the 1960s, after the palace had been rebuilt and incorporated into the Academy, a one-room Salonik Chopinow (Chopin Parlour) was created overlooking Krakowskie Przedmiescie. Today, it costs three zloty to visit. The room is spacious and gives a good impression of how a small middle-class Polish family may have received visitors in the early 19th century. It was reconstructed from sketches made by the painter Antoni Kolberg in 1832. Lined with portraits, the low-ceilinged room has two 19th-century pianos but neither belonged to the family. Among the memorabilia collected from various European sources is a jokey newspaper written by Chopin in his teens, replete with comic illustrations, which gives the lie to the idea that the composer was always morbid and self-obsessed.

It was from this apartment that Chopin left for Vienna in 1830, just missing the ill-fated uprising against the Tsarist authorities which put the issue of Polish independence back generations. Chopin was lucky to have lived in Warsaw during its post-Napoleonic golden age, a time of intellectual ferment, artistic endeavour and wealthy patronage. It's often said that had he been born 20 years earlier, or 20 years later, he could never have been Chopin. But had he stayed in the city any longer he may have ended up dead, like a number of his friends.

A little further down Krakowskie Przedmiescie stands the Roman Catholic Church of the Holy Cross, a Baroque basilica built at the end of the 17th century and the nearest thing Poland has to a royal church. Its façade rises so steeply you feel it might overbalance and tip into the busy boulevard.

At the top of the double flight of ornate steps the large main door has a sign, in Polish, which translates as "The Way To Chopin's Heart". In 1880, a decorative plaque was placed inside the cathedral over the urn containing the composer's heart. Chopin died in Paris in 1849 having stipulated that he wanted his heart buried in Poland. He wasn't the only expatriate to ask for this, but the gesture may also have something to do with his morbid, very 19th-century, fear of being buried alive. It was Chopin's sister, Ludwika, who acted on his wishes and brought the urn containing his heart here. During the Second World War it was hidden away and was only returned in October 1945.

The Church of the Holy Cross was also rebuilt from the rubble of 1944. It was felt to be so important in the national psyche that after the signing of the Gdansk Accords between the Solidarity union and the government of General Wojciech Jaruzelski in 1980 it was decreed that mass from Holy Cross should be broadcast every Sunday across the nation.

Unlike the pristine University the rebuilt church has aged somewhat since its completion in 1972, and now has an authentic patina for its age. The years of neglect under Communism actually improved the building, although it is wreathed in scaffolding once more. It seems that Warsaw just cannot stop rebuilding.

One of the city's most remarkable restoration jobs is at the Chopin Museum, which is just completing its latest facelift in time for his 200th anniversary. The museum is on a steep hill at the south-west end of the old city, and has no direct link to Chopin, in whose day it was known as Ostrogski Castle, a beautiful Baroque structure built on top of a giant plinth that defies the steep drop down to the Vistula Valley. At the beginning of the 19th century it didn't look remotely as good as this, having been divided into small apartments as a hostel for students. It had also served briefly as a military hospital. After Chopin left Warsaw to make his fortune in the west, it served as a hospital again during the rising of 1830.

In 1859, the Ostrogski was turned into the city's Musical Institute and it was here that Paderewski was trained. Inevitably, it was blown up in 1944, then rebuilt "just as it was" between 1949 and 1954. Today, it contains the Pleyel grand piano on which Chopin composed during the final two years of his life. Ironically, in this city of meticulous rebuilding, it is one of the few things that has not been destroyed and reconstructed from scratch. Chopin might actually recognise this alone for what it was.

Compact Facts

How to get there

Adrian Mourby travelled to Warsaw with Aer Lingus (0871 718 5000; aerlingus.com), which flies there direct from Gatwick airport from £30 each way. He stayed at the Hotel Bristol (00 48 22 551 1000; lemeridien.com/warsaw), which offers rooms from £102 per night.

Further Information

Polish Tourist Organisation (poland.travel).