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Updated: January 20, 2012 18:00 IST

If it's Poland, it has to be Chopin

Aruna Chandaraju
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Making music in Warsaw. Photo: Aruna Chandaraju
Making music in Warsaw. Photo: Aruna Chandaraju

The air of Warsaw, says Aruna Chandaraju, is mixed with music and sad memories of the devastation during World War II

In the land of Chopin, music is everywhere. From street corners where a solitary man or woman stands playing the guitar or accordion, and homes where students practise diligently, to magnificent churches in which choir members sing in perfect unison, mellifluous strains of music fill the air wherever you go in Poland.

Especially so in Warsaw. For classical-music fans, few things can be more rewarding than a visit to places celebrating the great Polish composer and pianist, Frederic Francois (Fryderyk Franciszek) Chopin and his achievements. The Chopin Museum which pays homage to him is a must-do and so are Holy Cross Church (where his heart is sealed) and Lazienki Park. Also known as Baths Park, the last is not only the city's largest park with a complex of elegant castles and palaces including the Palace-on-the-Water but it also has the distinction of housing the famous bronze Chopin Monument.

Scattered through central Warsaw are glistening, black-stone musical benches –– where you can get a glimpse of Chopin history and music. The touch of a button generates a select fragment of Chopin's music! There are 15 such multimedia benches throughout Warsaw with musical systems and other software embedded in them. Each bench ‘performs' a different tune taken from a different composition.

But not everyone in our group was a Chopin fan and so we had to reluctantly move on to the other must-visits of Warsaw including memorials to other famous Poles. And Warszawa (the city's Polish name) has a great deal of them.

So our next stop were places related to scientist Marie Curie, like the carefully-preserved birthplace and museum dedicated to her, and Radium Institute; and to astronomer Copernicus. We stopped by the landmark Copernicus statue –– we had already seen the well-known Copernicus House in his birthplace, the town of Torun. We had a quick glimpse of the quiet and picturesque Prozna Street which ironically, has a terrible, horrifying history –– it once housed Jews in the infamous Warsaw Ghetto.

We would have loved to ascend to the terrace or 30th floor of the Palace of Culture and Science –– Poland's tallest building –– and get to see Warsaw from its highest viewing point but there was no time. And we had to be content with looking at the contemporary-in-design University of Warsaw Library with its façade resembling a line of open books, in the brochure that our guide handed out to us.

The splendid Baroque-style Wilanow Park-Palace Complex was another item on our wish-list which we had to give a miss for paucity of time. Also, to what our guide called, “places which recollect tragic pages of our history” like the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, the Pawiak prison (former German Gestapo Prison), and Warsaw Citadel besides the Powazki Cemetery (known for its many sculptures).

But even if you have time for only one thing –– that must be the Old Town which won the coveted World Heritage Site tag in 1980. Like other European medieval towns, its streets form a chessboard pattern. Our guide reeled off its major attractions –– Zygmunt's Column, Royal Castle, the Barbican and Market Square. Actually, just walking through the very charming chessboard-like layout and clean, cobbled streets itself is a delight, we discovered.

We chose to first visit its biggest draw –– the historical Royal Castle, the erstwhile official residence of the Polish monarchs. It is currently a museum and also the location for state meetings. It is immaculately maintained with hundreds of works of art and elegant period furniture.

This castle has been carefully rebuilt in recent decades after it was repeatedly plundered by invading armies. Actually it is not only this castle –– much of what one sees in Warsaw is actually the result of a painstaking reconstruction after the devastation of World War II.

This is a familiar story in Poland, especially Warsaw. Many tourist attractions as well as functional buildings in this country have some history of war and destruction and they have been painstakingly rebuilt. We were impressed more by the courage and perseverance which recreated these buildings than their design features. To turn what remained as charred shells or rubble after bombing into such buildings speaks of an amazing strength of spirit.

The care and attention to detail with which this repair and recreation has been done are remarkable. In the case of many monuments and landmarks, the reconstruction is faithful to the original structure in terms of architectural design and interiors.

Praga District is an exception –– somewhat of an exception since it remained relatively untouched by the plundering of war. With its plethora of theatres and art studios it is an important artistic centre.

In our drive-through Warsaw, we stopped briefly at some of the pretty and cosy cafes that dot the new part of the city. And we heard some exquisite music from street-corner musicians especially a young man who had seated himself –– quite appropriately –– before one of Chopin's musical benches.

He doffed his hat to us when we said “beautiful music” (we had hoped he would understand that much English when we told him). And exclaimed with a smile: “Chopin is my teacher!” We waved a goodbye to this self-taught musician and to this amazing Phoenix City as we hopped back into the car which took us directly to the airport, named after Chopin of course.

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