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Notes on the Geography of Poland: Warsaw in More Detail

If anyone doubts that countries can survive on spirit, they should remember Poland, an on-again, off-again nation-state. It's all on display in the capital city.

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Poland: Warsaw in More Detail picture 1

Looks traditional, doesn't it? But there's almost nothing old in this picture of Castle Square except the bronze statue of King Zygmunt, which was installed in 1644 to mark that king's transfer of the capital to Warsaw from Krakow in 1596. The stone column itself has been replaced more than once, and both the Old Town, on the left, and the Royal Palace, on the right, were levelled by the Germans in World War II. Even the square itself is relatively new, having been created in 1820 on the site of old fortifications and a castle courtyard.

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Zygmunt holds a cross and--buck up! this isn't kindergarten--a sword.

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A bit of the old city wall survives, but St. Martin's Church, like everything else in the neighborhood, is a re-creation.

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The most massive part of the wall is this barbican, an outlier facing Nowomiejska Street and protecting a gate that no longer exists. Date: 1548. Architect: Giovanni Battista, a Venetian.

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Good walls make good neighbors, and double walls make better ones.

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The Rynek Stare Miasta, or Old Town Square. It's all post-war, though as nearly as possible a copy of the pre-war landscape. A lot of empty space? It wasn't that way until 1817, when the old town hall was cleared from the square, just as it was at about the same time in Krakow. The sides of the square have names from 19th century parliamentarians. This is the Barss side.

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The original houses were built by merchants in the 1600s.

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The tower of the Jesuit Church rises behind the Zakrzewski side.

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The houses on the Dekert Side are internally interconnected to form the Warsaw History Museum.

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Paintings, sure, but also Baltic amber in barbaric lumps.

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A simple door frame.

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A more pretentious one, this of the so-called St. Anna's House, occupied by the Polish Academy of Science and the Polish Historical Society.

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Tradition collides with contemporary sensitivities: the so-called House of the (perfectly adult, not necessarily black) Little Black Boy.

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The main avenue between the square and the palace, with the Jesuit Church on the left and St. John's, out of sight in the setback just beyond.

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The royal palace is laid out as a pentagon with a tail like a lasso. Vindictively blown up by the Nazis, the building was rebuilt between 1971 and 1988.

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The 1887 column from Zygmunt's monument is preserved next to the palace.

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Entrance.

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Wladyslaw's Tower, remodelled c. 1640 and rebuilt you know when.

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The Polish coat of arms: a white eagle with golden crown, all mounted on a shield.

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Can't be the kitchen.

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The throne.

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Entrance to the more opulent Great Assembly Hall or Ballroom.

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With columns looking like bars on a prison cell, this is the Grand Theater from 1833. Most of the building is post-war reconstruction, but the ground-level columns are survivors of a pre-theater marketplace on the site.

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Old by local standards: this is the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Originally a Carmelite church from 1682, it got a new facade a century later and somehow, through everything, managed to keep it.

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Not by bread alone, this is the Mirowska Hall, a market hall.

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You can see the dates, but they're misleading: this, too, is a post-war reconstruction.

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Inside there's a supermarket, more efficient and less colorful than the stalls it replaced.

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The Polish president's palace, as bland as can be, though with a long history involving lots of aristocratic families from once upon a time. Radziwills, for starters.

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Speaking of palaces, this is Podwale Street, wrapping the Old Town wall with what once were townhouse palaces.

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Here's one.

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It's the Palac Branickich, now the city hall. Before you say that it looks pretty good for its age, think again. Yes: the palace was destroyed in the war.

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Here's the view from the palace's portico toward the walled town, with St. Martin's, the Jesuit Church, and St. John's all in view.

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Meanwhile there's the grim side story. A nation historically hating its Jews comes close to welcoming their murder. Some 300,000 are forced into cattle cars sent to Treblinka. Here, the Umschlagplatz Memorial, on the site of the station.

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The Mila 18 Memorial is on site of the underground headquarters of the Resistance. Under irresistable assault, its occupants blew themselves up. The bodies were not removed.

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The Museum of the History of the Polish Jews, designed by Rainer Mahlamaki, opened in 2013 a few months after this picture was taken.

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More evocative: the ghetto wall at the corner of Grzybowska and Zelazna; originally, the ghetto was more than a mile square, though its boundaries were gradually cut back.

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Chlodna Street, once a main street too important to be closed off even though it ran through the ghetto. High walls were built on either side of the street to allow gentile passage, while a fenced bridge over the street at about this point allowed Jews to cross from one side of the ghetto to the other. If cobbles could talk.

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Seventy years later, some of the ghetto is now paved with highrises, but much remains desolate.

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Enter a new chapter, the 1955 Palace of Culture and Science by an architect, Lev Rudniev, who knew which side his bread was buttered on. The Congress Hill is the circular building on the right. Much of the tower is now rented as commercial space, but the whole thing would be demolished and redeveloped if it weren't for pesky legal claims.

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What's this? It's a picture of a picture on display at Twardowski Square, named for the priest and poet Jan Swardowki. It's a reminder of what the city looked like after the war.

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Another.

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A bit of postwar housing. The address is 100 Panska, near the corner of Wronia.

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Courtyard of the same.

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Bigger is better: this is Rondo 1, built by Hochtief, Germany's biggest construction company. The building boasts that it is LEED Gold certified, which means that it's greener than green. The owner is MGPA Europe Fund II, which means that you can't tell who the owner is. Seeking tenants, the building's website claims to be "one address that defines Warsaw's landscape." Money doesn't become modesty.

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Another view of the same building, seen from Prosta or Straight Street, which got its name in 1778. The street was paved in 1864, got trees after the war, and (after this picture was taken) was torn up to make way for construction of the second line of the Warsaw Metro.


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