Warsaw’s New Old Town

I stood at the Sigismund’s Column admiring the beauty of this old town.

Here, was a city that began in the 13th century, beautiful, colourful and historic. The architectural styles date back from the middle ages right up the Polish Golden Age and beyond. It was a collection of the most beautiful buildings of the different eras of European history. Walking into this place was like walking into a slice of history… walking into this place was like smelling the history of the streets like in Gamla Stan in Stockholm.

Only it isn’t that old. The old town of Warsaw is barely a century old, these buildings are replicas and not the real thing. This made sense since Warsaw was almost completely devastated by end of World War II (with more than 90% of the city in ruins). 5 years of reconstruction work to rebuild the old town was funded completely by Poles after the war, aided by pictures and models detailing the diffferent parts of the old town.

The reconstruction was so faithful that the old town of Warsaw, was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980 as “an outstanding example of a near-total reconstruction of a span of history covering the 13th to the 20th century.”

Walking around the old town transports you back into a time centuries past. And yet, when seen from above, a new city sits just outside the Old Town.

Here in the old town is the St John’s Archcathedral, a brick Gothic UNESCO preserved cathedral and one of the pantheons of Polish Catholicism.

It serves as the site for the coronation of various Dukes of Masovia, Kings/Queens of Poland and the resting place of monarchs, presidents and Catholic primates of Poland (including August Hlond and Stefan Wyszynski).

These cardinals were very important people in Polish history. Cardinal August Hlond was the Primate of Poland during World War II, and Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski was the Primate of Poland at the peak of Communist control. These men were leaders and harbingers of hope that a better day would dawn.

Practically flattened after the war, the cathedral was rebuilt into its raw Gothic form.

Because of the sheer important of the Catholicism to the Polish people, this place is centre to the national identity of the Polish people and was heavily fought over during the Warsaw Uprising, with the Polish Home Army attempting to recapture it but the Nazi’s succeeding in leveling the cathedral to the ground. But it has risen again and Polish Catholicism has grown with it, most recently with the enthronement of Jesus Christ as the King of Poland in a huge religious ceremony in 2016.

Near the cathedral is the market square, the heart of trade in any city. The market square was the hub of the old city. Trade guilds were centred here, the most important businesses all had something here, people met here and the whos’ who met here so that they would be seen here.

The square here was reconstructed to look as it would have in the 17th century, when Poland was at the height of its Golden age and also because the architecture in the 17th century would have been Renaissance style when the people who lived in the Market Square were wealthy merchant families. 

The square is today a must see on the tourist list, and has many painters selling art works an the like. It is also where fun festival markets take place,

and it also where Bollywood films are filmed 😉

Actors playing the role of thugs, waiting for shooting to begin

Then there is the 16th century Warsaw Barbican, a semi circular fortified outpost along the walls of the old town that would protect the city and make it impossible for invaders to ram through (because the route to the door was curved steeply and a battering ram would not be able to have a long enough run up to generate momentum.

The Barbican marks the gateway to the old town and leads into the new town (which again isn’t new, it was just a place that was built upon later on in the 17th to 18th century) as well as even newer designs such as the Multimedia Fountain. Within each of the enclaves are artists painting and selling their wares to tourist today.

The Barbican was able to keep most enemies out, in fact the only people who breached Warsaw after the erection of the Barbican were the Swedes who decided to go around the city instead of risking the Barbican head-on. When the locals tried to take back Warsaw from the Swedes, it was they who were slaughtered by the very defensive fortification their forebears built.

The Barbican was destroyed when the new town was built and if not for the reconstruction of Warsaw and the Old Town would not exist today.

One of the dark parts of the reconstruction of the old town in Warsaw was the cost it inflicted on the other old towns around Poland. In an effort to ensure fidelity to the past, whole buildings and old towns from outside of Poland were torn down and the materials moved over to Warsaw and put in this city instead. So in a way, Warsaw’s old city was build on the rubble of the city itself and created more rubble in other cities in Poland.

Here are some other shots from the old town (for my own keepsake).

It is a beautifully reconstructed old town. Despite being reconstructions, it’s easy to see why the place is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


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