STILL FUN, STILL FASHIONABLE
Since the 19th century, stylish Varsovians have gone to Nowy Swiat -New World Street -to stroll, shop and sample cafe life. It is home to the city’s most fashionable boutiques, jewellery shops, restaurants and cafes, including the venerable cafe Blikle at 33 Nowy Swiat. (General Charles de Gaulle loved Blikle’s donuts.)
In the 18th century, however, it would have been better known as a section of Warsaw’s Royal Way that linked the summer palace and the winter castle of the last monarch of Poland. As King Stanislaw Augustus Poniatowski changed residences with the season so his collection of 2,246 paintings was carted down this route from his winter castle to his summer palace – and back again. The king made this trip for the last time in 1794. The following year Poland was split between its neighbours, Prussia, Austria and Russia, and Poland’s last monarch was to live out the last three years of his life as a virtual prisoner in Russia
Surprisingly, given the city’s devastation in WW2 and its subsequent long period as a Communist state, it’s still possible to get a feeling for the refined court life of this enlightened, well-meaning ruler. Begin at the baroque Royal castle in the Old Town where one richly furnished gilded room follows the other. Even more remarkable than the opulence hidden behind these austere walls is the fact that this is a reconstruction of the castle that was demolished by the Nazis.
A catastrophic fire had preceded the ultimate destruction of the castle in 1944. Townspeople joined castle workers in salvaging all they could carry of the furnishings, works of art and elements of the interiors. In the decades that followed, private individuals risked their lives to hide these treasures from the Communist authorities. The rescued elements were invaluable when work on the reconstruction began in 1971. The Polish community at home and abroad provided the funds and in 1984 the reconstructed rooms were open to the public for the first time. A permanent exhibition at the Palace documents the incredible undertaking of reconstructing the castle inside and out from drawings, paintings and the recollection of contemporaries.
Five kilometres down the Royal Route from the castle is the exquisite Lazienki Palace- the Palace on the Water. Originally the bathing place of an aristocrat, it was bought by King Stanislaw in 1764 and after considerable alteration, became the royal summer residence. Set on an island in a lake, a pair of classic colonnades links the palace with the shore on either side. Here, as in the winter residence, Stanislaw hosted his famous dinners, inviting thirty of the country’s intellectuals to dine with him to discuss education, science and politics on Wednesdays, and another thirty to discuss art and literature on Thursdays.
Although the 18th century painted ceiling of the Bacchus Room was deliberately destroyed, the Nazis were routed before carrying out their plans to blow up the building; the walls were drilled for dynamite charges, but Lazienki Palace was spared and is today the favourite summer time destination of Varsovians. Concerts are held in the extensive gardens and the palace is crowded with sightseers. When I visited, ice sheathed the branches of the trees, the lake was still and grey and the resident peacocks had sought shelter. The palace was open but it was practically deserted and I was free to admire the elegant rooms at my leisure.
The Royal Route continues to Wilanov, a 17th century palace 10 kilometres from the Royal Castle. By the time Stanislaw came to the throne Wilanov, the summer residence of King Jan III, was the private property of a noble family. Exceptionally, the ‘Polish Versailles’ suffered only minor war damage and was turned into a museum by the Communists. Details at http://www.wilanow-palac.pl/palace.html
Something to read:
The Doll, by Boleslaw Prus is an engrossing insight into nineteenth century Warsaw. It’s a world where duels are on their way out, electricity is on the way in and revolution, anti-Semitism and socialism are on the horizon. Prus takes us into the drawing rooms of the elite, the restaurants and taverns of the middle class, to the races and to the theater as his rags -to- riches hero attempts to woo the aristocratic love of his life.
A statue of Prus stands on Warsaw’s Krakowskie Przedmieście . Fittingly enough for a literary giant, the statue is 12 feeet tall.