Warsaw – The youngest old town in er… town
When is an old town not an old town? When it is in Warsaw.
On the surface of it the centre of the Polish capital is home to a 15th century castle, its oldest and tallest non-church monument was raised in 1644 and a magnificent market square dates from the late 13th and early 14th century.
In reality, the majority of the buildings in Warsaw’s old town are no more than 50 or 60 years old.
That’s because an incredible 90 per cent of it was destroyed during bombing raids in World War Two.
Lovingly restored and rebuilt, the old town was even named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980.
On occasion I like to visit a city without first consulting the history books; an act of laziness or an attempt to allow myself a blank canvas upon which to draw my own views, I’ll let you decide.
Warsaw was one such case, and – after a romantic and relaxing horse drawn carriage ride around the old town – it was somewhat disappointing to find my surroundings were far younger than I had imagined.
But that is an injustice to the incredible rebuilding job which has taken place in Warsaw’s old town.
During the war around 84 per cent of the city as a whole was destroyed by German bombers.
In September 1939, the Luftwaffe launched a series of air attacks on Warsaw, dropping 500 tons of high explosive bombs and 72 tons of incendiary bombs in one day.
Warsaw suffered about 40,000 civilian deaths, 40 per cent of the buildings in the city were damaged, and 10 per cent were destroyed.
The effort taken to restore buildings and monuments like the Royal Castle, the King Zygmunt III Waza Column and the Church of St Martin is admirable.
Built in the 15th century, the Royal Castle served as residence of Mazovian princes. Once the capital was moved to Warsaw from Kraków, the castle served as seat of the king and the government.
Renovated repeatedly and destroyed completely during World War Two, it was rebuilt between 1971 and 1988 using castle remains and rubble.
Today, it opens the way to the Old Town.
The King Zygmunt III Waza Column, heralded as the oldest and tallest non-church monument in Warsaw, was raised in 1644 by King Wladyslaw IV in honour of his father, Zygmunt III Waza, who in 1596 moved the capital to Warsaw.
The monument stands 22 metres high with the actual figure of the King measuring 275 cm. The sword he holds in his right hand symbolises bravery, while the cross in his left hand symbolises his readiness to fight evil.
According to legend, should the King’s sword fall downward, disaster is sure to follow. The statue fell during World War Two and its destroyed column was placed next to the Royal Castle, where it remains today.
The Church of St Martin was founded in 1536, but – again – has been reconstructed.
And the story is the same for the market square. In 1944, it was completely destroyed and all of its buildings had to be reconstructed after the war.
Locals proudly boast that their appearance is a perfect match for the square’s look in the 17th and 18th centuries.
It may not be as old as it once was, but Warsaw’s old town is certainly as pretty and it is a powerful symbol of triumph over adversity.