Historic Center of Warsaw: A Fairy Tale City

The City of Warsaw (Old Town)

Like so many other European cities, Warsaw owes its origin to a river, in this case, the Vistula. A small river port and a ford over which a bridge was soon built were the elements around which the first population center arose in the Middle Ages. Excavations within the present urban perimeter have revealed as many as three earlier settlements. The oldest, Stare Bródno, flourished during the 10th and 11th centuries, but was destroyed in the harsh feudal struggles of the time. It was replaced by the Kamion enclave, which existed as early as 1065, and this in turn by the Jazdow enclave, the oldest records of which date back to 1262. Some decades later, it was decided to move Jazdow to a site offering better defensive possibilities. A river terrace was chosen on the left bank of the Vistula, about 3 km north of Jazdow, on which there was a small village called Warszawa, exactly where the Stare Miasto, the old town of Warsaw, is situated today.

New Town, Old Town. 

Soon the new town was one of the most important in the region of Mazovia, whose dukes fortified it and where they built a castle, the first embryo of the future Royal Palace. Mazovia was then under constant attack by the still pagan Prussian and Lithuanian tribes. To combat them, Duke Conrad I asked the knights of the Teutonic Order for help, but these warrior monks soon became an even greater and more difficult danger to avert. Warsaw, threatened by the order in 1339, could be saved thanks to the agreement sealed between the king of Poland, Casimir the Great, and the Teutonic Knights, which took place in Warsaw itself and was witnessed by the emissaries of Pope Benedict XII. The Order, however, would not be entirely defeated until 1466, the year in which the signing of the Treaty of Thorn allowed Poland to recover, among other territories, the mouths of the Vistula, which allowed Warsaw, located in the middle channel of this important waterway and with an eminently mercantile economy, free access to the Baltic routes and their enormous commercial possibilities.

The Old Town Market Square

By then, the city was already very different from the one that received Casimir the Great as its savior. At the beginning of the 15th century, the space of the Stare Miasto was insufficient and had to be extended to the north, outside the walls, by the Nowe Miasto or new town. In 1431 a fire destroyed a large part of the Stare Miasto, which was rebuilt almost entirely in stone, revealing the economic prosperity that the city had achieved. After the extinction of the dynasty of the Dukes of Mazovia in 1526, Warsaw became part of the Polish crown, becoming one of the favorite residences of the last kings of the Jagiellon dynasty. During the reign of Sigismund III Wasa, the fire of the Cracow Castle in 1595 and the short-lived proclamation of Sigismund as King of Sweden decided the transfer of the Polish capital to Warsaw, closer to the Baltic. The new status of the city was accompanied by profound transformations of its urban fabric. The frowning castle of the dukes became a sumptuous baroque royal palace. Italian-style palaces and villas sprang up outside the old town, and a new fortification program increased the city's defenses between 1621 and 1624. 

The Occupied Capital. 

From the 17th century onwards, the history of Poland, always conditioned by the expansionist ambitions of over-powerful neighbors, became a long ordeal of conquests, annexations, and partitions of its territory. The Swedish-Polish war from 1654 to 1660 was largely fought within the walls of Warsaw, which, alternately taken by both sides, was subjected to continuous plundering. In 1709 it was taken by Peter the Great of Russia, coinciding with a plague epidemic that decimated the population. However, the following periods were the most prosperous in the history of the city, both in the economic and artistic fields. Warsaw then acquired much of its current urban profile, largely thanks to the urban planning initiatives of the enlightened Stanislaus II Augustus Poniatowska, who was unable to prevent his kingdom from being progressively occupied by Russia, Austria, and Prussia, until it disappeared completely in 1795. In the final division, Warsaw went to the Prussians, but not for long. Capital of the short-lived Grand Duchy of Warsaw, created by Napoleon in 1807, it was temporarily occupied by the Austrians in 1809. After the Congress of Vienna, which sanctioned a new distribution, apparently definitive, of Poland among the neighboring powers, its capital was annexed by Russia, a situation that would last until 1918.

Palace of Pod Bacha (rebuilt after WWII) situated in the heart of the capital

The long years of Russian occupation of Warsaw were marked by continuous uprisings that were harshly repressed, but also by a considerable industrial deployment. The Great War gave the Poles, who had never given up their struggle for independence, the opportunity to put the pieces of their lost country back together again. Warsaw was once again the capital of a sovereign state, and during the interwar period, before the alliance between Moscow and Berlin sealed its fate far beyond its borders, it became one of the great capitals of Eastern Europe, with an active economic and cultural life.

Freta Street in Warsaw

Winds of Death. 

None of this survived five years of war, repression, and systematic destruction. For the first time in its long history of misfortunes, 1945 was truly annihilated, unable to recover from the loss of 90% of its buildings and almost 2/3 of its population. But the new government decided to keep it as the capital, initiating an ambitious reconstruction plan that wisely combined scrupulous respect for the structure of the historic sectors with a complete urban modernization to adapt the city to the needs of the second half of the 20th century.

Warsaw During the Nazi Invasion

The most modern districts were entirely remodeled, new streets were opened, the main arteries were widened and the number of bridges over the Vistula was increased. In contrast, both the old town and the neoclassical neighborhoods in the south, centered around the great avenues of the so-called Krakow suburb (Krakowskie Przedmiescie) and Nowy Swiat, were painstakingly restored to their original appearance, down to the smallest details, which is one of the most successful architectural works of the 20th century and has served as an example for many similar projects in various countries.

Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw 

The reconstruction did not always follow the state of the city in 1939. In many cases, it took the opportunity to eliminate additions or modifications lacking artistic value and tended to recover the city of the 18th century, the period to which most of the buildings belonged. The result is a homogeneous architectural ensemble, particularly valuable in the area defined as world heritage, comprising the old medieval city, i.e., the Stare Miasto and Nowe Miasto, bounded by the Vistula docks to the east, the Royal Palace Square to the south, and Konwiktorska and Sanguszki streets to the north, and Podwale, Dluga, and Bonifraterska to the west. 

The Cathedral and the Castle. 

The Beautiful Royal Palace in Warsaw built in the 18th century

The ensemble is articulated around an axis formed by the streets of Swietojanska, which links the Royal Palace with the Cathedral, and Freta. Both converge in the market square, trapezoidal in shape, which marks the boundary between the Stare Miasto and Nowe Miasto. Around this main nucleus develops an urban space, formed mostly by baroque and neoclassical buildings, although it has some Gothic elements such as the Cathedral, the church of the Dominicans, remains of the walled enclosure, and some houses. Houses with attic floors, sometimes with arcades, with carvings, moldings, railings, paintings, or sgraffito, provide its characteristic and endearing flavor to this old Warsaw resurrected. 

At the southern end of the Stare Miasto is located, at the end of a square, the former Royal Palace of the Polish sovereigns. It was built between the 16th and 17th centuries, on the primitive ducal castle, by Andrew Hegnerabramowicz for King Sigismund III Wasa, whose statue crowns a tall column erected in front of the palace in 1644. After the fall of the monarchy, it served as the seat of successive occupying powers, until the Nazis blew it up in 1944. Fortunately, the 22 views of Warsaw that adorned the so-called Hall of Perspectives, painted at the end of the 18th century by Bernardo Bellotto Il Canaletto, and which were to play such an unmistakable role in the reconstruction of the city, were not lost.

The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Warsaw

To the north, the narrow Swietojanska Street leads to St. John's Cathedral, the other great monument of old Warsaw. A neo-Gothic work, its first construction dates back to the end of the 13th century; it lacks, however, the monumentality of other contemporary cathedrals, which is not surprising considering that it did not have such status until the 18th century. When it was built, it was only the main church of a prosperous but provincial merchants' village, far removed from the tragic and heroic destiny that history had in store for it.

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