The first thing that strikes me about Warsaw is that it looks far more modern than most European cities I’ve visited; the skyscraper I’m staying in overlooks a massive multi-lane freeway in a district spotted with other skyscrapers. It looks a lot like the United States. Foremost amongst the skycrapers is obviously the Palace of Culture and Science, facing off against a modern Daniel Libeskind skyscraper and a shopping centre. The detailing on the Palace includes sculptures of figures of each nation, which more leaves me rather reminded of imperial sculptures of each continent in London than its intended purpose. Graffiti I see later showing Godzilla destroying the Palace versus the Bat Signal streaming past it suggests continued ambivalence to a Soviet design that still towers over the city.
Much of the nearby area around the Palace remains rather empty with long expanses filled with nothing but grass and has the sense of still waiting for buildings to be reconstructed on it. I pass on into the Old Town. The hyperreal reconstruction of the original buildings is impressive here and it would have been hard to tell that buildings like the Royal Castle were not the originals. That’s also true of the surrounding buildings but there are signs; the styling of the sgraffito being a little too modernist or the occasional interruption of concrete structures. I have a look at the gothic cathedral with its Mitoraj door sculptures and the Barbakan.
The following day I travel out to Łazienki Park, initially looking at the Chopin monument before looking at the Orangery, with its arcade of sculpture casts (having seen the originals for the Laocoön Group and the Belvedere Apollo in Rome the year before) against a trompe-l’œil mural depicting a classical landscape. Further inside is a theatre; there’s no natural light but the frescos are visible thanks to a group of Cocteauesque sculptures holding lights. Back in the Park and the next thing I see is the Little White House with its Golden House style decoration and Chinoiserie frescos, before visitingŁazienki Palace. The interior here ranges from rooms filled with Delft tiles, stuccoed ceilings, classical frescos and statues (ranging from Hercules to Cerberus), while the park around it centres on a lake with a classical style ampitheatre facing a stage filled with fake classical ruins on an island. A terrapin sits on a ramp down to the water while peacocks strut about. Classical statues like the Dying Gaul are dotted around the park; I also particularly like a group of Chinese pavilions built near a stream, over which a small moon bridge has been built. Later that day, I journey back to the centre of town and visit the Royal Castle, walking round apartments like the Throne Room an the Sejm. Again, the reconstruction is immaculate although the glittering of the gilding looks a little too bright and untarnished when compared to somewhere like Versailles. I especially like the Bellotto paintings of Warsaw. Lastly, I visit the Tin Roofed Palace and spend some time looking round its collection of rugs, drawn from Persia, Turkey, Armenia and the Caucuses.
The following day, I visit the National Museum. I start off with the medieval section, with various polychromatic altar sculptures before looking at a range of paintings from Ruisdael, Alma-Tadema, Matejko, Lempicka and Signac. There’s a Japanese section I especially like with a range of Netsuke, sculptures of Heavenly Kings and porcelain as well as some classical pieces like red figure pottery and sculptures of Zeus and Mithras. Lastly, there’s the Faras gallery, a series of medieval Nubian frescos taken from the cathedral in Faras before the Aswan dam swept it away. Later on, I have a look at the Polin Museum; a more modern Yorvikesque museum that’s not really to my tastes in spite of interesting subjects and exhibits. Some things that do stand out are the reconstruction of the synagogue in Gwoździec and the model showing the Great Synagogue that used to stand in the centre of Warsaw.
The following day I travel out to Wilanów, the Polish Versailles. I start by looking at St Anne’s church, with it slightly bizarre Mammoth bone, and the adjacent Potocki tomb before entering the Palace grounds. The Palace is brightly coloured and the exterior walls painted in yellows and reds, with reliefs showing classical scenes like Zeus and Ganymede or Perseus rescuing Andromeda. The initial rooms inside are all heavily decorated with Chinoiserie, before later apartments with more conventional frescoed ceilings and classical sculptures. The gardens start with a series of formal gardens that lead up to wilder areas surrounding a lake, where a Chinese pagoda stands by the shore. Lastly that day, I travel back into Central Warsaw and visit the Jewish cemetery. As is often the case, it takes a while to work out who to get in through the large wall and once inside much of it proves to be overgrown and essentially reverting to nature. Images of owls and angels consort with conventional Jewish imagery and Hebrew script on broken tombstones.
The day after, I visit the Nożyk Synagogue, the last remaining pre-war synagogue in central Warsaw, before walking round the Saxon Gardens, Krasiński Palace and the Garrison church before visiting the church where Chopin’s heart is held. After that, it’s off to the train station to set off for Gdansk. The first day in Gdansk is actually taken up with backtracking out of the city, out to Malbork. This is a particular highlight to the trip; a brick gothic fortress whose walls stand at the centre of a large lily-covered lake. The interior of the castle is filled with gothic vaults, some frescoed with images of vines while roof bosses showing centaurs, green men, bears, demons and lions while the tiled floors show images of owls and bats. The castle’s museums include exhibitions around amber, armour, medieval altar sculptures, reliquaries and stained glass. The nearby church of St John, with its wooden tower includes an odd deer skull suspended from the ceiling with the Virgin Mary between the antlers; this sort of imagery is something I see several times in the area in both Gdansk and Oliwa.
In Gdansk itself, I’m staying near the Post Office featured in the Tin Drum, which now has a commemorative scupture outside; made of metal, it’s not especially nice to look at during the day but does look like beautiful when lit up at night. I have a walk around by the Motlawa, looking at the crane and the medieval city gates before walking down Długa to the Neptune fountain and the Town Hall down to the old prison tower. Looking around in a bit more detail, I visit the covered market and old great mill (the canals near to it rather remind me of Bruges) before looking at some of the churches; St Nicholas with its elaborate side altars, limewood sculptures and rood screen, St Catherine where fire damage has stripped the interior down to bare brick and the former church of St John, with its hellmouth fresco, misericords and wooden monuments. Now an art centre, there’s an exhibition of African sculpture when I visit. Confusingly, the sound system appears to be playing the theme from Pirates of the Caribbean. I also visit the Cathedral; dark brick on the outside and bright white on the inside, it features Lithuanian stained glass, limewood angels, an astronomical clock and elaborate marble monuments. I then visit the Artus Court, with its wall frescos, ships hanging from the ceiling, huge tiled furnace decorated with tiles of medieval kings, stags heads and an image of Acteon (more hunting imagery) and sculptures of George and the Dragon. I then visit the Town Hall, with its extraordinary allegorical ceiling frescos; some of the paintings are being conserved and are shown at ground level with scenes like Noah’s ark. I also notice another female figure shown suspended, with deer’s antler’s growing out of her back in the manner of wings. I then walk out of the town centre to the National Museum (yes, another National Museum). The highlight here is clearly Memling’s Last Judgement, but there are several good 19th century townscapes of Gdansk and Flemish paintings. As the day draws to a close, I go for a walk on Olowianka Island, with its ferris wheel and derelict granaries.
The next day and I take the train out to Oliwa, to the cathedral. It’s raining and as I take shelter inside I realise that a organ recital is in progress, playing Bach’s Toccata. I sit down and listen as it plays Peer Gynt and Schubert’s Ave Maria. At one point I hear the sound of chimes and percussion and turn round to see what’s playing it; looking at the organ I realise that the wooden angel that adorn it are moving. Some of them are playing percussion while others appear to be blowing trumpets. The cathedral itself is a mixture of gothic and elaborate baroque detail around the altar. It also has a set of cloisters and a refectory. Back in Gdansk, I visit the Unhagen House on Długa, with its rooms painted with images of birds and insects and stuccoed ceilings. Next, I visit the archaeological museum, with its collection of Amber (the doll’s house furniture made of Amber is especially striking), Sudanese spell board for a witch doctor (when I can see it after a power cut) and ancient face urns. The museum is near Mariacka Street, with its pretty painted houses, strange drain covers in the image of Stag Beetles, Frogs and Elephants where the pipes lead down to spouts embedded in stone dragons and dolphins. Lastly that day, I get a ticket for the maritime museum and start of by visiting the interior of the medieval crane, the Sołdek on the other side of the river and the museum itself with its range of maritime painting. That evening I go to another organ recital; this time in the cathedral at Gdansk, featuring an unusual choice of Canteloube alongside Bach and Muschel’s Toccata. I only have a few hours the next morning and have a look at the area around the Solidarity Museum, with its scaled replica of Tatlin’s tower.