Al-Ahram Weekly Online   12 - 18 July 2012
Issue No. 1106
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Warsaw in a new light

Sherif Sonbol experiences beauty, tragedy and a toothache to boot

Click to view caption
Clockwise from far left: the palace gate; the ceiling of the king's room; Chopin's house

I first travelled to Warsaw in January, although many people warned me it would not be attractive. The Nazis completely destroyed the city, and the USSR used reparations after the war to build a cold city and stole the beautiful objects. But I went anyway, and was met at the airport by my good friend Dorota Bobecka and Anna Mieczynska, both leading figures on Poland's photography scene. I am close to the Bobecka family which includes a brilliant photographer, Janek Bobecki, who is moving very fast in his field.

On that trip, we went to the stunning city of Cracow, and on the way back visited the impressive monastery of Jasna Gora. It was a short trip, but I fell in love with Poland and decided to go back. This time, I had an exhibition in Smolna Gallery in Warsaw which was also hosting the European Football Championship UEFA EURO 2012.

I bought my airline ticket at the newly opened office in Cairo of the Polish Airline LOT and landed on time at Warsaw Chopin airport. The Polish embassy in Cairo had warned us that security might require electronic fingerprints upon arrival, and sure enough I found myself at the fingerprint desk with my fingers on a laser reader. But the technology refused to work; I tried and they tried, and they wiped both the screen and fingers and tried again. Nothing.

Every time, the officer would smile and say: "Computer problem" and I would smile back, but soon I was the only passenger left and I was getting worried about my luggage which contained valuable exhibition photos. "It will not get lost," she reassured me. "Do not worry." Eventually, she allowed me to collect my luggage, and after several other failed trials, she let me buy a phone card to call my friends waiting outside.

It eventually became clear that the machine will not read my fingerprints and the officer let me go. I walked away lamenting the good ol' days of plain old-fashioned messy ink smudge fingerprinting. My friends picked me up and we went straight to the exhibit hall to deliver the prints.

After the exhibition opened, I had planned to travel outside Warsaw but a severe toothache put a damper on that plan, and I found myself frequenting a dentist's office instead. I suggested to Dr Andrzej Chramiec that my teeth will fall out because I am diabetic, but he frowned and said that my teeth will fall out because of incorrect dental care in Cairo. He took x-rays and actual pictures, and pointed out all the problems and decided to start working on, say, 11 teeth.

I had no plans to stay in Warsaw and was at a loss with what to do when I'm not in Dr Chramiec's chair, but my friends had plenty of ideas. We went to the Wilanow Palace which is a long drive from where I was staying. The Polish King John III Sobieski, who built Wilanow;Palace, led allied European armies against the Ottoman Empire's Kara Mustafa Pacha at the gates of Vienna, and obliterated that Ottoman dream in 1683.

The old royal palace was situated on the Vistula River in the centre of Warsaw, in a rather crowded area. King John III Sobieski was a great warrior who preferred to live in peace away from the crowds, so he bought a plot that would provide him tranquility and repose, and built Villa Nova - later changed to the Wilanow. He built the new residence in stages due to limited resources and to avoid criticism from the gentry since it was unconstitutional for Polish rulers to purchase landed estates. Poland, in fact, penned the first constitution in Europe and the second in the world.

Wilanow Palace has a lush French park, with statues in the gardens, an exhibition hall, and a few restaurants and pubs at the entrance. Prices are normal and perhaps even cheap. A stroll through the park takes less than an hour, as does a walk through the palace, but if there is a photographer on the tour it would take at least two days. I was taken by the beauty of the architecture, the statues, the flowers and the palace details - and I also have to wait for the sun. The best time to go is 11am-1pm so the sun is on all sides of the walls, and you need another day at the same hours for the back of the building.

The interior was smaller than anticipated. The Palace opened recently after renovations but clearly renovations still need more time. I was surprised by the painting on the ceiling of the hall between the royal sleeping chambers because it seemed to move with you. This is probably where Queen Maria Kasimira sat to write her famous letters to the King when he was on the battlefield.

The Poles are known to be formidable warriors, which is why Hitler was especially harsh and completely destroyed Warsaw at the onset of WWII, then created concentration camps for the people of Poland that were even worse than the ones for Jews. I visited the Warsaw Uprising Museum and found out the exceptional tale of a member of the Bobecka family called Wladyslaw Krasnicki, who was imprisoned in one of these camps, and was reported to have weighed only 36kg when he was released. Krasnicki and fellow prisoners would use breadcrumbs to make rosaries to help them keep their faith and survive.

I also found out about a young girl who lost her entire family, and when Nazi soldiers were approaching her village an old couple hid her under the carpet. She was small and fragile, so she fit under the carpet after some furniture was rearranged.

Unlike the Wilanow Palace, the Uprising Museum which opened recently is in the centre of town. I was very impressed by it and considered perhaps a similar project should be built in Tahrir to document last year's Egyptian revolution. The Warsaw museum is designed and built well, leaving a strong impression about the evil massacres ordered by Hitler. In fact, it was so overwhelming that I could only see two of the three storeys.

A dramatically-lit reenactment takes place in cells, showing people suffering in their confinement and gives the audience a glimpse of what it was like to be imprisoned for years on end. It is remarkable how a lighting designer can make the Louvre such a joy to walk through, and purposely make the Uprising Museum so depressing to experience. Months later, I still remember the faces of the martyrs smiling amid the darkness.

For a more energising experience, Chopin House is a must. A stunning site with breathtaking grounds, it is located in a village called Zelazowa Wola 54km outside Warsaw. It is the most famous shrine to the composer in Poland and can be accessed by train. The house is probably the place where Chopin's parents first met and where on 1 March 1810 Fryderyk Chopin was born. In Autumn of the same year, however, the family moved to Warsaw for good.

Nonetheless, Chopin was a regular visitor to the house and many times moved the piano to the garden where he played his concerts, and people from the area gathered to listen to his music including the peasants and farmers.

The park has very positive energy and the flowers looked radiant. It seemed that a pleasant stroll through the grounds with Chopin's piano music floating through the air - as if he were still playing - could heal any ailment. The house itself does not have any distinguishing design or architecture, and the furniture in not original - like everything else, all that was destroyed by Hitler's brutish soldiers.

Nonetheless, the park, the water, the flowers and music make for such a unique combination - oh, and the gift shop is insanely overpriced.

The most expensive area in Warsaw is called Szczesliwice (which means happy), with attractive buildings around a park and two lakes called Park Szczesliwicki. Like other buildings in Europe, such as the BMW building in Munich, it is built over the ruins of WWII. The Westside restaurant has the best view in Warsaw: a small river, gentle hill, skating rink, and delicious chocolate cake. The cake costs around EUR 4 while lunch tallied to EUR 10.

My sojourn in Warsaw was an unscheduled surprise that enriched my experience and expanded my horizons. I plan to go to the zoo and the Polish circus next time.

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