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Krakowskie Przedmiescie Street (Warsaw, Poland)

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Warsaw / Poland

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      04.10.2008 16:13
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      One of the oldest and most elegant streets in Warsaw

      Krakowskie Przedmiescie Street (Krakov-ski-a Pshed me-eski-a) is one of the oldest streets in Warsaw, having started out as a trade route in the 15th century. During the 17th century, palaces and manor houses started sprouting up along what had by then become the major artery of the new Polish capital. By the end of the 19th century, the street was lined with impressive baroque and classical palaces, churches and tenement buildings. The early 20th century saw the erection of large commercial buildings like the Bristol Hotel. Today, the street is a pot pourri of monumnets and historic buildings and is a strong tourist drawcard.

      Once an obstacle course for anyone venturing down its uneven, cracked and narrow side-walks packed with parked cars, the street has been redesigned as a semi-pedestrian mall. The street was officially re-opened on July 13th after a painstaking facelift that cost 86 million zloty and took two years to complete.

      Why is this street so popular with tourists? Well, it is the first leg of the so-called Royal Route that runs between the Royal Castle and Wilanow Palace, the one time summer residence of King Jan 111 Sobieski (1629 -1696), and historically was the main street that carried travellers into Warsaw from Krakow.

      When walking down this famous street I usually start at the Royal Castle, next to the sabre rattling statue of King Sigismund. This is a favourite meeting point for young couples and buskers alike. It is usually the spot where I sit and eat my zapiekanki (toasted baguette with a topping of tomatoes, cheese and mushrooms).

      I suggest that if you are going to walk the full length of the street you then head for St. Anna's Church and the Convent of Bernhard. The church was founded in the 15th century by Duchess Anna of Mazovia who brought the Bernhard monks to Warsaw from Krakow. In 1505 the church was destroyed by fire, but rebuilt in 1511 as a far larger and more attractive building. The building was extended between 1513-14, when it received the cell-vaulting that can still be seen today. After the next fire, in 1515, duchess Anna Radziwillowna founded a new church; sadly this too was burned in turn in 1657 during the Polish-Swedish War and Hungarian invasion.

      The church was remodelled and rebuilt many times and was also famous for music. In the 18th century it was the etiquette of the times to spend Sunday afternoons at Belle Messe, Belle Musique (beautiful Holy Mass, beautiful music), and at concerts organised to celebrate St. Cecile.

      The church also protects the grave of the patron of Warsaw (Wladyslaw from Golenow). Wladyslaw was a famous orator and preacher, poet, Bernhard monk and author of popular passion songs, who according to legend, became so excited when giving a sermon on Good Friday in 1505 that he fell into a trance and began to levitate, floating above the pulpit.

      In 1949 the church became endangered again through construction of the east-west Route. The ground underneath became unstable through flooding and the church started to slip away and the walls became cracked. Fortunately, it was saved by Professor Romauld Cebertowicz. He invented a way of solidifying the soil by way of directing electric currents into it. This method was also used to save The Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy.

      Now the church is labelled 'Academic' and serves the city''s students. It is famed as a superb venue for marriage ceremonies, young people believing that all couples married here will live a happy life together. This amazing piece of architecture stands at No 68 on this famous street.

      Next, I suggest you make a bee line for the Monument of Adam Mickiewicz who was the romantic national poet (1798-1855). The monument was erected in 1898 but the construction of the monument required the permission of the Russians. They agreed though with one condition that the monument could not be larger than the statue of Ivan Paskiewicz, the Russian Field Marshall who crushed the November Uprising in 1931. The unveiling of the monument was quite spectacular with over 12,000 patriotic Poles attending the ceremony while the speech was given by the Nobel Prize winner, Henry Sienkiewicz.

      A feature of the monument also worthy of attention is the hand forged and beaten fence, a gift from Varsovian workers. In 1968 the area near the monument was the scene of student protests against the order to remove posters for the performance of the poet's, 'Forefather's Eve.' Communist censors had ordered the removal of these posters and students flocked to the streets where fighting broke out. Students, political opponents and intellectuals faced the violence and anti-Semitic attacks of the communist government.

      Standing behind this monument is a dark pink building with a huge opening in the main facade. Visitors are always intrigued by this as it looks like a huge chunk is missing. It was so that horse drawn vehicles could have access. The building known as The Dziekanka Dormitory was built in 1770-84 on land belonging to the Dean of the St. John Cathedral collegiate.

      Around 1830 this manor was remodelled into an inn, and after rebuilding following the Second World War it became a dormitory and centre of student cultural life. It is known for artistic performances, art exhibitions, musical events and festivals such as the Garden Theatre Festival. The address is No 56.

      At No 46 and No 48 sits the Presidential Palace or sometimes known as the Governor's palace. You can't miss this building as it is fenced off and guarded by stone lions and grumpy soldiers holding guns. The palace was built in the 17th century for Commander S Koniecpolski and later adapted to be the seat of the Russian Tsar's governor, General Josef Zajaczek. No less known in Warsaw than the general was his wife, a famous ballerina, who scandalised Varsovian society with her numerous romances. Another story concerns the four lions guarding the main gate: they are said to roar only when a truly chaste woman passes by.

      Since 1994 it has been a residence for Polish presidents and there are always streams of limos coming in and out of the gates. The palace has witnessed several historical moments. In 1955 the Warsaw Pact was signed here, and in 1974 the treaty regulating Polish German relations, while in 1989 the palace hosted the Round Table debates between the representatives of the communist regime and its political opponents. In front of the palce is a monument to Duke Jozef Poniatowski who proved to be one of Poland's finest monarchs.

      Next door is the Hotel Bristol, long regarded as one of Warsaw's most exclusive hotels. This luxurious hotel was built in 1889-1901 in the neo-Renaissance style. It has played host to many celebrities and has witnessed everything from the celebration of Maria Sklodowska-Curie receiving the nobel prize and Marshal Pilsudski's receptions to the world-famous opera singer Jan Kiepura who sang his well known line 'brunettes,blonds all you girls I want to kiss.' In the 1930's the painter Wojciech Kossak, famous for historical and battle scenes, had his studio at the hotel, using his paintings to pay the bill. In reception in the marble lobby you will see etched in brass the names of dozens of celebrities who have stayed there, including Marlene Dietrich, Nixon, Margaret Thatcher and Picasso.

      Another interesting building and story can be found opposite The Hotel Bristol, namely inside No 13 Krakowskie Przedmiescie. On 30th June, 2005 this famous hotel was closed, but its beginnings can be traced back to the years 1855-77, when it was built piece by piece to become the first modern hotel in Warsaw, a meeting place for the cream of Varsovian society, as well as artists and politicians. This heyday lasted until 1944, when it was ruined but the reconstruction re-established the neo-Renaissance facade and interior. The hotel once welcomed The Rolling Stones, Robert Kennedy, Indira Ghandi and Marlene Dietrich. It has been taken over from the Orbis hotel chain by the ancestor of its pre-war owner, the Duchess Maria Anna Czetwertynska, the new owner looking for an investor such as Ritz-Carlton or Regent International Hotels. According to the plans made public, it may become a five star hotel, with the upper floors housing luxury apartments and offices.

      One thing you will notice at this point on the street is a preponderance of young people , some of them carrying books, others staggering out of bars. Why? If you haven't guessed, it is the home of Warsaw University. It is the main campus and it lies behind the grand gateway at number 26/28.

      In 1634 King Johan Casimir Vasa built a palace named the Villa Regia, also known as Kazimierzowski Palace, which became his favourite residence. After rebuilding it was adopted as a school and when the foundation of the University was announced in 1816 the building became its seat. The Tsar had accepted the institution with its five departments, law and administration, medicine, philosophy, theology and fine art, but after the November Uprising the University was closed as the majority of students had participated in the rebellion. In 1859 the Tsar agreed to open a School of Medicine and Surgery and to this another three departments were added, allowing the University to begin admitting students again. During the second World War the German occupiers forbade teaching, yet the professors continued to hold lectures in private buildings, creating an underground education system involving about 300 professors and 3,500 students from which body 63 professors were to die. Following the war, in December 1945, about 4 million students began studying.

      The main entrance to the building is very ornate; with two statues standing in niches, on the right Victoria, on the left Urania, while above the main gate there is a crowned eagle surrounded by stars, holding in its claws sprigs of laurel and olive. The University admits students to 18 departments, with 25 interdisciplinary centres organising courses.

      Finally we come to the last landmark and the end of my tour. This landmark is the Nicholas Copernicus Monument and is located at Staszic Palace. The raising of funds for its construction began in 1810, however it was not until 1830 that it was sculpted by the remarkable Danish artist Berthel Thorvaldsen. Nicholas Copernicus was born in Turin in Poland in 1473 and is famed for his heliocentric theory, and here the astronomer is shown with an astrolabium in his left hand and a compass in his right. During the war the Germans covered the monument's Polish inscriptions with german tablets, yet these were removed in a sabotage action by a scout named Alek Dawidowski, and when the monument was moved to western Poland for scrapping, it was miraculously saved and returned to Warsaw. Two other monuments were cast from the same mould, one located in Montreal, the second in Chicago.

      There are still a couple of finishing touches that need adding to the street. It has to be made wheelchair friendly, a glazed cafe and an underground exhibition hall are not quite ready yet.

      What do the people of Warsaw think about all this money being spent. Well, they came out in droves on the day of the opening celebrations but overall I would say that they think it is a waste of money as the face lift is mainly to attract more tourists. In my opinion I think this famous and oldest street in Warsaw is a pleasure to walk down especially in the Autumn when it seems to have a regal air about the place. I think we need more tourists to visit the city so I think it is money well spent and the architects who created this splendour have done a good job. You can see that they have paid attention to detail regarding the wide, granite sidewalks redolent of its 18th century glory. The same attention to detail has been paid to lamposts, litter - boxes, benches and even flower baskets and pots.

      You would think that after all the horrific things that have happened to this city it's people would be happy about the recreation of this splendid street but it does seem that they still wear the badge of pessimism and see it, as they see the recreated Old Town - just as another piece of Disneyland. This I find quite sad because I personally think this whole area is very grand and would definitely recommend it.

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      An elegant boulevard in the heart of Poland. There are several attractions along this short stretch to be enjoyed: several beautiful churches, the university, and of course the presidential palace and the statue of Copernicus