Go to most large cities in continental Europe and you will find an Old Town, filled with tourist restaurants and pricey bars. Warsaw’s Old Town is no exception in this respect, however all is not what it seems at first look.
After the 1944 uprising, what remained of the Old Town was systematically destroyed by the German Army. The demolition was a deliberate attempt to punish the citizens of Warsaw for the uprising and to try and erase the remnants of Polish nationhood – in this case, the historic buildings related to that state.
The destruction was so complete that in 1945 there was serious consideration given to moving the Polish capital to Łódź and abandoning Warsaw altogether. After the war the task of rebuilding Warsaw started, including the Old Town. Where possible original bricks were used, and the architects studied paintings and pictures of the original buildings to inform the reconstruction.
Much of the restoration was informed by the 18th Century paintings of Bernardo Bellotto, an Italian artist who appears to have used a lot of artistic licence in recording the original Old Town. His paintings can be seen in the Royal Castle and copies are set on plinths throughout the Old Town to allow comparison with the reconstructed buildings.
The accuracy of the reconstruction is contested, with accusations of embellishment and of old-style facades covering modern buildings. Some of the buildings were not rebuilt as they looked before the war, but as how they appeared several hundred years before.
Reconstruction started in 1945 and most of the work was completed by 1955. The Royal Castle is the newest ‘old’ building, having been reconstructed in 1971-1988. The remains of the original Zygmunt’s Column can be found next to the Royal Castle.
Despite the disputes over the accuracy and authenticity of the Old Town is has been placed on UNESCOS World Heritage list as ‘an outstanding example of reconstruction’. While some might dismiss the Old Town as a Disneyfied or film set version of what was previously there, it has to be seen in historical context.
The systematic destruction of the Old Town was symbolic – it was the crushing of the idea of Polish statehood and independence. The rebuilding of the Old Town was equally symbolic – albeit under a repressive communist regime – and signified the rebirth not just of Warsaw but of the idea of Polish history and statehood.
So when you’re sipping a suspiciously expensive Tyskie or tucking into some ‘authentic’ Polish cuisine in the Old Town, try and work out quite what the area is. Not an Old Town, but not new either. A post-modern hybrid of reconstructed buildings that may never have existed in their current form, wrapped in a layer of nostalgia and set against a backdrop of war and occupation.
Have you been to the Old Town? How do you feel about the reconstruction efforts? Share your thoughts using the comments below.