Old Warsaw: Around Royal Castle [MONUMENTS]

The oldest part of Warsaw is a living monument to the city's history, from its humble beginnings as a stronghold of provincial dukes to its decline, almost total destruction and final rebirth. This is the best place to feel Warsaw's unique genius loci permeating the labyrinth of townhouses, annexes, atmospheric lanes, passageways and yards where every nook and cranny resounds with memories and echoes of the past.

Royal Castle

The most prominent sight in the Old Town, the Royal Castle has witnessed many an event that changed the course of Polish history. Almost entirely destroyed during World War II, the present appearance of the castle is a result of an arduous reconstruction lasting more than 30 years, which successfully made use of whatever remained of the original architecture and furnishings.

The castle can be visited on two tours, each of them passing through the main rooms. Tour No. 1 takes about 60 minutes, either with a guide or on your own, whereas Tour No. 2 is a 90-minute guided tour. Both include a visit to the castle cellars, the Gallery of Decorative Arts, a collection of national artefacts and the Copper-Roofed Palace.

The Royal Castle is a three-storey pentagonal building incorporating an inner courtyard called the Great Courtyard. There is also the exterior Kitchen Courtyard which occupies the corner of Zamkowy square that opens onto Kanonia. The facade overlooking the square is dominated by the gated Clock Tower. Soaring above Grodzka st. is the Town Tower and from the Great Courtyard you can see the Władysław Tower.

The castle has three gates. The Town Gate, above Grodzka st. and the W-Z Expressway, is closed to the public. The Zygmunt Gate, which links Zamkowy sq. with the Great Courtyard through the Zygmunt Tower, is open to visitors and leads to the main castle entrance. Situated at the far end of the square, opposite Kanonia, the Senator's Gate connects the two castle courtyards.

Old Town

Inscribed in 1980 on UNESCO's World Heritage List, Warsaw's Old Town is a cluster of townhouses and cobbled lanes densely packed within a small area whose key points are plac Zamkowy, Old Market and Barbakan.

The exact date when old Warsaw was established remains unknown, but it is generally accepted that the ducal seat and the town appeared some time at the turn of the 14th century. The settle-ment began to develop in the 14th century, the process accelerating rapidly in the 16th century. In 1609 King Zygmunt III Vasa left Kraków's Wawel Castle for good and from that time onwards all Polish monarchs resided permanently at the Royal Castle.

By the time of Jan III Sobieski, the city centre had been so densely built up that any new structures had to be constructed in the former suburbs - which had a tremendous impact on the area's fate. As a result, the Old Town was losing in significance and began to decline gradually. Its legal autonomy was abolished by the Great Sejm which passed the Municipal Status Act of 18 April 1791. During the Congress Kingdom of Poland era there were even plans to demolish substantial parts of the historical centre so as to make room for wide avenues leading to the Royal Castle. However, these intentions came to an end with the laying out of plac Zamkowy (1818). In the early 20th century the Old Town was a lumpenproletariat neighbourhood, a paradigm of life in poverty and squalid conditions.

During the Warsaw Uprising, 10 days after its outbreak, the Old Town became the focus of the fighting. This brought a murderous attack of German forces combined with shelling and dive-bombing. The Old Town and New Town were almost razed to the ground.

Reconstruction work started in 1948. It included a successful gentrification of the Old Town which transformed it from the pre-war hotbed of distress and debauchery into a national showcase of historic architecture.

Royal Square (Plac Zamkowy)

Faced by the Royal Castle, plac Zamkowy boasts Warsaw's arguably most characteristic landmark, the statue of King Zygmunt III. The square was first laid out when the statue was erected, but by the 18th century the area had been densely built up again with all sorts of stables, coach houses and servants' quarters. The square gained roughly its present-day appearance following some demolition work between 1818 and 1821. In 1843 it was extended towards the south-east where a convent of the Poor Clares was pulled down for that purpose.

The statue of Zygmunt III

Founded by his son, Władysław IV, the baroque statue honouring King Zygmunt III Vasa was placed here in 1643-1644. Augustyn Locci was responsible for its general concept, Constantino Tencalla was the architect who designed the column while the sculptor Clemente Molli from Bologna did the figure. A remarkable work of art, it is unique and innovative in many respects, being the only secular statue erected in 17th-century Poland as well as the oldest monument of its kind in the country. The ambitious founder wanted the statue of his father to "surpass the splendour of all Roman monuments".

The statue itself is 2.75 metres tall and placed on a square base rising from a Corinthian capital. Originally gilded, it is bronze today. The column is 8.5 metres tall and stands on a sizeable plinth. Altogether, the monument is 22 metres tall. The plinth features four Roman eagles and Latin inscriptions. Three of them laud the virtues of Zygmunt III while the fourth one honours the founder, Włady-sław IV. Other Latin inscriptions commemorate Daniel Tym (1644), who cast the king's figure, and the renovation of the column in 1743, which was financed by King August III.

Reconstruction of the Old Town

The post-war Old Town is not an exact replica of its appearance from before 1944. As Zbigniew Morawski wrote in his introduction to Maria Lewicka's Atlas of Warsaw Old Town's Architecture (Warsaw 1992), "It was decided to preserve the medieval street grid and give each building its historic form, presenting mainly 17th- and 18th-century architecture, so as to save and make use of all their surviving elements. Remains of cramped, chaotic structures were removed from the yards and the interiors were adapted to modern living standards. Inevitably, the original social fabric of the area was not restored and Warsaw's intellectual elites became the new tenants."

Old Town walls

Pl. Zamkowy is a good starting point for a walk along the double line of walls that surround the Old Town. Their very clear form today is the result of restoration and reconstruction work done in the 1930s and after World War II. The first defences were built around 1300. The last addition was the Barbican.

Along Podwale, as far as the beginning of ul. Piekarska, a well-preserved stretch of the outer wall can be seen, probably dating from the 14th century. Note the guard's walkway and the remnants of three semicircular towers. On the other side of ul. Piekarska, the most interesting feature of the inner wall is the five-storey Knight's Tower also called the Knight's House.

Between Wąski Dunaj and Szeroki Dunaj, the inner wall retains some traces of a rectangular tower while the outer wall was originally interrupted by three towers; one of the latter, once known as the Arbour, has survived in relatively good condition. Szeroki Dunaj is connected with Podwale via a passageway through an inner wall tower which is called the Butcher's Gate. Further down Podwale, the 1983 Monument to the Little Insurgent stands at the outside wall.

Ul. Nowomiejska is the most impressive section of the fortifications. It's hard to overlook the Gunpowder Tower in the outer wall, reconstructed after the war and topped with the characteristic conical cupola built of bricks. Behind it, the Gothic-Renaissance Barbakan makes one of Warsaw's landmarks. Built in 1548 by Jan Baptysta of Venice and decorated with a fine attic, it is the second oldest barbican in Poland (after that in Cracow) and one of very few surviving structures of its kind in Europe. It served both as a town gate and a key element of old Warsaw's fortifications. What you can see today is a reconstruction making use of original fragments. The Barbakan is linked with the main line of Old Town's walls by the so-called neck, or a narrow passageway. The final stretch of the double defences, between the Barbakan and the Vistula escarpment, attracts the biggest crowds of visitors as you can climb the outer wall and stroll along the guard's walkway. On the Vistula side, the walls were not reconstructed, but if you like you can look for their fragments above ul. Brzozowa (near the Marshal Tower), the corner of Brzozowa and Celna streets and in the gardens at the back of the houses at Kanonia (including some tower remnants at no. 18).

Old Town Square

Old Town Square ranks among the major sights in Warsaw, so if you prefer quiet to the buzz of crowds, come here as early in the morning as possible. It was laid out at the turn of the 14th century and about a hundred years later provided with the town hall in the middle, pillory and kuna (a cage for criminals).

Until the 18th century the square was the true heart of the capital, a venue for the most momentous events and a permanent marketplace which saw all kinds of fairs, public entertainment and executions. The best shops and wine cellars were also to be found here. In 1944 the Rynek was totally destroyed. Today it has a rectangular shape (90 x 73 metres) and is dominated by the statue of the Mermaid, returned several years ago. An 1855 work of Konstanty Hegel, the sculpture has a water intake inspired by the original form of the monument which used to stand by a fountain pool. Each side of the square was named in 1916 to commemorate political activists from the time of the Great Sejm (1788-1792).

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See also: Warsaw Old Town street

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