Poland: Chapter 5 - more Warsaw
A grim joke told in the darkest days of the Soviet Union went something like this: a man asks a shopkeeper for eggs. You're in the wrong place, comes the reply. This is the shop that doesn't have apples. The shop that doesn't have eggs is across the street.
I am reminded of this as we wander into the Golden Terraces shopping centre, next to Warsaw's recently revamped central railway station. Everything is shiny and new. Many brands are familiar to international shoppers: Marks & Spencer, Benetton, Esprit, H&M, Zara and - in a multi storey clothes store - Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger. You wonder what older Poles make of it, having emerged from an era when long queues would form at ill stocked shops and if you touched something, you probably had to buy it. Our guide, Agnieska, says shopping with her father can be a slow process. He's still just so excited by everything.
The first part of the day has been spent strolling in welcome sunshine through the lovely Lazienki Park to the Palace on the Isle. There are red squirels in the park. One is so bold it comes and scratches my trouser leg in hope of food. The Chopin Statue is here too, surrounded by benches amid beds of red roses - not so prolific this year because of a late spring cold snap - where you can sit and listen to free concerts on Sundays in summer while a bust of his rival Lizst looks on from one side. Erection of the statue was forbidden by the Russians before the First World War, since Chopin was a great figurehead for nationalists. It was erected in 1926 during Poland's inter war period of independence, then blown up by the Nazis but copied and replaced in 1958.
In Warsaw you're never far from some tribute or other to Chopin. Two years ago, to mark the bicentenary of his birth, they had the clever idea of positioning benches at places associated with him. Press a button on the seats and you get a fragment of nocture, etude or polonaise. Infuriatingly for all but the cognoscenti, the inscriptions don't identify the pieces played.
Much of the Lazienki Park is in the natural, English style, but as we approach the palace we walk along an avenue lined with Chinese lanterns. Chinoiserie was all the rage at the end of the 18th century, when Poland's last king, Stanislaw August Poniatowski, bought a baroque pavilion and extended it to create the palace, and the appropriate decorations have just been reintroduced with some funding from the Beijing government.
The palace was part detroyed in the Second World War - Hitler apparently wanted to export it lock, stock and barrel to Germany - but some treasures were spirited away to safety. They included a vast canvas by Jan Matejko, depicting an earlier King, Stefan Batory, receiving envoys from Ivan the Terrible after the Polish army had defeated his forces. A curious refererence to the English monarchy also survived, in the shape of a portrait by Gainsborough of George III, commissioned for King Stanislaw in London and transported to Warsaw via Gdansk.
In Warsaw it's sometimes hard, for those with untrained eyes, to tell what's original or copied. So it is with the Royal Palace, in the rebuilt old town. When visiting here, don't neglect to buy an extra ticket to see the two Rembrandts, one of a young girl in a picture frame, the other of an old man. They were also part of Stanislaus Augustus's collection, and passed into private collectors' hands. During the war they were secreted in a Swiss bank vault and eventually returned to Warsaw. There was some argument over their authenticity but that is now accepted. They are exquisite.
Much has changed in Warsaw, even in the decade or so since I was last here. Gleaming skyscrapers have been erected. In the evening we eat at a restaurant which encapsulates the city's aspirations. AleGloria is in the basement of a building in Trzech Kryzy square. It's the creation of celebrity chef and designer Magda Gessler. We sit in a room called Strawberry Fields, amid fake tree trunks painted with the apropriate fruit - and dine sumptously on roast leg of goose on a bed of wild mushrooms with Silesian noodles.