The heart of Warsaw often resembles a quaint provincial town, which is fitting as for around three hundred years that is exactly what it was – a fortified town of modest stature. Warsaw was founded by the Dukes of this region of Poland, Mazovia, in the late 12th century. Their castle, which was transformed into the royal seat in 1569, was the most important edifice and it remains the focus of the area to this day.
Fragments of the old city walls still survive, and within the Old Town there are many landmarks to explore, including the historic cathedral of St. Paul’s. The Old Town was utterly destroyed, like the rest of Warsaw, in the closing phases of the Second World War. Some of the hardest-fought battles of the Uprising took place here. Afterwards it was reconstructed with the utmost care. The Royal Castle, which stands over Plac Zamkowy, was the last great landmark to be restored, its rebuilding commencing as late as 1971.
Following the opening up of the East in 1989, the district quickly re-established itself as a major tourist attraction. It has a wealth of shops and restaurants to potter around in. Several buildings are strikingly beautiful, particularly on the Old Town Square. However, at times the area does feel like a film-set, strangely out of key with the thrusting city around it. Naturally the organic feel of the place is gone, and there is a hollowness to much of the area.
However, few could fail to be moved by the sheer existence of Warsaw’s Old Town today. As you step out of the city’s museum on the market square having viewed the documentary about Warsaw’s wartime odyssey, few can fail to be touched by the the sheer power of the ancient city in having overcome all odds to rise once again from the rubble.