Malgosia (a nickname for Malgorzata) and I walked toward the Warsaw Philharmonic to attend an evening concert. (The building was originally built between 1900 and 1901 and was reconstructed in the ’50s.) I suggested we take an Uber, which I found to be safe and reliable in Warsaw; she said she preferred her tried-and-true (and much cheaper) public transportation. We compromised, taking the bus and Metro there (3.40 zloty for a bus-to-train transfer ticket) and an Uber back (about 24 zloty). She jokingly chided me with a tsk as I pulled up the app on my phone. I felt downright profligate.
I approached the ticket counter, planning to shell out 25 zloty each for the cheapest seats available. “Let me handle this,” she said, and began speaking to a woman holding a fistful of tickets in the lobby who was looking around aimlessly. Malgosia returned a minute later with two 45-zloty tickets — better seats than I was planning to buy — that somehow cost only 9 zloty each, around $2.50. The woman had purchased severely discounted tickets for group of senior citizens who hadn’t shown up, Malgosia said, and rather than let them go to waste, she was trying to sell them. I was being thoroughly out-Frugal-ed.
The concert program, which included an Alexandre Tansman piano concerto and a Pawel Klecki orchestral piece, was excellent and featured great musicianship from the pianist, Jonathan Plowright. During the intermission, we walked across the parquet floor of a high-ceilinged reception hall, stopping to admire busts of Chopin and Ignacy Jan Paderewski, a prominent composer and politician. Paderewski, who fought for Polish independence from Germany in the early 20th century, was an even more important figure than Chopin, Malgosia said, “emotionally and politically.”
Afterward we headed to nearby Resort, a bar and cafe on Bielanska Street. It’s is a lively venue, open until 4 a.m. on weekends, and perfect for a nightcap or informal late bite, with 8-zloty Americanos and 15-zloty specialty cocktails. I had one of the better herbal tea sets I’ve ever enjoyed for 10 zloty; it came with lemon, lime and orange wedges, cookies and a smattering of mixed spices. A small Tyskie beer was just 6 zloty.
Music is in the streets in Warsaw’s center and I heard plenty of it during my downtown perambulations. Public benches that do double duty as boombox and furniture are placed throughout the city — in locations like Krasinski Square, or Saski Palace, the Chopin family’s former residence — playing snippets of some of Chopin’s famous nocturnes and polonaises.
Sometimes a more direct approach is used to lure music lovers. “Chopin Concert Today at 6:00PM” read a large banner hung on a building on Swietokrzyska Street. I stopped in a little before show time at the House of Music and purchased a ticket to the evening’s performance, solo piano, for 50 zloty. The environment is perfect for an intimate recital — a parlor-like setting with tables where patrons can sip tea or coffee — probably how the music was originally heard.
The pianist, María Márquez Torres, burst through the door a few minutes after start time, threw off her coat, and took her place at the piano. Her hasty entrance translated to a somewhat sloppy performance of a polonaise and a ballade. She settled in, though, with a crowd-pleasing rendition of Albéniz’s “Suite Española.” Different artists rotate through the House of Music, and the schedule changes frequently — my experience was fun, but not up to the level of the cheaper Philharmonic concert.
The Fryderyk Chopin Museum (admission, 17 zloty), a quick walk from where I attended the House of Music piano recital, is a must or anyone with even a passing interest in the composer. There are old manuscripts, concert posters, personal effects and interactive exhibits (for example, something called Twister Muzyczny — musical Twister) that take you through nearly every stage of Chopin’s brief life. One of the highlights for me was getting to see Chopin’s last piano. Built sometime in the 1840s by Ignace Pleyel, the beautiful 82-key specimen seemed to radiate the energy and sadness that characterized much of Chopin’s music.
There’s an entire room dedicated to the women in Chopin’s life (he was a popular fellow, apparently). The details of his relationships with Maria Wodzinska, the opera singer Jenny Lind, Jane Stirling and, of course, George Sand are all represented. What I found particularly fascinating, though, was the exhibit that focused on Chopin’s love of opera. The young composer was obsessed with Italian opera, particularly the work of Rossini, and would attend performances at the National Theater whenever he had a chance. While he never wrote an opera, Chopin’s adoration makes perfect sense — the concept of bel canto is readily reflected in the melodies of his works. Afterward, I went across the way and walked around the Fryderyk Chopin University of Music, where I could hear students practicing their instruments, singing, or accompanying one another.
Hunger for music and hunger for food are not mutually exclusive, and I certainly spent a fair amount of time seeking out some great cheap eats. Fortunately, Warsaw is full of them. Prasowy is a clean, casual “milk bar” — a throwback and reclamation of the Communist-style cafeterias of the 1950s. Prasowy means media or press, and was, according to Agata (Malgosia’s daughter and my lunch partner), popular with Polish newspapermen of the era.
We ordered pierogi, of course — Prasowy serves a number of different styles of the traditional dumpling. My favorite, the Ruskie, cost just 6 zloty for six pieces. Adding skwarki, or fried lard, for an additional zloty is highly recommended and adds a porky, bacon-like crunch. The Ukrainian borscht was also quite good (5.90 zloty), a tangy beetroot-based soup with green beans and chunks of potato. Agata also took me to Coffee Karma at Zbawiecela Plaza (“a hipster area,” she said) where I got a 9-zloty AeroPress coffee and a decent croissant for 6 zloty.
The Radio Café was probably my favorite, though, a warm and amicable restaurant that honors and serves as a club for former employees of Radio Free Europe in Munich. Plastered on the walls are political cartoons, old photos of politicians and memorabilia from the Iron Curtain era. I just had a cappuccino (10 zloty), but there’s also a full dinner menu.
Getting to know Chopin doesn’t mean being bound by the city limits. An easy day trip from Warsaw is to his birthplace, Zelazowa Wola, a 35-minute train ride from central Warsaw (18 zloty) followed by a short bus ride. The museum is limited — it’s essentially just a small house — but there is a beautiful surrounding park where concerts are held during summer weekends. Admission is 23 zloty, and is free on Wednesdays.
The most moving monument to Chopin’s life, however, is free. When Chopin, who was chronically ill throughout most of his adult life, died at age 39, his body was buried in Paris’s famous Père Lachaise cemetery. His heart, however, belonged to Poland — literally. Chopin made a request to his sister, Ludwika, that she return his heart to Poland to be buried. She agreed, secreting it out of France.
When I visited the Church of the Holy Cross, across from Warsaw University, I approached a white pillar with a simple inscription: “Tu Spoczywa Serce Fryderyk Chopina.” Here rests the heart of Frederick Chopin — a sad, but deeply poetic denouement for a man who was truly one of the great poets of the keyboard.
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