There was a happy return to glorious sunshine this morning so we took breakfast early and stepped out to complete our sightseeing. However, although the sun was out there was a stiff breeze and it was quite cool so once outside the door we turned straight round and went back in to get our hats and scarves.
It was the sort of blue sky that you could feel fairly confident that it would be there all day but just in case we went first to the Palace of Culture and Science with a plan to visit the viewing platform almost at the top.
On the ground floor the Museum of Technology wasn’t open and I sensed that Kim wasn’t desperately disappointed by that. In fact Kim generally likes Monday sightseeing in Europe because as a general rule most of the museums are closed for the day.
At two hundred and thirty-one metres high the Warsaw Palace of Culture and Science is one of the most notorious examples of Soviet Realist architecture of the 1950s and you can’t miss it because it is the tallest building in Poland and the eighth highest in the European Union. It was commissioned by Josef Stalin as a gift from the people of the Soviet Union. What a great gift!
You can’t say that the communists are always inefficient because construction began in 1952 and was completed in 1955 in a total of two years and sixty-six days, although to put that into context the Empire State Building in New York is 65% higher and was completed in less than half that time – one year and forty-five days. Five thousand Russian builders were moved to Warsaw for the construction project which used forty million bricks and the completed building has almost three thousand, three hundred rooms. Most of these are offices so visitors are entirely restricted to the ground floor and a maze of marble corridors.
It might have been free to go to the top on Sunday, I’ll never know, but it cost twenty Zlotys each today, that’s about £4, so nothing really to complain about. We made our way to the lift and waited and soon the doors opened and we stepped inside. It was gloriously old fashioned and sat on a stool in the corner was the lift operator whose only job was to close the doors and press the button for the thirtieth floor.
This has surely got to be one of the worst jobs in the World, sat in a windowless box and taking people backwards and forwards all day. I bet it takes some mental preparation in the morning before setting out to work. We went up in complete silence, it didn’t seem appropriate to attempt conversation, I can’t imagine what you could say that she hadn’t heard a million times before. She had a severe demeanour which said ‘don’t bother me’ and being stuck in the lift with her if it broke down would have been a hundred times worse than when I was stranded in an elevator with a turtle!
It was a fast lift, it took less than twenty seconds to get to the top so if the attendant is working flat out that is about one hundred and eighty times an hour or one thousand four hundred and forty times for a full eight hour day. I imagine that when she gets home at night and someone asks how the day went then the only appropriate response is “oh, you know, up and down”.
It was cold on that observation platform I can tell you as we wandered around the edge and looked over the city. Not a beautiful city I have to say and from this position it was easy to see how the modern city was reconstructed with the long straight boulevards flanked with communist style buildings and structures. Despite the brutality of the architecture it is however easy to look out and simply admire the post war determination of the people of Poland to rebuild the broken city.
A lot of people in Warsaw don’t especially like Stalin’s gift but it looks set to stay. This is unlike a previous Russian building gift that was built in the city centre during a previous period of Russian occupation.
It is said that the Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky* Cathedral, completed in 1914, was the grandest building that ever stood in Warsaw. Constructed of Finnish granite and clad in finest Russian marble it had five gold plated domes, and a seventy metre high bell tower. By all accounts, inside the cathedral proved even more dazzling and copper and oak doors led to a lavish interior exhibiting oil paintings and icons, mosaic panels decorated the cavernous structure and the entire building was heavily adorned with precious stones.
Despite its grandeur it was not a popular building and when Poland gained temporary independence in 1918 the decision was quickly made to demolish it and in 1922 the tower was dismantled and between 1924 and 1926 fifteen thousand detonations were set off to reduce it to rubble – I suppose it saved the Nazis a job twenty years later!
The Russians built quite a lot of these things as gifts and whilst we clearly unable to visit the lost cathedral here in Warsaw we have previously visited the similarly named Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (there is also one in Sofia) when we visited Tallinn in Estonia but the best was the restored Cathedral in Riga which I imagine may have looked very similar to this one.
* Alexander Nevsky was a thirteenth century Russian military and religious hero.
In 2005 the Russia TV Channel ran a poll to identify the Greatest Russian. The competition was plagued with controversy and not unsurprisingly for a Russian election accusations of vote rigging and irregular block voting but at the end of it Alexander Nevsky emerged as the outright winner. But it was a very odd result with Pyotr Stolypin ( a staunch monarchist prime minister of the last days of the Romanovs) coming second and Josef Stalin who is estimated to be responsible for the deaths of as many as sixty million people coming third! At about the same time German TV ran a similar poll but votes for Adolf Hitler were not allowed.