Warsaw’s historic center is wrapped in legend and lore; from the wistful and sad to silly and absurd, we examine the best.
Warsaw’s iconic mermaid (syrenka) has been displayed on the city’s coat of arms since 1390, and her story varies according to the source. The most commonplace tale, however, asserts she’s a twin born in the Baltic. Her sister ended up in Denmark (yes, that mermaid), while our one flipped her way down the Wisła before ending up on the banks by the old town. The local fishermen, peeved by their tangled nets and missing catches, decided to catch the perp who, as it turned out, was this little lovely. Plans to teach her a lesson though went out the window the moment they heard her swooning singing voice. But news of this talented chanteuse traveled fast, and she was abducted by a nasty piece of work who imprisoned her in a shed and made her sing for her supper. Her fan base, mind you, heard her distant wailing and hatched a plan to free her. In gratitude, she promised to protect the city whenever it was in trouble (hence the sword and shield). Tributes to this heroine are numerous, and include a statue in the center of the Rynek. Konstanty Hegel’s 1855 original has not fared well. Destroyed and relocated countless times (hence her nickname: the walking statue), what you see in the center is a clone constructed in 2008 (find Version 1.0 in the Historical Museum). A second mermaid, on Wybrzeże Koścuiszkowskie, was modeled in the inter-war years on Krystyna Krahelska. The tragic poetress served as a nurse during the Uprising, and died on the second day of combat. Of course, there’s numerous other mermaids you’ll spy around town: not least one made of recycled junk outside the Palace of Culture. One you won’t be seeing, though, is the one sketched by Picasso. During his 1948 trip to Wa-wa, the artist extraordinaire was taken on a tour of a housing estate in Koło inspired by the works of Le Corbusier. Impressed by what he saw, he climbed a workman’s ladder and sketched a giant mermaid: “My God it was huge,” gushed one report from the time, “her bosoms were like two balloons.” Alas, after the housing project was completed, the owner of the flat soon tired of art fans rattling on his door so… he hired a handy man who obliterated all trace. Doh!
If there’s one thing horror films have taught us it’s for Pete’s sake, stay out of the cellar! That’s something you’d have done particularly well to remember back in the old days, when an ugly basilisk stalked the catacombs of Krzywe Koło. To cut a long legend short, a group of children ignored warnings about the beast and decided to nip into the cellars to find the treasure it guarded. Alarmed by their disappearance, a tailor went after the kids armed with a mirror. On hearing the monster approaching, our hero shined his chosen weapon in its face, and the basilisk – aghast at his own hideous form – was turned to stone. Now, you’ll find a few basilisks sprinkled round town – not least at one of his old hunting grounds: Bazyliszek restaurant at Rynek Starego Miasto 1/3.
For the tourists, the building on the corner of Świętojańska 2 is something of natural gateway to the old town beyond. For the locals though, it’s something more. Something worse. It’s here Prince Stanisław passed away on August 8th, 1524. A keen booze hound and notorious party animal, many speculated he was simply a casualty of a rock’n’roll life. Others though, smelt a rat, suggesting he’d been poisoned by the scheming Queen Bona. With intrigue and hearsay swirling around, his cooks met a messy end, tortured to death to appease the masses. Since then the building has reputedly witnessed several unexplainable phenomena: shifting furniture, pounding on the windows and whispered conversations held in archaic Polish and creepy Latin verse.
Warsaw’s Royal Castle rarely gets mentioned in terms of spooky ghostly happenings, though some maintain that you’ll certainly find them. King Zygmunt II, distraught at the loss of his wife, allegedly hired a sorcerer named Pan Twardowski to speak to his departed. This was achieved by use of a magical mirror, and today some state you’ll find the ghostly apparition of Queen Barbara stalking the grounds. Frankly, though, the story isn’t convincing: contradictory reports claim all these shenanigans actually took place in Kraków’s Wawel Castle. Pan Twardowski, meanwhile, apparently ended up banished to the moon along with his sidekick – a bloke he once turned into a spider. Outside the castle, you’ll find another Zygmunt – Zygmunt III stands atop of a 22 meter column, and the sword he wields is symbolic of bravery: should it fall, then the people of Warsaw can expect a lot of trouble. And, not far away, trek down the cobbles to the Jesuit monastery next to St. John’s Cathedral. It’s here you’ll find a stone bear. So legend has it, it’s actually a Mazovian prince! Generous, well regarded and an all-round good egg, this prince had one shortcoming: he was rather unsightly. Cruelly nicknamed Prince Bear on account of hefty shape, he became besotted with a young beautiful damsel. Plucking up the courage to ask her on a date, he acquired some flowers and then went to the church he knew she frequented. But, to his shock, she emerged from it dressed in wedding day finery. Dazed and dismayed, he threw down the flowers and burst into tears. But that’s just the beginning. Before long passersby started fleeing in terror – the heartbroken prince had morphed into a bear! Shedding one final tear, he hung his head and then turned to stone. So it’s said, he’ll resume his real form when he finds love once more. Ladies, over to you.