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The Warsaw Voice » Culture » May 7, 2008
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Stroll Through History
May 7, 2008   
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Krakowskie Przedmieście is one of the oldest thoroughfares in Warsaw and dates back to the 15th century. The street was originally named Czerskie Przedmieście as it led to Czersk, 30 km to the southwest. It was later renamed Wąskie ("Narrow") Krakowskie Przedmieście before dropping the "wąskie" during the 19th century.

Krakowskie Przedmieście, which becomes Nowy Świat Street once you cross Świętokrzyska Street, is popularly known as the Royal Route, linking the capital's Old Town with some of its most historic buildings. Interspersed between the tenements of long-gone burghers, you can find the Presidential Palace, the Potocki Palace, which houses the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, the University of Warsaw, and the Academy of Fine Arts.

The street's church architecture is also worth a look, especially the Church of the Sisters of the Visitation, St. Anne's Church and Holy Cross Church, which houses the heart of Poland's greatest composer, Frederic Chopin.

Until recently, the street's charms were marred by its poorly maintained pavement and sidewalks. Plans to renovate Krakowskie Przedmieście were drawn up at the beginning of the 1990s but the first stage of the work, at the southern end of the street, only began in September 2006.

Krzysztof Domaradzki's Dawos studio redesigned the street as a "semi-pedestrian mall" by restricting vehicular traffic. This entailed narrowing the roadway to two lanes, widening the sidewalks and restricting vehicular access to buses, taxis and special permit vehicles. These restrictions, which have applied to the southern end of the street since the first stage of the work was completed in May 2007, will apply to all of it once the northern end has been completed later this year. Scrupulous attention has been paid to the quality of materials used. The bitumen surface is being replaced with granite blocks and the sidewalks are being paved with sand granite imported from China, similar in appearance to the metal street surfacing of the 18th century.

Indeed, the overall aim is nothing less than restoring Krakowskie Przedmieście's 18th century splendor. The street's heyday was captured in paintings of the Venetian artist Bernardo Belotto (1720-1780), more commonly known as Canaletto. Canaletto was court painter to Poland's last king Stanisław August Poniatowski (1732-1798), and is best known for his European cityscapes including those of Warsaw. Canaletto's canvases were painted with photographic precision, so much so that they were used in rebuilding Warsaw after its almost total destruction during World War II. His attention to detail and color have been of invaluable assistance to the present renovation work.

Four back-lit "Canaletto Cubes" highlighting the artist's work are to be installed along Krakowskie Przedmieście at those places where he is believed to have painted them. This will allow passers-by to compare the now with the then. The first Canaletto Cube can already be found near the Nicolaus Copernicus monument.

Planning and carrying out the facelift of what is at once an important historical thoroughfare and a main artery of a modern capital was no mean feat. The architects had to balance a respect for history with modern requirements. They had to steer a tight course through the City of Warsaw, the Warsaw Municipal Roads Board and the Warsaw Officer for Historic Monuments. Delays due to court cases and documentation problems were inevitable. Warsaw citizens likewise had their fair share of inconvenience as well.

Whether it has all been worthwhile is left for the public to judge.

Magda Błaszczyk
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