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MUSICAL MEMORIES

Sound of music

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ROYAL SIGHTS: Royal Castle (below), from which the Castle Square gets its name, was home to Polish royalty for years;(above) The Royal Route is a beautiful stretch of road

Chopin and Warsaw are intertwined in a musical embrace that engulfs you on every road of the 'phoenix' city.

The crisp, early morning light had bathed all the ancient, tall, pale yellow buildings in a dramatic rich golden hue. The road was almost deserted, save for a few souls striding determinedly to their place of work. Presumably. No vehicles stirred, except for the occasional bicycle. The air was a bit chilly;a mild breeze blew in fits and starts, whipping and flapping my clothes around. Quite suddenly, the silence was broken, if it can be called that, by the faint and lilting notes of a piano, soulful and melodic wafting along the Royal Route in Warsaw's Old Town. It was startling at first, for a piano is incongruent on a street, but the music continued and I listened enthralled, taking hesitant steps in the general direction of the music. Finally, when I discovered its source, I was both pleasantly surprised and fascinated. For, it was coming from a small stereo under a granite bench on the road. And the music? Frederic Chopin, of course.

Soon I discovered Chopin was everywhere in this 'phoenix' city, his life irrevocably intertwined with its history. Warsaw is something of a hero, known for its resilience and never-say-die attitude, having dusted itself from war and unspeakable destruction to rebuild and reconstruct after World War II to look almost exactly like it was before. And yet, there's Chopin, a child prodigy born in Poland but forced to move to Paris following the 1830 Uprising, never to return, and is believed to have pined for his homeland. I imagined some of that heartache as the bars died down and I moved along the road.

All along the Royal Route or Krakowskie Przedmiescie as it is officially called, I found more benches, called Chopin's Warsaw benches, placed in front of monuments and historical buildings associated with the composer. Each of them contained information about the monument, a map of its location on the street and a tiny button which could be pressed to play an excerpt from his compositions. The bench where I heard the music first faced the Czapski Palace, where Chopin's family began living in 1827. One of the rooms in front belonged to Chopin, where he set up his own piano and practised.

With the melody still ringing in my head, I walked further along where I encountered the beautiful Vistants' Church. Built in Baroque style with Rococo embellishments, the church had a unique boat-shaped pulpit and an air of mysticism prevailed. There was silence but I imagined I could hear the strains of the organ, the same one which Chopin played on Sundays when he was a pupil. Further down the road was the Radzwill Palace, currently the office of the Polish President. It was the setting for Chopin's first public recital in 1818 when he was merely eight years old. An elegant, white-facaded building in the classic style, fronted by an equestrian statue of Prince Jozef Poniatowski, the Marshall of the Empire, it had stiff-looking guards patrolling the grounds. I pressed the button on the bench to play another of Chopin's compositions, which provided the perfect background effect while I stood and absorbed the graceful, understated beauty of the building.

When I felt the guards getting a bit restive about my presence, I moved along to reach the end of the road which opened into the beautiful Castle Square. It was a riot of colours and structures. In the middle stood the towering King Sigismund's Column, a Corinthian column erected to honour one of Poland's most important kings, responsible for moving the Polish capital from Krakow to Warsaw. It was flanked by the bright red-orange Royal Castle, home to Polish royalty for centuries. I saw ruins of a fort, or possibly the city walls. Beyond Castle Square lay the Old Town, full of narrow, cobbled streets flanked by tall buildings, leading to tiny squares filled with people and restaurants, and hiding mysterious symbols of Warsaw, while soulful and melodious tunes from musicians' instruments constantly reminded me of Chopin's brooding presence everywhere. In the Market Square, I found a bronze statue of the Mermaid of Warsaw, widely considered Warsaw's symbol and present on the coat of arms. Legend goes that a fisherman found the mermaid and saved her, and she stayed on to protect the city. Locals believe she had gone to visit her sister in Copenhagen, thereby leaving it vulnerable to the death and destruction that befell Warsaw during the war. As I listened to the story narrated by my local guide Agniescka, I could not help but be moved by the poignancy of it all. Sotto-voce, she assured me that the mermaid was well and truly back, which explained Warsaw's remarkable turnaround and progress.

For a change of scene, I headed a little bit out of the Royal Route and to Lazienki Park, a sprawling park in the heart of Warsaw. Full of paths amidst verdant stretches hiding palaces, royal structures and water bodies, I found a massive bronze sculpture - a tribute to Chopin done by Waclaw Szymanowski, a Polish sculptor and painter. Standing regally on acres of grounds, the stylised image denoted fingers on a piano. During summer, I was told Chopin's piano compositions are performed on Sundays near the statue. And even though it was not summer, the atmosphere around the state was so thick with the composer's spirit that I imagined I could hear faint strains of the piano.

As the evening shadows lengthened, I had one last stop to make. Back at the starting of the Royal Route, I made my way to the Holy Cross Church. A Renaissance church in shades of yellow, the church was imposing from outside. Inside, it was calm and serene and what held my interest was a pillar inside containing an urn with Chopin's heart. Chopin died in Paris but the authorities refused permission for his body to be buried in Poland. In accordance with his last wish, his sister smuggled his heart into Poland and to the Holy Cross Church where it lies in a pillar topped by a bust of the composer with the words, "For where your treasure is, there will be your heart also, " an inscription from Mathew. Like all his compositions, I thought those were beautiful notes to end on.

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