A city rebuilt by the hearts and minds of its people, Warsaw is Europe's fastest changing city of enchantment.
Traces of primitive human life dating back over 30,000 years have been found in what is now Poland, but nothing is known about those people. Much later in the Neolithic period (4000-2000 BC), agricultural settlements appeared and early trading routes began to crisscross the thick forests which covered the area.
In the last millennium BC and early AD, Celts, Scythians, Balts, Goths, Huns and many Germanic tribes invaded, crossed and sometimes settled in the region. It is almost certain that the Slavs, the ethnic group to which Poles belong, were among them, though some believe they did not arrive until the sixth or seventh century, from the south-east.
Eventually, diverse Slavonic tribes settled regions between the Baltic Sea and the ridge of the Carpathian Mountains. Towards the mid-10th century, one of these groups, the Polanie, attained dominance over the region. Their tribal chief managed to unite the scattered groups into a single political unit and named it Polska.
It seems that Poland has been facing invaders for centuries, but no one could have imagined the blitzkrieg of WWII. Six million Poles were killed and Warsaw was obliterated by the Nazis, leaving piles of smoking rubble, rats, snow and silence.
Today the city, divided by the Vistula River, once more stands tall, rebuilt solely from the hearts and minds of its people, assisted with financial donations from Poles at home and abroad.
The western left bank includes the old town and city centre and most of the city's attractions.
The old town was rebuilt from the foundations after the war and is now one of Poland's best. Reconstruction took place from 1949 to 1963 and was intended to give the appearance of the town in its best times, the 17th and 18th centuries. Every authentic architectural fragment found in the ruins was used. The finished product is a harmonious blend of renaissance, baroque and gothic, with no building appearing younger than 200 years old. It is alive and loaded with atmosphere, with open-air cafes and art stalls.
On the eastern side of the square is the Royal Castle, which goes back to the 14th century, when it was a wooden stronghold built by the dukes of Mazovia. It was later rebuilt in brick and greatly extended when Warsaw became the capital and seat of the king and the Sejm. It remained so until the fall of the Republic in 1795, then served the tsars for over a hundred years.
In 1918, the castle became the residence of the president of Poland. After the Warsaw uprising in 1944, it was blown to smithereens by the Nazis. Reconstruction was undertaken in 1971 and by 1984 the castle once again stood in baroque splendour, as though nothing had ever happened.
The public can view some of its 300 rooms, including the Canaletto Room, which has 23 paintings by Bernardo Bellotto, the lavishly-decorated Throne Room, Knight's Hall, with six large Marcello Bacciarelli, the Marble Room, which has 22 portraits of Polish kings, and the Ball Room, the largest and most impressive of the castle's chambers.
The Historical Museum of Warsaw takes up the entire northern side of the square. Its four stories have 60 rooms and an extensive collection illustrating the city's history, from its beginnings to the present. There are documents, maps, drawings, paintings, armour and crafts displayed in period interiors, making it a charming museum.
Each day there is a screening of a startling documentary illustrating the destruction and reconstruction of Warsaw.
St John's Cathedral is the oldest of Warsaw's churches, built in the early 15th century on the site of a wooden church and remodelled several times since. It was totally razed during WWII. Postwar reconstruction returned its earlier gothic shape, except for the façade, which is a new design in the original style. Its roof is a gracious gothic vault and its interior is modest. Only a couple of tombstones survived the carnage. Luckily the red marble renaissance tomb of the last Mazovian dukes is one which remains.
Close to the old town is the Raczyñski Palace, built in the 1780s. It has a splendid ballroom, used to safely house historic records, state documents, seals, maps and plans.
The Krasiñski Palace, considered to be one of the most splendid baroque palaces in Warsaw, was finished in 1683 and has been remodelled several times. Its elaborate triangular tympanum on the front façade is worth close inspection, as are the other tympanum on the garden elevation.
Also worth seeing on your wanderings around Warsaw are the monument to the Warsaw uprising, the Jewish Historical Institute, Museum of European Painting, Archaeological Museum and the Blue Palace.
At Three Cross Square near the Polish Parliament and Lazienki Park are many cafes and bars. Polish food is hearty and filling, with thick soups and sauces laden with potatoes and dumplings. The main meal of the day is taken between one and 5pm. Café Blikle is known for its delicious doughnuts filled with rose petal jam and the Dom Polski restaurant serves traditional marinated herrings, meat dumplings, cold borscht, roasted pork knuckle and shots of vodka.
Lazienki Park is 74 hectares and contains the Palace on the Water, an amphitheatre and a monument to Poland's most famous composer and pianist, Frederic Chopin, who was born just out of Warsaw.
Sheraton Hotel and Towers is located in the pulse of the city and is the city's finest luxury property. It is a short stroll from Nowy Swiat, the chic shopping area, and leads to the Old Town.