The International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition – the Olympics of the 88 ivories – was taking place in Warsaw, Poland as it had every five years since 1927.* The brightest young pianists from all over the world had converged upon the city, and I happened to be there.
It was October of 2005 and I found myself wandering the massive grid of what was once the capital to a great empire, now a non-descript expanse of concrete blocks, monoliths of a regime passé.
Warszawa, as it is known in Polish, is not pretty. Razed to the ground by the Nazis during World War II, the city now wears the ugly armor it donned during the intervening decades of Communist rule.
The recent years of democratic oversight had not successfully rehabilitated the disciplined poverty and socialist mentality that seemed institutionalized everywhere.
At a museum I visited, all of the galleries lights were kept off, presumably to save electricity. Each room had two or three museum attendants – mostly old women – sitting in the dark chatting and gossiping. They would take turns turning on the lights when a visitor wandered in. And then that person would follow you with a stink eye around the room, encouraging you to leave so they could resume their chatter in the dark. Fear not, they have job security.
Despite the beautifully refurbished historic Old Town district, a UNESCO-stamped site, Warsaw was oppressively depressing. (A two-hour walking tour of the Jewish ghetto didn’t help matters.)
And perhaps that is why I became so enchanted by Łazienki Park. Once the wooded hunting grounds of the royal palace, it is now a public park – the largest in the city – an oasis from the gray urbanity.
This is where I spent every morning that I was in Warsaw. I wandered the grounds discovering its corners, its hiding places, its beauty. Wild peacocks propelled across my path. Foxes scurried from brush to brush.
Here too was a breathtaking statue of Chopin pulling entire concertos out of the air with his ears. Monumental, he sat beneath a willow bowing and curved to favor the composer’s hand.
This photo does not do Łazienki Park justice. But this photo that I took in that quiet wood is my memory of the morning sun filtering through the trees in Łazienki Park. And to me, it is beautiful.
By the time I arrived in Warsaw, the piano competition was in its final stages. Rounds of eliminations had left dozens of international competitors free to return home or sight see. A few of these prodigies – none of whom seemed to be over the age of 20 – were staying where I was staying. Alone and unchaperoned in a foreign land, they congregated in twos and threes in the hotel’s dining room. I met a few of them during breakfast and got to know them over the course of my stay in Warsaw. They all had event passes for the remaining concerts and invited me to join them as a guest. How could I say no? The final concerts had been sold out for months.
That afternoon, I listened to six finalists play, including Rafał Blechacz, the 20-year old Pole who won that year’s competition.
Afterward, I had borscht at Restauracja Polksa “Tradycja,” a cozy restaurant serving refined traditional Polish cuisine just on the edge of the park. Both the inside and outside of this restaurant looked like a Polish grandmother’s house from Central Casting; not a doily out of place, not a lace curtain undrawn, every vase brimming with fresh flowers.
My friend and I ate many things that night, including a wonderfully pickled veal tongue with horseradish and tender strips of sauteed veal liver with a cornucopia of autumnal fruits. But the borscht is what I remember the most.
It was served hot.
To make sure that the soup did not spill or cool on its way from the kitchen, the bowl arrived empty, save a couple of plump meat dumplings. A terrine was brought and the borscht – a steaming, garnet-red broth, clear as a bell – was ladled to the brim.
Such intensity I had not tasted in borscht before or since, a tangy concentration of beets spiked with a peppery heat. It was clean and pure. It had weight and complexity. It was immensely comforting.
To see all of the photos from my meal at Restrauncja Polska “Tradycja,” CLICK HERE.
* With a few exceptions. The competition was suspended during the Nazi occupation of Poland.