When a land-locked city in central Poland proudly displays the image of a mermaid as its emblem, one cannot help but be intrigued. Up on a pedestal in the market square she holds her sword aloft, ready to defend Warsaw against any invaders. Unfortunately the mermaid is made of bronze so this threat never eventuated to much – just ask the Nazi invaders of WWII or the Soviet forces of the mid 20th century. Nevertheless, she stands for protection and as a symbol for the city is taken most seriously.
So, why a mermaid? There are several legends, all involving a Xena-style character playing the damsel in distress and an ironman swim down the Vistula river. One day a mermaid swam the 260km from the Baltic sea all the way to Warsaw. After taking a well-earned rest she decided to stay: the climate suited her. Unfortunately her presence didn’t suit the local fishermen who were less than impressed with the waves she caused and the fish she freed. They were, however, impressed with her voice. After a subsequent kidnapping by a local merchant one of the fishermen rescued the mermaid who, it turned out, was quite handy with a sword and shield. She revealed her skills, swore her allegiance to the fishermen and from that day forth has been the protector of the city.
Images of the mermaid abound in Warsaw, adorning everything from taxi doors to building company logos and the electrics panel on streetlamps. They all allude to her home, the Vistula river, which runs directly through the city and provides a clear geographical marker. Lone fishermen still litter the banks, casting their rods in all seasons, while the floating Aldona River Hostel allows visitors to fall asleep to her siren song. Swimming, however, is out. After several days of heavy rain rips are rife and every now and then the odd tree floats past. A gentle punting trip on a lake in the nearby Lazienki park is much more enticing for all but the hardiest endurance athletes. After our riverside stroll a leisurely trip around the lake was just what our legs desired. While we were not actually in the water, the edges of the boat were close enough to the waterline for it to qualify as a ‘near-mermaid experience’.
For those looking for more concrete examples of defenders that live up to the sword and shield emblem, the Warsaw Uprising Museum is the place to go. No mermaids in sights, but the displays tell the story of those involved in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, during which thousands of Polish resistance fighters lost their lives to German forces. Photographs and artifacts are used to narrate the history, with sections dedicated to German occupation and communist occupation and the personal stories of those who survived. These defenders of Warsaw are also immortalised in the large Warsaw Monument to Insurgents in the Old Town. Although the 1944 uprising was ultimately unsuccessful, The sentiment of those involved would have done the city mascot and her iron sword proud.
- The Warsaw Uprising Museum is open Monday, Wednesday and Friday: 8.00-18.00, Saturday and Sunday: 10.00-18.00, Thursday: 8.00-20.00. Adults 10 zloty ($NZ4)
- Punting trips take place daily during the summer in Lazienki Park. 7 zloty per person ($NZ3)
- Aldona River hostel (The Vistula River, Poniatowskiego Bridge, Warsaw)offers basic accommodation in novel surroundings, floating on the Vistula river. One, two and three bed cabins available 75-130 zloty ($NZ30-50)