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Old Town Square, Warsaw, Poland

Old Town Square, Warsaw, Poland

The fountain in the center of Warsaw's Old Town Square represents the city's coat of arms, a mermaid with a sword and shield. Legend has it that a mermaid led Duke Bolesław II of Masovia to this point on the Vistula River to found a city. At least that's what he told his wife. "Honey, I'm going to be away for awhile building a new city. A sweet little mermaid told me to."

To my eye, this is one of the most beautiful squares in Europe, outdoor restaurants and cafés surrounded by a collection of Gothic and Renaissance buildings, all in a rich palette of colors. It's hard to believe that the entire thing is a reconstruction. At the end of World War II there was not a single wall still standing in this square, just heaps of broken brick and shattered glass.

In August 1944, with the Red Army advancing toward the Vistula, the people of Warsaw rose up against the Nazi occupiers of the city. The locals fought for two months against impossible odds – the German forces had bombers and tanks, while the locals only had small arms and limited ammunition. The Red Army sat on the opposite bank of the river the entire time, and did nothing. By the time the resistance capitulated more than 200,000 people had been killed in the city, and shortly afterward more than half a million were forced out of their homes.

The Nazis began a methodical destruction of the most historic and culturally important buildings in the city, including the royal palace, the cathedral, and the entire Old Town. After the war most of these were rebuilt, using the original bricks wherever possible. No wonder the city motto is Contemnit procellas ("It defies the storms").

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