Long regarded as Poland’s hidden gem, Wrocław (pronounced vrotts-swaff) celebrates 2016 as the European Capital of Culture.
Wrocław, on the Oder River, is Poland’s 4th largest city. Throughout its history, it has been passed between different countries and has known different names. This diverse history manifests in Wrocław’s unique blend of architectural styles.
The city was first recorded as Vratislavia after a Bohemian stronghold founded by Vratislaus I. It was conquered by a Duke of Poland and in the 12th century was named one of the three capitals of the Kingdom of Poland.
Fearing Mongol invasion, the city was abandoned and burned for strategic reasons. Wrocław Castle was defended and never captured. After the Mongol invasion, the town was populated by German settlers who gradually became the dominant ethnic group. The Germanized name ‘Breslau‘ started appearing on records.
Breslau was then incorporated into the Kingdom of Bohemia. It became part of the Kingdom of Hungary, became Protestant, and was later ruled by the Catholic Austrian House of Habsburg. The city supported the Bohemian Revolt to retain religious freedom and in the ensuing Thirty Years’ War was occupied by Saxon and Swedish troops. It chose to stay Protestant.
The Austrian emperor brought in the Counter-Reformation by encouraging Catholic orders to settle in the city. These orders erected buildings that would shape the city’s appearance until 1945.
During the War of the Austrian Succession, the Kingdom of Prussia annexed the city. The Unification of Germany in 1871 turned Breslau into Germany’s 6th-largest city.
In 1944, Hitler declared Breslau a fortress that had to be defended at all costs. For most of the war, fighting did not affect Breslau. Later on, refugees from bombed out German cities and even further east swelled the population to nearly a million. 70 years ago, Breslau was left a ruin after a savage 3-month siege by Soviet Forces that ended with the German garrison’s surrender on May 6, 1945. Two days later, World War II ended.
In the aftermath of the war, Breslau’s German inhabitants fled or were forcibly expelled and the city was transferred to Poland and officially renamed Wrocław.
Today, Wrocław is a global city and university town, with some 20% of the population listed as students. This adds a youthful streak to the city and has resulted in a blooming cultural and nightlife scene. Add to that the city council’s seriousness in revitalising the whole place and bring back its pre-war heyday, and you’ve got a remarkable social and economic revival.
Wrocław is also very safe, and you will find young women just sitting in the park at midnight, completely at ease. Possibly the only bummer here is the bus driver that doesn’t stop for a group of youngsters waiting 15 minutes for the 2am bus only to see it whoosh by without even slowing down and making the hard choice of waiting half an hour for the next one or walking 25 minutes home. Tragic story.
A Day in Wrocław
We started off to see Rynek, Wrocław’s medieval Market Square. It is one of Europe’s largest markets, an urban ensemble with two diagonally contiguous areas: the Salt Market and the square in front of St. Elisabeth’s Church.
The buildings around are a mixture of baroque, classical, renaissance & gothic styles. Each property has a traditional name, usually from the coat of arms on the facade or from its history. The area was damaged during World War II and restored to how it looked during the late 18th century.
Rynek is one of the most charming and colourful squares I have seen in Europe.
Usually the most touristy places are dotted with restaurants that serve mediocre food at exorbitant prices. You’ll be glad to know this is not the case in Wrocław.
We had lunch at Pod Gryfami, right on the edge of the Old Town Square (Rynek). Pod Gryfami which means ‘Under the Griffins’ is a ground floor café in a 14th century townhouse. Seemingly small from its narrow Market Square entrance, it extends far back to include a glass-roofed courtyard and below ground to private dining rooms in the cellar. It is worth a trip down to the toilet to see just how big the place really is.
After cooling off with a beer, we took the tram to Centennial Hall, an early landmark of reinforced concrete architecture.
In March 1813 in Breslau, King Frederik III of Prussia called upon the Prussian and German people to rise up against Napoleon’s occupation. In October, Napoleon was defeated at the Battle of Leipzig. The opening of the hall was part of the celebrations commemorating the 100th anniversary of that battle, hence the name. The hall is still used for sporting events and concerts and can hold 10,000 people.
Next to the Centennial Hall and encircled by the Wrocław Pergola is the Multimedia Fountain, one of the largest operating fountains in Europe. It is unimpressive by day but we managed to put it to good use on such a hot day as we joined locals in cooling off by soaking our feet in the water.
Just outside the Pergola is the Japanese Garden, which feels a world away from the city. Apparently there is an entrance fee of 4 złoty, but we went in for free.
The Dwarves of Wrocław
A little known fact about Wrocław is that it is home to a significant gnome population. Some of them are begging for attention but most of them are quite well out of view.
Nobody knows exactly how many of them are in the city- the count stopped years ago and there are always new ones popping up. Each one has its own unique name and profession. You might think the gnomes are a tourist gimmick, but they are in fact a tribute to the Orange Alternative Movement – a surrealist local art community that staged anti-communist protests in the 80’s… one of which was to dress up like gnomes and run around the city. Gnome-spotting is a fun alternative to traditional sightseeing.
Wrocław and the Oder River
As the sun started to set, we made our way to Ostrów Tumski, the oldest part of Wrocław. Cathedral Island, once an island on the Oder River, is a peaceful sanctuary removed from the noise of the city and home to several churches and seminaries. It is connected to Sand Island by Tumski Bridge, a steel bridge dating back to 1889. It’s a popular place for lovers and the bridge is full of love locks.
If you’re a romantic, it’s worth strolling along Cathedral Island’s deserted cobblestone streets dimly lit by oil lamps at night.
Wrocław is one of only 2 cities in Europe that still employs a lamplighter.
We walked along the banks of the Oder River to Wrocław University’s main building, made sure we had a dinner place after 11pm and bought tickets for an evening Oder River cruise. It was a strange affair – no ticket counter and lights until we stepped down the stairs to the boat and the captain came out and switched on the lights.
We were rather wary, seeing how dated the boat looked and thought there was just us around. (Insert thoughts on getting murdered). Since we had half an hour to spare, we went to grab some drinks and by the time we returned, 10 minutes before the 10pm departure, the boat was packed.
It was a nice leisurely 50-minute cruise in the darkness.There was little commentary and they were mostly in Polish. Surprisingly towards the end, they played Jambalaya by The Carpenters. That was completely out of place. Well you know what they say: most often it’s not the place but the company that makes all the difference.
We had dinner at Kurna Chata, a cosy restaurant just a block away from Wrocław University. They serve traditional Polish food of the kind only a grandmother could perfect. Although we were forewarned that they wouldn’t have much available by the time we came as they close at 24:00, I am glad we pushed through.
They still had their soups and fried dumplings, and considering we were the night’s last customers, were still treated very well. The place is small and cosy, prices rock bottom, and the food ahmazing! I definitely recommend the dumpling with beetroot.
With our dumpling babies, we decided to burn off some calories and walk around Słodowa Park. Since it was Saturday night, the place was full of students drinking or just chilling outside, enjoying the mild summer evening.
We finished the night and welcomed my 20th year with a beer by the Oder river. I will be spending most of it in Poland. Na zdrowie!
Unfortunately for us, by the time we were ready to go home, that’s when the bus decided it didn’t want to stop so we had to walk the 2.5 km home. It was a pleasant walk along the river, passing by the National Museum in Wrocław and Grunwaldzki Bridge. If only we weren’t so tired already. Anyways, once again, na zdrowie!