Some time ago, my friends and I went on a city trip to Wrocław, Poland’s fourth largest city. It was my first time visiting Poland, and I couldn’t have hoped for a better introduction than I got by wandering around in this breathtaking city for 48 hours. For both culture vultures and those looking for good food, drinks and parties on the cheap, Wrocław is more than worth a visit. See also my earlier post about Wrocław in self-portraits.
Several of my friends had been to Poland before, and one even spoke a little Polish, so while they were sorting out our route to the city proper, I could sit back and look around as dilapidated buildings and fallow fields gave way to the bustle and beauty of the city centre. Having arrived, we navigated towards our hostel (a funky affair called “Choppers” where they played hard rock music during breakfast), taking in parts of the Promenada Staromiejska (Old Town Promenade), a lively tree-lined walkway surrounding the city centre, and occasionally stopping along the way to admire the Wrocławskie krasnale. These “dwarves of Wrocław” are tiny bronze statues, tucked away throughout the city. The first ones were placed in the early 1980s as part of a peaceful protest by Orange Alternative, an anti-communist underground movement that made use of surrealist and nonsensical art forms to oppose the authoritarian regime. As the movement became less prominent, the dwarves stuck around, and new ones are still being added. These whimsical little statues perfectly embody the spirit of Polish rebellion that characterises the city below the surface. In 1980, Wrocław was the birthplace of the Polish trade union Solidarity, the first trade union not to be controlled by the communist party. A year after its formation it boasted 10 million members, about a third of Poland’s working population. Inevitably it met with great resistance from the government, and was made illegal when martial law was established between 1981 and 1983, during which Wrocław became a “fortress” of resistance. Under Nazi occupation, it was also home to a large underground resistance movement, Olimp, and just before the end of the war, the German commander-in-chief declared it a “Festung” (fortress) to be held at all costs against the Soviet Red Army (a battle they lost). This article in The Guardian also offers some great suggestions for cafes, art galleries and festivals that showcase and celebrate Wrocław’s history of resistance, none of which we visited, sadly. All the more reason to return someday!
Soon we found ourselves on the market square, which is hemmed in by colourful neo-baroque houses. The whole square seems straight out of a book of fairy tales–it reminded me, in fact, of Bremen, a city in the north of Germany (made famous in the folk tale of the Bremer Town Musicians). The resemblance is not accidental: both are market towns that once belonged to the Hanseatic League, the commercial federation of merchant guilds (Hanze) that originated in North Germany in the late 1100s and spread throughout the Baltic during the next three centuries. Similarities in architecture, built with the newly accumulated wealth from trading, would have been one of the first things to come out of this cross-pollination.
Though Wrocław was named the Cultural Capital of Europe 2016, it didn’t seem to have a very international focus. Menus sometimes had English translations, sometimes not; and there was a remarkable lack of guided tours. Then again, we accidentally picked a very rainy weekend to visit, so it might well be different in the high season, in the summer. But there certainly was culture aplenty–no surprise in a city that lives and breathes history.
Like many other cities in Central Europe, Wrocław bears the traces of having been passed from ruler to ruler throughout history. Traditionally occupied by Germanic and Slavic tribes in the early Middle Ages, it has been part of the Kingdom of Poland, Bohemia, the Holy Roman Empire, Silesia, the Habsburg Empire, Prussia, the German Empire, the Third Reich, and the Soviet Union, and has belonged to Poland ever since 1945. Before 1945, its official name was Breslau. Restoration campaigns following after the end of World War II, when, it is estimated, 70% of the city was destroyed by the Nazis, Allied bombing and vengeful Soviet ‘liberators’ completely transformed the city. Since the end of the war, many Prussian buildings, even those that escaped destruction, have been replaced by ones more appropriate to the nationalistic Polish state. The result is an eclectic combination of sturdy medieval churches, elegant neo-baroque, typical communist housing ‘blocks’, and some daring modern architecture. But in between all that history, Wrocław, which is home to many students, has an unmistakable modern and trendy undercurrent.
Admittedly, our main reason for going to Poland was that the food and drink would be cheap. We indulged, therefore, in beer, cheap cocktails, and the wonderful traditional fare that was served in enormous portions. In the bustling basement of a traditional restaurant on the main square I was introduced to the miracle that is pierogi: a type of dumpling that can have either a sweet or savoury filling, and thus can be breakfast, lunch, dinner or dessert. After dinner, we went out for drinks. We visited a bar that only served shots and a more traditional cafe in a delightful old courtyard. With lots of students out and about on a night out, the atmosphere was lively, and we had a great time.
The next morning it was still raining, so we sought shelter in the market hall, which was a beautiful art deco structure. Afterwards we walked through the botanical gardens and crossed the Oder river via the Tumski bridge (also named “lovers’ bridge” for the many hundreds of padlocks that are chained to it!). We entered a medieval neighbourhood, Ostrów Tumski, and set eyes on the beautiful gothic Wrocław Cathedral, then went looking for a nice place to have a coffee and discuss further plans.
Since our interests were quite diverse, I set off with two others to visit some museums. Our first stop was the Wrocław Contemporary Museum, located in a spectacular former air raid shelter, and our second was the National Museum, which houses one of the largest collections of Polish art in the country. It was wonderful to see such a wide range of Polish art and culture condensed into one afternoon, from splendid medieval triptychs and catholic icons to video installations and minimalist contemporary art. As Poland has such a turbulent past, it was wonderful to walk through a museum and see what it really considers to be its heritage. Though Polish art also had its realism and romanticism, portraits and landscapes, it was all quite different from the art I’m used to seeing in museums in western Europe; far fewer Greek and Roman motifs, for example, and lots of glass and ceramics, which Wrocław is famous for. Between the museums, the three of us visited some churches, including a Russian orthodox one, which I had never seen on the inside before. I was in awe of the beautiful colours and mosaics.
On our second and last night we decide to properly explore the local nightlife. Around the market square there were plenty of cafes with outside seating to choose from. Our first choice was a Cuban-themed restaurant, but when service turned out to be extremely slow, we simply hopped a few seats to the right and ended up at a communist-themed bar and restaurant (yes, really – the menus said “Welcome, comrade!”, and when walking to the bathroom you first encountered Stalin, then Lenin, looking down sternly from their portraits on the wall). If you’re in Wrocław and you feel nostalgic for the, er, good old days, you can’t miss out on this. On our previous night out our attention had been drawn by a car that carried a loudspeaker on its roof, which was blasting some terribly cheesy dance music. On the doors, it said: “Club Tropicana.” It didn’t take us long to track down this infamous disco, and when he went inside, it was everything we’d hoped Polish nightlife would be: the walls were all glitter, the cocktails were enormous, and there was a house band with an integral accordionist.
48 hours just showed us the tip of the iceberg of the many cultural gems of Wrocław, and with super cheap Ryanair flights, there is no reason not to visit this wonderful city. I know I’ll be back for certain.