On which we arrive and meet interesting folk
The Italian waitress in the Vivere Italiano ristorante tells me that she’s been in Wrocław for fifteen years. For the first eight, she’d only ever seen Germans visiting the city, but in the last few years, Wrocław has opened its doors to visitors from all over the World.
Why ‘visitors’ and not ‘tourists’? For me, tourists arrive, skim the surface and move on. Visitors stay awhile, get under the ‘skin’ of the place and begin to understand what makes it so attractive. And Wrocław is so very, very attractive.
We’d never really heard anything about Wrocław until recently. A friend of our daughter went there thinking that ‘Wrocław’ was Polish for ‘Warsaw’. However, for us, the arrival of the ‘End of Season Sale’ from Ryanair into my email-box, proved to be too good an offer to miss. Just two hours from Liverpool and you’re at the Copernicus Airport. Three zloty (75p) on Bus 106 from right outside Arrivals and, twenty minutes later, you’re in the city centre. It’s late November, so the Christmas markets (and there are many) are in full swing.
Wrocław, pronounced ‘Vrots-waf’, used to be known as Breslau. It’s the largest city in Western Poland and the fourth largest city in the country as a whole. With a city population of a little over half a million, it doesn’t feel at all crowded. It’s been part of Poland since the Potsdam conference of 1945.
Wrocław is spotlessly clean. You won’t see chewing gum on the pavements, although you will see the occasional council worker going around looking for it. You’ll never see a cigarette butt discarded carelessly or a piece of litter thrown on the main thoroughfares. You’ll rarely see anyone dash across the road without waiting for the light on the pedestrian crossings to turn green. Drivers take care and cycle lanes are everywhere. You’ll hardly see anyone sleeping rough. Like many places in Europe, you’ll hardly ever see anyone aggressively drunk or being too loud. All in all, it’s very civilised and very welcoming.
We’re staying in the centre of the Old Town, right in the heart of Plac Solny, the original Salt Market, but now a permanent Flower Market, which remains open twenty-four hours a day. Our first-floor Airbnb apartment is in a building rebuilt after the war in the same 19th century style, and looks out over the flowers and the Christmas decorations.
It’s too warm or early for snow and there is the faintest hint of drizzle in the air. We head to Chtopskie Jadlo, a Polish restaurant around the corner. We’re greeted by rustic folk music and young women in traditional dress. We’ve been told that most menus are only in Polish and we might need some help, but this isn’t the case. Wrocław is reaching out to the west and menus tend to be in Polish, Czech and English. Many more consonants than vowels but practically everyone speaks very good English.
An extremely thin and very pleasant young waitress, in traditional Silesian dress, comes over to take our order. I ask, ‘What would I like? What do you recommend?’ She looks the pair of us up and down, takes a deep breath and recommends the Hunter’s Platter with beer. ‘It’s very good….’ she adds.
We start with a soft crusty bread served with cream cheese and pickled gherkins. And then the platter arrives. I’m not sure whether she saw us as reassuringly corpulent or frighteningly half-starved but the enormous wooden plate is stacked with roast chicken on the bone, pork steaks, pancakes rolled around a savoury pork sausage stuffing with pearl barley and cabbage, a mountain of pierogi, stuffed with forest mushrooms, roasted potatoes, coleslaw, tomatoes and a ‘huntsman”s sauce’. It is delicious but far too much to eat.
We leave bloated and with a carrier bag and take-out trays. For breakfast or a midnight snack? I don’t think so. £25 for two – I’ve a feeling that I’m going to have to get used to Polish portions. It’s an accurate foreshadowing, as it turns out.
Unfortunately, or maybe fortuitously, the way home takes us past the Irish Bar. None of the ‘Paddy’s’ or ‘O’Reilly’s’, ‘Molly Malone’s’ or ‘Rafferty’s’ – this one is imaginatively called ‘The Guinness Bar’ and specialises in……Guinness. You can also treat yourself to tots of extremely old whisky at £20 upwards a shot. However, the Zywiec and the Tyskie beers are 9 PLN (a little over £2) for half a litre so they’re fine as night-caps.
It’s an interesting bar. It lacks the usual ornaments and decorations ordered from the ‘Irish Bars R Us’ catalogue and popular the world over. There are no photographs of Irish heroes or Samuel Beckett, no road signs pointing to Athlone or Kilkenny. Instead, sitting amidst the stripped down timber furniture is the most authentic accessory for any Irish Bar outside of the Emerald Isle – ten Irish customers – who have clearly been here for a while – and who look like they’re quickly becoming part of the furniture.
On which we enjoy sights and sounds
Our first full day on Wednesday arrives and we’re greeted by heavy skies. But at least there is no rain. We pop next door to the chleboteka, a little bakery, for a dark crusty loaf that has been proved in a banneton and is marvellous with apricot jam and strong black coffee.
We head out across the main square, the Rynek, past school groups on pre-Christmas shopping outings and a gnome hunt. Wrocław is famous for its brass gnomes and they’re all over the city on pavements and in corners. One block north is the Stare Jatki, a narrow street of wooden and stone buildings that once served as a Shambles, dispatching livestock for the butchers and processing meats. Today, it’s a very pleasant row of artisan jewellers and art shops.
The Penitent Women’s Bridge is a footbridge between the two towers of St Margaret’s Church and the 232 steps take you the 45 metres to the top. Legend has it that it’s populated by the ghosts of young women who, rather than look after their homes and children, sought the company of men. As a penitence in life they were forced by their husbands to cross the bridge between the two towers, cleaning and sweeping in full view of the city folk. In death, their ghosts continue the penance. Sounds a fair deal to me.
From the top, there is a superb view of the city. The whole area is very flat and this is one of three superb panoramas that buildings in Wrocław offer the visitor. From here, the view is across to the University and the department of Philology, significant in the role it played during the rise of Solidarity in the 1980s. Next door is the Olisseum, the main library which houses a number of exhibitions of photographs tracing the support by intellectuals for the rise of the anti-communist trade union party and Lech Wałęsa. Notable alumni of the university include Robert Bunsen, Johannes Brahms and Alois Alzheimer.
Across the road, on the banks of the river Odra and by Plac Nankiera, is the Hala Tagowa, a UNESCO-rated city market hall. A fabulous place. Downstairs it is a riot of colour and aromas from the fruit stalls, the delicatessens, the cheese and the cold meat stalls. Upstairs, you can buy everything and anything. Shoes are repaired, keys cut, medicines bought. People flock here at lunchtimes for plates of stews, pierogi and large hearty bowls of spinach or cabbage soup. Nobody seems to manage just on a small sandwich and a coffee. The workers’ lunch is traditionally important and harkens back to a time when the state-subsidised milk bars would provide cheap, nutritional meals for workers.
We eat bagels filled with chorizo, sun-dried tomatoes and tapenade at Cafe Etno before making our way back to the centre via the Roclawice Panorama, which celebrates the victory in the Kościuszko Insurrection of 1794 and Partisan Hill, once a SS stronghold but now, the highest point in a very flat city, leading to the Podwale, the original moat that protected the fortifications and now a pleasant walk along the water’s edge.
We stop off at Zloty Pies, (The Golden Dog Brewery), a micro-brewery, one of many springing up across the city. The two best, this and 4 Hops, sell craft beer and excellent food. At Zloty Pies, we drink Boxser lager and Pitbull IPA. At 8PLN a pint (£2) it’s excellent value and, despite the rather ‘doggy’ name, is remarkably good. It’s clear from the menu and the clientele that stouts and wheat beers are also popular. Wrocław is a ‘beer city’. There are a couple of specialist wine shops and regional wines are available although not readily. Local wine sells for about £4 a bottle but the vast bulk of wines on offer in the supermarkets is imported and sell for between £5 and £15 a bottle. In the restaurants, a bottle of wine starts at £20 and heads steeply upwards. Looking around, it clear that the vast majority of locals, female and males alike, stay with the beer. Comfortingly, the ‘facilities’ are always clean, nearby and immaculate!
The joy of Wrocław at this time of year is that, wherever you walk, the town is celebrating Christmas. Most of the streets in the Old Town have market stalls lining the cobbles and there are never the crowds that one has grown to expect and often dread in major cities in the UK. The season starts in the third week of November and runs until the end of January. Dusk arrives early and by 4 p.m. the bright lights of the festivities must help people get through the long dark and extremely cold winters. As the working week draws to an end, more and more people venture out onto the streets to drink mulled wine, eat from the many stalls selling all manner of BBQ food, smoked sausages, cakes and savouries. Stalls sells pottery, lace and toys. We try to find some of those traditional Christmas tree ornaments in wood, but the current tastes seem to be for rather glitzy and shiny glass decorations.
On which we do churches and retail therapy
We wake on Thursday to bright sunshine. According to the BBC, the weather here in Wrocław is ten degrees warmer than it is at home in North Wales. It’s too warm for a winter coat so just a jacket suffices.
Boulangerie Vincent, just across the road serves large almond croissants, filled with apple puree and enough to keep us going for most of the day.
The PLN is in its fourth version and, although still referred to as the zloty, Poland is supposed to adopt the Euro before the end of the decade. With the majority of Poles against this, it’s likely that the PLN will continue. At roughly 4 PLN to the Euro and, therefore, the £, it’s interesting to compare prices between the UK and Wrocław. Luxuries: watches, jewellery, high end fashions and footwear are all at the prices one would expect in any major UK city and reflect London prices. Staple commodities: bread, beer, cigarettes, travel, vegetables and meat are far cheaper. Whereas in the UK, we tax the living daylights out of alcohol and cigarettes for the good of the nations’ health, the ‘nanny state’ mentality fortunately hasn’t reached the good people in the east. Poland with its eighth largest and one of the most dynamic economies in the EU and a high ranking on the Human Development index offers high standards of living, equality, education, safety and economic freedom. I can’t help wonder whether many of the 1% of the UK population who speak Polish may well be wondering whether the grass might be greener on the other side. Certainly, those who travelled to the UK to work and earn high wages will notice that their money doesn’t go as far as it used to when it returns home. Polish citizens do not pay for their university education. Travel by bus, tram or train is heavily subsidised and free for anyone over 70. Polish health care is part of a national service with health cover being provided by employers. With Polish unemployment at an all-time low (4.1%), maybe it’s time for some of the 3 million multi-lingual Poles who have left to work in the EU (40% of whom are in the 18 – 24 category) to think whether it’s still the good deal it was ten years ago. I wonder…..
We head for Oskow Tumski, the oldest part of Wrocław, across the Odra on the ‘islands’ that are really sand banks. Sand Island or Most Piaskowy, was originally the home of the cloth bleachers and dyers. The whole of this area is dominated by churches, most noticeably the Cathedral dedicated to John the Baptist. The buildings are palatial and home to the Archbishop and other senior members of the Catholic hierarchy. The streets are cobbled, quiet and quaint. In the Cathedral we join a handful of elderly Wroclawians in eleven o’clock prayers led by a Corpus Christi nun who has had a busy morning flower-arranging around the high altar. The old links with the once Czechoslovakia and Bohemia are clear in the statues around the church. Hedwig of Silesia, and St John of Nepomuk, drowned in the Vistula at the behest of Wenceslas. The view from the top of the Cathedral tower is the second panorama and takes in the whole plain on which Wrocław is built. Far away, on the horizon, are the Karkonosze and the Sudeten mountain ranges.
On Ul Katedralna, we call in at Cafe Chic for coffee and cake. You enter a world of marbled floors, tiny little tables and period lamps with a fair few ‘ladies of a certain age’ enjoying fresh cream gateaux and apple pie with raspberry sauce. Across the road is Lwia Brama, an underground cafe and art gallery with the most splendid walled garden at the back. They are next door neighbours to the Archbishop but the pack of dark tan Alsatians patrolling the grounds would certainly deter the curious from trying to take a peek through the wrought iron gates.
In season (April to October) the nearby Botanical Gardens would make a decent excursion, I’m sure. However, for us, it’s time to see how the Wroclawians shop. There are three main Arkady and Galeria in Wrocław, all extremely modern and immaculate. There is an out of town retail park at the Magnolia which is reachable by tram, but we’re happy with those within walking distance. Galeria Dominikańska is perhaps the oldest with Renoma coming next and then the very new Wroclawia Mall being the biggest and probably most impressive. Across the three, we find some of the familiar names across Europe: H&M, Calzedonia, Zara, Mango, Max Mara and TK Maxx. However, there are many, many more that offer a fresh and different view into fashion, outerwear and sports goods. Interestingly, Marks and Spencer has closed down across Poland, as it has in Belgium, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Romania and Slovakia.
One aspect of life in Wrocław that deserves some comment is that it is essentially free of immigrants. Where ever you go, it is essentially ‘white’. There has been pressure put on the Poles to take in refugees and political migrants but it has met with strong opposition across the country. Civic Platform politicians are being pressured to take in Syrian Christians but, in a recent national poll, 69% of the Polish community feel that immigrants will take away Polish jobs, that they are too expensive to maintain, that they will be detrimental to the economy and will bring with them the problems that they see in the West. In a war where over two million Syrians have been forced to flee, Poland has agreed to take a mere 100 Syrian refugees between 2016 and 2020. Under martial law in the late 1980s, many Poles received packages from the west filled with clothes and food. In the last decade Poland has received tens of millions of euros from the EU in development assistance. However, today Poland spends 0.08% of its GDP on international development assistance. Wrocław is a microcosm of the attitude across the whole of Poland and, to a great extent, in Slovakia, Romania and the Czech Republic.
Let’s consider Wrocław’s past. Only seventy years ago, the city had been ‘ethnically cleansed’ of its 30,000 Jewish population, one of the oldest communities in Poland. About 20% of the population of Poland died between 1939 -1945. After the war, all but 1,000 of the 189,000 German residents in Wrocław either fled or were expelled. There were only 17,000 Poles left in the city after the Battle of Breslau with 18,000 freezing to death in the snowstorms and 40,000 dying in the ruins of homes and factories. Following the Treaty of Potsdam, Wroclaw was repopulated with Poles by the Soviet forces annexing areas in the east, particularly from Vilnius in Lithuania. Seven decades is not long in history and for what is essentially a ‘young population’ in a ‘reborn city’ one cannot help but wonder whether this contributes to the attitude towards potential residents other than those welcomed as visitors and tourists.
That evening, we eat in Bernard‘s, a cosy and informal Polish restaurant where the food is plentiful and tasty. I have pork sirloin wrapped in fatback bacon on a bed of kale, stewed in cider and cream, and surrounded by mushroom pierogi. And, of course, a rather over-priced bottle of Merlot!
Later, in the BierHalle off the Rynek, I chat to two ladies from Gateshead. Well, one actually. Her friend is on a stool with her face resting on the bar. ‘She’s out of it’, I’m told. ‘I need to take my friend home. She had a gin and tonic at the airport and the excitement has been too much for her.’ Across the road in the Irish Bar, we drink Zwiec and Metaxa brandies with three Irish men from Wexford. A father and his two sons. The youngest is a video game designer graduate from the University of Dublin. ‘He’s been in the ‘Game of Trones‘, his dad tells me. He comes to Wrocław three or four times a year to continue work on his many tattoos. This time, he’s had his left sleeve finished and the upper arm is marked out ready for the next visit. Even though it looks very sore, it’s excellent work and a fraction of the price he’d pay back in the Republic. Dad and his older brother have joined him for their first. Between them, they now sport the three Wise Monkeys. Dad is struggling with the pain a little but the half-pints of Long Island cocktails – tequila, gin, whisky, white rum and vodka, seem to be providing some anaesthetic.
It’s almost time for bed, but a late stop at Pod Latarniami on Ruska seems a good idea for a nightcap – especially as it’s only 60m from bed. It’s a casual bar full of retro ornaments and so much dark wood. I would imagine it’s a haven out of the wind and the snow when deep winter arrives. Hot beer would be the order of the day, I think.
On which we climb great heights
The Sky Tower is about half an hour’s walk from the Old Town. The escalator takes us up 49 floors to the observation deck from where you can see as far as the horizon. It’s the tallest of the buildings in Wrocław and the third of the panoramas. It’s a totally uninterrupted view and provides an excellent vantage to see how this lovely city is constructed. You can actually stay at the Sky Tower for £127 a night in a luxury one bedroom apartment.
From the Tower we walk to the city’s station and the Wroclawia Mall, from where we catch the Tram 2 to Centennial Hall out in the south-east of the city. Built by Max Berg in 1911, it was to commemorate the rising up of the Silesian people and the defeat of Napoleon. The city of Breslau rose to the call from Frederick William III of Prussia on 17th March 1813 in his ‘An Mein Volk’ speech. Today, the hall is used for concerts, exhibitions and conferences.
Outside stands the Iglica Spire, a 96m tall steel spike, erected in 1948 to celebrate the ‘Recovered Territories Exhibition’ as newly acquired territories were returned to Communist Poland. Unfortunately, the original 106 metre spike, adorned with rotating mirrors was hit by lightning only hours after being completed and came crashing down. What is there today is a shortened version of the original, presumably with a very strong earth cable.
Nearby is the Japanese garden. It’s small but quite elegant and worth seeing, even in winter.
Tonight is our last night. We eat at Pod Fedra in the Rynek. It’s a delightfully old fashioned Polish restaurant and very popular. We drink Tyskie out of stoneware steins – they so closely resemble vast shaving mugs. With a menu offering goose, duck, rabbit, chicken and pork, it’s a hard choice, but I opt for a large pork chop with roast potatoes fried in bacon. Buttered green beans finish off the dish.
It has to be an early night for an early flight tomorrow. The bus leaves Renoma, a fifteen minute walk away, and runs right to Departures every twenty minutes.
Wrocław is a hidden jewel. It’s easily accessible and you’re guaranteed a warm welcome. I’d come back. Most certainly.
However, there is Christmas to prepare for at home and another trip to plan.
Until then, do zobaczenia we Wroclawiu i Wesotych Swiqt.