Polish is not yet among the language I count on for much at all. I’m doing a damn fine job of “Hello!” and “Thank you!” but little else. That did not deter my delightful tour guide in the slightest this past Tuesday morning in Wroclaw. He coached his small intrepid band of travelers shivering in the light drizzle with great enthusiasm, humor, and panache. “Say “VRAH! Say TSWAHV! Say VRAHTS-WAHV!” and so we did, all British-Swedish-Dutch-Ukranian-Polish-and-American of us.
Wroclaw was the first stop on my Polish adventure for three reasons. First, geographically, it’s one of the first cities you hit crossing the border from the eastern side of Germany, and that’s also what makes it very interesting. For most of its 1000+ year history, Wroclaw was German (or Prussian), and in addition, it was called “Breslau.” At the end of World War II, both the eastern and the western borders of Poland shifted west, giving Breslau/Wroclaw to the Poles (and Lemberg/Lvov/Lviv to the Soviets). So…the former inhabitants of Breslau were sent, en masse, to Germany, and the former inhabitants of Lvov were sent, en masse, to Breslau. Just another example, as if you needed it, of the life-wrenching human fallout during that time.
So what you have now is…a medieval German burgher city overlaid with 45 years or so of Polish communism and most recently a new evolving consciousness as part of the EU. Wroclaw has been named one of the two 2016 European Capitals of Culture, my second reason for visiting, which is a clever way the EU has of attracting attention to some of the very interesting but lesser known cities that could use a bit of an economic boost. And speaking of boosts, here’s the newly remodeled train station (I arrived at the dreary grey bus station nearby, but this one’s got the looks):
The third reason I came was because this is one of the cities my uncle had spent some time in during the years leading up to World War II, and since I’m trying to hit as many of “his” spots as I can, that sealed the deal. As the major city in Lower Silesia, the city boasts about 650,000 residents and an additional 100,000 students at the local universities. But the true glory of the town, the reason to make your way over here, is its Market Square (Rynek) which is just lovely. Here’s a shot of Alexander Fredro, a Polish poet, author, and playwright, against some of the lovingly restored buildings around the square:
This was the starting point for our tour, so I had a chance to look around for a bit. Let me give a shout out to the good folks at Free Walking Tours (freewalkingtour.com) who are doing a fine job of introducing their Polish cities to the world. Our guy Maciej (aka Matt) was master of rolling out Just Enough History to keep us interested without drowning us in a recitation of facts.
Here’s another shot of the Rynek, this time the east side of the City Hall complete with a life-sized replica of the original civic…pillory. Quoting from the sign, “This whipping post was used to dispense corporal punishments and publicly shame those convicted by the municipal court. The present pillory, placed here in 1985, is a replica of the neo-Gothic one from 1492, which was used until the 18th century and was finally removed following damage in 1945.”
Our first stop outside the Rynek was the “Old Shambles,” formerly the slaughterhouse and open-air butcher shops for the city. Along with the actual 15th century stalls themselves (now chic boutiques selling jewelry and fine glass items), the alley features bronze statues of the variety of animals whose fate it was to feed the denizens of the city. Apparently it is good luck to rub parts of these sculptures, and Matt is demonstrating below that the most popular bit is the scat evidently deposited by the goat:
But before I go too far away from this very spot, see that lovely orange in the back of the picture above? That was the front wall my crib, the Art Hotel of Wroclaw. Lovely 15th century architecture, beautiful interiors, but I swear to God the place was haunted. I heard something like a door being opened and closed nearly every five minutes all night both nights I was there. Hmmmm.
And no spot in town would be complete without…its own dwarf! Dwarves are a big thing in Wroclaw. They originated in the early 1980s as part of something called “The Orange Alternative” (red being the Soviet color, y’see) as an effort on the part of the Poles to combat the Soviet insanity with a little humor and absurdity of their own. Now there are some 300-400 dwarves scattered about the city (there’s even an app for that!), but the one outside my hotel was rather endearing:
And let me finish this episode with a terrible confession. Do you remember when we used to travel as stripling youth, and after a couple weeks of (strange ethic cuisine), we would break down and go to McDonalds for a Big Mac and fries? Well, my need for stimulation is turning out to be unslakeable by the likes of cozy Art Noveau coffeehouses. I had to return to the Great Motherland of American Caffeine, yes, you guessed it…
You make me feel like I AM on your shoulder.
Better than Rick Steves! Please keep them coming.