A week in Wrocław during your next trip to Poland is a must. With delicious food, a beautiful main square, and adorable little gnomes spread around the city, the uniqueness of picturesque Wrocław will capture your heart in its entirety.
Known as the Venice of the North, Wrocław is a breath-taking historic city of a dozen islands connected by over one hundred bridges. Having been known as its German name of 'Breslau' for over two hundred years (in fact, it was so Germanised that it became a Nazi stronghold during the Second World War), It wasn't until the 6th of May, 1945, that this city in Poland regained a Polish name: Wrocław.
My best friend (who just happens to be Wanderous Affair's technical editor) and I made this ancient city our home base for the duration of our time in Poland, in May to June of last year. Being an urban centre present since roughly 142 AD (though at the time, it was known as "Budorigum"), I couldn't have asked for a more interesting place to uncover over the handful of weeks that we spent there.
Though it was still a bit nippy at home in Toronto, our first day in Wrocław warmed us up instantly, with a temperature resting above 30ºC (86ºF). The nation's flora was in full bloom, the grass was a vibrant green, and the balmy air was comfortable to walk around in.
Our first stop on that introductory day was the Panorama of the Battle of Racławice (Panorama Racławicka), pronounced as "Rahts-wa-vee-tseh", or "Panorama (same as in English) Rahts-wa-veets-cah". After paying admittance to the monument, you enter within the cylindrical interior of the building and experience an in-depth audio 'tour' of your panoramic surroundings. Painted between 1893 and 1894 (by Jan Styka, Michał Sozański, Tadeusz Popiel, Teodor Axentowicz, Wincenty Wodzinowski, Wojciech Kossak, Włodzimierz Tetmajer, and Zygmunt Rozwadowski), you can see the stunningly life-like depiction of the Battle of Racławice, during the Kościuszko Uprising.
This battle was part of a Polish uprising against Russia, fought on the 4th of April in 1794, close to the village of Racławice (located in Lesser Poland, or Małopolska). Though the site of the battle itself is now an official national historical monument, it wasn't always so well-kept. With five thousand troops and eleven cannons led into battle by Tadeusz Kościuszko, the Polish army lost less than two hundred and fifty men. Their victory against the Russian Empire left their enemy with over eight hundred casualties (out of their three thousand men that were led into battle).
This battle was also seen as a critical turning point in Poland's history, as the participation of peasant volunteers was viewed as the starting point of the country's political evolution, moving from the hierarchical notion of serfdom and nobility to becoming more equally entitled citizens of the nation. Unsurprisingly, the victory subsequently led to the spread of the Kościuszko Uprising to other areas of Poland, igniting the desire for the Warsaw Uprising of 1794, taking place during that same year.
Today, between the railed-off standing observation deck and the painting itself, is a small stretch of dried out dirt and shrubbery. When standing against the realistic 'battle' happening directly behind it, it brings the imagery to life all the more. In fact, you can see glimpses of it in the image above, along the bottom of the photo (particularly in the bottom right-hand side). The mixture of genuine nature and the details of the painting brought tears to my eyes; though it seems impossible, it truly does feel as if you are in the middle of a battle field when wandering the circumference of the Panorama. It's spectacular, and despite the fearful carnage that is depicted, you also feel an elated sense of victory encroaching.
Once exiting the Panorama of the Battle of Racławice into beautiful Juliusz Słowacki Park, we made our way to the nearby Katyn Massacre Memorial, or Pomnik Ofiar Zbrodni Katyńskiej (the full name is actually "the Memorial to the Victims of Katyn, Kharkov and Mednoye Massacres and Camp Prisoners in Kozelsk, Starobelsk and Ostashkov", or "Pomnik Ofiar Katynia, Miednoje i Charkowa, więźniów obozów Kozielsk, Starobielsk, Ostaszków", in Polish). This eerie but stunning sculpture was erected in memory of the Katyn Massacre, a series of mass executions of Polish military officers and intelligentsia carried out by the Soviet Union's secret police in April and May of 1940. The memorial is named after the Katyn Forest, the site of the first mass grave discovered; however, over twenty-two thousand victims were murdered en masse in various locations other than this. Due to the fact that the Polish Army reflected the multi-ethnic Polish state, the dead also included Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Polish Jews (including the Chief Rabbi of the Polish Army, Baruch Steinberg).
We paused a while here, lingering at the memorial while reading the plaques and admiring an ocean of flowers left by respectful visitors at the base of the monument, memorializing the thousands that were murdered.
From here, we made our way through Juliusz Słowacki Park, crossing over the street of Jana Ewangelisty Purkyniego to the National Museum of Wrocław (Muzeum Narodowe we Wrocławiu). We spent a while outside, thanks to my excited admiration of the museum's Dutch Neo-Renaissance splendour, dating back to the style of the time that it was built, between 1883 and 1886. With luscious ivy climbing up the length of its exterior and the marvellous red brick peeking through the greenery, it's impossible not to fall in love with the architecture of the building itself.
Once you venture inside, you're able to see that its beauty is not only limited to the outside. Indeed, its interior houses a plethora of incredible historical finds.
Established in 1947, the National Museum in Wrocław is one of Poland's main branches of the National Museum system, holding one of the largest collections of contemporary art in the entire country. We purchased a combined ticket for the aforementioned Panorama Racławicka, which included entry into the museum, as well. However, I'll note that whether or not the museum was included with the entry to the panorama, I would have visited it either way — it was incredible, and I had such a great experience exploring it's many galleries and enjoying the interior architecture of the building, as well.
The museum — whose predecessors were the Royal Museum of Art and Antiquity and the Silesian Museum of Fine Arts — was home to a large number of artefacts when Poland was wiped from the world map at the end of the eighteenth century. Today, it boasts various permanent exhibitions on its multiple levels, including art (sculptures, paintings, and decorative arts from the medieval ages, to the Silesian Renaissance, to Romanticism), European art dating between the fifteenth and twentieth centuries, and Polish art from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. As of September 2011, there is also a feature on contemporary art, an exhibit that we were able to admire while exploring the lovely museum. When we were there, many of these contemporary pieces were for sale to any interested art collector.
There is also a rotation of temporary exhibits to discover, which always feature something new and exciting. If you're staying in the city for an extended period of time, be sure to check out what exhibits are featured, and which ones you want to see, to ensure that they will be open to the public during your trip. As a little tip, something to note is that the museum is free to visitors on Saturdays. What better way to capitalize on your time in Wrocław then by spending a morning wandering through the galleries of a beautiful national museum?
Just across the Oder River that the museum is situated in front of, Poland's third-longest river after the Vistula and Warta, one can make their way into Wrocław's downtown core by foot. The scenic route takes you through various streets of seemingly ancient buildings, their façades a romantic glimpse into Poland's past. Walking through the streets are enough to get a good taste of the city, but taking the time to delve further into Wrocław's past, particularly by popping into public buildings when possible, can give you an even better notion of what the city has to offer you.
One such building is the University of Wrocław (Uniwersytet Wrocławski), whose majestic interior nearly brought me to tears. After all, as someone who went to downtown Toronto's more 'modern' architectural university, imaginings of attending classes in a Baroque location like the University of Wrocław made my heart flutter. Thanks to the ability to walk around the university's main building with a small admission fee, we were able to discover the not-so-secret spots that this stunning educational institution had to offer.
The museum (Muzeum Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego), consisting of areas of the university that you can enter, is situated in the main Baroque building of the school that was designed by Christoph Tausch. Though its collections are mostly dedicated to the history of the university itself (dating from the fifteenth century to present day), the majority of the museum's 'artefacts' are dated after the year 1811. Nonetheless, the building itself was, at least to me, the most impressive thing to see in this location by far. In particular is the Aula Leopoldinum, known not only for its incredible acoustics (which you can try out for yourself by speaking across the room when visiting) and its use as a gathering space for academics on important occasions. Of course, also for its jaw-dropping Baroque architecture.
As you move upward through the university, there are various exhibits and plaques detailing the history of the institution, the major projects that they have worked on, and instruments used in students' and staff's research throughout the centuries. Upon reaching the uppermost rooftop level, you have an opportunity to view the beautiful skyline of Wrocław from above. Not only is the detailed ornamentation on the roof (one such sculpture can be seen above, on the left) impressive, but the city outstretched directly below and beyond is magical. Once again, you find yourself falling madly in love with this ethereal city.
Once (or rather, if) you manage to pull yourself away from the aerial view of the city to return back to ground level, you're a nice jaunt away from the city's main Market Square (Rynek we Wrocławiu). Like all rynki in Poland, this is the central core of the city; here and in the immediate surrounding area, you will find a concentration of restaurants and bars, shopping, and souvenir shops. These market squares are also typically located near a beautiful old church; in the case of Wrocław, this place of worship is the Gothic-styled Cathedral of St. Mary Magdalene (Katedra Kościoła Polskokatolickiego pw św. Marii Magdaleny), which began construction in the thirteenth century and was completed sometime before the fifteenth century.
In the rynek, you will also discover the Museum of Bourgeois Art (Muzeum Sztuki Mieszczańskej), located in what was once the city's town hall, built between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries. The structure itself is a breath-taking work of art in and of itself. In fact, it's said that this is the most important building in all of Wrocław. The high peeks, arched windows, mixture of various bricks, and fine detailing throughout the building in its entirety are all marvellous. However, within the building is even more art; here, you will find objects connected with the city's workshops and artists, from dating back to the oldest of times, all the way to the present.
Although all of these facets are undoubtedly fantastic, there was one particular thing (or a rather, a group of things) within Wrocław that I was obsessed with. When I say 'obsessed,' I literally mean dictionary definition:
ob·sess /əbˈses/ verb. Preoccupy or fill the mind of (someone or something) continually, intrusively, and to a troubling extent.
The gnomes. Or in Polish, krasnale. These little cuties can be found across the entire city, and this (at the time) twenty-three-year-old nearly had a conniption fit (okay, slight hyperbole) over the thought of not being able to afford a personalized gnome of my own somewhere in the city. But come on... can't you picture a Wanderous Affair gnome posed near a book shop or bus stop?
I quickly began scouring the city streets for the next gnome — which isn't difficult, as they're pretty much everywhere, including on the ground, on lampposts, hanging from buildings... everywhere — in a never ending search. There are photographer gnomes, firefighter gnomes, lounging gnomes, sleeping gnomes, and even gnomes taking photos of even littler gnomes. Eventually, in the midst of all this krasnal-loving chaos, I became a gnome myself. I was now one with the little pointy-hatted people who I loved so much. You can see this very real, completely unaltered photograph of the authentic Emilka Gnome to the right.
Upon converting back into human form (ha ha), we walked toward the National Forum of Music (Narodowe Forum Muzyki) in Liberty Square, which was just completed in 2015. This state-of-the-art concert venue is home to many different orchestras and a handful of local events, including the Wratislavia Cantans International Festival of Music, Jazztopad, and Musica Polonica Nova. When the Forum is not being used for live performances, one can walk into the building and wander its multiple levels to see the true beauty of its modern interior architecture.
We walked all the way to the top floor and began our initial explorations by peering over the balcony railing to view the massive atrium situated directly beneath us. The building itself covers an impressive 48,500 square metres (522,050 square feet), and although we were not able to enter the music hall and seating area themselves, wandering around the various levels of the atrium was incredible. Each layer had its own miniature art installations, some of which were interactive. From giant heads sculpted of metal to a cluster of 'houses' made out of wood, each and every element added to the overall modern feel of the National Forum of Music and served to increase the creative atmosphere enveloping the structure. When making your way from level to level, be sure to peer out of the floor-to-ceiling windows; the view of Liberty Square just outside and the city of Wrocław beyond is too pretty to ignore.
When you exit the building, be sure to wander around the immediate area surrounding the Forum. The antiquated architecture, though dichotomous to the building you just explored, also compliments it and flows cohesively with its surroundings. At the time when we visited in the spring, nearby trees and shrubbery were in full bloom; bright purples and pinks caught passerby's eyes amidst the greens of the leaves interspersed throughout.
For those looking for more of Wrocław's historical façades, the city is overflowing with them. As mentioned before, the city is made up of a dozen islands that are connected by over one hundred bridges. As a result, there are twelve islands filled to the brim with stunning old buildings that anyone can easily access, with the mere crossing of a bridge.
One such bridge is the Tumski, stretched over the Oder River. Constructed in 1889, it replaced a wooden bridge that connected Ostrów Tumski ('Cathedral Island,' the oldest part of the city) and Wyspa Piaskowa ('Sand Island,' one of the Odra islands within the historic Wrocław Old Town). Until 1945, after the end of the Second World War when the Germans had control of not just the city, but the country as a whole, this bridge held the German name of 'Dombrücke'.
Much similar to the Pont des Arts Bridge (more commonly known as the 'Love Locks' Bridge) in Paris, The Tumski Bridge is covered with thousands of padlocks, symbolizing the everlasting relationships of those who place a lock upon the bridge, often with the two lovers' names written on the surface; in fact, many people cement their adorations by throwing the lock's key into the river below. However, unlike its Parisian counterpart, the padlocks covering the bridge have yet to be cut off by the city, as they have presumably not yet reached a weight heavy enough to threaten the safety of the structure.
The Tumski also goes by the name of 'Cathedral Bridge,' as it connects to the nearby majestic Cathedral of St. John the Baptist (Archikatedra św. Jana Chrzciciela).
When coming face-to-face with the towering Cathedral, you understand immediately the importance of this building. It's choir was originally completed in 1272, followed by the nave in 1341 and the three chapels behind it — the Marian Chapel, Chapel of St. Elizabeth, and Chapel of Corpus Christi — being completed in 1365, 1700, and 1724, respectively. However, roughly 70% of the cathedral was horrifically damaged in the Second World War during the Siege of Breslau, resulting in a need for the church's reconstruction after the war. This rebuilding was completed in 1951, followed by a reconsecrated by Archbishop Stefan Wyszyński (it was originally consecrated in 1272, after the completion of the choir).
Despite the tumultuous hiccup in the cathedral's history, the church standing before you today is one that will absolutely sweep you off of your feet. From the main portal beckoning you into its tranquil interior, to the finely sculpted details on the ornamentation enveloping the church, to the coloured stained windows found throughout the building, everything about the architecture of this place is pure magic.
Once you've seen a solid amount of Wrocław by foot (or even by driving around), you should head up to the Sky Tower Viewpoint. From this vantage point on the forty-ninth floor of the Sky Tower — reached by paying admission to a short one-minute elevator ride to the top — you're essentially able to see all of your favourite attractions in the city from an aerial view. Maps on the walls adjacent to the floor-to-ceiling windows of the observation deck highlight the top sights in Wrocław (pictured in the collage above), allowing you to quickly and easily find them in the land outstretched below you. When staff signals to you that it's time to get back on the elevator, you definitely feel a sense of reluctancy to head back down to ground level. Although it's certainly not as great as seeing it right in front of you, you can always watch a live webcast taken from the top of the viewpoint by clicking here!
Now, even a year and a half after returning from Wrocław, I still dream about walking along the historic cobblestone streets, seeing the beautifully coloured buildings, and admiring the details of the city's architecture. I miss the drool-inducing food, the kind locals, and the overall rich culture that is so deeply engrained not only in the city, but within the entire nation as a whole. Poland will always have a piece of my heart held within its borders, a piece of me that I would prefer to return to time and time again for a visit, rather than take back that piece with me to keep under lock and key at home. Each time I say "goodbye" to Poland, I simply mean "goodbye for now. Until next time."
To read more of our posts on Poland, click here.