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Basics - Getting There - Getting Around - Places to Stay -
Where to Get Drunk - What to See and Do

bear statue, outside the town hall

Basics

Up until 1945 Wroclaw was known as Breslau, and was one of the largest cities in Germany. Prior to that it had been part of Prussia (who had changed the city's name to Breslau from Wroclaw), Habsburg Austria, Bohemia and, way back in the 14th century, Poland. When the city was transferred to Poland after World War 2 Polish claims on the city were therefore half a millennium out of date and somewhat tenuous. Then again Poland (which had been given Wroclaw amongst other parts of what had been eastern Germany as partial compensation for having its own eastern provinces absorbed into the Soviet Union) didn't really have any say in the matter.

Wroclaw had been severely damaged in fierce fighting between the Wehrmacht and the Red Army towards the end of the War. Large areas of the city were rebuilt as quickly as possible but, in common with most other Polish cities, historic sections of the city were carefully restored or rebuilt. As a result Wroclaw has one of the finest town squares in Poland, and the 14th century Town Hall, which came through the war without serious damage, is possibly the most impressive in the country. Wroclaw also has an impressive collection of huge churches, mostly along the River Odra (Oder).

Wroclaw was hit by massive flooding in 1997; many buildings are still undergoing repairs for flood damage.

Wroclaw is the largest city in south west Poland, a major cultural and educational centre, and a city well-geared to the demands of tourists thanks in part to the thousands of coach-loads of Germans in search of their roots that it gets every year.

By the way, it's pronounced Wrots-varf.

Getting There

Wroclaw has it's own small airport, and it's even an international one. Low-cost airline RyanAir will start daily services between London Stansted and Wroclaw from March 2005. Apart from that, unless you're flying in from either Munich or Frankfurt, the only other 2 international destinations handled, the airport won't be much use to you. The daily flights to and from Warsaw are a much quicker (if much more expensive) alternative to the train though.

Wroclaw has good train links, both to other cities within Poland and internationally. To save space I'll sum up what I said about Polish trains on other pages; they're cheap, reliable, comfortable, but very slow. Still, it's a nice way of seeing the Polish countryside, a much more pleasant alternative to staring at the Scotsman for hours on end.

Domestically there are services to Warsaw (via Lodz); we were on an Express train which took just under 6 hours for this journey, which was extremely demanding on the buttocks (from sitting down for 6 hours, not from anything else the Scotsman and I may have been up to. We're manly men). There are faster Intercity trains which make the journey a couple of hours quicker, but they left Wroclaw either early in the morning or late in the evening. There are also regular trains to Krakow (via Katowice); at a leisurely 4 and a half hours this journey won't exactly leave you rushed off your feet either.

On the international front there are regular trains to Dresden, Prague (both of which are closer to Wroclaw as the crow flies than Warsaw), Berlin and Frankfurt.

Road links to Germany in particular are good (the German border is about 80 miles due west) and so if you're travelling to or from Germany it would be worth considering going by coach. For longer journeys either abroad or within Poland, stick to the train.

Getting Around

Although Wroclaw is a pretty big place (the fourth largest city in Poland, with a population of around 600,000), most of the places of interest to tourists, as well as the railway station, most hotels, and bars are located fairly close to each other at the city centre.

The River Odra (Oder, if you're a German) (or Austrian) runs roughly east to west through the city. The Old Town and the modern commercial district lie just south of the river. Apart from the Old Town Wroclaw's main attraction is probably it's collection of churches, most of which can be found close to the river (in some cases very close, on Piasek Island, in the river itself, with another group on Ostrow Tumski, a former island just north of the river today).

The River Odra

Wroclaw's historic Old Town was to be found within the confines of the city's old defensive moat, stretches of which still exist today as a lake around the city centre, which can easily be picked out on a map of the city centre (as the "Fosa Miejska"). Most of the Old Town was completely flattened during World War II and only small sections of it were rebuilt after the war. At the centre of the present day much-reduced Old Town is the Rynek (Town Square); the restored Old Town extends for perhaps a block or two in each direction and as it is mostly pedestrianised is surrounded by a ring-road (which goes by several different names; Olawska, Kazimierza Wielkiego, Nowy Swiat and, along the river, Grodzka). The main part of Wroclaw's modern commercial district lies within the ring road. Running roughly south from the Rynek is another major commercial road, Swidnicka.

The main railway station, Wroclaw Glowny, is just about a mile southeast of the Rynek (south down Swidnicka, east down Pilsudskiego); we managed to walk it in about 20 minutes with luggage, and I'm fat and the Scotsman is old, so you've got no excuse. Sensibly, the bus station is right next to the train station, just to the south. The airport is about 6 miles west of the city centre, and is served by the 106 bus.

Wroclaw's main railway station

Places to Stay

Wroclaw has a fairly wide range of reasonably priced hotels, most of which are close to the city centre and train station.

Probably the most historic is the Monopol at ul Modrzejewskiej 2,  just off ul Swidnicka, one of Wroclaw's major commercial roads, next door to the Opera House, a 10 minute walk from the train station and less than 5 minutes to the Town Square. The hotel is housed in an impressive art nouveau building, and has been operating since the late 19th century. Previous guests have included Picasso and Marlene Dietrich. Not surprisingly the hotel chooses not to publicise it's most infamous former resident; Adolf Hitler was a regular visitor. The Hotel has been operating since 1892 and although I'm sure it has been redecorated once or twice since then it's now definitely in need of a renovation; floors are creaky, carpets are a bit threadbare, and furniture is a bit rickety. That said, the rooms are very big and comfortable, as are the en-suite bathrooms (even though they have those revolting German-style toilets, with a shelf in the pan), and the breakfast (a help-yourself affair consisting of cereals, bread, cold meat, bacon, eggs and fish) was excellent. The Monopol could probably be best described as "decaying gracefully", but in terms of location and atmosphere it can't be beaten.

Hotel Monopol

We booked the Monopol through HotelsPoland, who have a wide selection of hotels in Wroclaw, and every other city in Poland. It cost us 50 per night for a double room, which represented a real bargain.

Where to Get Drunk

There are several good and reasonably priced restaurants on the Rynek.

We tried Pod Zlotym Jelenien ("Under the Golden Stag"), which does Polish food. It's a bit tacky inside, done up like a hunting lodge with the remains of dead animals on the walls. The staff though were very helpful and friendly (a good job as some of the translations on the English menu were a little eccentric), and the food was excellent. For a starter I went for the black pudding with friend onions, which was almost as good as the ones you can get from Bury market, and which scored extra points for being served up whole, "Lying on the plate like sensuous Nubians.", to quote the late, great Les Dawson, and for the main course I went for the mixed grill, basically a big plate of different meat. The Scotsman went for his customary trout, and was impressed. A great place, and good value for money.

After a week of non-stop meat eating, I thought that a pizza might make a pleasant change. Also on the Rynek was Palazzo, an Italian and pizza restaurant. Inside it's very classy and comfortable, with nice views of the Square and the Town Hall. The staff spoke English and were very helpful, which was a good job as the menu was in Polish and German only. Still, we figured it out and ended up with what's we'd intended to order so you shouldn't have any problems. The pizzas were good, with thin, crispy bases, and were very cheap.

Also on the Rynek (in fact under it) is Bar Spitz at Rynek Ratusz 9, in the cellars of the town hall. This place has an expensive, up-market restaurant attached, but of more interest to us was the bar, where they serve their own home-brewed beer (you can see the copper vats where it's brewed behind the bar). They serve 3 different types of beer; the light beer was a bit watery and flavourless, the wheat beer was much better with a nice bight to it, and the dark (dunkel) beer probably the strongest of the lot. The bar has a small menu offering various beery snacks, including sausage, black pudding, and bread and lard, but there was nothing for vegetarians. Serves them right.

The Pub Szkocki Haggis (Haggis Scottish Pub) can be found at ul Swidnicka 39. They had a range of Whiskeys (not all Scotch) that impressed even the Scotsman, going up to 80zl a shot. It has friendly staff, a quiet, laid-back atmosphere, tasteful decor and is very clean, which as the Scotsman pointed out means that it has absolutely nothing in common with a genuine Scottish pub. No deep-fried Mars bars or pizzas either (in fact no food at all, this an oasis for liquid refreshment only). Funnily enough there's another Scottish bar (complete with a picture of a man in a kilt) in the Rynek. It makes a change from Irish bars I suppose...

What to See and Do

As you'd expect for a city of its age and history, Wroclaw has its fair share of tourist attractions. Although most of the city centre was leveled by the end of World War II some historic buildings survived undamaged, while others were restored or rebuilt. Further severe damage was also caused by catastrophic flooding in the 1990s, and some buildings are still undergoing repairs as a result of this.

The best place to start on a sightseeing tour of Wroclaw is the Market Square (Rynek), which is at the heart of the restored Old Town (Stare Miasto).

the eastern facade of the town hall

Without doubt the most significant building in the square, and probably in Wroclaw, is the Town Hall (Ratusz). Work on this magnificent building started in the early 14th century, and 300 years later the thing was finally finished (which is still pretty fast when compared to Wembley Stadium). It wasn't all built in one go and so as a result the Town Hall is a glorious mish-mash of 300 years worth of various architectural styles. This can be best seen at the southern end; the eastern facade comes complete with spikey gothic gables and a 16th century astronomical clock, the baroque southern facade has ornamental bay windows and is covered in carved stone, statues and gargoyles, and copper-roofed turrets, while the western side is comparatively restrained renaissance, giving great views of the town hall's clock tower. The town hall came through WWII almost unscathed. You can have a look inside the town hall too, as it houses the History Museum, the main attractions of which are the preserved, authentically decorated rooms inside, which more than match the exuberance of the exterior. If all that wasn't enough, the town hall also has it's own brewery in the basement, and a bar that serves black puddings. What more could you possibly ask for?!?

decorated bay window in the Town Hall

There are a few things of interest around the town hall. In front of the east facade is a whipping post; this is a modern replica of the 15th century original, which was used for public floggings. It looks rather phallic, but then the Germans are notorious perverts. The original post  was lost during WWII, although I think they'd probably stopped using it before then. Round the southern side of the town hall is a bronze statue of a bear with a long tongue. I've no idea what it signifies, apart from a bear, and judging by the shiny state of the bear's tongue it's customary to give it a rub, although God knows why, maybe for good luck, maybe to improve fertility (in which case it was the Scotsman who touched it, not I). It looks nice enough though, if you like bears.

buildings around the Rynek

The Rynek itself is apparently the second largest in Poland (after Krakow's). It's so big that it has several blocks of buildings (including the town hall) and several streets in the middle of it. Apart from the town hall the main attraction of the Rynek are the buildings that surround it. Many of these were damaged during the war, but they were all rebuilt and have recently been renovated and given a fresh lick of paint, the result is a bewildering range of several hundred years of different architectural styles, not two buildings being identical, all painted different colours, some with extravagant painted or carved decoration. It sounds like a recipe for chaos, but somehow it works, and the result is surprisingly harmonious. You could (and we did) spend several hours marveling at all the details. Then again, it probably only took us hours as many of these buildings are now bars and restaurants, and we were comparing prices.

more buildings around the rynek

At the northwestern corner of the Rynek you'll find a couple of attractively decorated little 16th century houses (known locally as Jas i Malgosia, or "Johnny and Maggie"; being 16th century I think we can rule out a link with Major and Thatcher) linked by gateway; go through this gateway and you'll see the Church of St Elizabeth (Kosciol sw Elzbiety). Actually you don't need to go through the gateway to see it, the church is so bloody huge that you can see it from just about everywhere in the Old Town. The Church, in common with many in Wroclaw, is built out of brick and is extremely tall. It dates from the 14th century, although it was damaged during the war and then for good measure suffered a serious the 1970s. I doubt that St Elizabeth is the patron saint of luck. Still, it's mostly been completely renovated again, and highlights include the tower, which measures in at just short of 300 feet, the highest in the city (although for some reason they seem to have put a portable lavatory on top of the tower, rather than the more common steeple), and the cross-hatched pattern of tiles on the roof.

the tower ofSt Elizabeth's Church

At its southwest corner  the Rynek  joins another small square, Plac Solny, which used to be the salt market. Nowadays it houses flower stalls, and is also surrounded by attractively restored buildings, although nowhere near as imposing as the Rynek itself.

From the Rynek head east for a block along Wita Stwosza and then take the first turning on the right and you'll reach another of Wroclaw's towering churches, this one the Church of St Mary Magdalene (Kosciol sw Marii Magdalena). This one, also dating to the 14th century, has a very impressive exterior with two tall, linked towers. You can see from the patches of newer, cleaner bricks, where the church was damaged in the war. Inside the church is very austere and calm. There are several side-chapels containing old gravestones (some of which dated from the 17th century) and effigies. In the 16th century someone nicked a 12th century Romanesque doorway from a nearby Benedictine abbey, since when it has been in the south wall of the church.

Go back to Wita Stwosza and keep heading east and you'll hit another church, also made out of brick and very tall, this one being St Adalbert's (Kosciol sw Wojciecha). This was badly damaged during the war and rebuilt afterwards. The plain brick vaulting and white plastered interior contrasts nicely with the modern, abstract stained glass. The church also boasts a richly decorated baroque side-chapel dedicated to the founder of the Dominican monastery which the church once served.

From St Adalbert's head north up Piaskowa towards the river. Just before you reach the river the red brick building on your right is the market hall, housed in a former transport depot.

Away from the Old Town the area of the city that has been most restored after wartime damage is a cluster of churches along the River Odra. The first couple you pass are actually on an island in the middle of the Odra, Wyspa Piaskowa (Sand Island). The Church of St Mary on the Sand dates from the 14th century, built over an even earlier church but suffered badly during WWII, and then not quite as badly during the floods of 1997. The church has been thoroughly rebuilt and restored though. The modern, coloured stained glass reflecting on the plain, white plastered walls add to the peaceful, reflective atmosphere inside.

view of the Cathedral from Wyspa Piaskowa

From Piasek Island you have great views along the river, towards the cathedral. You can head east over the attractive late 19th century green cast-iron Most Tumski (Cathedral Bridge), which brings you out on Ostrow Tumski, Cathedral Island. Due to 19th century silting Cathedral Island is no longer an island. It still has a Cathedral on it though, so the name isn't entirely inaccurate. Ostrow Tumski is believed to be the site of the first settlement of Wroclaw, back in the 9th century.

Most Tumski, the Cathedral Bridge

The first church you pass when you get off the bridge is on your left, the 15th century church of Sts Peter and Paul; it's small and easy to overlook as you have to pass through another building (the former orphanage)  to get to it. It's rarely open apart from services. Keep going though and you'll come to another church, another of those bloody great tall ones. Actually you're getting two churches for the price of one here, as this is the Church of the Holy Cross and St Bartholomew (Kosciol sw Krzyzai sw Bartolomeja); this dates from the late 13th century. In the basement you'll find a couple of tombs of Wroclaw bishops as well as the Greek Catholic Church of St Bartholomew. The rest of the building is taken up with the Church of the Holy Cross, so you have 2 different churches for 2 different congregations, in the same building. I wonder how they split the heating bill?

Keep going west along Katedriana. On your left you'll pass what used to be the Archbishop's Palace, which is now used as a Theology Institute. Keep going and straight ahead of you is Wroclaw Cathedral. You really can't miss it, it's sodding massive.

Wroclaw Cathedral

The Cathedral of John the Baptist (Katedra sw Jana Chrzciciela) dates from the 13th century. It was built from brick (now blackened by pollution, adding to its imposing appearance), in the gothic style, with 2 tall matching towers. It sort of reminds of the Cathedral at the end of Batman. The Cathedral was damaged a few times by fire, no doubt has been flooded a few times as well (not while it was on fire, unfortunately), and then suffered severe damage during the war. There are some photos inside that show what it looked like after a few direct hits, and the story of the Cathedral's many woes over the years (and this is the 4th church on this site; it would appear that the previous 3 didn't have much luck either) are recounted in several languages, including English. It almost moved me enough to put some money in the donations box. Almost. Still, as elsewhere in Wroclaw the post-war restorers have done a bloody good job, and you'd be hard-pressed to tell that only 60 years ago the towers were a pair of stumps and there was a great big hole in the roof. The exterior of the building is impressive, with the usual gothic buttresses and statues. Inside it's a little murky. Because most of the Cathedral's original fittings and art works were destroyed, when it was restored the Cathedral was fitted out with artifacts donated by other churches in the region. You can also take a lift up to the top of one of the towers for magnificent views out over the city; being a coward who's not too keen on heights I stayed safely on terra firma, but the Scotsman went up. The lift costs 4zl; surprisingly the Scotsman stumped up.

entrance to Wroclaw Cathedral

If you've had enough of big, brick churches by this stage, Cathedral Island also has a couple of small, brick Churches. Just across the road north of the Cathedral is the early 13th century St Giles' Church (Kosciol sw Idziego), apparently the oldest still existing church in Wroclaw. You'll have to take their word for it; the church is rarely open. It looks pretty old from the outside though. A little further to the northwest you'll find St Martin's Church (Kosciol sw Marcma), a very attractive building now stuck on its own in the middle of nowhere, although you can see the remains of the walls that once ran away from it.

St Martin's Church

From here head back across the river and then west along the river banks; the river at this point is dotted with numerous small islands, you'll also pass another couple of Wroclaw's churches on your left, St Vincents and St Matthews. After about a quarter of a mile you'll come to a collection of buildings that make up Wroclaw's Univeristy. The University (Uniwersytet) was founded at the beginning of the18th century, and the building that houses it was built over the next 50 years or so. Unfortunately when I was in Wroclaw it mostly under scaffolding, possibly a result of flloding repairs, but the bits that we could see through the scaffolding looked very impressive. Apparently the interiors are even more impressive, especially the baroque decoration of the Aula Leopoldina, the assembly hall used for important university functions. I haven't actually seen it myself but the photographs look very impressive....

Keep heading west along the river on the road called Grodzka, which then becomes Nowy Swiat, a part of the ring-road and you'll come the the Arsenal, one of the few original bits of the original city walls and fortifications that still survives. It now houses a museum of medieval weapons.

Swidnicka, which runs south from the Rynek is one of Wroclaw's main commercial streets. It also holds the 14th century Church of St Dorothy (Kosciol sw Doroty), another of Wroclaw's towering Gothic, black brick piles. It has apparently been recently renovated, but looks somewhat grim and foreboding. A little further up Swidnicka is the impressive mid 19th century neo-classical Opera House; parts of it are still under scaffolding as it is still undergoing repairs for flood damage from the 1997 flooding, but it's still in use.

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