What’s your first association with Poland? Surely you’re imagining a beautiful medieval Krakow with the royal Wawel Castle. A perfect setting for the “Witcher” books (“Wiedźmin” in Polish). On the other hand, maybe you connect Poland with its old Communist metropolis Warsawa.
We decided to spend a weekend in the closest Polish town to Czech Republic, Wroclaw. The fourth-largest city in Poland is equally beautiful as Krakow, but at the same time has its special charm. Wroclaw is a university city on 6 rivers and 25 small islands, thus the nickname “Polish Venezia”.
This is also a city of dwarfs that you’ll find on every corner. There are 212 official mini-sculptures of dwarfs, but also many un-official dwarf sculptures for commercial purposes: they sleep in front of the hotel, drinking coffee in front of the café, eating ice-cream next to the cake shop or “guzzle” meat near the butchery.
Every tourist office or a souvenir shop on the Rynek (Main Square) is selling city maps with the dwarf sculptures (krasnal in Polish). They are contagious as Pokemons and you “got to catch them all”, but the dwarfs are not all that Wroclaw has to offer.
Accommodation in Wroclaw
We arrived around 2 p.m. and the first thing that surprised us was that the bus station is located inside a modern shopping mall Wroclawia. We walked towards our accommodation, the B&B Hotel Wroclaw Centrum (Piotra Skargi 24-28). We passed a small park near the bus station where local alcoholics were hiding behind the trees because it’s not allowed to drink alcohol in public (on the streets, squares, and parks) in Poland.
We saw a beautiful green promenade along the canal. We passed modern glass business buildings and right next to them, dilapidated old buildings with missing windows and façade. We found this mixture of old and new in only one street, but Wroclaw is full of those contrasts.
Our B&B Hotel Wroclaw Centrum hotel was nothing special. Except during the check-in and check-out, nobody from the reception greeted us or even noticed us. Although the hotel is called bed & breakfast, breakfast is not included in the price of a room, but it will cost you another 10€/day. Our room was small but clean. The best thing about this hotel was its location – a walking distance from the city center and Rynek. The price of our room was about 50€/night, but we booked it a month in advance.
Our hotel, from one side, was next to a modern shopping mall Galeria Dominikańska and a Gothic Dominican St. Wojciech Church from 12th century built in recognizable Polish red brick. From the other side, we were near the shores of an old moat called Fosa Miejska. The first evening, we decided for a pleasant walk on the promenade along Fosa Miejska and the river Odra.
A walk along Fosa Miejska and the river Odra
We stopped in the Old Town Park, where the first dwarf greeted us. In the Old Town Park, you can find the Wroclaw Comedy Theater, which used to be called the Monday Theater because at the beginning it showed plays only on Mondays. In front of the theatre is an interesting fountain with the statue of a boy with a goose.
We continued our walk towards a Classic Opera House by an architect Carl Gotthard Langhans. Although the Wroclaw Opera House was built in the mid-19th century, Polish opera has a long tradition. At the beginning of the 19th century, Carl Maria von Weber was invited to lead Wroclaw opera. He wanted to bring some changes into the opera repertoire, but by accident, he drank the acid for etching instead of wine and he ended up in a hospital. Eventually, he gave up his duty.
Today the Polish Opera House hosts Wagner festivals because of the compositor's engagement on this opera's scene. The street that connects the Opera House with the city center is called Świdnicka Street and it's the main promenade and a “lifeblood” of Wroclaw.
On our way, we also bumped into interesting cauliflowers and a huge statue of Boleslav Hrabri. Boleslav Hrabri was a Polish Duke who ruled here around the year 1000 and he established the episcopate, which helped in the development of the city. The statue stands in front of another modern shopping mall Renoma. We saw another contrast of old and new: from one side, the building of the District Court, which looks like a smaller castle from “Harry Potter” movies, and from the other, a modern glass building of Wroclaw Philharmonic.
We sat on a bench in front of a beautiful restaurant garden. The restaurant was Bułka z masłem, a pretty expensive restaurant offering mostly burgers, but with a great atmosphere.
We continued towards the river Odra, passed a glowing Sikorskiego bridge, one of the oldest bridges in the city. Wroclaw has over 100 bridges, among them the largest Polish bridge, Rędziński bridge. As I already mentioned, Wroclaw is a city on 6 rivers, rivulets and canals with 25 islands, which makes it an ideal summer destination.
Where to eat
On our first evening, we tried typical Polish pierogi in a small restaurant and cake shop Inna bajka (Odrzańska 18/19). Pierogi are Polish traditional dish made of pastry filled with sauerkraut, minced meat, mushrooms, and mashed potatoes usually sprinkled with bacon fat or small pieces of bacon. There are also sweet pierogi filled with different fruits and accompanied by sour cream. A portion of pierogi cost 10 zlotys.
The other day, we dined in a traditional Polish restaurant Kurna Chata (Odrzańska 17). My boyfriend had a traditional Polish soup in a bread called žurek and I had kopytky or crockets in a mushroom sauce. Both dishes were delicious and for a decent price. We enjoyed a warm homey atmosphere of the restaurant.
Rynek – the center of Wroclaw
With full stomachs, we went to the main city square, Rynek. On the way, we saw bronze sculptures of domestic animals in a small charming street called Jatki. Jatki Street preserved its medieval character of a street full of slaughterhouses and butchery shops. Today there are small art galleries. The bronze sculptures of pigs, chickens, rooster, and cows are the work of Piotr Wieczorek, made in 1990 as a memory of poor slaughtered animals. They can also be obstacles for drank youth coming from the night club Na Jatkach who falls over them.
Rynek is one of the largest and the most beautiful historic squares in the whole of Europe. It was erected after the Mongol invasion in 1241. Rynek was a significant medieval market place in the 15th century, more important than Prague or Frankfurt on Main. Why? It was located at the crossroads of important commercial roads, between north and south (today Czech Republic) and between western and eastern Europe. Thanks to the market taxes, the citizens of Wroclaw quickly became rich and the city began to develop.
In the middle of the square, there are Old and New City Hall, one next to another. The Old City Hall looks like it came from a fairy tale and it’s built in the 13th century in a Late-Gothic style. In my opinion, it’s one of the most beautiful city halls that I’ve seen (right next to Subotica’s City Hall).
The New City Hall was added to the old one in the mid-19th century. It’s the seat of the Mayor of Wroclaw. Both city halls are the largest ones in Poland! In front of the New City Hall stands a modern glass fountain in the shape of a wave by a sculptor Alojz Gryt. It’s called “Zdrój”, which means spring, but the fountain got its name after the former Mayor Bogdan Zdrojewski.
Rynek is full of colorful medieval houses that preserved their house signs (for example, the House Under the Blue Sun). Today they host small shops, banks, pharmacies, and many restaurants and cafés. You can say that the Rynek is a “meeting point” of Wroclaw, the same as Wroclaw is a “meeting point” of the whole of Europe. It’s their tourist slogan.
Right next to the Rynek are two smaller squares – Plac Solny on the south and Nowy Targ on the east. On Plac Solny, locals were selling salt, wax, honey, caviar, and even meat, while Nowy Targ was an important market square in the past. The last stand selling salt was removed at the beginning of the 19th century. On Plac Solny are still many stands, but with different products – flowers. It’s the meeting point of couples in love.
While we were wandering around Wroclaw, we found one interesting sight, Galeria Neonów (Ruska 46c). It’s a passage full of neon signs and old cinema commercials. Tomasz Kosmalski established a foundation Neon Side in 2005 and he started gathering neon signs of old movies and companies. In that way, he saved them from destruction by new owners. Today there are almost 30 neon signs in this passage.
Zapiekanki - Polish street food
The next day, my boyfriend practiced the pronunciation of a sentence: “Dve zapiekanki, prosze,” (“Two zapiekanki, please.”) for about an hour. After he perfected it, we were ready to go in a search for good zapiekanki. Zapiekanka is a popular Polish street food that consists of a half baguette baked in the oven with mushrooms, cheese, and other ingredients of your choice and usually covered with ketchup.
According to Trip Advisor, the best zapiekanka should be in Bar Witek (Wita Stwosza 40/1a), not far from our hotel. We went to check it out and they were right. Bar Witek is a small family fast food bar with only a few tables, but it’s always filled with people. We could choose between 5-6 types of zapiekanki, from the classic one (with only mushrooms and cheese) to the so-called mega zapiekanka (with additional ham, corn, and different vegetables). Zapiekanki were great! Even sparrows wanted a piece of our zapiekanki!
Before we had lunch in the form of zapiekanki, we went for breakfast to the city market, Hala Targowa. We wanted to buy the famous Polish candy, krówki. We also tried pigwa or quince, which you can find everywhere in Poland as a fruit or in a spirit drink, but in the Czech Republic and Slovakia is pretty rare. Hala Targowa was built at the beginning of the 20th century in a Neo-Gothic style and still is a traditional city market that offers fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, cheese, candies, flowers, and other products (even souvenirs).
It was time to visit the “cradle of Wroclaw”, Ostrów Tumski (Cathedral Island), which was built in the 10th century on the river Odra to defend the city. The name of the city comes from the name Wratyslaw or “the one who will bring back the fame” to the city. It refers to either a Czech duke Vratislav I or a local ruler.
The first wooden church was built on the island in the 10th century and defense city walls surrounded it. Two centuries later, the island began to develop under the rule of Boleslav Hrabri, who turned the church into a basilica. The Cathedral was destroyed various times during history, but it’s today’s image is from the 13th century with some Neo-Gothic details from the reconstruction in the mid-20th century. It’s dedicated to John the Baptist, a patron of the city.
At the beginning of the 14th century, Ostrów Tumski was already under the church jurisdiction. It was a sacred place and it was forbidden to enter it with a hat on your head or any other headdress. Even princes had to take their hats off when they passed the Tumski bridge that leads to the island. Today you can find here the Cathedral, Archbishop’s Palace, and smaller churches and houses for the churchmen.
We arrived on the Ostrów Tumski on a cold autumn evening. While we were sitting on a bench in front of the Cathedral, only a few people passed by, and we enjoyed the quiet and the view of the almost mystical scene around us. It was something similar as if the groups of tourists would abandon Prague Castle and we would stay alone wandering through the courtyards, Golden Lane and a magical street Nový svět.
Before going to Ostrów Tumski, we spent a pleasant afternoon on a small island Wyspa Tamka. We had drinks on the Odra riverbank near the Św. Maciej bridge and relaxed on interesting benches in front of the art club Wyspa Tamka. The benches were pulled out from an old tram or had a keyboard on the back.
We listened to a rock concert coming from another island Wyspa Słodowa, which is surrounded by kayaks and small boats during the summer. You can rent them from April to October. A kayak ride costs 15 zlotys and a boat ride 25 zlotys. There are also 4 regular boat-tram lines on the river Odra traveling between the three stops: Zatoka Gondoli, Wyspa Słodowa, and Wroclaw Zoo. A half-hour ride will cost you 15 zlotys. We decided to come back to Wroclaw in spring and try the boat ride on Odra river. 🙂
Our last day we had just enough time to visit the Zoo, the oldest, most visited and the Zoo with the largest number of animal species in Poland. Wroclaw Zoo is also the fifth most visited Zoo in Europe! Its main attraction is a huge glass building of Afrikarium, a kind of Aquarium, but only with African species of fish and other water animals. We saw some species of fish that we didn’t see in any other Zoo (and we visited many), but still, the biggest attraction for us was to walk among sloths. I took it as a preview of my trip to Costa Rica that followed in December.
In my opinion, three days in Wroclaw is not enough, especially during warmer months. We made plans to come back again in spring and explore some things that we didn’t have time to see. We want to go on a boat ride, see the largest train tracks model in Poland, Kolejkowo, and visit a museum of old computer games. We want to walk through a beautiful Szczytnicki park with the Japanese Garden and many other things. Bye, bye, Wroclaw, until we meet again!
P.S. You want to know where did the dwarfs come from?
The first dwarf appeared in 2001 on the popular Świdnicka Street as a memorial to the anti-Communist movement called “Orange alternative”. The movement was active in the 80s and it offered alternative to the people under the regime. Its members organized protests and demonstrations with absurd elements. They draw graffiti of dwarfs and funny slogans against the regime. That way they couldn’t be caught and arrested, but they still ridiculed the regime.
The mascot of “Orange alternative” movement was a dwarf (krasnal), whose statue the city of Wroclaw built in 2001. It still stands there today, on Świdnicka Street, where most of the demonstrations took place. In 2005, new dwarfs appeared around the town, a work of Tomasz Moczek. Since then, the dwarf continued appearing and today there is over 350 of them, official and un-official ones. Nobody knows the exact number.
Every year in September, the city organizes the Festival of dwarfs. You can look forward to a rich program of storytelling, songs, performances, and plays on the same subject – krasnal.