Wroclaw: Poland’s big surprise
They are the cutest inhabitants of Wrocław, Poland. More than 400 dwarves live on the streets and squares of the city. They are very friendly and like being photographed. This was just one element that made a Wroclaw visit a complete surprise and quite memorable.
It is the largest city in western Poland but it was almost unknown to us when we arrived by car from Germany. We quickly discover that Wroclaw is Poland’s fourth-largest city and a lively cultural centre, with several theatres, major festivals, rampant nightlife and a large student community.
We had chosen a hotel with a car park close to the centre of town and planned to walk around from there. This worked perfectly and is a strong recommendation to all visitors.
While the central square was a big drawcard, we decide to start sightseeing where Wroclaw was born. To reach there, we walk through Slowacki Park and see the Museum of Architecture, the National Museum and the Panorama building before reaching Bastion Ceglarski with its old fortifications overlooking the Odra River.
It is a lovely walk along the bank of the river and across the Piaskowy Bridge to Sand Island and then across the delightful Tumski Bridge to Cathedral Island. This is the oldest part of Wrocław and there are a number of impressive monuments here. When Cathedral Island was first developed in the 10th century the river created a natural defence.
The most interest today is provided by the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist from the 12th century with its 21 chapels, the loveliest of which is the Italian Baroque Chapel of St Elizabeth. A lift will take you to the top of one of the towers for the best vistas of the city.
You should also see the Church of the Holy Cross which is a unique two-storey brick basilica, and the Botanic Garden with its 11,500 plants in 7.5 hectares, from a diversity of climate zones and environments such as tropical, subtropical, underwater, alpine, and wetland.
Looking across to Cathedral Island
Old City North
It is difficult to leave this delightful area but there is so much more to see. We retrace our route across the two bridges then pay a brief visit to the Produce Market, an historic, traditional indoor market, before walking through the northern section of the Old Town.
We find the Baroque-style main Wrocław University building here. It houses the Wrocław University Museum and the wonderful Oratorium Marianum music hall, which has served as a celebrated concert space for more than two hundred years.
The university, which has produced nine Nobel Prize winners, was founded by the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold in 1702. One of the must-sees is the extravagantly decorated Baroque hall, Aula Leopoldina, with a ceiling fresco, gilded stucco, and sculpted cherubs. Close by is the garrison church which is one of the most important city churches and one of the symbols of Wrocław.
Now it is time to head to the constantly hustling and bustling Market Square, which is the very heart of Wrocław. The centre of the square features the Cloth Hall and the Gothic and Renaissance Old Town Hall, which is now the Museum of the Bourgeois Art. The Old Town Hall is actually a group of Gothic buildings bundled together in one complex. On the Late Gothic east facade, look for the astronomical clock dating to 1580.
In front of its eastern façade stands the faithful copy of the medieval Pillory which was a place of punishment for petty criminals, and in front of the western façade is the Aleksander Fredro Monument to a comic playwright.
Like the rest of the Old Town, the Market Square has almost the same layout as it did when it was planned in the middle of the 13th century.
The square is surrounded by beautiful town houses ranging from Gothic to Art Nouveau. Amazingly, most of the buildings here are replicas of how they used to be as the square was completely rebuilt from the pile of ruins that was Wroclaw after the Second World War.
During summer, the Main Square is a great place to soak up the sun with a local beer at one of the many bars and restaurants, and during winter a large ice rink materialises providing the chance to show off some skating skills. There are often concerts, folk dances, photo exhibitions and much more here as well.
Adjacent to the Market Square is Plac Solny. It has buildings with elaborate reliefs and figurines bursting from the facades and is now a 24-hour flower market.
Market Square at Night
Old City South
The Four Denominations District is situated a little south-west of here. Three churches of different denominations and a synagogue are within 300 metres of each other. The numerous restaurants, cafés, pubs and music clubs situated here make it a popular meeting place for locals and visitors.
The nearby Royal Palace, together with its Baroque-style garden, now houses the Historical Museum of Wrocław. The Museum showcases the history of the city and the royal apartments are also open.
Hydropolis, centre of knowledge about water, was opened in 2015. There are many rooms, each with multimedia tablets with interesting details about discoveries of the underwater world, the nature of water and its use in life. It is in an underground water reservoir built in 1893.
A little outside the Old Town, Szczytnicki Park is the largest park in the city. Set up in 1913, the Japanese Garden remains its key attraction. The park with its arboretum, rose gardens, and Japanese Garden, is heritage listed.
Centennial Hall, with its 69-metre-high dome, opened in 1913 for the 100th anniversary of the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Leipzig. It can accommodate 10,000 and was recognised as a significant 20th ‑century building when it was put on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2006.
But back to the dwarfs. There is an anti-communist protest behind the dwarfs which first appeared in 2001. The first dwarf was displayed in Swidnicka Street, where the anti-communist movement used to gather. Since then many different dwarfs have appeared in the streets and in the front of shops. Visit the tourist office for interesting brochures about them and where to find them all.
Of all the cities we visited on our recent pre-covid19 trip through Europe, Wroclaw was the biggest surprise and we are looking forward to returning and spending more time to get to know the city better.
Images: Phensri Rutledge