The hardest task facing foreign visitors to the fascinating Polish city of Wrocław is how to pronounce it. For a start, neophytes to the Polish language should avoid thinking of talons. The phonetic pronunciation is actually “Vrots-wof” although the conurbation’s 14th-century German nomenclature of “Breslau” is certainly a lot easier to say. The practical Germans still use this name although the correct etymology is attributed to the Bohemian Duke Vratislav who founded a town on the site in the 10th century and immodestly called it Wratislavia, which is also not so facile to pronounce.
Wrocław has a formidable, albeit confusing history. For a city which at one time or another was under the control of Prussia, Austria, Hungary, Bohemia, Germany and the Kingdom of Poland, one could expect a certain cultural confusion in this strategically located capital of Lower Silesia. However, as Pope John Paul II accurately described it, Wrocław is “a meeting place, a city that unites”.
Located in Western Poland a comfortable three hour drive from Dresden and only slightly longer from Berlin, Wrocław has somehow miraculously avoided the fate of out of control tourism which blights visits to Kraków in the east or not so distant Prague. Its physical and architectural attractions are certainly on a par with these two much better known tourist destinations – in fact Emperor Ferdinand I opined “the man who has not seen Breslau has never seen a pretty city”.
Wrocław’s old town is compact, easy to navigate and bursting with beautiful buildings, cafés, bars, pubs, restaurants and nightclubs most of which are centered around the multi-hued Rynek or main Market Square. Comparisons with the more famous Market Square in Kraków are by no means unfavourable. In fact the late-Gothic Old City Hall in Wrocław is architecturally as impressive as the famous Cloth Hall in Kraków, and considerably older.
Despite the horrific loss of life and appalling damage to property suffered during the three-month Battle of Wrocław (also known as Festung Breslau) in the last days of World War II, the resilient Wrocławianie managed to rebuild their city with typical Silesian grit and determination and carefully preserved the unique blend of Bohemian, Prussian, Hanseatic and Habsburg architectural styles.
Over the centuries Wrocław has attracted a disparate group of voyageurs and greater and lesser luminaries. Casanova was out-seduced there by a clever chambermaid, the child prodigy Mozart dazzled the Court in 1765 and even the Archangel Michael reputedly paid a not so friendly visit in 1342 which left the city in ashes. Sir Winston Churchill observed Prussian military manoeuvres near Breslau in 1906 and was impressed by both the efficiency of the mobilization and the hearty Polish food at the Golden Goose Hotel.
Perhaps the greatest impact on his idyllic picture-postcard town has been made by students. Today the scholastic community comprises over 10% of the total 640,000 population which ensures an energy, enthusiasm and buzzy vibe which one may not always associate with Poland. Suffice to say, Wrocław is about as much like Warsaw as Miami is to Mount Athos.
Students and Wrocław seem as inextricably linked as beer and bratwurst but over the centuries, sophomores in Silesia didn’t just fill the coffers of brewers and brothel keepers. Wrocław University Professor William Stern invented the concept of IQ in 1912 and the Department of Psychiatry was headed by Alois Alzheimer whose legacy was, if one will pardon the adjective, unforgettable. Possibly as a result of large numbers of especially hormonally-charged undergraduates, another medical figure in Breslau to gain worldwide recognition for his pioneering work in the treatment of syphilis was Professor Albert Neisser. Apart from tending to the local lotharios, Neisser was also a generous patron of the arts and his magnificent residence on Szczytnicki Park became a Mecca for music making. Sadly the villa was swept away in the carnage of the Battle of Wrocław although the syphilis clinic is still standing. Dominus occulte modis agit indeed.
A stroll around the magical old town of Wrocław is sure to delight the eye and invigorate the spirit. Apart from the imposing and colourful Market Square, there are endless byways and passages quietly revealing architectural and aesthetic gems including over a hundred bridges. Many cross the river Odra (or Oder) where the oldest part of the town can be found. The district of Ostrów Tumski is also the location of the magnificent 13th-century Cathedral of St John the Baptist which was the first brick edifice to be built in Poland. Another building well worth a visit is the University of Wrocław which was founded by the Jesuits in 1670. The superb Baroque Aula Leopoldina ceremonial hall with its plethora of plump pastel cherubim and seraphim is particularly memorable. A unique oeuvre d’art in Wrocław is the extraordinary wrap-around painting called the “Panorama of the battle of Racławice”. Bring your peripheral vision.
An agreeable divertissement in Breslau (which could be called ‘Gnomékon Go’) is hunting all the dwarf and gnome statutes which proliferate the city. Rumour has it that over 350 of the little figures abound, and their origin as part of an anti-communist protest movement in 2005 would seem to guarantee their survival.
An essential part of the multi-cultural diversity which characterised Wrocław over the centuries was a love for all kinds of music, and if there can be a single explanation for the recent phoenix-like renaissance of the city since the bleak, bad old days of General Jaruzelski’s stultifying Communism, it was the opening of the spectacular NFM concert hall in 2015. More of that later. Since Breslau’s beginnings, music played a major part in the daily life of the Euterpe-loving locals. Church organs in particular have been a vital part of Silesia’s musical history since 1218 when a Cistercian convent in Trzebnica received some wheezy bellows to accompany prayers. The Augustinians brought antiphonal singing and an organ to the church of Our Lady of the Sands in the 15th century. Wilhelm Sauer’s enormous 5-manual organ built for Max Berg’s gigantic multi-purpose Centennial Hall in 1913 was for many years the largest in the world. According to local historian and music lover Beata Maciejewska, Wrocławianie in the 19th century were so enthusiastic about concerts, Sunday garden performances often started at 6:00 in the morning. One can imagine that today’s local Musician’s Union would be less enthusiastic about such a precipitant reveille.
Wrocław’s musical history mirrored its rich multi-cultural social fabric. A harpsichord commissioned by Frederick the Great from Burkat Shudi in London and played by the nine year old Mozart is still extant owing to felonious Russian soldiers preferring a can of beer in exchange for the priceless instrument. Similarly, pianos belonging to Chopin and Paderewski and Wanda Landowska’s harpsichord are treasured artifacts. Spontaneous singing, usually aided and abetted by copious quantities of fine Silesian ale, was definitely not restricted to the al fresco – beer halls such as the Piwnica Świdnicka resounded to hearty male student choruses which were usually closer to Rabelaisian rhapsodies than serenades to Saint Cecilia. The first 1,600 seat opera house in Breslau was built in 1841 but completely destroyed by fire in 1865. Its replacement suffered a similar fiery fate only six years later. Nevertheless over the years Wrocław was host to such musical titans as Liszt, the Schumanns, Wagner, Adelina Patti, Jenny Lind, Niccolò Paganini, Brahms, Chopin and Richard Strauss. Carl Maria von Weber started his musical career as Director of the opera in Breslau, although his undiplomatic disdain for divas “d'un certain âge” ensured a relatively precipitous and unlamented departure. The lengthy association of Johannes Brahms with Wrocław is well documented and not restricted to his formidable consumption of local wine and beer. The Academic Festival Overture was not so much a spontaneous act of musical homage to the exuberant students of Breslau as a rather onerous quid pro quo for receiving an honorary doctorate from the wily dons of Wrocław university.
Since its eagerly awaited opening in 2015, the fabulous Witold Lutosławski National Forum of Music (or ‘NFM’) concert hall has been the leading catalyst in the musical renaissance of Wrocław. Lavish praise for the exceptional acoustics of the hall has become the standard reaction of visiting and local musicians and many important recordings are already being made there. Scopious accolades have been bestowed on the NFM building itself as striking architectural designs provide a distinctive ark-like external shell and an arresting internal shape for the auditorium. In achieving the highest standards of auditory excellence, the acoustic and theatre design team led by Tateo Nakajima from ARUP in New York incorporated amongst other technical devices, a series of lateral acoustic chambers which can be adjusted to the demands of the individual performance, making the NFM much more than just a superb symphony hall. A visit to Wrocław which does not include the NFM would be akin to going to Rome and skipping St Peter’s.
As befitting any modern European city, Wrocław offers all manner and styles of accommodation to suit both whim and wallet. Private apartments abound and are usually excellent value and conveniently located. For more discerning voyageurs, the number one choice in Wrocław is unquestionably the Hotel Monopol. Situated directly opposite the Opera House, this salubrious auberge has a fascinating history having been over the course of its various reincarnations, a monastery, department store, a brewery and even a women’s prison. It was also a temporary abode in 1937 for Adolf Hitler who had a loggia/porte cochère built over the entrance from whence he could harangue the local garrison. The Monopol not only offers first-rate facilities, décor, cuisine and service but is a leisurely three minute stroll to the NFM. For party-hounds and insomniac imbibers, the bar is open all night.
There is no end of restaurant options in Wrocław, although perhaps the most famous is the Piwnica Świdnicka located directly below the old City Hall building on the main market square. It has been operating since 1275, reputedly making it the oldest restaurant in Europe. In keeping to strict Olde Worlde traditions, Piwnica Świdnicka doesn’t accept credit cards so remember to stock up on Polish złoty from a nearby ATM before devouring the excellent roast duck. Arguably the most traditional Polish cuisine is a stuffed dumpling dish called pierogi and the best in Wrocław is found almost opposite Piwnica Świdnicka in a busy, buzzy multi-level restaurant called Pierogania Stary Młyn. A few steps from the NFM in the old Jewish quarter are a number of very good eating places, many of which are open late. A sports bar called Winners on ul. Pawła Włodkowica serves more than acceptable bar food and excellent steaks but can be a bit noisy with garrulous imbibers. The Planet Café right on the main square offers an impressive collection of calorie-laden cakes and pastries which attracts a colourful clientele. Service tends to be more pre-Solidarność comrade-fainéant than post-Perestroika snappy but nothing in Wrocław is done with undignified haste. An absolute must for the plucky and adventurous is a local student hangout cum diner called the Setka Bar at Kazimierza Wielkiego which is a 3-4 minute walk from Market Square. A large 70s-looking menu written only in Polish and posted high on a wall behind the horseshoe bar offers all manner of typical Polish dishes and beer at absurdly cheap prices. No wonder students love it. Non-Polish speakers may encounter difficulties, but accurate hand gestures and a cheerful smile usually achieve the desired result. Catering to the chronically crapulous, the Setka Bar is open to 6.00 in the morning.
An indication of the rapid renaissance of the city is that Wrocław was named European Capital of Culture in 2016. It was also rated as the ‘Best City to Live’ in 2015. A visit to this visually enchanting and historically fascinating town is highly recommended. Don’t let the terrifying Polish language with its endless consonants put you off. Whilst the speech may be incomprehensible and intimidating, the people are the opposite – ingenuous, curious, convivial and welcoming. Wrocław is not only the brightest star in the Polish urban galaxy, it is a model for the rest of Europe as to how a multi-cultural, multi-religious, mutually tolerant polyglot community can not only live peaceably and profitably but serve as a precious inspiration to the rest of today’s troubled Continent.