Beyond “To-may-toe, To- mah-toe”
“This is a great city: beautiful – gorgeous! — clean, organized, up and coming – but they’ve got to change their name to something pronounceable!” So proclaimed my husband on our first day in Wroclaw. We’d just discovered the city’s name is not pronounced “roe-claw,” as we’d been saying for weeks leading up to our visit, but “vrots-wauf” – or something close. I finally managed a facsimile after the first 24 hours, but Michael is still lost in phonetic translation.
The problem is, Wroclaw has changed its name several times over the centuries, usually under duress, and the city has no intention now of going back to any of “the other” names. (Although we did hear several tourists refer to this fair ville as “Breslau,” its most recent, previous name while under Prussian/German rule for the better part of 200 years.) In fact, the city-sponsored tourist guide notes: “the national status of Wroclaw has changed more often than any other city in Europe.”
Regardless of what its name is or how pronounced, Wroclaw is a pleasant, beautiful city in western Poland of about 633,000 people. It sits primarily on the Odra River, but sprawls over several small islands and four smaller rivers, and has plenty of green space and river walks. Wroclaw claims to be fourth in Europe for the number of bridges in a city, following after Venice, Amsterdam and St. Petersburg.
Heavily damaged in WWII, the city chose to restore and recreate as many of their old buildings as possible, so its “historic” sections, including the market square, are mostly re-creations of Wroclaw prior to 1945. As in most European cities rebuilding after the war, salvaged materials were used whenever possible in the reconstruction, but the results are architecturally authentic in detail. However, there is more to Wroclaw than the historic reconstructions. The city has been undergoing a facelift as well as new construction in preparation for the Europe Cup 2012 (in football aka soccer), with new buildings, a new stadium, and a complete renovation and expansion of its central train station. Wroclaw has also been selected as the European Culture Capital for 2016.
The Heart of Wroclaw
The market square, or Rynek, has been the heart of Wroclaw since 1241, serving as the city’s business, civic, cultural, and social center. It is also one of the largest market squares in Europe The Rynek is somewhat unusual in that there are buildings smack in the middle of the square, including the original town hall or Ratusz (referred to as “original” because it sustained only about 10% damage). There are arched passageways through the ground level of several of these centered buildings, so pedestrians can cut through the square if they choose. Rebuilt or not, if you can squint past the modern cafés lining the periphery and the occasional chain store, you can easily envision the square as it looked a few hundred years ago.
One charming architectural detail included replicating former gold symbols on building fronts. These gold symbols, usually of an animal, served as addresses of sorts. For example, the house or store with a gold dog on its facade was known as “Under the Gold Dog” instead of having a numerical address.
Gnomes and Bears, Oh No!
Another interesting touch that distinguishes Wroclaw from other cities is the city’s fascination with gnomes. Purportedly there are about 180 diminutive sculptures of gnomes scattered about the city, mimicking the full-sized denizens in a full range of behavior from laughing, drinking, pissing, to drudge-work, and even one using a diminutive ATM.
According to the city brochure, the gnomes were started as a prank in the 70s by the Orange Alternative to annoy the authorities, more or less at the time, the Soviets. The movement claimed to be anti-establishment and not ideologically motivated, but since the vast majority of targets were related to the Soviet-backed regime, one begs the question. Less than amused, the government would paint over the graffiti, so, come nightfall, the naughty Oranges would sneak out and paint cartoons of gnomes over the redacted graffiti. Images of gnomes and Big People in gnomish costumes began to appear in protest marches and rallies, and by the time Communism fell, the city had embraced these pint-sized symbols. The first “modern” incarnation of a gnome sculpture was commissioned in 2001, whereupon the City Council and local businessmen leapt in to commission additional statues. These wee folk have become so popular that the tourist Office now sells a map showing the location of about 30 of the gnomes.
Another cultural icon is the bear on a stump, aka “The Breslau Bear.” The hunched bronze bear perches on a tree stump, long tongue hanging from its mouth, looking as if it had just lapped up some water. Several tourist guides I consulted simply referred to the bear as “a strange sculpture” but gave no background. Not satisfied with a sufficient explanation, I did an internet search and found the story.
The original bear had actually been a public drinking fountain near the Town Hall since 1904. Passersby would tug on his collar, and potable water poured from the bear’s nostrils. People also would rub its tongue for good luck. An American lecturing in (then) Breslau in 1930 was enthralled with the bear, found the still-living sculptor, arranged for a casting of a duplicate statue, and presented Bear #2 to his alma mater, Brown University, where it remains today. During or after the chaos of WWII, the original Bear #1, was lost, stolen, or blown up – no one knows or will confess to this day.
Meanwhile, the denizens of Wroclaw missed their bronze bruin, so in 1998 a local sculptor re-created the sculpture (Bear #3), which has since stood next to the Town Hall. And while this poseur may not spurt water, people still rub his tongue for good luck. (For more details, go to: http://today.brown.edu/articles/2008/06/bearone)
Not far from the bear sits Count Alexander Fredro, an early 19th writer of social comedies satirizing the Polish nobility. Like many of the fixtures in the Market Square, his statue did not originally stand here. His bronze visage is a relatively new face, as it has stood here since 1956 when the statue was removed from Lviv (now in the Ukraine) and brought to Wroclaw to replace the site’s former inhabitant, a statue of German Kaiser Wilhelm. Preceding all these sculpted political statements, this area of the square once served as the fish market, as well featured “the mad men’s shed,” a cage in which miscreants were tossed and displayed. The city’s records reveal that while the incarcerated were usually drunks, other temporary inhabitants included homosexuals, a cross-dressing woman, and two gamblers caught playing cards during a Sunday sermon.
Memorial to Slaughtered Animals
At times Wroclaw’s penchance for odd statues seemed a bit stretched. To point: the “Memorial to Slaughtered Animals” on Stare Jatki, the alley which once housed the butcher stalls in the city. The cast iron figures – a goat, pig, goose, hog, rabbit, rooster — were commissioned by the city and have been displayed here since the 90s.
It Can Happen Anywhere
Wroclaw’s denizens and sculptures were indeed delightful, but one incident left us less than amused. After one late breakfast in an open air café, we strolled the few feet from our sidewalk table into the market square. A disheveled man approached me, seeking a handout. I shook my head — while holding my breath — as he reeked. But I kept my eye on him as he approached Michael, who was leaving some zlotys as a tip on the table. As Michael turned away, the beggar reached over the flower boxes into the café and snatched the coins from the saucer. I called a warning to Michael, who immediately accosted the drunk as he attempted to run away. Both of us were shouting in English, the drunk in Polish, but it was pretty clear what was going on. Some young guys who’d been sitting behind us in the café started yelling for the waiter, and at least one of the guys got up and headed in our direction to help. But Michael managed to literally shake the coins loose from the man’s grip before releasing him. The drunk stumbled off, no doubt mumbling in Polish about us, and the young guys and waiter applauded. What a start to the day.
This incident certainly wasn’t enough to put us off, as we ended up spending an extra day and night in Wroclaw.
The oldest part of the city sits on an island, Ostrow Tumski (Cathedral Island), on the Odra River. One of the oldest bridges – and the main bridge to Ostrow Tumski — is fast becoming a “lovers’ bridge,” as evidenced by the hundreds of locks affixed to the stanchions and rails.
Bridges adorned with lovers’ locks are sprouting all over Europe. I think they are symbolically quite charming, but I can’t help but wonder how many fish have died from swallowing all those keys tossed off the bridges. Perhaps Europe’s lovers are becoming more ecologically conscious about this fad; for the first time I noticed several combination locks in addition to the keyed locks. However, the point of this exercise in forever-love-swearing is to “lock” your love then throw away the key, because then your love will last forever.
Ostrow Tumski has several churches soaring above the roof tops. The two most striking are the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist and the dual-level Church of the Holy Cross (upper) and St. Bartholomew’s (lower). One of the spires of the cathedral has stairs and an elevator to a viewing area at the top but we were unable to find the entrance so we missed the panoramic views.
The interior of this gothic cathedral is stunning, with some of the prettiest colors in its stained glass windows I’ve ever seen. As most landmarks in Wroclaw, the cathedral, begun in 1244, was heavily damaged in WWII and had to be rebuilt. But as the archdiocesan seat for Wroclaw, it was a priority to reconstruct the cathedral to its original, sumptuous form. The archbishop’s residence, about twenty meters away, was likewise destroyed and rebuilt.
The lovely detail on the gate to the Archbishop’s residence caught my eye. Absolutely lovely.
We were unable to go into the dual church, which would have been interesting to see, as there are very few of these two-level churches in Europe. But St. Bartholomew’s (lower) is closed to visitors and Holy Cross (upper) is open only at mass. So we did what we like best: sit at an outdoor café for a beer and a snack and enjoyed the view, including the church.
On the other side of the Odra River sits Wroclaw University. Founded in 1670 by the Jesuits, the now-secular university has 40,000 enrolled students, and has produced nine Nobel Laureates. While the main buildings are open to tourists, we discovered the university too late in the day to gain entrance. Another time.
An Unplanned Visit Isn’t Necessarily a Bad Thing
We’d not planned in spending more than a few waking hours and a one-night rest stop in Wroclaw. We were so enchanted by the market square our first evening, we haphazardly changed our travel plans and finagled to stay an extra 24 hours. Consequently, we did little more than walk and gawk our one full day there.
We made it to only one museum, the Raclawice Panorama, but have a laundry list for the next visit. The panorama was interesting and rather unique, as the 360° art form is long past its heyday. The 140 meter canvas depicts the Polish victory over the Russian Army in 1794. Although the ragtag Poles won the battle, they lost their war of rebellion. Nevertheless, this painting is revered by the Polish as a symbol of unity, bravery and victory – if however temporary. The description of the battle is narrated overhead in Polish, but audio guides in multiple translations are available.
Another sight we missed was the White Stork Synagogue (built 1829), the only synagogue in Wroclaw (then Breslau, Germany) which escaped total destruction on Kristallnacht in 1938. Much of the interior and the precious Torah scrolls were destroyed that night. A few years later, the White Stork’s courtyard was where the city’s Jews were gathered by the Nazis for transportation to the death camps. The battered synagogue exchanged hands numerous times until 1996 when the city’s Jewish community was able to finally begin restorations. In May 2010, after 70 years, the synagogue was rededicated; there are plans to eventually turn the synagogue into a museum.
So, more museums, the synagogue, and definitely a river cruise are on my list for “next time.” But there are less serious activities I’d like to accomplish. Like find all 180 of those cute little gnomes!