After Krakow we headed west and towards the city of Wroclaw. You may have heard of this place because it was European City of Culture in 2016. What you probably can’t do however, is pronounce its name correctly. ‘Rock-law’? Nope. ‘Vrock-law’? Nooooo. ‘Vrock-lav’? No again. The problem is that, for non-Polish people, it’s pronunciation is nothing like you would expect based on the letters you see, so it is actually something more like ‘Vrots-wahv’. Got it? No, we didn’t either and ended up throwing out several different possible pronunciations every time we referred to it, finishing up with ‘…or however you pronounce it!’
A Bit of History
Anyway, Wroclaw has an interesting history. It has been fought over time and again, having been part of Bohemia, Austria, Prussia, Germany and now Poland. In fact, until the end of WWII it went by the name of Breslau and was part of Germany. It was part of a huge area called Silesia which was transferred to Poland in 1945, along with Pomerania to the north. Having never studied this period of history at school, it was astonishing to me to learn just how much territory in this region had changed hands at the end of both world wars.
Unfortunately, the city that Poland inherited had been decimated by Soviet forces in 1945. Much of what the visitor sees today therefore is relatively new or has been reconstructed from the rubble.
We got the tram from our campsite into the city and headed straight for the main square. But before I tell you about that, I have to mention the dwarfs. Because in Wroclaw today it is ALL about the dwarfs!
It’s All About the Dwarfs
What a lot of fun we had dwarf-spotting in Wroclaw! These little bronze fellas (for they did all appear to be boys) had us hooked instantly, and we weren’t the only ones – they are said to be one of the city’s most popular attractions. It became something of a competition amongst us to spot the next one, which was often very easy as it had a gaggle of people around it with cameras out taking pictures. They could also easily be found by watching out for small children running excitedly and squealing – wherever they were headed was the location of the next dwarf.
Around the main square, they seemed to be everywhere – on street corners, in doorways and on window ledges – hidden and yet in plain view. What a brilliant way to keep children (and adults) engaged and having fun as you explore a city! Every city needs some dwarfs!
It would be easy to dismiss the dwarfs as a tourist gimmick, but they actually seemed to inject a real sense of fun into the city. Each one has something to do with the daily life or history of Wroclaw and many of them were quirky and imaginative and really made us laugh….like the one outside a bank getting some money out of a dwarf-sized cashpoint…or the one sitting with his feet up doing something on his laptop….or the ultimate parody of the whole dwarf phenomenon, a dwarf taking a photograph of a tiny dwarf sculpture! We loved it!
But why are the dwarfs here, we wondered? Why have they become the symbol of Wroclaw? The association of dwarfs with Wroclaw apparently goes back to the 1980s and a group calling themselves the Orange Alternative. Led by Waldemar Fydrych, the group used silliness and humour to make a statement against the oppressive communist government of the time. The authorities were keen to censor anyone who spoke out against them, so if any anti-communist graffiti appeared around the city, they would immediately paint over it…and the Orange Alternative would then cover the newly-painted walls with dwarfs. They also painted dwarfs over government slogans and organised marches where people dressed up as dwarfs, ridiculing the regime and generally becoming a thorn in their side. The non-violent protests of the Orange Alternative are said to have brought a lightness and hope to the people of Wroclaw during the dark days of communism.
In 2001, as a tribute to the Orange Alternative, the city commissioned a dwarf statue to be placed in an area of the city where they held many of their demonstrations. Known as Papa Krasnal or Papa Dwarf, he is larger than his successors and quite different in style.
Then in 2005 the city council asked local artist Tomasz Moczek to create 5 more dwarfs to be placed around the city and they were so popular that local businesses started to commission their own dwarfs, and so their numbers swelled. The official dwarf population is now 165, although some people claim there are more like 300 of them at different locations around the city. There is even a website dedicated to the dwarfs, with information about their names and locations. You can get maps showing the location of all of the dwarfs and we saw lots of people wandering around with these, ticking off the ones that they had seen.
Main square – Rynek
The huge market square, called Rynek, has an old town hall and market halls in the middle and is framed by pretty and colourful houses. It is traffic-free and is full of restaurants shops and pavement cafés, giving it a wonderfully relaxed and welcoming atmosphere. Add to that some great buskers and plenty of dwarfs to spot and you’d hardly need to venture any further.
The houses around the perimeter of the square showcase many different styles and periods during which they were built. All of the houses you see today though are reconstructions: they have been lovingly and faithfully brought back to their former glory after the market square was almost totally destroyed during WWII. And they have done an incredible job; I imagine the square has never looked as good as it does today.
The Old Town Hall
Remarkably, the old town hall in the centre of the square survived WWII without too much damage. Its original construction began in the 13th century and continued for about the next 250 years, so its architecture also covers different styles and periods as the building was extended and altered to serve the purposes of the time. It housed the Town Council, merchants’ stalls and a beer cellar and for hundreds of years it was at the centre of life in the city. Today it is a striking and interesting building that draws your eye as you enter the square. Its various spires and turrets vie for attention with its astronomical clock and gothic features, but both are eclipsed by the many pinnacles that elaborately adorn the roofline and front of the building.
Cathedral Island (Ostrów Tumski)
A short walk from the market square is an area of waterways and bridges where the River Oder splits and rejoins, forming lots of islands. This area is called Ostrów Tumski or Cathedral Island and it is the oldest part of the city. It is also one of the most picturesque areas and its quiet lanes and waterways were a welcome calm oasis after the bustle of the main square. The peace and tranquility are largely down to the fact that there are very few shops and houses here, and even fewer cafes, bars and restaurants. However we counted at least five churches in the area and most of the other buildings are apparently owned by the church.
Cathedral of St John the Baptist
Like the rest of Wroclaw this area suffered huge devastation after the Soviet bombing of the city in 1945 and there were photographs at several locations showing the damage. Seventy percent of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist was destroyed and it was painstakingly rebuilt in the six years after the war.
If you are around in Oskrów Tumski in the evening, you can apparently see the lamplighter doing his rounds, lighting the hundred or so gas lamps in the district by hand, and extinguishing them in the morning, as has been the custom since 1846.
Tumski Bridge and its Love-Locks
Leaving Ostrów Tumski, we crossed Tumski Bridge to head back towards the centre of town. This is the site of one of the oldest river crossings in Wroclaw and the steel bridge that crosses the river today was built between 1888 and 1892. I’m not sure what its builders would’ve made of the bridge today, groaning as it is under the weight of thousands of padlocks.
The tradition of attaching padlocks to bridges and other structures is very much a modern phenomenon. Originally the padlocks were left by newlyweds, engraved with their names and the date of their nuptials. They then threw the keys into the river below, as a symbol of their unbreakable bond of love.
I used to think they were a sweet way of celebrating your love, but on this trip we have seen them attached to virtually every bridge or railing we have come across, particularly in tourist locations, and it seems to me that the tradition may be getting out of hand. And they are not just put there by newlyweds anymore – everybody seems to have got in on the act. Here at Tumski bridge we saw a group of friends leaving a padlock celebrating their friendship and we have seen whole strings of padlocks each with a child’s name on it, left maybe by a class or school group.
The situation at Tumski Bridge was exacerbated by the fact that a nearby entrepreneurial stall holder was selling padlocks alongside his other souvenirs. So this meant that rather that it being something planned and thought through, people could leave a padlock on a whim. He even had a table set out with permanent markers so that you could write your names and date on it before taking it to join the hundreds of others on the bridge. And the railings on the bridge were quite thick so these were monster locks, way bigger than your average padlock. It looked as though pretty soon the bridge would collapse under the weight of them all!
I wondered whether this had ever been a problem elsewhere and a quick search online told me that these ‘love-locks’ have become a real nuisance in some parts of the world. In 2015, a section of the Pont des Arts bridge near the Louvre in Paris collapsed under the weight of thousands of locks that had been placed upon it. The authorities have since replaced the metal railings with acrylic glass panels and have been auctioning these and other locks off to raise money for refugee charities. Meanwhile, in New York, officials have banned people from leaving love locks or any other items on Brooklyn Bridge after a wire on one of the bridge’s street lights snapped due to the pressure of the many locks that had been attached to it. The offence now carries a $100 fine.
I for one wish people would stop doing it and would find other ways of celebrating their love that don’t leave a rusting piece of metal cluttering up the world’s bridges and cities. Some people argue that they are only small and are harmless, but to me it’s a bit like littering – if we all dropped just one small piece of litter when we visited somewhere, we’d soon be knee deep in waste. Give some money to charity. Plant a tree. Take a selfie. But please stop leaving padlocks everywhere!
Monument to the Anonymous Passers-by
This interesting sculpture can be found at the wide intersection of Świdnika and Marszałka Józefa Piłsudskiego, about a 15 minute walk from the main square and it is definitely worth the effort to get there. It consists of seven bronze figures that are literally disappearing into the pavement on one side of the street and others reemerging on the other side. The sculpture is by a Polish artist called Jerzy Kalina and is called Przejście, which means ‘Crossing’ or ‘Transition’ in Polish. It is also known as the ‘Monument to the Anonymous Passers-by’ or the ‘Anonymous Pedestrians’.
It is based on a temporary installation that Kalina did in Warsaw in 1977 that featured plaster sculptures. These had been stored in the Wroclaw museum since then and they were re-cast in bronze. They are life-size figures of men and women, ordinary people going about their lives. It is said to be a memorial to the citizens of Poland who were killed or went missing during the two-year period of martial law in the country in the early 1980s. During this time citizens’ rights were severely restricted and people who opposed the regime were arrested, often without charges and held without trial. Echoing the fact that dissenters apparently just disappeared in the middle of the night, the installation appeared overnight in December 2005 on the 24th anniversary of the start the period of martial law.
The sombre figures – amongst them a man in overalls, another in a suit, a woman pushing a pram, an older lady carrying her groceries – are all being swallowed by, or emerging from cracked paving stones. I thought about the people who had disappeared at the time, ordinary people you would pass on the street and not even notice. And I thought about what a fearful time this must have been in this city and in the country as a whole. With all the freedoms that we enjoy today, it is hard to believe that this took place less than thirty years ago.
Is Wroclaw the new Prague or Krakow?
I have noticed that some people are talking about Wroclaw as the new Prague or Krakow (minus the stag and hen parties), but is this label really justified?
I have to say, we didn’t see any groups of stags or hens in Wroclaw, but then we didn’t see any in Krakow or Prague either. But perhaps if you are there on a Saturday night your experience would be very different. In Prague, the ubiquitous Thai massage places and sex shops certainly suggested that it is a favoured destination for pre-wedding revellers.
Wroclaw is undoubtedly an up and coming city and it has a lot to offer, but I’m not sure I would put it in the same league as Krakow or Prague. Its main square is charming and very pretty, but most of its buildings are reconstructions of those that stood here prior to WWII, since so much of the city was destroyed by Soviet bombs in 1945. And this means that it is almost too perfect, as though it is a film set or something that Walt Disney created. The impression of a film set rings true as well because step out of the old town area or look behind the colourful facades and you’ll find grime and graffiti at every turn. Shiny new apartment buildings and modern offices have been built in places, but the area around them hasn’t been improved as well so they sit alongside dirty and crumbling buildings and neighbourhoods that are sorely in need of investment.
Some writers have called Wroclaw the”Venice of Poland” but, whilst it does have lots of islands and bridges, this is a somewhat optimistic comparison. Where Wroclaw is wonderful is that you won’t have to rub shoulders with hoards of other tourists like you do in the streets and squares of its better known counterparts. And if you are interested in communist-era architecture, you will still find plenty in evidence here.
In short, if you are looking for a relaxed city break away from the crowds but where you can sample Polish culture and food and where every other voice you hear won’t be British or American, Wroclaw is a great place to consider. It has cobbled streets and squares, interesting architecture, parks and churches, scenic waterways and Jewish history. It doesn’t have the royal connections and castles of Prague or Krakow, nor as many sights, but as you wander its street and alleyways you will find an interesting mix of the modern, communist and medieval. Its smaller size makes it easily manageable in a weekend and when you need a rest, it has plenty of pavement cafés, bars and restaurants to keep you well fed. To us, it felt like a relaxed city that didn’t take itself too seriously, and if you don’t believe me, just take another look at those playful little bronze figures all over the place. Didn’t I tell you it was all about the dwarfs?