A short hop from anywhere in Europe brings one to Wrocław (pronounced ‘Vrotsh-waff’), Poland’s fourth largest city and capital of the Silesia province. It was Europe’s Capital of Culture in 2016 for its lively art scene with music, theatre and cinema, galleries, architecture and museums.
Besides, it was nominated for ‘Best European Tourist Destination’ in 2018. Of course, Covid-19 has put paid to travel for the time being.
Still, let’s look at what one could expect to experience in this city and its environs.
The name Wrocław has its roots in ancient history when a settlement was established on Ostrow Tumski Island in the Oder River one thousand years ago. In more recent times, at least before World War II, it was called Breslau. The entire German region of Silesia was incorporated into Poland after the war.
Standing in the spectacular town square it is hard to imagine it was painstakingly rebuilt, because most of the city was pulverised in a long siege and continued fighting between German and Russian forces even after Berlin had fallen.
A great advantage of a small city – less than a million inhabitants – is that one has it mostly to oneself. Tourists seem not have discovered it yet. For much of the time the Rynek (market square) seems quite deserted, despite the impressive 13th century Town Hall and numerous shops and restaurants, of course with steep prices.
Rather go down the sidestreets where there’s excellent Polish fare – for much less. Looking like a cosy country tavern, Kurna Chata near the Oder River serves huge portions, ranging from Źurek (sour rye soup with white sausage and egg served in a round hollowed-out bread) or herby goulash with dill to Bigos, a hearty hunter’s dish of stewed meat. This goes down well with a beer. Żywiec or Tyskie are popular, or try a strong dark Artezan Samiec Alfa.
Many Wrocław inhabitants speak some English or German. Menus are in Polish, Russian, German and English.
Although part of Europe’s Schengen agreement, Poland retains its own currency, the Złoty, which makes it relatively cheap for South Africans to visit this country. Poland also boasts first-rate hotels, transport infrastructure and tourist facilities.
An excursion to the town of Żagań (previously Sagan) brings one to the site of ‘The Great Escape‘ now 77 years ago. Here 76 airmen escaped from the German Luftwaffe’s Stalag Luft III camp for captured Allied air force POWs. The 24 March 1944 break-out was master-minded by South African-born RAF fighter pilot Major Roger Bushell.
It prompted the 1963 blockbuster Hollywood movie starring Richard Attenborough, James Garner, Steve McQueen and other well-knowns of the era.
A reconstructed POW hut with artefacts and photographs depicts the daring and laborious effort, involving the digging of three tunnels, Tom, Dick and Harry, over many months. The tunnel Harry reached 105 meters to exit just outside the camp’s perimeter fence.
The nearby railway station from where some escapees caught a train to Breslau seems little changed from the night of 24/25 March 1944. Sadly, for almost all, their herculean endeavour ended in recapture – and the prompt execution of 50, including Bushell.
Go see Ksiaż Castle, the largest in Silesia, which the Germans called Schloss Fürstenstein. The original was built in the 13th century.
Or stop in the town of Świdnica (previously called Schweidnitz), about 50 km from Wrocław. It boasts one of the three ‘Peace Churches‘ that the Lutherans were allowed to erect following the Peace of Westphalia – subject to stringent conditions. These included that the building had to be completed within one year, using only wood, straw and loam (clay) outside the city walls. These churches were the largest religious timber structures in Europe, accommodating upwards of 7 000 devotees or congregants, and have now been declared Unesco heritage sites.
Gnome spotting is a favourite pastime in Wrocław. There are over 300 of these small bronze figurines, ‘krasnale’ in Polish, that appeared all over the city during the 1980s as anti-communist protest symbols.
With Wrocław right on the centuries-old amber route to the Baltic, amber jewellery – from a reputable jeweller in the city – will preserve your memories forever.
[This contribution was published in different form in the travel supplement of South Africa’s major Afrikaans-language Sunday newspaper, RAPPORT. We flew on Polish airline LOT from Amsterdam to Wrocław via Warsaw, and returned by train, the eco-friendly way to travel. For the excursions beyond the city limits, we utilised the outstanding personalised services of Wrocław Sightseeing Tours – owned and operated by two young expert and knowledgeable entrepreneurs, Marcin Hutyra and Mateusz Kur.]