The Venice of Poland: Exploring Wroclaw’s historic charm

Buildings aren’t all they seem in Wroclaw’s central squares. These colourful painted structures in Poland’s fourth largest city appear as if they’ve been here for centuries, but looks can be deceiving – some are skilful re-constructions.

Until 1945 Wroclaw (previously known as Breslau) was part of Germany and during the the Second World War the Nazis turned the city into a fortified compound. In the final months of the conflict, between February and May 1945, it was besieged by the Red Army. The fighting left tens of thousands dead and around three quarters of the buildings were razed to the ground.

In the boundary changes that followed the Second World War, Wroclaw became part of Poland. For five years after 1945 there was a mass movement of people to and from the city, with Germans forced out of their homes. Poles from eastern parts of the country, particularly Lviv which was ceded to the Soviet Union, replaced them.

Fast-forward to 2016 and Wroclaw became the EU’s European Capital of Culture. New museums were opened, while the admission to many existing ones became free. As a result of the year of celebrations, more people became aware of the city’s wonderful cultural institutions. It is the place where you’ll find everything from bars built in old medieval prisons to displays of nostalgic neon light signage in hidden courtyards.

Wroclaw may not be as popular with tourists as other Polish cities such as Krakow, but “the Venice of Poland” (on account of its location on the Odra River and encompassing a network of 12 islands connected by hundreds of bridges) certainly makes for a good weekend break. It is particularly special to visit at this time of year, as the main market square (the Rynek) is filled with a bustling open air Christmas market.

Historic city

The free History Museum at the Royal Palace (opened in 2016), provides a useful introduction to Wroclaw’s history. But from exploring the modern galleries you will realise the complexity of the city’s history. Over the last one thousand years, it has at different times been part of Poland, Hungary, Bohemia, the Hasburg monarchy, Prussia and Germany.

Model of medieval Wroclaw – on display at History Museum at the Royal Palace

Wroclaw’s origins lie on Cathedral Island, to the north of the Rynek, where in 1000 the city’s first church was built. The settlement was chosen as the location of one of just three bioshoprics in the Polish state, highlighting its early importance. On Cathedral Island, the present Gothic basilica of the Cathedral of St John the Baptist was constructed between 1244 and 1590. Given that it stands next to a series of other churches and religious buildings, the island is sometimes referred to as the “Polish Vatican.”

Cathedral of St John the Baptist

When Poland became divided in the 12th and 13th centuries, Wroclaw became a local capital. The town was burned down by the tartars, but was re-built in its current Old Town position and in the 15th century under the Bohemian administration was extremely prosperous.

At the centre of the Old Town is the Old Town Hall, which was completed between 1327 and 1504 (although the tower was completed later on). Featuring a range of architectural styles, including Gothic and early Renaissance, it stands on one side of the Rynek, a vast area currently housing Wroclaw’s Christmas market. The Old Town really is a pleasure to explore given that the buildings destroyed in the Second World War have been so sympathetically re-built.

Wroclaw was ruled by the Hasburgs, before it fell to Prussia in 1741 which it held for the next two centuries. As the city became Germanised (Breslau was the sixth largest city at Germany’s unification in 1871) some imposing buildings were constructed such as the 1908 indoor Market Hall, with stalls selling everything from fruit and vegetables to award-winning coffees and gifts (downstairs there’s a highly recommended craft beer hall). And on the outskirts of the city lies the UNESCO-listed Centennial Hall, a pioneering modernist building designed by Max Berg and completed in 1913 as a venue for exhibitions, theatre and other performances.

Market Hall (built 1908)

Remnants of the city’s history under the Nazis are still on display. Lying across the river from a former Prussian-built parade ground, a building still in use as a police station was once the headquarters of the Gestapo – a notorious institution that took action against Polish and Jewish students.

Former Gestapo headquarters

After the city was ceded to the Soviet Union in the aftermath of the Second World War, a dissident group called the Orange Alternative used pictures of dwarfs as a means to protest against the totalitarian regime. Founded by art-history graduate Waldemar Fydrych in the early 1980s, the movement installed the paintings in spots around Wroclaw where anti-government grafitti had been removed. In 1988 thousands turned out to march in support of the dwarfs.

While the communism government fell long ago, the dwarves live on in the guide of small statues. Some guidebooks suggest there are 300 to 350 around the city, but others put the figure at closer to 500. Maps are sold that chart the locations of these amusing characters (dwarf-spotting in Wroclaw is a popular sport), however as many private companies have chosen to install their own dwarfs so many are unrecorded.

Today, Wroclaw is a thriving university city and is home to 130,000 students. Numerous global corporations have bases here, with particular strengths in providing outsourcing services and in the hi- tech sector. But it is also a pleasurable place for tourists to visit, especially at Christmas time.

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