Step through the wormholes of the 2016 European City of Culture – and meet the diminutive locals.
Words by James Palmer
OK, stop. You’re saying it all wrong. Before you even think about booking your flight and compiling your list of things to do in Wroclaw, you’ve got to pronounce it properly. “Rock-law” won’t cut it – you’ll just draw blank stares from the locals. Here are the basics. The “w” sounds like a “v”, the “c” is pronounced “ts”, as in the Russian “tsar”, the “l” has a stroke through it, which makes it sound like a “w”. Got it? OK. Repeat after me: “Vrotswav”. Good enough. You’re ready to fly – and now is an excellent time to go.
Along with San Sebastian in the Basque north of Spain, Vrots-wav in the Silesian west of Poland is the 2016 European Capital of Culture – and I suspect the party will go on long after last orders are called in the wee hours of New Year’s Day. Plenty of Eastern European cities claim to be “the next Prague”, but Wroclaw has a fairer crack of the whip than most: a buzzy 24-hour university city with a fairy-tale old town, cut through by the mighty river Oder.
It’s a place of gothic spires and baroque facades; quirky flea markets and bountiful flower stalls, where dusky lanes – some still lit by gas lamp – conceal a mixture of old and new world hipsterdom: 20th-century bierhalles and 21st-century wine bars; Soviet-era vodka bars, and their pious antidote – “milk bars” – where the white stuff is served proudly with straws. There are Greenwich Village-style jazz dens and concrete-floored deep-house clubs; steamy old goulash restaurants, and sleek new “Polish tapas” pop-ups that dream up endlessly inventive incarnations of the rollmop (herring with strawberries, anyone?). Most roads lead to the huge, cobbled medieval market square, the Rynek, which is flanked by tall, elegant, pastel-coloured townhouses containing restaurants, bars and galleries that run the gamut of touristy to avant garde.
All this makes for a fantastic, romantic wintry getaway. One word of warning: watch out for the dwarfs. They’re everywhere – skulking in alleyways, perched on windowsills, lying drunk on the pavement. Three of them conspired to trip me up as I tried to take a photo outside the 13th-century town hall. In most cities, the advice is “look up”. In Wroclaw, you need to look down, too. “There are about 400 bronze dwarfs hidden around the city, in total,” my tour guide, Monika, told me. I eyed the trio closely and said, “I think we’re supposed to call them gnomes.”
Nearby, a pair of horses tethered to crimson open-top carriages whinnied mist into the chilly air. I could have chosen a gentle hour-long trot around the old town wrapped in a winter rug, but in a moment of madness, I’d gone for a white-knuckle tour with Monika in an open-sided electric buggy instead. Moving with the grace of a milk float but the speed of a tuk-tuk, we set off over pavements, through bollards, down narrow streets, ticking off all the main sights. Gnomes featured heavily.
In Polish they’re krasnale, and first appeared in the 1980s, when the Orange Alternative, an anti-Communist movement with a penchant for the absurd, began graffitiing their mischievous gnomic call sign on city walls. As fast as the authorities could paint them over, they’d reappear. Then the iron curtain fell, and the new mayor decided the subversive smurfs needed permanent commemoration in bronze. The first statuette – Papa Krasnal – appeared in 2001. What started as an act of sedition has become one of the top things to see in Wroclaw. Families armed with gnome maps go hunting for them. They’re all over Instagram – #krasnale – and there’s even a gnome spotters’ smartphone app, Wrocklaw’s version of Pokémon GO.
This is a city with a healthy sense of humour – and it needs one, given its past. Fought over for centuries, Vrots-wav has switched nationality more than any city in Europe, changing hands between the Polish Piasts, the Czech Bohemians, the Austrian Hapsburgs, the Kingdom of Prussia, the German Empire and the Third Reich, before becoming Polish again in 1945, albeit under Soviet control. For much of its life it has been Breslau (pronounced as you would expect), and was the largest city in Germany east of Berlin. Hitler called it Fortress Breslau, ordering it to be defended at all costs. The Red Army had other ideas. By the end of the war – and a devastating, three-month siege – there was practically nothing left of the old town. The Rynek was reduced to rubble.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t lots of things to see in Wroclaw: piece by piece, year by year, historic Wroclaw has been painstakingly restored. We raced north, crossing the Oder to Ostrow Tumski, the oldest part of the city, dominated by the gothic twin towers of the cathedral. These, too, were laid low by wartime shelling. You can see a photograph of the sorry stumps on a wall as you approach, and take your own “before and after” pictures. “After” has only been available since 1991, when the conical spires were finally reinstated.
Hanging on for dear life in Monika’s buggy had been hungry work, so I waved her a “do widzenia”, and headed back into the old town on foot to Le Chef, a bare-brick, bare-bulb cafe we’d passed on the trendy Więzienna. This is the place to try a popular import – steak tartare with a raw egg yolk on top with, of course, a shot of vodka to chase. If you’re in the mood for something more… cooked, but less Instagrammable, there are plenty of restaurants and canteens serving tasty plates of goulash and testy bowls of chicken gizzard stew. All of it is optimised fuel for winter walking, and walk you must.
Everything in the old town is walkable. Just follow your nose. Or your ears. Strolling past the 24-hour flower market of Plac Solny at dusk, I tuned into some wild trumpeting emanating from the Spanish Library, a snug university bookshop in the southwest corner of the square. An experimental electro-jazz trio was putting on a loud, dissonant performance in the tiny bar out back. The word of winter 2016 is hygge, a quaint Danish concept of homely cosiness; but Poland has a more appealing version: domovka, which means “house party” – it’s hygge without the aspirational flimflam. Domovka was what was on offer at the Spanish Library. I drank beer and wodka with the beard-stroking locals until my ears hurt.
For some respite, I crossed the alley to a restaurant called Konspira, which I’d read had an intriguing-sounding “hidden room”.
“Would you like a table?” asked a waitress.
“No, but I would like to see your…” – quick glance both ways – “…hidden room?”
“Sure,” yawned the waitress, like she gets this all the time, “it’s open,” and ushered me through a wardrobe door into a Soviet Narnia – a faithful recreation of a Solidarity-era Polish apartment, complete with listening devices, a cracked police riot shield and helmet, subversive newspaper cuttings, creepy toys, dusty board games and a black-and-white telly. It would have been a wonderful place for some domovka, had there been anyone at home – but this place was a mausoleum, a ghostly memorial to the era of martial law that, between 1981 and 1983, saw thousands of anti-Soviet activists jailed and scores killed. Yet beneath the pallor was a hint of warmth: the room had been arranged with a fondness for the old Eastern Bloc aesthetic – an aesthetic you see nodded to and reinstated in bars and restaurants all over town, perhaps with knowing irony, but perhaps with actual reverence – it’s hard to tell.
Either way, the pride the city takes in its past is palpable. Wroclaw is full of surprises, a Frankenstein city bursting with reanimated vigour, deformed by history and patched up with humour – and it rewards the curious wanderer. Even those who trip up on the name. Or a gnome.
Build your Wroclaw weekend
Where to stay
Wroclaw’s new DoubleTree Hilton is a smooth white egg or perhaps an alien cruiseship on the eastern edge of the town centre, a brisk five-minute walk (via the infinitely tempting Galeria Dominikańska shopping centre) from the Rynek. It’s also home to the futuristic Ovo restaurant, a relaxing spot for a leisurely lunch or a well-earned cocktail (check out the neon liquor tower behind the bar).
Where to eat
Le Chef (31 ul. Wiezienna) is a hipster bar-cum-bistro with beach chairs sprawling out on the pedestrianised street in summer and a minimalist yet cosy atmosphere inside in winter – a great place for befsztyk tatarski (steak tartare with a raw egg yolk on top). Combine your sightseeing and dining at Konspira, the restaurant with the “hidden room” of Solidarity-era memorabilia, which also serves up “traditional dinners of our grandmothers with a modern twist” (Pl. Solny 11). For generous portions of delicious ghoulash and other stews scooped out of stainless steel tureens, head for Bar Nadwaga, (Odrzańska 16). Polish tapas (everything you could possibly hope from pickled herring) is served with a smile at the warm but trendy Ambasada Śledzia (Świętego Antoniego 35/1A), a recent arrival from Krakow.
Where to drink
The bar at the back of the Księgarnia Hiszpańska (Spanish Library) (ul. Szajnochy 5, entrance from Pl. Solny) is a quirky space for a drink and impromptu jazz gigs. For more of a Ronnie Scott’s-type experience with classy cocktails head for Vertigo (Oławska 13). For non-drinkers, the Polish milk bar – a communist institution – is alive and well in Wroclaw. Originally put in place to offer cheap, dairy-based meals and drinks to the masses, most of them fell with the iron curtain, but state subsidies have kept some open: one of the most popular is Mis (48 ul. Kuznicza).
What to see
There are plenty of things to do in Wroclaw – take an electrfying buggy tour on one of three routes with Best City Tours (Białoskórnicza 6) who will pick you up from your hotel if you book in advance. The university botanical gardens – Ogród Botaniczny Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego – are beautiful at any time of year. Find out more about Wroclaw’s dwarves and hire bicycles from the Tourist Information Office at Rynek 14.