In our sights was a cosmopolitan municipality whose university produced nine Nobel laureates and a quirky anti-communist resistance movement. A centre for locomotive manufacture, it’s a place where you can get footplate experiences on the last scheduled steam passenger service in the world.
Over the centuries, it has been known by many names, including Breslau and Vratislav. Its abundant appellations are a prism which separates out a microcosm of Poland’s troubled history.
Wrocław is billed not only as the largest city in Western Poland and the capital of Silesia, but one of the oldest and most beautiful.
‘Poland’s Venice’ straddles twelve islands on the Oder river, connected by more than a hundred bridges. Cathedral Island – Ostrów Tumski is the oldest part of the city, dating back to the 10th century.
At a crossroads in Central Europe, Wrocław has been part of the kingdoms of Poland (1000-1335), Bohemia (1335-1526), the Austrian Habsburgs (1526-1741), Prussia (1741-1871) and Germany (1871-1945). It was restored to Poland following Second World War.
Our trip there from Bolków was a pleasant one-hour drive across rolling country. Mostly, it resembled the Hampshire downs, except for one very flat area which looked like the edge of the earth, and fell away into the clouds. En route, we passed a quarry – and many more than the average number of establishments involved in the manufacture and sale of gravestones.
“It’s probably a granity, stony sort of area,” I ventured.
“That’s the technical term, is it?” Mark mocked.
Yet it wasn’t just local geology that made the DK5 a hub for headstones. The road was a fast, straight, single carriageway with deep ditches on either side. It clearly generated its fair share of demand. Horrible memorials lined the verges; most crowned with a motorcycle helmet.
My own experiences on two wheels led me to christen motorcyclists ‘Temporary Englishmen’ – and also persuaded me to curtail my riding career. Several fit and active bikers I knew had been told they’d never walk again. Thankfully, they defied their prognoses, but being forced off the road and having my handlebars clipped more times than I care to mention brought home a few truths about motorbiking;
- It was not a matter of if, but when I had an accident;
- It would most likely not be my fault;
- I would probably be the one who came off worst.
To stay safe on my bike, I rode with the assumption that I was completely invisible. It is no accident that, “Sorry Mate: I Didn’t See You!” was the title of my motorcycling safety handbook.
Although we were meeting a friend, Zuzanna, in Wrocław, our first job was tyres. After navigating around an unexpected road closure, we eventually rocked up to an industrial area that looked like a post-apocalyptic version of Fort Apache, The Bronx. Magda, the receptionist, spoke a little English and was much more helpful than the tyre fitters in Jawor, who had tried to fit something akin to tractor tyres to our van, Big Blue,
“These are not a common size. We will have to order them in. They should be here this afternoon.”
We showed her the caravan tyre and left with a degree of uncertainty as to whether we had also ordered a pair of those.
The other uncertainty was how and where to meet Zuzanna. Prior communication had been sporadic and rather non-committal, but we put it down to cultural differences. We had a date and time (today) and a place, (Wrocław – Poland’s fourth largest city) but beyond that, no other detail.
As uptight Brits, we would have synchronised watches and selected somewhere central, obvious and easy to find, even if it was really inconvenient for us. We would have recommended parking nearby and sent printable maps, directions and grid references, which we would confirm and re-confirm by call, text and email. A selection of potential itineraries would have been put forward, or at the very least a questionnaire to identify which sights and attractions might interest our guests most. Then, we would have arrived at least two hours early to make sure we were on time.
Seemingly, that is not the Polish way.
In the centre of Wrocław, we parked in a multi-storey. While I quizzed random strangers to help me decipher the signage and identify whether we had parked in a tow-away zone, we got a call from Zuzanna.
“Where are you? I’m in a restaurant called Mleczarnia.” Trust me, that’s not how it’s pronounced!
“We don’t know!” and “How do you spell that?” we replied.
Zuzanna sent a text which we showed to many people as we tried to discover first, where we were, then how to find her.
I photographed a few landmarks and street names to ensure that we could find our way back to the car park. This was a navigational aide-memoire pressed home by an Amsterdam taxi driver late one Friday night. During the initial stages of a hen weekend, he was the lucky man selected to drive a gaggle of giggling girls to somewhere they could neither spell nor pronounce, even before they had imbibed a vat of distilled and fermented beverages.
“What’s your hotel called?”
“Er, we can’t remember!” we cackled.
“What road is it on?”
“We don’t know that either!” Hilarious.
Luckily, one of us recalled that the hotel was near the station, so we found our way back amid a barrage of abuse along the lines of “Bloody tourists who come here, get plastered and don’t know their arse from their elbow.”
A man directed us in Polish to the main square, which we mistakenly assumed was a good bet. It was not the location of the restaurant, but the Tourist Information. Mark’s further enquiries with a second man directed us away from the square. Then Lani greeted a little dog, which got me in conversation with a lady who spoke English.
“Don’t you have Google Maps?” she said.
“Um, no. We’re too old-fashioned!”
She gave us a lesson in technology, but was as perplexed as us when our phone would not admit to being closer than a socially distant 290km from Wrocław. She showed us the restaurant on her own phone, then reminded us of the most important thing about Google Maps,
“Don’t forget to turn off your mobile data!”
Within minutes, we were lost again.
“Don’t you have Google Maps?” another young guy asked. Two themes were developing. No-one knew Mleczarnia, and we needed to bolster our tech knowledge.
Eventually, I spotted a plumber’s van, signwritten in English. The cliché rescued me from a rapidly developing sense of humour failure. It also reminded me of my friend John’s anecdote about a couple he met on holiday.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“I’m Polish and my girlfriend is Russian.”
“Ah, Plumber and Prostitute!” John joked.
His politically incorrect swipe at national stereotypes went down a storm. They didn’t speak to him for the rest of the week.
Typecast or no, the plumbers came good. We surprised Zuzanna and her friend Athena not only by taking so long to find them, but also turning up from an entirely unexpected direction. Zuzanna saw nothing wrong with her choice of meeting place. Rather than selecting somewhere in the easy-to-find centre, she had opted for an obscure back street in the Jewish quarter,
“It’s nice here. They do excellent food – and Athena lives nearby.” Aha. It was really convenient for them. There was more;
“The restaurant is confusing,” she admitted. “It doesn’t have a name above it on a sign – it’s on the glass doors and they are folded back!”
Well, there’s nothing like setting your guests a challenge on their first visit to a strange city. She probably assumed we had Google Maps.
We first met Zuzanna and her husband Piotr while skiing in Monte Rosa. Her daughter Kalina befriended the dogs and visited them every day. We got on well, although they did tell us to go to Hel – to windsurf, you understand! After coffee, Athena, who had lived in St Albans, departed to go shopping and Zuzanna took us for a wander around the Rynek, Wrocław’s medieval market square.
“It’s one of Europe’s largest,” Zuzanna told us. “Krakow’s Rynek Główny is the biggest.”
Elegant Renaissance town houses with tall, multi-coloured facades surround the square, which is alive with bars and restaurants. In the basement of the magnificent, gothic town hall, Piwnica Świdnicka is reputedly the oldest restaurant in Europe. Founded in 1273, its name refers to a favourite tipple from the middle ages, brewed in the nearby town of Świdnicka.
“It’s so quiet!” Zuzanna exclaimed. “At this time of year, the square is usually full of people, shoulder to shoulder.”
If you hate crowds, at least there are some advantages to a global pandemic.
In front of the town hall, an entertainer released flurries of bubbles with a special contraption. Rosie endeared herself to onlookers as she ran, leapt and twisted in the air to catch them. If only we’d brought a hat, we could have made a fortune!
We passed another famous pub and microbrewery called Złoty Pies, sadly not pronounced as amusingly as it’s written. Zuzanna explained,
“The L with a line through (Ł) is a W in Polish and Pies is pronounced P.S. It means ‘Golden Dog’.”
Kalina was desperate to go to McDonalds, but we stopped at the PRL Communist Bar to meet another friend from St Albans, who had moved back to Wrocław “for the climate and the vibe.”
Like Athena, David was instantly likeable. A mild-mannered student of philosophy, he was the most chilled and laid-back person I’ve ever met. A wonderful air of serenity surrounded him – perhaps philosophy does that to you. David didn’t seem to commit to anything and responded to most enquiries with another question. While it’s possibly an urban myth, I heard of someone who got a first in philosophy with their response to,
“Is this a good question?”
“Is this a good answer?”
How cool is that? Perhaps the road to peace and enlightenment is to sit on the fence and avoid strong opinions. Mark and I took note!
Zuzanna and David asked where we planned to go in Poland. We told them our plans, and they tried to guess where we meant.
Both claimed they’d never heard of Białowieża, Słowiński and Woliński; all famous national parks.
“You must have heard of Białowieża. It’s where the bison are.”
“Ah! Biawoviedjza!” they chorused.
Zuzanna betrayed us to David.
“They are staying in Bolków and they pronounce it Boll-Cow!”
She also corrected our B.B.C. pronunciation of Wrocław,
“It’s ‘Vrotswaff’, not ‘Rock-law’!”
“Well, you told us to go to Hel!” we reminded her. “At least we know how to pronounce that!”
It was warm, so we sat outside, but I checked out the interior of the bar. It was filled with communist era artefacts and propaganda. P.R.L. stands for Polska Rzeczpospolita Ludowa – The Polish People’s Republic, which existed from 1952 to the fall of the Soviet Union in1989.
We asked Zuzanna if she remembered life under communism.
“I’m 75,” she replied, as if that explained everything.
“You don’t look a day over 30!” Mark and I laughed at her odd answer.
Zuzanna told us that in Poland you don’t give your age, but the year you were born.
“I’m younger than you then,” I claimed. “I’m only 64!”
“I do remember life under communism,” she told us, “but mostly as not being able to get anything or go anywhere. My mum once asked me to queue for oranges, but I refused. I just told her ‘I can do without oranges!’”
The global pandemic, with panic buying and lockdown travel bans, has given us all a taste of life with shortages and restrictions on liberty. In the West, pampered by privilege, we can assume that these hardships will come to an end. For many around the world, that may never be the case.
But while we’re on the subject of communism and oranges, I’ll tell you about the miniature bronze dwarves or gnomes we’d been tripping over on pavements all around the city. They originated with the surreal anti-authoritarian resistance movement Pomarańczowa Alternatywa – Orange Alternative. Founded in 1981 by art student Waldemar ‘The Major’ Fydrych, Orange Alternative combatted Poland’s oppressive martial law with humour and peaceful resistance.
Wrocław’s gnomes started as graffiti. On walls where police painted over anti-government slogans, Orange Alternative drew a gnome with an orange hat, holding a flower. Thousands of these appeared all over Wrocław and the movement spread to other cities.
They also arranged ‘happenings’, such as the Revolution of Dwarfs, where ten thousand people marched through Wrocław wearing orange gnome hats. They carried banners which stated, “There is No Freedom Without Dwarfs!” The happenings posed a conundrum for the communist militia; how do you arrest illegal gnomes – or seventy-seven Santa Clauses (true!) – and maintain your dignity?
Communism controlled people’s lives and repressed free expression. The Orange Alternative’s actions and cheeky gnomes cheered people up, while poking fun at the absurdities of the regime. Along with Solidarność – the Solidarity movement, Orange Alternative played its part in the fall of Soviet rule in Poland. It possibly also inspired other political protest movements around the world, such as the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and the Ukrainian Orange Revolution.
I wonder if it had anything to do with the birth of the U.K.’s Official Monster Raving Loony Party, set up in 1983 by the late musician Screaming Lord Such. The OMRLP mocks U.K. politics and provides a choice for protest voters. This is particularly relevant in ‘safe’ seats, where the mainstream candidate is unlikely to be toppled.
After the fall of communism, Wrocław commemorated its history of resistance by immortalising the gnomes as tiny bronze sculptures all around the city. There are now nearly four hundred, each with its own character and back story and more are added each year. If you want to meet the gnomes, there are dwarf maps and free gnome walking tours – and you can even commission your own if you get the permission of the landowner!
Finally, as a reward for her patience, Zuzanna agreed to take Kalina to McDonalds. David floated off on an etherial wave of serenity, while Mark and I left to find the shopping Galleria to get a Polish data SIM card. I asked about repeat prescriptions and Amoxycillin for my toothache in an English-speaking pharmacy, but they told me that my challenge, should I choose to accept it, was to a visit to a Polish doctor. At least the SIM was really easy, and 25GB of data cost 25Zł – about £5. Approximately two thousand percent cheaper than Germany.
Back at the tyre shop, we were on the receiving end of what Brits do abroad. Magda wasn’t there, so to aid our understanding of his mother tongue, a tyre fitter yelled the same phrase at us louder and louder. Eventually, he gave up and called Magda on his mobile. She told us the tyres would not arrive until the following day.
As we left Wrocław, we passed a bizarre seventy-foot sculpture by Andrzej Jarodzki in the centre of a roundabout.
The Train to Heaven is an original, ninety-tonne PKP class Ty2 steam locomotive upended on its track, heading for the sky at a rakish, seventy-degree angle. Known as Kriegslokomotiven – War Locomotives, these simple, reliable engines were built to aid the expansion of the Nazi war machine into conquered territories.
Ironically, some were built in Poland; Wrocław is a centre for locomotive manufacture – you might not know that London Underground trains are made there by Bombardier.
At the end of World War II, the Ty2s went into civilian service with Polskie Koleje Państwowe – the Polish State Railway. With plentiful coal the last scheduled steam passenger service in the world remained active in this part of Poland, although sadly, it is due to be decommissioned.
The Train to Heaven reminded me of Caravan Kismet the time we used a levelling app.
Our drive back to Bolków was terrifying. The motorway section, which led to the border with both Germany and the Czech Republic, was one long line of lorries. Driving skills, such as anticipation and lane discipline, are not a feature of Polish roads.
“Poland is second only to Romania for lunatic driving, with the Czech Republic a close third,” Mark said. “They make the Italians look like Driving Miss Daisy!”
We’ve had close shaves in all of these countries. On our trip to Złotoryja at the weekend, I dug my nails into Mark’s shoulder so hard that I nearly drew blood. My panic resulted from a pair of headlights overtaking a line of oncoming traffic, which missed us by a whisper.
“I knew he’d pull in,” Mark assured me, although at that point, we were in the ditch.
Nevertheless, we decided we were back in love with Poland.
Charmed once again by a small, relaxed city, we both agreed,
“Wrocław IS Ljubljana!”
Albeit a delightfully Polish version.
Wikimedia Commons, unmodified.
Please note that this blog contains Affiliate Links with Amazon. If you click through on these links and make a purchase, I receive a small commission. Since all the information on my blog is provided free of charge and without adverts, this helps to cover some of the cost of keeping it online.
The Affiliate Commission does not affect your purchase or the price that you pay in any way, although if you would prefer that Amazon kept all the profit, you can always bypass the link and go direct! Click here for further details of my affiliate accounts and the reason that I selected them.
For further gift inspiration, please see my Gift section, where you will find my Caravan Christmas List, Five of the Best – Caravan Stocking Fillers and 15 Best Travel Gifts That Are Also Kind To The Planet – along with lots of Pawsome Puppy Presents!
If you found this post useful, please like or share my blog!