Wrocław (pronounced Vrohst-wahf) is a relaxed city filled with character, history and astonishing architecture.
The population of Poland (38M) is similar to both the population of the State of California (39M) and Canada (37M). Wrocław is the 4th largest city in Poland with a population of ~640,000.
The first recorded settlement was early in the 10th century on Ostrow Tumski (Tumski Island) and in 990 CE Wrocław became part of Poland. In 1741 Prussia annexed Wrocław and changed the city’s name to Breslau – a name we have spotted a few times in the city still today. Later the entire area was taken over by Germany and Breslau / Wrocław grew to be one of the largest cities in eastern Germany. During WWII in an effort to oust the Germans, Russia nearly flattened Wrocław in a 3-month long battle known as the Siege of Breslau. Two days before the end of the war Germany finally surrendered Wrocław. The city was handed back to Poland and Wrocław slowly began to rebuild and recreate its beautiful city once again.
A quarter of the city’s population is made up of University students and Wrocław proudly calls themselves a University city with a “Nobel tendency”. Although the borders of Poland and Wrocław have moved multiple times, there is an impressive 11 Nobel recipients (2 in literature, 4 in physics, 3 in chemistry, 1 in medicine and 1 in economics) that were either born, received their education or were employed in Wrocław.
Rynek we Wrocławiu
At nearly 10 acres or 3.8 hectares, Wrocław’s Rynek or Market Square has the same layout as it did when it was designed in the middle of the 13th century. It is the second largest medieval market square in Europe and is still remains the heart of the city.
The Market Square is surrounded by distinguished colorful townhouses and it is difficult to imagine that most were destroyed during WWII. Our favorite grocery store, Feniks, built 1902–1904, is conveniently located in the square. We think a visit to Wrocław’s unique Market Square is a must.
Stary Ratusz – Old Town Hall
Taking center stage in Market Square, is the dominant and exceptional, Old Town Hall. The Gothic and Renaissance Town Hall began to be built in the 13th century but it took 250 years to finish it and the resulting hodge-podge of architectural styles created a spectacular result.
There is a replica of the original 1492 pillory that stands next to the Town Hall. A pillory was a small exposed enclosure where thieves, robbers or other offenders would have been tied, imprisoned and exposed to public abuse. An interesting sculpture today, in the Middle Ages it was not somewhere you would have wanted to be close to. Next to the pillory, high on the wall of the Old Town Hall is a beautiful large working astronomical clock that immediately caught our attention. We used a photo of it as our header picture for this writing. The clock is made of larch wood and dates back to 1580.
In the 1930s, the Town Hall was converted into a small “City Museum” the name being easily confused with the larger “The City Museum” at the Royal Palace of Wrocław. The space today is also used as a venue for temporary exhibitions and cultural events.
A restaurant in the basement, called Piwnica Świdnicka, founded in 1273, is said to be the oldest in Europe. The sign is still up but unfortunately the restaurant has recently closed. (Perhaps temporarily).
In 1794, Poland attempted to reclaim their country and rid themselves of the Russian overlords.
Tadeusz Kościuszko was a Polish-Lithuanian military engineer and statesman. He was leader of the Kościuszko Uprising and would become a national hero.
Prior to this battle he had been a Colonel in the American Revolutionary War for the Continental Army. Also a military architect he designed and oversaw the construction of military fortifications, including West Point in New York. In 1783, the Continental Congress promoted him to brigadier general.
The following year he returned to his homeland, Poland and was soon commissioned as a major general in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth Army. The Battle of Racławice took place on 4 April 1794, resulting in a Polish victory in the ultimately doomed Kościuszko Uprising against Russia and her allied Prussians. The uprising was from Mar 24, 1794 to Nov 16, 1794.
To mark the 100th anniversary of the battle, artist Jan Styka was commissioned to create a memorial. The Racławice Panorama is a monumental 50’x 375′ (15 × 114 meter) cyclorama painting vividly depicting the Battle of Racławice. The external building that houses the painting is also striking – it is a rotund edifice made specifically for the painting. Once inside overhead speakers are used to narrate in Polish the strategies of the battle. (we were handed headsets in English.) The viewer stands in the center of the room or can move about the room. You are completely surrounded by the circular panorama of the events of the battle. It was an amazing presentation, enhanced by the huge realistic painting, lighting, sets and audio soundtrack. Although there were no moving parts, you felt like you were witnessing the Battle of Racławice.
The Ossolineum or the National Ossoliński Institute
Following the successful Battle of Racławice but the eventual and ultimate defeat of the Kościuszko Uprising, Russia, Prussia and Austria divvied up Poland, banned all Polish institutions, and for the next 123 years, the country of Poland ceased to exist.
“O Mother Poland! Thou wast so lately laid in the grave. No man has the strength to speak of thee!” Adam Bernard Mickiewicz (1798-1855)
During these dark years, Count Józef Maksymilian Ossoliński, a Polish literature and art historian, with the intention of preserving as much Polish culture as possible, began to collect national manuscripts, coins, artworks, previously published polish newspapers, materials and culturally important documents. He would eventually create the National Ossoliński Institute in 1817 and donate his collection to it.
Today the red and white Ossolineum is one of the oldest and largest scientific libraries in the country, is an important research center for history and literature, conducts publishing activities and has one of the largest collections of books, including medieval manuscripts in Poland.
The main building of the University of Wrocław was where we spent an interesting afternoon exploring the museums and other rooms open to the public. Founded in 1702, the university has changed names a few times as the countries borders changed.
Highlights inside were the Oratorium Marianum, originally a chapel, but for the past 200 years, the university’s music hall. It is easy to imagine listening to a private concert in this glorious space. In the front hall there is a statue of Johannes Brahms, who composed his “Academic Festival Overture” in honor of the University of Wroclaw. Another highlight was the Baroque hall with magnificently painted ceilings, called the Aula Leopoldina. This room is used for special events, gatherings and meetings.
On the floor of the Mathematical Tower we discovered the 17th century Meridian line marked on the floor. It is the only one of its kind in Poland. At the top of the Mathematical Tower is the old Astronomical Observatory, now an incredible museum featuring some of our favorite items – sundials! There were old compasses, astrolabes and historic sundials, including fascinating pocket-sized sundials that may have been the precursor to pocket watches. We were in our glory!
Elsewhere in an exhibition room we came across the name Alois Alzheimer, a psychiatrist and neuropathologist who taught at the University. He is credited with identifying the first published case of “presenile dementia”, which would later be called Alzheimer’s disease.
Food in Wroclaw
We have tasted and absolutely loved a few of the traditional Polish foods. There was a delicious cucumber or ogórek soup and a wonderful clear borscht broth that had a hint of sweet and sour. The popular breaded cutlets (pork, chicken or turkey), called schabowy, are crisp on the outside and juicy and tender on the inside. Served with one of their many delicious coleslaws and a potato dish, this makes a satisfying meal.
We sampled pierogies, the half-moon dumplings, at 3-4 restaurants, and like all foods some were good and others have been mouth-watering fantastic. We have tried pierogies stuffed with mushrooms and sauerkraut, finely ground meat, cheese curds, apple and cinnamon but our favorites, by far, are the ones stuffed with potatoes and onions, called Pierogi Ruskie. There is a baked version of pierogi that is quite large and tasty, however the traditional boiled pierogi is the best. There is also a smaller potato dumpling called pyzy, sometimes stuffed and often found in soups.
Golabki is the delectable cabbage roll made from lightly boiled cabbage leaves usually stuffed with spiced ground meat, onions and rice, baked in the oven served with a creamy tomato sauce. There are other dishes we hope to try and we let you know what we think. Polish food is so delicious and addicting we may take on the shape of these dumplings if we are not careful.
Did you know the bagel originated in the Jewish communities in Poland?
“Wrocław – The Meeting Place” is this city’s motto. We wish our family could have met us here. With the grandchildren’s help we could have searched out more of the hundreds of charming bronze statues of gnomes and dwarfs located throughout the city. The food is fantastic, the prices are reasonable, there are large parks and gardens, galleries, museums and so much more. It is a walkable city but buses and trams are plentiful. A great destination for family members of all ages.
Na zdrowie (Naz-droh-vee-ay) from these Wrocławianie / Vratislavians
Ted and Julia