A September 2000 trip
to Wroclaw by Owen Lipsett
Quote: After being awarded to Poland in the wake of the Second World War, Wroclaw was rebuilt on the shell of the German city of Breslau and repopulated with refugees from Lwow. It retains the best of both cities, as well as a remarkable variety of attractive buildings and bridges.
Central Wroclaw was rebuilt in a grid following its sacking by the Tartars in 1241. At its heart stands the gigantic Rynek (Town Square), which measures 173m by 208m. Historic buildings, whose varying architectural styles reflect Wroclaw’s multinational past, surround it, and it also contains three further rows of restored Baroque townhouses at its center. All are dwarfed, however, by the massive Ratusz (Town Hall), whose growth has symbolized that of the city as a whole since it began life as a single-story structure at the time of Wroclaw’s medieval reconstruction. The surrounding streets and adjacent Plac Solny contain numerous interesting buildings as well.
Ostrow Tumski (Cathedral Island) is the largest and most interesting of the 12 islands in the Oder that Wroclaw occupies. It was here that the market town of Vratislavia developed in the 9th century. Boleslaw the Brave founded the diocese from which the island takes its name in the year 1000. True to its appellation, the island contains the twin-towered Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, as well as four other fine medieval churches and the city’s Botanical Gardens. The nearby sandbank of Wyspa Piasek, reached across one of the bridges leading to the south bank of the Oder, is covered with a closely crammed collection of historic buildings, including the much-visited University Library.
Northeast of the city center, an unprepossessing concrete rotunda contains Wroclaw’s best-loved sight, the Panorama of the Battle of Raclawice. Inside, a panorama painting depicts the 1794 victory of a Polish people’s militia, led by Tadeusz Kosciuszko, over a Russian Army at Raclawice, an ultimately failed attempt to prevent the Third Partition of Poland, which occurred the following year. Originally commissioned to celebrate the centenary of the battle, it was first exhibited in Lwow, but was transferred to Wroclaw, with many of the city’s other cultural treasures remaining "in storage" until 1985.
Accommodation in Wroclaw is relatively plentiful and less expensive than in other large Polish cities. However, contrary to the claims of guidebooks, it can fill up quickly at any time of year because of the numerous cultural events, trade fairs, and conferences Wroclaw plays host to. Therefore, it’s advisable to book in advance if at all possible.
The best restaurants and bars cluster around the Rynek and along side streets. You’ll pay a premium for dining on the Rynek itself, although if you have the money, it’s worth it for the lively atmosphere.
Very little English is spoken in Wroclaw. German is more helpful.
The bus station is directly behind the train station – services are less frequent and slower than trains, and you’ll probably have to wait even longer to buy a ticket than at the train station! Wroclaw`s airport is located about 13km northwest of the center and has sporadic services, mostly on LOT (the Polish national carrier) to the rest of Europe and Poland. The 10-minute taxi journey to the airport costs approximately 50 zl.
Getting Around Wroclaw
The historic center is sufficiently compact and pleasant, so it’s best seen on foot. If you’re staying outside the center, the excellent bus and tram network costs 1.80 zl. per ride if you buy your ticket in advance and 2.20 zl if you purchase it from the driver. Timetables tend to be quite accurate.
The painting depicts the most famous victory of Poland’s ill-fated Kosciuszko Insurrection of 1794, when a rag-tag army of peasants, many armed only with scythes, under the command of the eponymous general defeated a larger Russian force. Subsequent battles went the way of the better armed Russians, and together with Austria and Prussia, they concluded the Third Partition of Poland the following year, erasing what had once been Europe’s largest and most powerful country from the map of the continent.
A century later, nationalists in Lwow organized an exhibition to commemorate the Insurrection’s centenary. The painter Jan Styka proposed the inclusion of a panorama painting, then a common form of popular entertainment, to commemorate the battle. As Poland’s last victory in the field, it was already a popular subject for Polish painters, and Styka had little difficulty raising money to cover the cost of the painting and a purpose-built rotunda to house it.
Styka enlisted Wojciech Kossak, a noted battle painter, the noted landscape artist Ludvik Boller, and a half-dozen other young painters to produce the canvas, which measures 15m by 120m. After research by the principal artists at the site, work began on August 1893 and the canvas was completed on time, allowing it to open with the exhibition the following June. By far the exhibition’s most popular element, it was put on permanent display from 1898 until 1944, when a bomb severely damaged the rotunda and part of the painting. It was then rolled up to be preserved until the cessation of hostilities.
Lwow’s subsequent annexation to the Soviet Union (it is presently the city of L’viv in Ukraine) resulted in the transfer of many of its residents and its cultural patrimony to Wroclaw, the canvas among them. However, it remained in storage until 1980, ostensibly because neither preservation specialists nor sufficient money to build a structure to display it existed, but in reality because Poland’s Soviet overlords would not countenance the public display of a painting glorifying Poland’s defeat of a Russian army. Likely motivated by the Gdansk shipyard strike that year, local authorities agreed to allow the construction of the Panorama’s present home in 1980, and five years later, it was opened and quickly recovered its historic popularity.
The painting is remarkably realistic, an effect enhanced by the artificial terrain placed between the canvas and the view to convey a sense of depth. The Panorama is open from 9am to 5pm from May to September and 10am to 4pm the rest of the year, although it’s wise to arrive beforehand to beat the crowds. Tickets are for timed entry, and you’re given 30 minutes to see the canvas, with an English-language audio guide giving the history of the battle and the painting at no extra charge.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on December 16, 2004
Panorama of the Battle of Raclawice
Ulica Purkyniego 11
Originally built as a modest single-story structure in 1241, after the Tartars had sacked the town, it was steadily expanded over the next 250 years, primarily in a late Gothic style. The famous Astronomical Clock on its east facade, the most photographed sight in Wroclaw, dates to 1580. The ornate spike protruding from the ground in front of it, a popular meeting spot, is actually a reproduction of a 15th-century whipping post (the original was destroyed during World War II.)
Although less photographed, the south facade is equally stunning. Renaissance bay windows jut out sharply from the side of the building, topped with copper spires that give them the appearance of miniature towers. Ornate 19th-century filigree friezes of animals and foliage run along the length of this side of the building, combining with stone effigies of knights and saints added at the same time to produce an attractively decadent effect. If this feels like visual overload, however, duck under the doorway beneath statues of an old woman and a farmer, which leads to Piwnica Swidnica, a tavern that has operated in the Ratusz’ cellar since the 13th century!
The restored interior of the Ratusz, whose original municipal functions were transferred into adjacent offices in the late 19th century, pales in comparison, but nonetheless merits a brief visit. Entering through a door in the drab west facade brings you to the Burgher’s Hall, which takes up most of the ground floor. It was both as the venue for important civic gatherings and a covered market for nearly half a millennium. The adjacent Bailiff’s Room served as the office (and, when necessary, courtroom) of the official charge with governing in the name of the Duke of Silesia and is connected to several ornate meeting rooms. Upstairs, the Knights’ Hall has interesting temporary exhibitions. Restored offices to the side of each contain displays of many of the town’s historical heirlooms.
The Ratusz is open from 11am to 5pm Tuesday through Saturday, 10am to 6pm Sunday, and is closed Mondays
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on December 17, 2004
Ratusz (Town Hall)
ul. Sukiennice 14/15
Archaelogical evidence suggests that a Slav market town known as Vratislavia occupied a large island in the River Oder as early as the 9th century. In 1000, this district acquired the name Ostrow Tumski (Cathedral Island) in honor of the diocese founded by Boleslaw the Brave, which it retains to this day. Its strategic position made it attractive to Germans alike, although Boleslaw the Wrymouth famously defeated the army of Emperor Henry V. The site of the battle has long since been incorporated into the city as the district of Psie Pole (Dogs’ Field), a moniker supposedly derived from the chaotic German retreat that resulted in leaving their wounded and dead literally to the dogs.
Boleslaw’s victory was only temporary, however, as upon his death in 1138, his successors created the Duchy of Lower Silesia and encouraged German settlement on the southern bank of the Oder, resulting in the development of the city in its present location. After its destruction by the Tartars in 1241, Wroclaw was rebuilt on the grid system that still survives. In 1259, rechristened as Breslau (an indication of its increasingly German polity), it became the capital of an independent duchy and soon thereafter joined both the Hanseatic League and the Holy Roman Empire, of which its bishop became an elector.
German control proved as evanescent as Polish rule, for in 1335, Breslau was annexed by Bohemia, which controlled the city until the crown of Bohemia passed to the Austrian Hapsburgs in 1526. In the intervening period, a thriving metropolis inhabited largely harmoniously by Germans, Poles, and Czechs developed, and with it, many of the city’s brick churches. Uniquely in the Austrian realm, there was also a modicum of religious diversity, as the generally staunchly Catholic Hapsburg rulers turned a blind eye to the use of some of the churches by Protestants. Religious tensions became manifest during the Thirty Years War, however, resulting in fierce fighting that halved the city’s population.
Nevertheless, Breslau remained an important, and increasingly Teutonic, city within the Hapsburg Empire, until its loss to Frederick the Great’s expansionist Prussian state in 1763. Breslau became Prussia’s second most important city after Berlin. It twice expelled occupying French troops during the Napoleonic wars, earning its citizens a reputation for loyalty to the state. It prospered further when the Prussian kings became German Emperors serving as a major industrial center within the German Empire.
After the First World War, Breslau’s Polish population sought unsuccessfully to have it annexed to the reincarnated Polish state. In fact, it was not included in the referendum held throughout much of the rest of Silesia to determine the German-Polish border, although with Germans outnumbering Poles by 20 to 1, the result would most likely have been academic. Even when the defeat of Nazi Germany was imminent, Polish leaders did not press territorial claims to the city. However, the Nazis choice to fortify the city to use it to make an ultimately abortive last stand against the Red Army resulted in the destruction of two thirds of the city’s building and the evacuation of the vast majority of its population.
In the aftermath of the war, the Soviet Union kept most of lands it had carved from eastern Poland under the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact while Poland was compensated by having its borders shifted westward at Germany’s expense. The people of the formerly Polish city of Lwow (today L’viv in Ukraine) were encouraged to repopulate the newly rechristened Wroclaw and brought with them many of their cultural and social institutions, as well as the contents of most of the city’s museums.
Although Wroclaw was largely ruined, it had not been flattened as Warsaw had, nor did its rebirth have the psychological importance (and potential international prestige) that Poland’s capital, or for that matter, Gdansk, did. Consequently, not much money was put toward its reconstruction, which may only really be said to have been completed when its population surpassed its prewar level of 625,000 in the 1980s. Nevertheless, it has risen to become Poland’s fourth largest city, and with Poland’s entry into the European Union, its proximity and historic ties with Germany are likely to be to its advantage.
Should you wish to read further, European friends have recommended Microcosm: A Portrait of a Central European City by Norman Davies and Roger Moorhouse, although it is not available in the United States.
Cathedral of St. John the Baptist
As a result of 19th century silting, Ostrow Tumski is no longer an island; however, the first half of its name still rings true in the twin-spired Gothic Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. It was originally completed in 1272, but so severely damaged in the Second World War that what you see today is largely the result of painstaking restoration work – there is a small exhibition detailing the process inside the church. Although little of the information is in English, it includes several photographs, one of which shows that both towers were blown off. An elevator runs to the top of one of the restored towers at a cost of 4 zl., providing unsurpassed views over Ostrow Tumski and Wroclaw as a whole.
At the time of its original construction, it was the first Gothic cathedral in Poland, although its most interesting contents, the three chapels behind the high altar, all reflect later architectural styles to some degree. St. Elizabeth’s Chapel, on the south side of the church, features Baroque frescoes, sculptures, and architecture in the style of Bernini. The Lady Chapel, while it retains the cathedral’s Gothic style in its architecture, features the Renaissance funerary plaque of Bishop Jan Roth by Peter Vischer of Nuremberg. The Corpus Christi Chapel on the north side was designed by the Viennese court architect Fischer von Erlach in a rather subtler Baroque style than the Lady Chapel.
Other Churches on Ostrow Tumski
The large church which you see upon crossing Most Tumski to reach Ostrow Tumski is the Church of the Holy Cross and St. Bartholomew, which, as its name suggests, is actually two churches under one roof. The Church of St. Bartholomew was built first in 1288, as a mausoleum for the Piast dukes. Ironically, the tomb of Duke Henryk the Righteous, who ordered its construction, has since been moved to the National Museum. Today it’s used by a Uniate congregation. The Church of the Holy Cross, which has since been deconsecrated, was completed in the next century.
Easy to miss on your way to the more imposing double church is a small 15th-century church dedicated to SS Peter and Paul. Behind it is the squat brick hexagonal Church of St. Martin, sitting somewhat forlornly away from the streets that bustle with priests and nuns hurrying between Ostrow Tumski’s churches and charitable institutions. Both churches are only open for services, as is the early 13th-century Church of St. Giles, the only one of Wroclaw’s churches to survive the Tartar sack of the city in 1241 and thus its oldest. The Archdiocesan Museum across the street holds the city’s ecclesiastical treasures, and the city’s pleasant Botanical Gardens are adjacent to both.
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