on October 16, 2012
Since time immemorial, tradition and ethnic culture have always dominated over reality and truthfulness. Legendary names and folktales steeped in history have been passed on from one generation to the next without consideration taken into their real significance or authenticity. This is what exactly happened to that slice of land on the opposite side of the River Odra north of Wroclaw’s medieval centre. Known as Ostrow Tumski or Cathedral Island, it was a real island up to 1810 when one enclosing tributary of the Odra was filled in with rubble, subsequently interlinking the island to the Srodmiescie mainland. The name is nowadays utterly misleading since Ostow Tumski is not an island any longer but just an area north of the Odra enclosed within the riverbank, Ul Kard. Wyszynskiego and Ul Sienkiewicza. That said, Ostrow Tumski is nonetheless an extraordinary place of distinction. Although geographically it lies only one mile northeast of the Rynek, it is figuratively speaking miles away from the hustle and bustle of Wroclaw’s city centre. Ostrow Tumski is a one-thousand-year-old memorial, a relic of religious exclusivity, a stonework heritage reminiscent of an age when everything was crafted by hand. While walking along its handful of traffic-free passageways, one cannot but feel a sense of reverence and respect for the builders and craftsmen who skilfully and devotedly exercised their abilities and used their talents here. One cannot but feel as if the whole area is just a huge working monastery, kept alive by scores of trespassers and intruders who visit the place from time to time. This feeling of conventual reticence becomes occasionally more conspicuous as one meets a retinue of cassocked priests and appropriately dressed nuns on its way to one of the many places of worship on the ‘island’. Several graceful bridges link Wroclaw’s city centre to the north bank of the River Odra. It is advisable to walk at leisure along each of these bridges in turn in a bid to admire the views over the river and the neighbouring cityscape. Most Pomorski and Most Uniwersytecki both offer great views over a number of solitary tiny islands and the branching waterways that surround them. Most Pokoju is a traffic-infested bridge but it offers nonetheless an ideal location from where the majestic bell towers of the city’s Cathedral can be viewed from a distance, their pinnacles being Ostrow Tumski’s best distinguished landmark. Although each of these three bridges provides easy access to Ostrow Tumski, it is the small iron bridge called Most Piaskowy that visitors usually traverse to reach the ‘island’.Most Piaskowy links the easternmost edge of Ul Grodzka near the Hala Targowa market to Piasek Island. This short overpass is an old construction and consequently fails on engineering competency but is unquestionably great on style and gracefulness. Comprising a narrow middle carriageway and two side walkways, it is a lovely skeletal metal structure lined on both sides with wrought-iron red-painted railings. A short northbound walk over the bridge brings one on Ul Sw. Jadwigi, the only street of significance on Piasek Island. Two church constructions face each other on Ul Sw. Jadwigi. The church one sees on the left as one walks north is the Russian Orthodox Church of St Cyril and St Methodius, presently used as the University Library and is closed to visitors. The lofty fourteenth-century Gothic brick structure on the right is the Church of the Blessed Virgin on the Sand. Damaged extensively during World War II, it was reconstructed from the debris of war after careful attention was given to the details of the original design. The interior is somewhat dark and the décor is short on elaboration, yet the mightiness of the structure exudes grandness and majestic opulence. The ribbed vaulting and the rows of supporting columns are magnificent, bold and architecturally interesting. The sixteenth-century icon of the Virgin Mary in the north nave has become a votive centrepiece of holiness and devotion for Catholic Wroclawski who come here from all over the city to pray. Those who crave for Polish heritage of a blithe nature should head to the first chapel on the right of the main doorway. The best mechanised szopka (a highly decorative exposition of a Nativity setting) I’ve ever seen in Poland is on display here. The Church of the Blessed Virgin on the Sand has no courtyard in front of its main doorway but the spacious patio facing its northern side door is frequently used as a place for wedding celebrations, a convenient spot where guests impart congratulations, kisses, flowers and gifts to the newlyweds. Such occurrences seem to be recurrent to the extent that I’ve seen three in a matter of five days. Obviously, what follows is the ability of the photographer to take shots in as diverse a number of poses and locations as possible. The climax of any wedding occasion in Wroclaw is reached on Most Tumski, a century-old picturesque iron footbridge that connects Piasek Island with Ostrow Tumski. It is customary for a newlywed Wroclawski bride to pose with her groom for a photo on the bridge. The climax is reached as the couple secures and ties a padlock to the railings to symbolise the unbreakable bond of marriage. The photographer is obviously committed to take a topnotch snap of the moment. Repleted with locked padlocks and embellished with saintly statuary, Most Tumski leads to the westernmost edge of Ul Katedralna. The latter is not an ordinary street but it is more a testifying reminder of the superstitious past than anything else. Cobbled and lined with churches, nunneries, convents and cloisters, some already meticulously restored, others still in the process of renovation, Ul Katedralna takes one back to the time when thick lofty walls and small iron-caged windows protected the flocks of religious communities who actively resided within. It is not a secular pathway similar to other medieval streets but it is a place of utter religiosity where the feeling of spirituality is so intense that whenever one stops to look at a building, one is always faced with an item or theme linked somehow or other to religion.On the left of Ul Katedralna, the first building of note is the small Gothic Church of St Peter and St Paul. Its limited opening times makes visiting its interior a feat of perseverance but after several attempts I could make my way in at 8:00 am when the only daily Mass was being said. Devoid of ornamentation, the church is nonetheless worthy of a visit, at least to see its fine vaulted ceiling supported on a single imposing central pillar, an architectural achievement particularly when one takes into consideration that its construction dates back to the fifteenth century. Nearby is the much larger Church of the Holy Cross, a unique two-level Gothic place of worship with an impressive entry staircase and a seventy-metre bell tower. The upper-level church dedicated to the Holy Cross welcomes a Catholic congregation while the church beneath dedicated to St Bartholomew is the parish church of the Ukraine-Byzantine community in Wroclaw. Standing outside in front of the church is a large statue of St John of Nepomuk, an excellent work by the Wroclaw-born sculptor Jan Jerzy Urbanski.In addition to churches, most of which are living places of prayer and worship, several other ecclesiastical buildings line Ul Katedralna. The neoclassical palace at Ul Katedralna 11 is the present residence of the Archbishop of Wroclaw. Rebuilt in the eighteenth century, it incorporates several architectural features of distinction from a former palace that stood on the same site in the twelfth century. The palatial building at Ul Katedralna 15 houses the Archbishop’s Curia and the Faculty of Theology. Most of the houses in the vicinity are used by members of the clergy as church administration offices as can be witnessed from several plaques embedded in the wall near the doorways. The culmination of Ostrow Tumski’s sightseeing trip is undeniably the Gothic Cathedral of St John the Baptist. The main entranceway on the easternmost edge of Ul Katedralna is framed by a richly sculpted Gothic portal that dates back to the fifteenth century. The interior, the high altar and the side chapels in particular is also richly decorated. The superb triptych above the high altar representing the Dormition of the Virgin Mary is a great work of art attributed to Veit Stoss. Intricately carved in limewood, painted and gilded, it is a grand monumental masterpiece. The exquisite Marian Chapel right behind the high altar contains a splendid Gothic marble sarcophagus of a former bishop. Although this chapel is without doubt a treasure-trove of intricate marble decorations, it is however overshadowed by two adjacent ornate baroque chapels that were added in the seventeenth century. The real highlight of the Cathedral is unquestionably the wonderful view offered from the top lookout platform above the northwest bell tower. The portrait-pretty panorama that stretches out over most of Wroclaw’s parks and surrounding countryside should in no case be missed.
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