Wroclaw may truly be said to begin on Ostrow Tumski, where Slavs founded a merchant town in the 9th century. Its name, which means Cathedral Island, derives from the diocese founded upon it in the year 1,000 by Boleslaw the Brave. With five churches and various other ecclesiastical buildings, it remains the nerve center of Wroclaw’s religious life. To reach it from the historic center, first cross the Piaskowski Bridge to the sandbank of Wyspa Piasek. The sandbank itself contains several fine sights, including a pair of churches and the University Library formerly used by the Nazis as a military headquarters. Most Tumski (Cathedral Bridge) connects Wyspa Piasek with Ostrow Tumski.
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.