Wroclaw train station is a twenty-minute walk south of the Old Town quarter. Several tram routes clearly marked in red on city maps link major stops in the city with the train station. Entirely pedestrianized, the heart of the Old Town quarter is not traversed by tram routes and the nearest tram stops are at least a five-minute walk away from the Rynek (Old Market Square). In order of proximity, the closest to the Rynek first, these are: Ul Swidnicka right in front of Hotel Metropole, Ul Piaskowa right in front of the Hala Targowa (Market Hall), Plac Dominikanski west of the Rynek and Plac Jana Pawla II east of the Rynek. These stops, though close to the central scene of action cannot unfortunately be reached directly from the train station but one must necessarily change trams somewhere along the route. So, if you are heading for the centre, it is advisable to avoid the hassle of transport once and for all and make your way on foot. After all a twenty-minute walk along dead flat streets is not a feat of exertion beyond recuperation and walking with a street map in hand (you can pick one for free from the train station) is in addition the best way to get a good orientation of your whereabouts.
One can get out of the train station either through the main doorway on Ul Pilsudskiego or through the back exit on Ul Sucha. While the station’s reconstruction and renovation programme was in progress, the area right in front of the main entrance, formerly dilapidated and frequented by more than a couple of outcasts was turned into a crafted spot of manicured lawns and flower beds. A fair share of wooden benches where one can stay and wait away from the busy ambience of the station’s main hall is an additional feature of convenience. From here, a sharp turn left on Ul Pilsudskiego and a short stroll brings you on the spot where Ul Pilsudskiego meets Ul Swidnicka. A straight-on walk along the whole stretch of Ul Swidnicka for about fifteen minutes terminates with the Rynek which is indisputably the starting point of any visit to Wroclaw.
Exiting on Ul Sucha, you will find the bus terminal on the opposite side. Unless you need a bus to travel to another town, do not cross to the other side but take a sharp turn right and walk straight until you come across the Arkady Wroclawskie shopping mall. Located right on the corner between Ul Swobodna and Ul Swidnicka, it is a huge centre of upscale retail stores, restaurants and indoor attractions that definitely cannot be missed. If one takes a sharp turn on Ul Swidnicka, crosses the underpass under the train tracks and continues straight for about twenty minutes, one will find oneself right on the Rynek.
Wroclaw’s Rynek is indisputably a focus of activity, a place of action where people gather together to see, explore and participate in the daily happenings. The moment I arrived here, unaware of the best route to follow to ensure that nothing was missed out, I stood in awe amidst the crowds of passers-by and onlookers. This square is so huge that walking around its perimeter is undeniably a tiring experience, particularly if one has already exercised one’s feet in a bid to get here from the train station. Exhausted after hours of travelling, I decided to retreat under one of the numerous parasols that unexceptionally all restaurant owners on the market square set up outside in fine weather to extend their dining area. But which parasol should I choose? Without further consideration, I walked towards Kawiarnia Literatka, a splendid colourful bar that seemed to ooze comfort and elegance even at first sight. Having sat at a table outside under an orange-yellow parasol, I quenched my thirst with a nameless brand of Polish brew while I enjoyed the busy but serene open-air atmosphere on the market square and reconsidered what was best to do next.
Having observed from a vantage point the display of side-by-side buildings enclosing the square, I decided to go around and examine in detail the aesthetic beauty of this showcase of architectural wonders. Much of what one sees today is an authentic detailed replica of a collection of thirteenth-century original constructions, the latter having been wiped off almost entirely during World War II by the besieging Russian army. Restructured mostly from the debris of war after careful planning and remarkable attention to detail, the present-day surrounding ensemble consists of a colourful mix of architectural styles that range from Gothic to baroque, from Renaissance to Art Nouveau. Having been recently given a face-lift with a new coat of paint and a refurbishment of the decorative stonework, most buildings look fresh, colourful and beautiful.
Peculiar to the oldest buildings on the square were the house names, formerly used in lieu of numbers as a means of identification. Some of these have been appropriately passed on to the bars and restaurants that presently occupy the place. Pod Zlotym Psem (Under the Golden Dog) is a subterranean restaurant named after the symbolic dog sculpture that one can still see above the doorway. Similarly, Pod Zlotym Orlem is named after the symbolic sculpture of a golden eagle that still shines with wings wide open above the main entrance. There are more, not only on the Rynek but also along the grid of streets that run across Wroclaw’s historic centre. Explore, observe and you will definitely find more than a handful.
Proudly standing in the centre of this vast piazza is the city’s conspicuous Town Hall, one of the few original buildings on the Rynek that miraculously escaped the war without major damages. Adjacent to the Town Hall, the conglomeration of buildings in the centre is subdivided into small blocks by three internal passageways, each packed with bars and shops of all sorts. Wandering around here at leisure with eyes wide open is without doubt a rewarding experience you will not easily forget. But beware… a feeling of nostalgia for the calm ghostly atmosphere of the medieval past may haunt you if you stay too long, particularly if you dare go underground into the labyrinthine sublevel cellars of one of the bars or restaurants that fill up the place.
Although all the buildings that form part of this central conglomeration are architecturally amazing and aesthetically colourful, it is the Town Hall on the southern side of the block that is the most remarkable. Consisting of three architecturally distinct buildings, internally joined together to form one whole, it reflects the stages of its stepped development. The oldest section has pure Gothic features while the most recent exposes an early Renaissance style. The central section which is also the largest is a display of impressive ornamental brickwork, its triangular roof cross-section topped with a row of sculptured pinnacles and its eastern façade adorned with a lovely decorative clock embedded skilfully in the brickwork.
The door on the western side of the Town Hall leads to the Museum of City Art. The display of period furniture, silverware and intricately-carved decorations is remarkable but more stunning is the magnificent décor that adorns the halls and chambers of its majestic interior. The external features are indisputably eye-catching and awe-inspiring; the interior ornamentation could easily fit a palatial building rather than an unpretentious Town Hall.
The Tourist Information Centre on the southwest corner of the Rynek is the place to go for anything you may need to ask about the city. Brochures, basic street maps and leaflets about current events can be picked up for free from the stand near the doorway. Internet access is also free provided one of the three available computers is not being used – a rare occasion indeed. Anything else on display is for sale. This includes an endless collection of souvenirs, a small range of English guide books, an assortment of trinkets of questionable quality and worthless plastic knickknacks.
A few steps west of the Tourist Information Centre, another colourful square, much smaller than the Rynek but equally impressive hosts a thriving twenty-four-hour flower market. Thanks to the multi-coloured flower displays, the square is a bright place, an ideal spot to relax in peacefulness away from the crowds on the Rynek but still a stone’s throw away from the scene of action. The colourful arrangements of flowers on display are impressive but don’t fail to glance further up at the imposing architectural details of the surrounding buildings. Rows of intricately-carved reliefs and statuettes adorn most facades; the elaborate parapets topping the roofs are themselves stonework displays of fine craftsmanship.
The collection of colourful jigsaw pieces that interlock to form the Rynek comprises only a small section of the picture. To uncover the whole picture, it is essential to wander around aimlessly and pick up the preferred pieces from here and there in the process.