A one-day stopover in Wroclaw should give priority to the Market Square, a huge medieval piazza that undeniably embodies the traditions and culture of the city. Buildings on the square are post-war reconstructed replicas of the originals but all are somehow or other steeped in history, their architectural features clearly reflecting at least one period in the long era of dominance that has seen the city changing hands several times.
But obviously, the Market Square is not the be-all and the end-of-all of Wroclaw. The city has enough awe-inspiring churches, bridges and museums to keep one occupied for days, if not for a whole week. But these places of interest are scattered around the city in such a way that the only method of discovering them is aimless wandering around. After I took my share out of the eerie ambience on the Rynek the first day I arrived, I decided to amble around the city the next day in a bid to look out for the missing jigsaw pieces that I so intensely craved to find out.
My first port of call was the Gothic Church of St Elizabeth, a monumental fourteenth-century brick construction located just northeast of the Rynek. Each time I visited and that means three times in five days, the church was packed with believers and so I couldn’t inspect in detail the impressive altars and tombstones that embellished its interior. But what I missed inside was recompensed with sweeping panoramic views from its ninety-one-metre tower. The endless number of narrow twisting steps makes the journey to the top an arduous exercise for the heart but the views are more than worth the effort.
From here, several narrow pedestrianized side streets head straight to the Odra River. Adjacent to the Church of St Elizabeth, Ul Ordzanska is an atmospheric street cut midway by an elevated cobbled alleyway known as Stare Jatki. Formerly filled with rows of meat-selling stalls, it presently features a collection of cast-iron farm animals, thrown here and there as a symbol of the past use of the street as a slaughter house. The stalls were turned into upscale artisan shops selling local paintings and handmade ornaments to those with plenty of cash at their disposal. A short northbound stroll on Ul Ordzanska leads straight to Most Pomorski, a mighty bridge that stands at a point where the Odra branches out into two distinct watercourses. Walking along the bridge gives one the opportunity to observe from a distance the scores of graceful bridges interlinking the conglomeration of islands that lie within a wide section of the Odra.
From the southern foot of Most Pomorski, pretty Ul Grodzka runs along the river’s embankment. The views over the river are great, becoming more defined as Ul Grodzka takes a sharp turn and Piasek Island comes into view. The stretch of imposing buildings one sees here on the opposite side of Ul Grodzka is the University Quarter, a complex of stunning constructions that deserves more than the passing attention of run-down students who attend lessons within its grand lecture rooms. Those with limited time should head straight to the first floor where the highlight is unquestionably the Aula Leopoldina. Decorated with delicate stucco work, rows of paintings and ceiling frescoes of impressive artistry, this ostentatious ceremonial hall is an extreme example of the best baroque interiors in the country. From here, arrowed signposts lead to the Mathematical Tower, an imposing edifice devoid of ornamentation but high enough to afford excellent panoramic views from its top look-out platform.
Forming part of the University complex on the extreme east edge of Plac Uniwersytecki stands the baroque Church of the Name of Jesus. It is undoubtedly the most impressive place of worship in Wroclaw. Its spacious richly-gilded interior is crammed with fine ornamental work and artistic furnishings, the frescoes on the vaults being a masterpiece display of mysticism and symbolism. The walls are not covered in marble as one may inconsiderately conclude but what you see is just a coat of multi-coloured marble-imitating paint. Nevertheless this fake skilful show-off complements the intricate ornamentation well and adds to the beauty of the interior.
A stone’s throw west of the University Church, two other places of worship stand near each other on Plac Nankiera. The small Church of St Matthew was always closed when I visited. The spacious Church of St Vincent on the extreme east corner of the square is a recent reconstruction and has no more than a handful of interior decorative features worthy of note.
A short stroll east on Ul Uniwersytecka leads to a busy thoroughfare named Ul Piaskowa that links the riverbank with Plac Dominikanski, a spot humming with business activities of all sorts. But before making your way south to Plac Dominikanski, it is advisable to visit the Hala Targowa, a market hall located on the extreme northernmost edge of Ul Piaskowa right in front of the river. You can’t miss it - next to the doorway, you will come across scores of locals selling small lots of garden crops, flowers, handmade embroidered tablecloths and other unwanted items they pick from home. Inside, the ground floor display of eatables, vegetables and fruit is surprisingly well-organized and utterly clean. On the first floor, the emphasis is on plastic items, cheap clothing, key cutting and shoe mending. Overall, a visit to the Hala Targowa is a real hands-on Polish experience that gives one the opportunity to watch where the heart of locals beats. An additional Polish encounter can be experienced if one dares join the local shoppers inside the nameless restaurant near the main entrance. Serving Polish fare only, it is the place to go for freshly-prepared pierogi at utterly cheap prices.
Ul Piaskowa and its continuation Ul Sw. Katarzyny are not traffic free but are nonetheless ideal for amblers, particularly for those who commit themselves to walking in an attempt to identify specialized shops that sell local or Polish products. One particular shop renowned for its wide choice of vodka sells most Polish brands of this alcoholic concoction in fancy gift boxes. Another shop that specializes in items much smaller than bottles of distilled liquid deals in amber jewellery and filigreed silverware. Clothing stores with a common name (all are appropriately signposted ‘Tania Odziez’ that is, cheap clothes) and a similarly common particular balmy smell are so plentiful that I counted four such stores along the length of Ul Piaskowa.
The southernmost end of Ul Katarzyny is dominated by Plac Dominikanski, a modern square and a busy transport hub overshadowed by two conveniently interlinked behemoths: Galeria Dominikanska and the high-rise Hotel Mercure Panorama. Whether one reaches the square through Ul Katarzyny or through the underground criss-crossing passageways under the Olawska and Kazimierza Wielkiego intersection, one feels a compelling urge to ignore anything else within view and instantaneously proceed to Galeria Dominikanska. Is it the sheer bulkiness of the three-floor structure or the combination of the good name and moderate prices that draws so many visitors inside? During my five-day visit in Wroclaw, the basement-level food store in Galeria Dominikanska became my port of call for all my gastronomic requirements. The reason is simple: the choice is endless, the prices utterly discounted and the location perfect.
Only a stone’s throw away from Galeria Dominikanska is the massive conventual Church of St Adalbert. It is actually a post-war reconstruction although its exterior brickwork appears much older than it really is. The interior decorations are few and short on elaboration but the alabaster sepulchre of St Czeslaw is worth a visit.
From Plac Dominikanski, Ul Olawska is a westbound shortcut to the Rynek. Entirely pedestrianized, it is a short walkway of prestige and stature, crammed as it is with upscale boutiques, speciality shops and financial institutions. At its westernmost edge stands the city branch of the UK Embassy in Poland.
Just off the UK Embassy stands another massive place of worship. Dedicated to St Mary Magdalene, it is an imposing brick structure with a couple of interesting exterior features. Its twelfth-century splendid Romanesque portico, formerly incorporated in the entranceway of the Benedictine Abbey in Olbin is the most valuable showpiece of antique craftwork in Wroclaw. Another interesting feature is the stone bridge that joins the two soaring bell towers, a pair of amputated structures whose top section was never built up.
The top Wroclaw attractions are neither churches nor museums. Surprisingly, they are dwarf-like knee-high bronze castings of miniature humans that dot the streets and corners of the city. I failed to mention them before not because I didn’t stumble upon them several times, neither because they are small and maybe insignificant but simply because whatever I write about them is definitely a repetition of what guide books have already included in their writings. All I can add is that each krasnoludek (literally red dwarf) is an object of admiration and idolisation. I counted somewhat more than a score while I strolled around the city. How many can you find?