The semi-forested countryside around Wroclaw’s outer districts is surprisingly green and well maintained and so ideal for hiking and picnicking. Worthy of mention is the vast hillside tract of land north of Wroclaw, a lovely pine-and-oak forest that extends further north to the town of Trzebnica. Cut across by several narrow tributaries of the River Odra and patched with fertile meadows, this is one area in southwest Poland that experienced ramblers should in no case miss. Bus transport to Wroclaw’s outer districts and beyond is unfortunately scarce, making the region somewhat difficult to explore on a day trip unless one has private transport.
Wroclaw visitors who are reluctant to venture beyond the city limits should in no case be disappointed either. To fulfil any passion these might have for things natural, enough parks and patches of greenwood and grassland exist right in the city centre or just a short tram ride away.
One has only to look at a map of Wroclaw to see how the city is patched with green. The riverside promenades north of the medieval quarter are the most extensive swaths of greenery in the city and without doubt the most impressive. Frequently chosen as walking grounds by the local inhabitants, these alternating patchworks of forest and lawn are an ideal retreat for anyone wanting to enjoy the essence of nature in an atmosphere of old trees, trailing plants, flowering shrubs and running water.
Noted for seclusion and tranquillity are the three uninhabited islets west of Piasek Island. Entirely carpeted in variegated green hues, they are admirable hideaways ideal for reflection, particularly appealing to those who have been fed up of city life or have had enough of bricks and mortar. As a matter of fact, I always took shelter here from the hectic atmosphere of the city whenever I felt the need to record the details of my sightseeing trips in quiet. Wyspa Tamka is a tiny dot on the Odra, a forested spot with no streets at all but easily reachable via a graceful overpass from Ul Grodzka right in front of the Ossolinski Library. Wyspa Slodowa and Wyspa Bielarska are much larger than Wyspa Tamka and not as secluded. However, all three are equally ideal to walk along being a nonpareil of forested greenery, manicured spots and small recreational areas. The two larger islets interlinked by the graceful Most Sw. Klary are reachable via a tiny footbridge from the northwest edge of Piasek Island. Both Wyspa Slodowa and Wyspa Bielarska are bisected by one solitary traffic-free street that runs along the whole length of each islet.
South of the medieval city centre and not on the riverbank but likewise bordered by the water (of the Fosa Miejska - the former defensive moat, nowadays drowned in stagnant water) is Park Kopernika, a green lung enclosed within busy streets and lofty building conglomerates. Accessible from behind the Corpus Christi Church on Ul Swidnicka, the initial section consists of a green landscaped belt cut across by several crisscrossing passageways ideal for a short stroll or a stopover after a session of shopping at the nearby Renoma shopping mall. If one proceeds further east along the tree-shaded gravelled pathway that borders the Fosa Miejska, one will soon reach Ul Skargi. Once here, it’s impossible to miss the white crescent-shaped structure rising out of the woodland near Skargi Bridge.
Known as Wzgorze Partyzantow or Guerrilla Hill, this is a remnant of the ancient fortifications that formerly watched over the city. These defensive ramparts were partly demolished at the turn of the nineteenth century but the area was later redeveloped and designed to serve as a public recreational space. This otherwise beautiful expanse of greenery is presently forlorn and neglected but it is nonetheless great for walking. I later made an attempt to elicit more information about Guerrilla Hill from the hotel receptionist who was unmistakably a native Wroclawski.
"We seldom, if ever venture to Wzgorze Partyzantow. That’s an utterly haunted place. Many long-forgotten inhabitants of Wroclaw repeatedly heard ghostly shrieks in the vicinity of the fort. My grandfather who worked in the tunnels under the hill during the Nazi occupation feared himself to death whenever he came face to face with visions of prisoners who had been tortured to death in the underground dungeon of the fort."
I had no words to add to the receptionist because during my two-hour visit, I neither heard nor saw anything queer or freakish. But within myself, I couldn’t help not saying: "Lots of superstitious s---!"
Superstition seems to be the order of the day everywhere not just on Wzgorze Partyzantow. A stroll with eyes wide open along the streets of Ostrow Tumski with an occasional peep into one of its many churches brought me face to face with a number of religious superstitions that were often absurd and meaningless and at times tedious. When I couldn’t take more of these religious fantasies and staunch symbolisms, I found relief inside the city’s Botanical Gardens, a large swath of greenery appropriately sited behind the churches of Ostrow Tumski. Only a stone’s throw from the Cathedral and accessible from Ul Kanonia or Ul Sienkiewicza, Wroclaw’s Botanical Gardens double as a leisure attraction for Wroclawski and visitors and as a scientific experimental site for university students of biology and botany. It is a real refuge, a sanctuary devoid of tombstones and crosses but replete with fountains, waterfalls, shrubs, flowers and landscaped patches of greenery. It is a superb garden, sadly overlooked by visitors but without doubt a great place for a pleasant stroll. In addition to several rare tree species and colourful flower beds, the gardens contain charming palm houses and the largest collection of cacti in the country. Nearby (entry gate on Ul Sienkiewicza) is the excellent Museum of Natural History. Newly renovated, it contains more than three million exhibits that include animal skeletons from the primordial world, stuffed animal corpses placed in simulated natural habitats, butterflies pinned to hanging boards and a beautiful collection of colourful shells.
From Plac Dominikanski, a short eastbound stroll on Ul Slowackiego leads one to Wroclaw’s most popular park. Known as Park Slowackiego, it is a huge grove cut across by several passageways that provide a crosslink between three of the most frequently visited attractions. On the extreme west edge of the park, the Museum of Architecture housed inside the former Bernardine Monastery is just a nostalgic reminder of what Wroclaw looked like before World War II. With the exception of a large model of the city, there is not much else to see but the building is itself a gorgeous display of early Gothic architecture dating back to the sixteenth century.
Several signposted passageways head towards the Raclawice Panorama, a gargantuan display of painted canvas that depicts the victory of the Polish peasants over the Russian forces in 1794. The painting is certainly a monumental masterpiece but the structure of the rotunda around which it is carefully wrapped is without doubt more inspiring and imposing than the canvas itself. Nearby, apart from the bronze statue of Juliusz Slowacki after whom the park is named, one encounters the Monument to the Victims of the Katyn Massacre, a huge evocative structure with granite walls behind which thousands of Polish military officers and civil servants were reburied after their remains were collected from mass graves.
Also in Park Slowackiego but closer to the Odra is the National Museum, a three-floor building that is dedicated exclusively to Polish art. Most of the exhibits consist of collections of sacred artworks that include both paintings and sculptures. Worthy of mention for their ornamental details and aesthetic beauty are the Romanesque portal of the Olbin Abbey and the wooden altarpiece of St Hedwig, the latter being a three-figure painted-and-gilded sculptured bas-relief in limewood.
Once you’ve finished your tour of the park’s three most appealing attractions, it is advisable to spend some time walking at leisure along the scores of walkways that run gracefully between rows of well-manicured hedges. Most major walkways are lined with stone statues of Polish celebrities and war heroes. Although most of these images have no connection whatsoever with the park, yet they impart an air of stateliness to the otherwise bleak pathways. The name of the personality on the pedestal supporting the statue may not be to your cognizance; so reading the script (alas…in Polish only!) is essential if you wish to find out the reason why these personalities were given such an iconic status.
The eastern edge of Park Slowackiego does not in any way mark out the termination of Wroclaw’s acres of green breathing spaces. If one craves for more greenery, perhaps wilder and more natural, one has to venture further east past the Odra to the picturesque conglomeration of gardens and parks in Wroclaw’s Dabie district, only a stone’s throw away from Szczytnicki Bridge.