Wrocław: From the Flames

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Wrocław: From the Flames

...soaring Gothic architecture it charms and beguiles the visitor. The city is a must-visit when in Poland.

Most people know Wrocław by one of its last incarnations and its former German name: Breslau. In actual fact, its Polish name pre-dates the German one, but besides this generally-accepted piece of information, concrete dates are hard to verify, and depending on which side of the fence you were sitting on, documents used different names at the same time. But there is no mistaking what happened to the city in 1945, during the 'Battle for Breslau’; that 80 day siege has been called by many one of the largest tragedies in battle, in terms of the toll on human life, of WWII.


The Flame

Prior to WWII, Wrocław (known at that time as Breslau, it was part of Germany), was firmly in the grip of a love affair with all things German in general and Hitler in particular. Some sources claim that in 1933, more than 200,000 of the city's citizens voted for Hitler and gave him financial and political support that went far beyond the ballot box. It was at this point that the Nazis turned their steely gaze on Breslau and decided that it was the perfect city in which to create a Nazi utopia; this meant, of course, that the city's 'undesirables' (non-Germans, Jews and other religious and ethnic minorities) had to be disposed of. They wasted no time: in 1944 widespread campaigns of terror were launched, which used murder, torture, looting, burning and rationing with impunity and resulted in those who could do so fleeing the city. Those who could not had no choice but to remain with what was coming...namely the Red Army.

On August 24, 1944 the city was declared by Germany to be a closed stronghold, ('Festung Breslau') and roughly 85,000 'soldiers' were quickly rounded up to become the most critical defensive element on ‘The Eastern Wall’. In reality, this group was nothing more than a mix of young boys and old men and they were all that stood between their city and the oncoming Soviet army, which was rampaging wildly as it approached, destroying all the city's transport links. Breslau's remaining civilian population had no choice but to flee on foot, but as it was the end of January by this point, over 100,000 people froze to death. Finally, on February 15, 1945, the Soviets surrounded the city and there was no choice left but to fight.


The very next day, the Red Army launched an incredibly brutal attack on Breslau, and despite the Red Army having tanks and many well-fed men, the Nazis rose up and fought back. For 80 days, they managed to hold off the Soviets – and the city degenerated into nothing more than open battle, with the Russians and Germans going at it hammer and tongs, and the city's civilians darting helplessly around the city, trying to avoid getting killed. Since the Nazis refused to feed any civilian who was not actively fighting the Soviets, civilian combatants got thrown into the mix as well, despite the fact that what they wanted more than anything was to see the back of the Nazis.


What Breslau saw over that 80 days was nothing less than a bloodbath. When the dust settled and the city surrendered, the number of dead stood as follows: 170,000 civilians, 6,000 German soldiers and 7,000 Russian. 70% of the city was completely destroyed; of the more than 30,000 registered and historical buildings, 21,632 sustained severe damage, with an estimated 18.5 million cubic meters of rubble strewn from one end of the city to the other – this was such an enormous and daunting task that it took until well into the 1960's before the last of the war debris was removed.


After the war ended, Breslau was declared a part of Poland under the Yalta agreement; accordingly, it was renamed Wrocław and became determined to be as 'Polish' (meaning, as 'non-German') as possible. Although the Germans had historically had a major influence on everything from architecture to food, post-WWII Wrocław wanted none of that as it re-invented itself. Poles were brought into the city en masse, German street names were changed and monuments honoring German heroes fell hard in the face of anti-German sentiment. By early 1946, it was decided that the city's remaining 300,000 German citizens had to be removed, and so they were forcibly relocated; by early 1948, Wrocław was in the middle of a Communist mis-information feeding frenzy, with the Soviets claiming that not a single German remained in the city. This was not strictly true, but when dealing with propaganda, truth is not as relevant as the larger message aimed at stirring and inspiring the masses. And so began the next part of this city's saga: that of Soviet Communist rule until 1989.


The Phoenix

Visitors strolling through Wrocław will see none of the carnage and destruction from 60 years ago, and although much of the Communist architecture remains, it is mixed in with some truly fascinating Gothic and Baroque work which pre-date the arrival of the Red Army. Many sight-seeing journeys begin with the Market Square (Rynek),which – by 1945 - was completely blown to bits and had to rebuilt from rubble. Interestingly the Rynek (like the Old Town Rynek in Warsaw), was faithfully built from hidden plans and memory, and so what we see today may be 60 years old, but the architecture, facades and details are exact replicas of what stood in this place before the war began and Wrocław was laid to ruin.

The centre of the Rynek is dominated by the Town Hall (Ratusz), which is simultaneously the source of delight and despair for Gothic architecture enthusiasts. Delight because it miraculously escaped pretty much unscathed from WWII (making it one of the few truly original buildings in Wrocław) and despair because it has a 'patchwork' feel to it: none of the bits seem to fit together smoothly, and it actually seems to be made up of several different buildings, all forced together in uneasy union.


This is not too far from reality. Construction began on the Hall at the end of the 13th century and continued for over 250 years; in that time, there were very changeable political situations in the city and every new administration hired their own artists to continue on with the job. The result is many hands and minds all simply building on the work of whatever was there when they arrived. This makes the Town Hall a fascinating - though slightly disjointed – specimen of architecture through the city's history, a living monument and testimony to fads and fashions of a 250 year period. Many say that the really eye-catching part of the Hall is on the east facade: it displays a gorgeous astronomical clock from 1580 and an elaborate central gable decorated with exquisitely detailed patterns of terracotta.


From the Rynek, many visitors head east to the Racławice Panorama (located in a specially-constructed rotunda in the park at ul. Purkyniego 11). The Panorama is a cyclorama: a painting on a single piece of massive canvas which is 15 meters high and 114 meters long, wrapped around the internal walls of the rotunda. The painting is an unbroken circle, and it is viewed from an elevated position, a balcony placed in the center of the circle. It is awe-inspiring in its scale and grandeur, and the painting subject is breathtaking in itself.

 The Panorama depicts the April 4, 1794 battle of Racławice (a village about 40 kilometers northeast of Kraków) between the Polish peasant army and Russian troops. This was one of Poland's last attempts to defend its independence, and although the Poles won the battle that day, they lost the war: just months later, the Russians returned and decisively crushed the Polish resistance. The impact of this was massive – the country's borders moved and intermingled to the point that Poland as an entity ceased to exist at all until WWI. For many Poles, the battle of Racławice represents the glorious Polish spirit, defiant and proud in the face of nearly impossible odds.
Water and Trees

Although Wrocław has no shortage of Gothic churches, those who wish to breathe a bit and yet see more stone and spires should head to the island of Ostrów Tumski ('Tumski Island'), which is reached by crossing over the River Odra by two elegant little painted bridges (Most Młynski and Most Tumski); it's interesting to note that only three European cities have more bridges than does Wrocław, which makes it a delightful place to walk.


It was on Ostrów Tumski that Wrocław began: the city grew out of a stronghold built on the island in the 10th century and the city's first church was built here. It eventually became the seat of the city's religious authorities and over time a number of churches, monasteries and other religious buildings were constructed, many of which still stand today. It's for this reason that this area of Wrocław has such a marked ecclesiastical character.


By now, even the most ardent brick and spire lover will need a spot of green to relax and recharge. Thankfully, Ostrów Tumski holds two of the city's most lovely parks: Park Szczytnicki (which has the gorgeous Japanese Gardens, boasting waterfalls and pagodas) and the Botanical Gardens (at ul. Sienkiewicza 23), which is replete with flowers and plants, as well as aquariums, a cafe and numerous bridges.


Vibrant Night Life

So, you've seen enough churches and Gothic architecture to sink a ship, you've crossed the city's numerous bridges numerous times and you've gone green. Next on the agenda is to head back to the Rynek to enjoy some of the city's restaurants, cafes and bars.


A firm traveller favourite is the restaurant Pod Złotym Jeleniem ('Under the Gold Deer', Rynek 44), which will delight carnivores and leave vegetarians feeling peckish: specialising in steak, lamb and venison, and with wild animal heads nailed on almost every available spot, meat is what's on the menu. Service is top-notch, portions are massive, food quality is very, very high. For something a bit more elegant in terms of decor, Żak, (Rynek 7/9) fits the bill. Aimed at German tourists, the menu reflects German cuisine pretty heavily, but does offer some traditional Polish must-tries such as sausages and tripe. An excellent place to have a few rounds of beer...


For more serious drinkers, Pod Papugami ('Under the Parrot', ul. Sukiennice 9a) offers a long cocktail list and a cosmopolitan vibe, while jazz lovers must visit Ragtime (pl. Solny 17), which has arguably the city's best live music. For something on the lighter side, indulge in some sweet stuff. Artzat (ul. Malarska 30) is an amazing cafe which serves up excellent cakes (try Polish apple pie, szarlotka, with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream) and very good coffee. The city's best ice cream can be found at Pomorzanka (Rynek 59) and it is hugely popular with kids, families and any babcia (grandmother-type) with a sweet tooth. Don't be annoyed by the inevitable queue - like so many things in Wrocław, Pomorzanka's ice cream is worth that extra bit of effort, and is well worth waiting for. So indulge...


Text by Michelle Smith


Getting to and from the city is simple: besides several trains daily to and from Warsaw, Berlin and Prague, the Nicolaus Copernicus Airport Wrocław (Port Lotniczy im. Mikołaja Kopernika we Wrocławiu) is located about 13 kilometers from the city centre. A taxi into the center will set you back about 50 PLN/ 11 pounds.

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