Warsaw is the capital of Poland and Krakow is constantly being touted as the “exciting new” Prague, Budapest and Berlin all rolled together… but for my zloty (Polish currency) the real darling of Poland is Wroclaw (loosely pronounced Vrote-Suave) the capital of Lower Silesia in southern Poland.
Often referred to as the “Venice of Poland”, Wroclaw is made up of 5 rivers, 12 islands and over 150 bridges. This multicultural city simply bubbles with life – due perhaps in part to the fact that it is one of the leading academic cities in Poland, and every sixth inhabitant is a student.
The history of this city has more twists and turns than the Strauss-Khan sex scandal. Over the years it has had five different names and been under the control of four countries. It reverted back to Polish rule only after World War II, and has since re-emerged from almost complete destruction to become one of the most beautiful, cosmopolitan, prosperous cities in Eastern Europe. The government is working hard to restore the city to its pre-war glamor with an extensive restoration program and with a frenzy of new buildings going up (the exciting Teflon covered, 43,000 seat City Stadium just opened). Wroclaw has been selected as both a venue for Euro 2012 as well as the European Capital of Culture 2016.
Wroclaw’s top 10 must sees
1. Stroll around the large town square (the Rynek) dominated by an impressive, renaissance Town Hall ( it’s one of the few buildings that survived WWII) bordered by a rainbow of renovated tenement homes. Stop for lunch, or at least a cold one, downstairs at the city’s best beer hall.
2. Head over to the neighboring square, Palc Solny, formerly a salt market that has morphed into a 24-hour flower mart. When I asked who would be shopping there in the middle of the night, I was informed that it was an exceedingly popular gift stop for husbands returning home in the wee hours after imbibing too many Mad Dogs (vodka, Tabasco and raspberry juice.)
3. Follow the Odra River across several mini-islands to Ostrów Tumski (“Cathedral Island”). This spiritual hub is the oldest part of the city, home to several churches as well as an appealing Botanical Garden with over 7,000 different plant species. If you’re after a great camera shot, climb the tower at Cathedral of St. John the Baptist for a panoramic view of the city center. Note the thousands of padlocks clamped on the guardrails of the Tumski Bridge aka the Love Bridge. Rumor is that if a padlock carved with the couple’s initials is locked on the bridge and then the key is thrown into the river, their love will be forever locked.
4. Hopefully you’ve made reservations at the Art Hotel for a sleep-over or at least to enjoy a scrumptious meal (they make a delish Steak Tartare and offer an excellent wine selection) in the Garden Hall. A team of local architects cleverly re-purposed two tenement houses into this sleek Soho-esque hotel, keeping the authentic stone portals from 1520 and paintings from the 18th century which are displayed on walls and ceilings of the restaurant.
5. If you’re willing to spend more, then you can’t beat a stay at the famed Monopol (Hotel Likus) where past guests include Garbo, Dietrich, Picasso and Hitler. Fresh from extensive renovations, the gorgeous Art Nouveau exterior masks the starkly contemporary decorative style which greets you inside. For a romantic drink with widescreen views head to the rooftop terrace. The subterranean level houses the city’s top wellness center including a superb spa, counter-current swimming pool, salt and iodine cave and a state-of-the-art gym.
6. Go Gnome Hunting. The first diminutive statue appeared in 2005, created by local artist Tomasz Moczek, but now there are about 150 of these popular Smurf-like creatures sprinkled around town. These charming little guys in the pointy hats can be found engaging in a variety of daily activities, from washing clothes in the river to passed-out drunk after a night of partying.
7. Check out the local art scene at the brand new Wrocław Modern Art Museum (MWW) which is located in a bunker built in 1942 as an air-raid shelter for civilians, with a cool café on top. Reasonably priced art galleries line the picturesque, cobble-stoned lane of Stare Jatki, formerly lined with rows of butcher stalls. Look for the bronze animal statues at the end of the lane with a plaque to “honor the slaughtered animals by those that consumed them.”
8. Budget travelers are in luck if they score a room at Mleczarnia, an old tenement building that’s been styled out and is now considered on of the best hostels in Poland. The super cheap, immaculate dorms, large doubles with private bathrooms or “splurge” for the separate apartment will leave you pleasantly surprised. I loved the atmospheric coffee house on the ground floor (complete with candelabras) for checking emails or a tasty breakfast option. For more cheap eats, search out one of the traditional Milk Bars – left over from the communist days. These plain-Jane cafeterias specialize in huge portions of old-fashioned Polish food at rock-bottom prices. Bazylia, opposite the main university building, is one of the tastier (and cleanest) renditions.
9. Across the courtyard from Mleczarnia, you’ll find the White Stork Synagogue – the only synagogue in Wroclaw that was spared the fires of Kristallnacht due to its close proximity to other residential buildings. Over the years it fell into a state of disrepair until the Jewish community raised monies for its restoration, which was completed this year. It now serves as a museum (with a permanent exhibition on the History of Jews in Wroclaw – the Jews were rounded up and sent here before being deported to death camps) a place of worship and cultural center.
10. Hala Targowa is Wroclaw’s main market and it’s packed with locals shopping, gossiping and, in general, living their real lives. It may not be pretty but this vaulted-ceiling, two-level, pre-modern-shopping-mall brick building can answer all your shopping needs. The main floor is filled with quality, farm-fresh produce, charcuterie, bakeries, alcohol and flower stalls and one of the best bare-bones pierogi bars. (Great spot to buy a picnic lunch to enjoy on Cathedral Island). A typical housewife could probably run all her errands upstairs, crammed with mini-shops offering everything from shoe repair, vitamins, nylon undies, to assorted Tupperware.
Head to the Hills Weekend Getaway
Biking, hiking and skiing are all popular choices when visiting the beautiful valley of Jelenia Góra, surrounded by “Giant” mountains (only by Poland’s standards since the tallest peak is slightly over 5,000 ft.) and Karkonosze National Park. A two-hour bus ride from Wroclaw brings you to the town of Jelenia Góra, the largest in this vicinity and a good home-base for exploring the area. It has many acceptable hotel and restaurant options and a beautifully preserved, medieval town square, Plac Ratuszowy, where visitors are greeted by the tower’s bugle-caller.
Another option is to drive just a few miles out of town where you’ll be surrounded by lush green forests and parks filled with dozens of romantic castles (complete with moats), fairy-tale palaces and royal manor homes, some dating back to the 12th century. A handful of these mansions have been painstakingly transformed and now offer luxurious accommodations for a truly memorable stay.
I chose to play princess and stay at the historic 18th century Palace Staniszow, the former baroque residence of the royal Von Reuss family. After walking the beautifully landscaped grounds, full of flowers, fountains, ponds and meandering paths under the gorgeous mountain backdrop, I began to feel a touch royal myself.
Agata and Waclaw Dzida bought the palace about 10 years ago and have been meticulously renovating it ever since. Their dream (which should be realized by the end of 2012) is not only to restore the site back to its former glory but also for Palace Staniszow to be known as an important cultural heritage center.
Six years ago they started The Forum Staniszów Foundation to promote local musicians and artists. They already host an annual “Music Festival of Staniszow” which is very popular. They are hard at work building a separate Art & Cultural center on the property, which should be finished in a few months. They have also broken ground for a new Spa and Wellness center, which, after hearing the plans, I predict will soon become a leading luxury spa destination. The hotel has already been honored with the Luxury Brand of the Year 2010 award for the category of Hotel as Historic Building.
The cozy and elegant rooms are all uniquely furnished with just the right amount of modern updates. I never tired of dining in the exquisitely appointed dining room, surrounded by fresh flowers, crystal chandeliers, rich brocades and tapestries, flickering candles, an over-sized fireplace and soft classical music playing in the background.
And since I found out that Wroclaw has an international airport, and is less than a 2 hour flight from London, I think I can make it back for the Spa opening.
For more information go to: