Some pleasures are all the sweeter for being completely unexpected.
When planning a trip to Krakow last summer, I didn’t want the stress of flying from Dublin.
Discovering I could fly from Cork to Wroclaw, a city that’s a two and a half hour drive from Krakow, I took a punt on it being worth the detour.
I was in Wroclaw for a jam-packed day and a half and learned a lot during that time.
I learned that you pronounce the name of this town in a way you’d never guess from how it’s written. (In case you’re wondering: it’s Vrotz-voff.) I learned that it’s a city with a fascinating cultural history.
And I learned that because it’s next year’s European Capital of Culture, I’d visited just in time to discover it before it became popular.
We arrived late in the evening, having fled a rainy June in Ireland.
The warmth of the Polish summer came as pure joy. (Temperatures range from the mid to high twenties in early summer.)
We dropped our bags in the Art Hotel, a 16th century townhouse where rooms are decorated with artworks by local artists, and immediately made for Market Square.
Although it was ravaged by fighting at the end of WWII, the untrained eye could never tell. Its buildings, which date from the Renaissance through to the 20th century, have been expertly restored and painted in the most vivid colours. They now house bars, restaurants, shops and cafés.
We sat outside, drank our first piwo (the Polish word for beer), breathed in the warm air and watched musicians performing in the square.
We returned to our hotel for dinner, having heard it had one of the best restaurants in the city.
Its chef is a member of the European Network of Regional Culinary Heritage which means his menu emphasises seasonal local foods and specialities.
Polish cuisine has a reputation for being heavy but there’s a light touch in this kitchen.
We enjoyed white asparagus, crayfish dumplings and spelt soup with chicken meatballs and after we’d finished, the staff urged us to try some of their extensive collection of vodkas.
This is something we noticed throughout our trip. Wroclaw doesn’t yet receive a lot of visitors and any time we expressed an interest in their history, food or culture, locals responded with generosity. We were plied with stories, information and offers of food and drink wherever we went.
Our second day in the city was crammed with sights and sounds.
We made our way to Market Square through one of Wroclaw’s most picturesque streets, Stare Jatki.
It’s a street of low level buildings with wooden awnings that has retained its medieval character.
It used to be the meat-butchering district but today is home to artists’ studios and souvenir shops.
Back in Market Square, we visited the Church of St Elizabeth and the Gothic Town Hall, both of which are landmark buildings in this city.
The Town Hall has a fantastic interior of vaulted halls and late Gothic and Renaissance doorways. From there, we ventured deeper into the maze of cobbled streets that surround the square. We strolled through the university district.
Wroclaw’s university was founded in 1701 and has an impressive assembly hall called the Aula Leopoldina.
Its stucco work, gilding and carvings will take your breath away.
It’s also got a fascinating astronomical observatory in its mathematical tower, complete with astrolabes, sundials, globes and Galileo compasses from the 14th century.
If you’re in this area, be sure to have a coffee, beer or even just a gander at the beautiful Café Kalumbur.
This art nouveau café still has its original stained glass, mirrors, booths and spiral staircase. It attracts a bohemian crowd and there’s often dancing late into the night at weekends.
From there, we went to Ostrow Tumski, the island on the River Odder from which the city grew.
Locals say that if the Market Square is Wroclaw’s heart, then this island is its soul. Spend some time exploring this place of quiet solitude and you’ll see why.
A bishopric was established here in 1000 and it grew into a centre of power.
The Gothic Cathedral of St John the Baptist, which is Wroclaw’s most important cathedral, dominates the island today.
It’s surrounded by smaller churches, some of which feature murals of former Pope John Paul II, a Polish native and a figure of particular reverence here.
It’s worth crossing Tumski Bridge to get to Piasek Island, which has been the location of a monastery since the 12th century and is occupied by the clergy to this day.
If you time your visit properly, you’ll witness the lamplighter lighting the island’s gas lamps. There are 103 of them and the lamplighter – dressed in a cape and top hat – lights each one at dusk and extinguishes them all again in the morning.
By this time, the sun was high in the sky and we were hot and hungry.
We went to the Patio Restaurant for lunch, where we were spoiled for affordable choice. Duck with cherries and a white chocolate parfait with a wild strawberry and blackcurrant sorbet were definite highlights.
After lunch, we visited the UNESCO listed Centennial Hall.
Built in 1911 and lauded as one of the finest modernist buildings in Europe at the time, its domelike structure of reinforced concrete was unlike anything the world had ever seen.
Today, it’s a concert venue and there’s a great hourly light show. You lie on the ground looking up at the dome where lights, special effects and atmospheric music bring it to spectacular life.
Take time to explore the grounds too.
There’s a multimedia fountain that was built in honour of the 20th anniversary of the first free elections in post-Communist Poland.
Water shoots into the air from 300 nozzles which rotate, gyrate and create a 700-square-metre screen on which animated projections are displayed hourly from May until October.
These displays are free and shouldn’t be missed.
Somehow, we also fit in a visit to the Afrykarium. Part of Wroclaw Zoo, this exhibition focusses on the water environments of Africa.
There are recreations of the Red Sea and its coral reefs, the Mozambique Channel, the Nile, the lakes of the Great Rift Valley and the Congo Rainforest, all teeming with more than 1,100 land and water species including hippos, sharks, manatees and more.
It’s a great way to spend an afternoon with children or anyone with an interest in wildlife.
By this stage, our minds were exploding with impressions of Wroclaw.
We made our way to the rooftop bar of the Monopol Hotel, where we drank in fantastic views of the city as well as some refreshing drinks.
While relaxing, we discussed our day in the city and realised that the history of this city was written on its buildings.
There are buildings which date from its earliest days as a bishopric, others which were built when it was part of the Habsburg Empire and more from when it was under Prussian control.
There are stern buildings from the Nazi era and even more austere ones from when it was controlled by the Soviets.
It’s not just buildings that tell of this city’s history. You’ll also see small sculpted gnomes at unexpected places throughout Wroclaw. They may look twee but they have political significance.
Gnomes used to be the calling card of the Orange Alternative movement that staged subversive protests during Communist times. They have remained a symbol of the city and the people of Wroclaw are very proud of them.
That evening, we had dinner at Pod Fredra, where we enjoyed Polish food of the highest standard.
They make everything in house here, from smoking their own meats to marinating herrings and pickling cucumbers.
We had intended to leave Wroclaw the following morning but staff at the restaurant convinced us to stay to sample the town’s annual food festival, Europe on a Fork.
This festival takes place in early June every year and brings culinary traditions from all over Europe to Wroclaw.
This year, teams of chefs from Wales, Belgium, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, France, Greece, Georgia, Spain, Germany, Poland, Switzerland, Sweden, Ukraine, Hungary and Italy set up stalls on the Market Square from where they served traditional dishes from their countries.
Later that day, we tore ourselves away from Wroclaw. We had been so charmed that we didn’t want to leave.
This is a city that’s been influenced by so many cultures and felt the force of so many moments in history that it now has a unique personality all of its own.
This is probably why it was chosen as next year’s European Capital of Culture.
The city has lined up some fantastic events to showcase its diverse history and melting pot of cultures throughout 2016 and I’m planning to return at least once.
Wroclaw was certainly worth that detour.