Sean Geary visits Wroclaw, the 2016 European Capital of Culture. The good news? Tourists have yet to really discover the city, so it’s a perfect time to visit.
The 2016 European Capital of Culture, Wroclaw (pronounced Vrots-swaf) has all the ingredients for the perfect weekend away.
Quirky and eccentric — known as the city of elves — with a history that is, at times, hard to believe — once carrying the reputation of Poland’s Wild West.
It boasts one of Europe’s largest and most beautiful city squares that is crammed with restaurants and pubs; and almost everything that you need to see is within easy walking distance although the city tram means that you probably wouldn’t have to walk anywhere if you wanted a really lazy weekend.
Wroclaw is located in what Poles often refer to as the ‘Recovered Territories’, a region in the western part of the country that belonged to Germany before World War II.
The people are friendly and easygoing (always quick to point out how much nicer they are than the more business-like inhabitants of capital Warsaw), with almost one sixth of the city’s population made up of university students.
Another plus is that, with the city yet to really hit the big-time tourist-wise, Wroclaw seems completely unspoilt with the locals vastly outnumbering the pesky visitors.
It is one of Poland’s warmest cities and during my time there in February there were blue skies aplenty and unseasonal warm sunshine.
Apparently, at that time of year, heavy snow could be just around the corner but I’m sure that would only add to the city’s charm — not to say that I wasn’t appreciative of the break from the rain.
A new airport, thanks to the European Football Championships in 2012, is just 20 minutes’ drive from the city centre.
Traffic was pretty light on the journey into the city, which is Poland’s fourth largest, although I was told that, as it was a two-week winter break in the schools, many Wroclaw families had taken the opportunity to make the two-hour journey south-west and go skiing in the Czech Republic (they apparently have some of the most affordable skiing resorts in Europe; duly noted).
As I was a guest of the Polish Tourist Organisation and the Polish Professional Volleyball League — PLPS, organisers of the Polish Volleyball Cup finals — my first port of call was the local sports arena for the quarter-finals of the competition.
Poland are the volleyball world champions and with one of the world’s best professional leagues, my first volleyball experience was a memorable one.
The atmosphere was somewhere between a local football derby and an NBA game with colourful, chanting supporters; a drum-playing MC; cheerleaders; and plenty of action on the court.
The 3,000 seater glass-roofed arena was packed to the rafters and, although my knowledge of the rules was a bit iffy, it was hard not to be captivated by the non-stop action.
The following day, I embarked on an excellent guided tour.
The Odra River meanders through the city under 130 bridges and gangways and walking through the cobbled streets is a very pleasant excursion with the complex history behind the buildings enhancing the experience.
The people of Wroclaw went to incredible efforts to restore their semi-dismantled buildings after the second World War as they painstakingly rebuilt, the different coloured bricks on buildings evidence of their efforts.
Their actions are all the more remarkable when you consider that Wroclaw was almost entirely populated by Germans in the early 1900s who were forcibly expelled after the war so the town had an almost complete population change less than 80 years ago.
It was during the post-war years that the city earned the Wild West nickname when it was a haven for criminals with looting very common.
Back to the much more pleasant current day and one of the more notable buildings, the Centennial Hall, is located outside the main confines of the city and is referred to by the tour guide as ‘the ugliest building on the Unesco World Heritage List’.
As you can imagine, it isn’t the prettiest but it was named as a world heritage site due to the fact that it was a pioneering work of modern architecture built in 1913 using steel and concrete.
Workers, who were sure it was on the verge of collapse, were afraid to enter the building but it has survived two world wars so it’s fair to say that their fears were unfounded.
Apart from that peculiar boast, the city is also littered with tiny dwarf statues.
These iconic dwarfs commemorate the Orange Alternative, an absurdist Polish anti-communist movement in the 1980s.
The movement’s symbol was a dwarf and a single dwarf statue was officially placed where the group’s meetings took place in 2001 but since then the number of dwarfs dotted around the city has swelled to over 300.
Eating and drinking is very affordable unless you’ve chosen one of the city’s top-end venues and the legacy of the 20,000 plus Irish football fans at the European football Championships that were co-hosted by Poland in 2012 means that you will be greeted with a smile and possibly even an ‘Ole, Ole, Ole’ in some bars and restaurants once your nationality becomes clear.
Wroclaw is perfect for a weekend away but you’ll probably wish you could stay longer.
Flights: You can fly direct to Wroclaw from Cork, Shannon, and Dublin with Ryanair. As the current European Capital of Culture, a number of artistic and sporting events will be taking place in Wroclaw in the coming months.
Staying there: I stayed at the four-star Mercure Hotel in the centre of the city and just 11km from the airport. A very modern, glass-front building, it is within walking distance of the city’s Main Square and is very conveniently located if you plan on using public transport.
Getting around: Most sights are within a comfortable walking distance but if you plan on travelling further afield, there is an extensive public transport service with trams, buses, and trains available at reasonable prices.
The flat landscape also makes cycling another option for making your way around with rental bikes available.
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