Poland Part 1: Wroclaw Invites the Golden Oldie

It was a wet Berlin day on Tuesday 25 June 2013 and I became very glad that at the beginning of this trip I had made 2 promises to myself;

1) Always keep my finger on the ‘Don’t Panic’ button (after all, although not hitch hiking through the galaxy, I was travelling with very few plans) and
2) Do not rush, allow lots of time to get places and think things through, while being totally flexible.

So, when five minutes before my train was scheduled to leave Berlin it hadn’t arrived yet, I didn’t panic. An announcement came over saying that the train for Wroclaw (Breslau) at 9.41 had been cancelled ‘we apologise for any inconvenience’. I waited, they said it again. Already my head was spinning trying to figure out how to get to some accommodation again, how to let my friend in Poland know etc etc. There were 2 Polish ladies who only spoke Polish so they had no clue what was going on and were asking me what the problem was. I don’t speak Polish but I do speak Russian and English (with a small smattering of a few other languages including German) so between their Polish, my Russian and a lot of body language we managed to communicate. Eventually I noticed an official looking guy who was speaking in English to another traveller. He said, ‘get that train on platform 2, travel 1 station get off, cross the platform and your train will be there’. Ok, interesting as it was supposed to be cancelled! Anyway, it turned out it wasn’t cancelled only diverted for some undisclosed reason. It would have helped if they’d said so. It would also have helped if the announcements were made in Polish as well as German and English seeing as the train was heading to Poland and also if they had given us the proper instructions.

The Polish ladies decided to stick with me as they figured that I knew what I was doing (ha ha) and eventually yes, we did what the fellow said and ended up on the right train heading in the right direction – lucky I didn’t panic and leave the platform. As a result, four hours later,  I arrived in Wroclaw an hour late, my lovely friend had patiently waited in the wind and the rain, I’d had no way to let her know what had happened so luckily she stayed and waited.

The city of 100 bridges aka the Venice of Poland.

In the past this city (built on 12 islands, surrounded by many rivers and canals with over 100 bridges) has been part of the Kingdom of Poland, Bohemia, the Austrian Empire, Prussia, and Germany; it became part of Poland again under Communist rule in 1945, as a result of border changes after World War II. The city’s history probably explains the interesting architecture, design and culture. It is also known as Breslau (the German name) so if you see that name be aware that it is one and the same city.

Grunwaldzki Bridge, one of the best known in Wroclaw.
Grunwaldzki Bridge, one of the best known in Wroclaw.

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Tumski bridge leading to Cathedral Island.
Tumski bridge leading to Cathedral Island.
Tumski bridge
Tumski bridge

First stop was my friend Ewa’s apartment for a catch up. I dumped my luggage then we were off to dinner at the Four Seasons restaurant, a lovely little place with awesome food. The owners, a husband and wife team, love Russian music and often have live performances there. We spent a very pleasant evening listening to music, chatting to the owners (as it was a quiet night) and eating fantastic food prepared by the husband. I was reminded of many of our family gatherings with friends where more than one language was being used around the table (often at least four languages) here at the restaurant it was only 3, Russian, Polish and English. Such a delightful evening, thank you so much to Ewa for a wonderful start to my Poland experience. This ended up to also be one of the last places I visited 10 days later to say farewell.

First visit to the Four Seasons restaurant great atmosphere.
First visit to the Four Seasons restaurant great atmosphere.
Mine hosts at the Four Seasons
Mine hosts at the Four Seasons

I hoped that the weather would improve quickly it was 12 degrees Centigrade that first night in Wroclaw at the end of June!

The following day was an amazing experience for this travelling golden oldie! Ewa took me (without mentioning where we were going) to the Panorama of the Battle of Raclawice, there is only one word – WOW! OK, there are probably a few more words like – stunning, amazing, incredible and brilliant!

This panorama was painted by 2 artists back in 1894, it took 9 months to complete and it is massive (114 metres long by 15 metres high). It’s been placed in a circular building built specifically to house the panorama. As you stand in the centre or move around the rotunda the battle of Raclawice (and the ultimate victory over the Russians in 1794) seems to rage around you, such is the 3D effect. There is so much more to the story of what the painting went through as well as the history of the battle, there are many websites describing this place and giving some history, so if you wish here is one that may interest you;

http://infolink.wroclaw.pl/node/397

We spent quite some time there, a stunning experience from the minute they walk you through the entrance in silence to the minute you leave. Such wonderful art work, be sure to leave plenty of time when visiting this attraction. My photos do not do it justice.

One scene in the amazing Panorama
One scene in the amazing Panorama
Friends at the Panorama. While the Polish and Russian armies fought behind us in the painting, the Polish and Russian/Australian friends stood in front.
Friends at the Panorama. While the Polish and Russian armies fought behind us in the painting, the Polish and Russian/Australian friends stood in front.

Next it was off to the oldest restaurant in Europe, gorgeous place, huge, with real atmosphere and great food. This is what I had been looking for. Now, if you look online and search for ‘the oldest restaurant’ this becomes a contentious issue. There seem to be several restaurants claiming to be the oldest. The only one that has got a Guiness world book of records guernsey is a restaurant in Madrid. However, it is said , that the reason that none of the other claimants have been acknowledged is because they don’t have enough paperwork dating back far enough (or maybe they don’t want to be in the World Book?) I don’t know the answer but I do know that Piwnica Swidnicka (dating back to 1273) in Wroclaw is one awesome place to visit, eat and drink beer. It is underneath the Ratusz (Town Hall), has 4 eating halls some with large tables and benches reminiscent of medieval times and others suitable for just 2-4 people, and of course a bar. A plaque at the entrance lists some of the famous people who have been their including Kaiser Sigismund, now that’s some claim to fame because ‘Sigismund of Luxemburg (14 February 1368 – 9 December 1437) (an Aquarian!)was Prince-elector of Brandenburg from 1378 until 1388 and from 1411 until 1415, King of Hungary and Croatia from 1387, King of Bohemia from 1419, and Holy Roman Emperor for four years from 1433 until 1437, the last male member of the House of Luxemburg. He was also King of Italy from 1431, and of Germany from 1411.[1] He was regarded as highly educated, spoke several languages (among them French, German, Hungarian, Italian, and Latin) and was – unlike his father Charles – an outgoing person who also took pleasure in the tournament.

Sigismund was one of the driving forces behind the Council of Constance that ended the Papal Schism, but which in the end also led to the Hussite Wars that dominated the later period of Sigismund’s life.’ quoted from Wikipedia .

Chopin and Goethe are also on the list. The food was spectacular, I ordered the pork ribs which arrived on a wooden platter with a large knife and fork sticking out of them – a medieval touch. The meal was fantastic and the cold beer was a perfect accompaniment.

Speaking of food, I had been blaming the tourist trade for the sameness of the taste of food in Europe, however, I was told that apparently there are rules in the European Union about food to make import/export easier and more uniform, this apparently has contributed to the ‘sameness’. So I always became a little excited when we would find places that either grew their own or sourced organic produce and created traditional flavours.

Medieval style lunch at Piwnica Swidnicka.
Medieval style lunch at Piwnica Swidnicka.
Medieval eating hall
Medieval eating hall
(loose translation) Some of the famous guests who have visited the Schweidnitzer Keller in the course of it's 700 year history are; (after the list of names are the words ....'and today.....')
(loose translation) Some of the famous guests who have visited the Schweidnitzer Keller in the course of it’s 700 year history are; (after the list of names are the words ….’and today…..’)
'Here beats the heart of Wroclaw'
‘Here beats the heart of Wroclaw’

Wroclaw – City of Gnomes

Berlin has Buddy Bears, Wroclaw has Gnomes. It is said that there are about 300 of them currently. Whether you are young or old, a solo traveller a group or a family, going in search for these little guys is a terrific way of seeing this beautiful city. We found them in all sorts of places even on a river cruise boat.

A terrific history of gnomes old and new is at;

http://www.inyourpocket.com/poland/wroclaw/sightseeing/Wroclaw-s-Gnomes

Depending on how many good cold Polish beers you have drunk in any of the wonderful restaurants and bars these little guys just might end up performing for you.

My little friends.
My little friends.

 

Found! The Traveller Gnome.
Found! The Traveller Gnome.

Speaking of river cruises another big day lay ahead with lots of surprises, we walked up to the river Oder (Odra in Polish) near the zoo, and on the pretext of only asking about the river cruises Ewa actually got us onto a cruise, which happened to be the first of the ‘Underwater Wroclaw’ festival The Underwater Festival constitutes over 20 cruises on the river, each has a concert, an exhibition or a performance, of some sort. Pretty cool, we were treated to a satire of what it’s like to be a model surrounded by people and paparazzi as well as a nice cruise on the river Oder. We the passengers were asked to make this an interactive show by being the paparazzi with our many cameras. That boat (The Viktoria) was where we found a surprise gnome – the ship’s captain gnome.

Part of satire of modelling
Part of satire of modelling
A model in the satire during the first Underwater Wroclaw cruise.
A model in the satire during the first Underwater Wroclaw cruise.
Ship's captain gnome on The Viktoria
Ship’s captain gnome on The Viktoria

After the very pleasant river cruise we found a really lovely family restaurant that serves Ukrainian, Russian and Crimean food then early evening found us at the ‘Pergola’ an ivy-covered colonnade wending it’s way past the spectacular multi-media fountain. The light show was stunningly beautiful and even included holograms within the colourful water. This fountain has all sorts of capabilities including pyrotechnics, so this experience is also a must for a wonderful display of light, sound, holograms and colour. Check the daily schedule and get there early for the night displays otherwise you’ll be standing for the whole performance

Ivy covered Pergola on the way to the multi media fountain.
Ivy covered Pergola on the way to the multi media fountain.
Multi media fountain at night
Multi media fountain at night
Fountain beside the fountain, interactive fun for kids of all ages.
Fountain beside the fountain, interactive fun for kids of all ages.
Hologram in the water of the multi media fountain
Hologram in the water of the multi media fountain
The multi media fountain in daylight
The multi media fountain in daylight

There is so much to see and do all in one city! The 1st of July was allocated to the Japanese gardens, such a beautiful spot, designed according to all the rules of Japanese public gardens with imported trees, plants and fish. It was so peaceful (mostly) wandering through the gardens, along the water’s edge and over bridges to waterfalls and ponds. The only annoying moments happened when a few of us were photographing a gorgeous squirrel and waiting to get a better shot, when along came a noisy family some of whom ran up to the seat and of course scared the animal off.  They fully  knew what we were doing but obviously didn’t care, so all the photographers moved on growling at the intruders, some spoke up and told them they were rude, but they didn’t care, so sad that some tourists are so disrespectful at times.  However, I wasn’t about to allow that to ruin our experience.

Part of the Japanese Garden.
Part of the Japanese Garden.
Bridge in the Japanese Garden
Bridge in the Japanese Garden
The gorgeous squirrel.
The gorgeous squirrel.

Lunch at the Sphinx restaurant was followed by an evening of awesome music at the arsenal building provided by the Wratislavia Chamber Orchestra and saxophonist (that night on the soprano sax) Pawel Gusnar. Now, normally the soprano sax is not my favourite saxophone (I much prefer the lower sounds of the alto and others) and as I had no clue what was on the musical menu I was a little concerned that it might be the one style of jazz I’m not keen on, the very discordant chords of some improvised jazz is not my favourite sound but, oh boy, did these guys play some beautiful music. It’s such a delight to listen to musicians who so obviously love what they do and put a whole lot of feeling into what they play. Some awesome renditions with works from Gershwin and Chopin plus others – Such a treat! The evening ended with a couple of beers with Ewa and 4 of her friends before heading home. Having a local to show you around has lots of advantages, you get to see things you may not find otherwise.

Concert at the Arsenal building
Concert at the Arsenal building
Part of the Arsenal building walls
Part of the Arsenal building walls

The next day was reasonably easy, a trip to the main bus station to find out about buses to Krakow and coffee and cake at Europejska Kawiarnia. This restaurant is fascinating. A lot of reviews by other travellers tend to say that it is very 70’s and I guess it is. In fact the cute floral fine  china tea and coffee cups and saucers remind me of the 50’s, long before the horrid ubiquitous mug arrived on the scene, I found it very pleasant to drink from delicate china for a change and my cake was nice.

Kawiarnia decor.
Kawiarnia decor.
Nice china at the Kawiarnia
Nice china at the Kawiarnia

To walk off the calories we went on to the Market Hall, what an awesome place. The Market Hall is huge and colourful, you can find almost anything there, most of all fruit, vegetables and flowers.

The stunning displays in the Market Hall
The stunning displays in the Market Hall
The flower stalls in The Market Hall
The flower stalls in The Market Hall

A spot of lunch and then relaxing before heading off to have a look at Krakow for a couple of days (which will be in Pt 2 of my Poland experience), way to go!

But before I get to the end of my story  and the last couple of days in Wroclaw after being in Krakow, I just have to make some comments on this city. This is a seriously beautiful city and if you haven’t been here you simply must come. We walked a lot (best way to both see and feel any place) and I was stunned by the architecture, spaciousness, style, history and amazing sculptures. I even found my Knight in Shining armour! Oh, stop my fluttering heart! Rather than words I’m just going to put a few more photos than usual in the blog and let you see for yourselves.

The central square
The central square

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Not in the 'centre' but the design of the university building for IT studies has a great story.
Not in the ‘centre’ but the design of the university building for IT studies has a great story.

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Well! The 5th of July, it was time to return to Wroclaw and what started out as 2 very tired women just making their way back from Krakow on the bus and doing nothing else turned into one heck of an entertaining evening! We thought we had better go back to the Four seasons restaurant (the first one Ewa took me to when I arrived in this city 10 days earlier) to have dinner, return the book the hosts lent us and to say goodbye. We had a beautiful dinner, then a couple of people with a guitar came in (usually this couple was there with a friend on a Wednesday not a Friday, so we were lucky).  They entertained us for ages singing Polish, Russian and English language songs (even Moonshadow, fancy, and they didn’t even know my nickname!) The guy is a High School teacher of Biology, sings in a choir and has a great voice. His guitar has a beautiful mellow tone and his partner should sing more, she has a lovely voice, but she’s a little fearful. Then we were introduced to a professor of something or rather but as I, sadly, don’t speak Polish I focused on chatting to the owner of the restaurant who speaks Russian, is an artist and both he and his wife are  absolute sweethearts.  He even gave me copies of two of his  dog sketches, two pets previously owned by him and his wife, a Borzoi and a St Bernard (I so wish I had asked him to sign them). Sad to say goodbye to such lovely people, but that’s travel!

My knight in shining armour, the strong silent type.
My knight in shining armour, the strong silent type.
Sculptures in Butchers Lane  honouring all the animals slaughtered there in the past. Now it is a street of art and art galleries.
Sculptures in Butchers Lane honouring all the animals slaughtered there in the past. Now it is a street of art and art galleries.
One of the most incredible sculptures I have ever seen. Look carefully and you will see figures descending into the pavement on the other side of the road, while on this side they are re-appearing.
One of the most incredible sculptures I have ever seen. Look carefully and you will see figures descending into the pavement on the other side of the road, while on this side they are re-appearing.

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My treasured sketches from the owner of the Four Seasons.
My treasured sketches from the owner of the Four Seasons.
Silliness at the Four Seasons, must have been the wine.
Silliness at the Four Seasons, must have been the wine.

My penultimate day in Wroclaw, July 6th 2013 dawned.  It was different, no sightseeing, well not ordinary run of the mill city sightseeing. We had been invited to a Polish BBQ on a farm. We hopped on a bus for a 1 hour ride out to the township of Sobotka, then we were picked up for a 7 km drive to Ewa’s friend’s property in the village of Sady. Such a charming place and the property was gorgeous, bordered at the back by a National park and dotted throughout with fruit and other trees and of course a massive vegie garden. The food was yummy, eventually those who spoke English began gravitating to get some practice in and that led to some wonderful conversations. A couple who owns a vineyard came along with some of their wine and a Polish concoction that I’d never tried before – a tincture of pine with honey – after the initial shock it’s really awfully nice, several shot sized glasses of that went down rather easily. And then the cooking of sausages over an open fire (hadn’t done anything like that in an eternity!) Farewells included some old fashioned Polish hand kissing (that was really sweet) and a lift home, all in all a lovely day that reminded me so much of childhood, the farm and visiting days when people would rock up and party.

A street in the picturesque town of Sobotka
A street in the picturesque town of Sobotka
Polish sausages on the fire.
Polish sausages on the fire.
Roof tops of Sady
Roof tops of Sady
The farm in Sady
The farm in Sady

My trip to Wroclaw was always going to be a little different to any other part of my grand tour. Firstly I was visiting my friend Ewa who had lived in Australia for quite some time and secondly she was a close friend of my late parents (particularly my mother). And so, still clutching the original container of Mum’s ashes I made my way to Ewa’s beautiful city.  Ewa had asked whether I would allow her to keep some of Mum with her and of course that was fine with me, Mum would have loved that, she was already in Dalmatia,  Serbia and Slovenia so why not with the person she used to call her ‘adopted daughter,’ in Poland? Mum had never been to that country in life – although I believe her maternal Grandfather had Polish heritage, so now I felt that it was one way of taking her around the world. So part of our wanderings included keeping an eye out for a suitable container for the ashes I wanted to bring home. Although we didn’t do ‘shopping’ as such we did get to some interesting shops and markets as well as an open air antiques market, where I finally found just the right containers. Those two small silver plated containers continued my trip with me, while the large one stayed in Wroclaw.

The next day was farewell to beautiful Wroclaw and my friend as I made my way towards one of the rare, previously planned destinations.

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