Under-the-radar? No way. Just call Wrocław wonderful instead
I’ve got to admit, when TripAdvisor recently published their “Best of the Best” Travellers’ Choice Awards it knocked me for six – though perhaps not in the intended manner.
You see, and you can call me old fashioned on this, but when I skim a list of Emerging Destinations I expect to find just that – far-flung places of fantastical promise and undiscovered glory. I don’t expect to find Wrocław.
Plugged as a listicle that would lift the lid on under-the-radar gems where visitors would be able to “ditch the crowds”, the inclusion of Wrocław felt a ludicrous stroke. Under-the-radar? Only if you’ve spent the last two decades in a Kentucky jail.
True, the data I rely on belongs to the kind that’s gathered in a pub, but I can’t think of anyone I’ve met that doesn’t call Wrocław their favourite Polish city. And for good reason.
Just stepping off the train is enough to send a frisson of excitement coursing through the blood: looking more like a Prussian palace with its turrets and merlons and high, vaulted ceilings, the station is a jewel of near magical proportions. As a first impression it sure does the trick.
The city’s hotels do as well – for starters, there’s the Granary, a converted medieval brewery with a modern-minded style, as well as the Puro, a place that bravely proclaims itself to be “a functional work of art”.
Or, for understated luxury with art deco accents, check into the Monopol. A gratifying cocktail of marble, walnut and swank modern trappings, this historic hotel has attracted such guests as Marlene Dietrich and Pablo Picasso. What they’re more keen to hide is that Hitler, too, once goose-stepped through the entrance before waving to the crowds from a balcony above.
And let’s pause there a moment.
Passed like a box of candy between kings and despots, nations and empires, the stupefying story of Wrocław has left it layered and iced with a richness of history that seeps from its pores.
For many, this best manifests itself on the Cathedral Island – a magnificent area whose horizon comes spiked with towering steeples – or in the Old Town, where the colourful facades of tall tenement houses merge to form a rainbow palette of striking appearance.
Others, meanwhile, may point to the ethereal Jewish cemetery, or to more specific cult attractions such as the raggedy Nadodrze ‘art quarter’ or mighty emblems of modernism such as the “Wrocław Manhattan” – a collection of brutalist towers erected in the 70s.
For me though, it’s that pre-WWII period that captures the city in its most intriguing light. Finely brought to life in the neo-noir detective novels of Marek Krajewski, it’s his depiction of what was then known as Breslau that I find compelling.
Based around Eberhard Mock – a chess-loving detective whose razor mind is contrasted by chasmic weaknesses for booze and prostitutes – Krajewski’s depiction of this city on the brink is nothing if not masterful.
Painted as a decadent and degenerate city of “tight, crowded quarters of tenements” and “monumental buildings enclosed in the neo-Gothic red of bricks,” it’s reminiscent of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin. Evoking the spirit of a town that thrashes to the undulating backbeat of moral decay, we are presented with a shadowy half-world of burlesque vice dens and leaking slums, occult ceremonies and foggy beer halls.
Addicted as I am to Krajewski’s books, it’s this version of the city I picture when prowling lonely back streets still scarred and smeared from the Siege of Breslau.
Defended with fanaticism (the city surrendered after Berlin), the Red Army’s three-month siege was blistering in its ferocity and left the city drowning under 18 million cubic metres of rubble. Such has been the reconstruction, you’d never guess this now and it is with awe one tends to approach the main town hall with its intricate friezes and renaissance portals.
Such is the preponderance of rising spires and glowering gargoyles, there’s a tendency for first-timers to patrol the city with their heads tilted upwards. This, however, risks missing the proliferation of gnomes that lurk on ground level.
Reaching epidemic proportions – to the extent that no-one knows how many there now actually are – for years the city has been associated with quirky statuettes of cheerful little gnomes.
Often falsely attributed as a nod to a surreal, anti-authority protest group called the Orange Alternative (in truth, only one such gnome pays homage to them), they have become the city’s calling card, not to mention a reflection of the city’s light-humoured spirit.
Also mirroring this is a cosmopolitan (pre-covid) social life that’s impossible to ignore.
If by day the city staggers with its ribboning rivers, enchanting bridges, modern museums and little odds and ends (Poland’s largest miniature railway; a gallery inside a WWII flak tower; sharks and crocs at the Afrykarium, etc.), it is come dusk that it fully embraces its reputation for fun.
Whether it’s to hip specialty cafes, pokey local shot bars or velvety clubs filled with yelping, bronzed predators, the locals require little excuse to head into the night. Thoroughly intoxicating, the energy alone is electrifying to witness.
And that’s before you broach the subject of beer. Befitting of a town that once went to war over the stuff (in 1380, to be exact), it’s become the bona fide capital of Poland’s craft scene – bolstered by the local presence of innovators such as the Stu Mostów brewery, it’s in the artisanal pubs that one discovers the dynamic spirit of this inspiring city.
Under-the-radar? No way. Just call it wonderful instead.