With or without its Christmas Market, Wrocław’s main square is Poland’s best
Where Christmas is concerned, I’m one of the nation’s biggest fun sponges – ask me to name an inspirational character from the world of seasonal fiction, and it would be a closely contested call between either Scrooge or The Grinch.
With that in mind, it’s a fool that asks me for Christmas advice, which I guess is a sad indictment on the people that I’m friends with – in fact, I’ve lost count as to just how many have asked me where to head in the coming few days.
Resisting the vile urge to send them to Stalowa Wola (cue villainous chortle), my answer tends to be the same. In fact, it’s been the same for as long as I can remember: Wrocław.
This, though, is no longer my treasured insider secret. Planet Cruise, for instance, recently named it the ninth best Christmas market in the world; the Mail Online, meanwhile, hailed it as “Europe’s best – and best value”, an opinion echoed by a portal called, and I kid you not, Christmas Tree World.
Even the Man vs Globe blog have cited it as being “the most underrated festive market in Europe”, before concluding: “in Wro’, they really know how to put on a show.”
Damn right they do. Officially inaugurated last month, Wrocław’s market puts Poland’s others to shame – not bad going given the grand scale of Kraków’s effort or Warsaw’s own atmospheric fair that ribbons around the Old Town’s walls.
Featuring a 20-metre tree adorned with 150,000 little lights, Wrocław’s crowning glory complements approximately 300 cabin-style stalls selling essentials such as sheepskin jerkins, wood-carved angels, gingerbread and scalding mulled wine that’ll leave you needing Red Cross assistance when glugged too quickly.
This, of course, is standard in pretty much all of Poland’s Chrimbo markets, what elevates Wrocław’s is the staggering way it devotes itself to the season to be merry.
Touting carousels, multi-floor chalets, a windmill, a ‘fairy tale forest’ and, even, a selfie box for morons, even the artisanal handicrafts on sale go far beyond the tacky standards you might otherwise expect. Being there, you understand the plaudits.
But for all that, it is the setting itself that makes it what it is. I could go the rest of my life without stepping foot in Kraków’s main market square, but deprive me of Wrocław’s Rynek and I’d kill you first.
With its roofs dusted with snow, there’s few finer sights than the Rynek in December. Yet even outside of these months it’s a place to cherish and hold to your heart. Centred around an epic town hall, this feast of Gothicism takes the breath away.
Within, its glories include the Piwnica Świdnicka restaurant, a vaulted basement whose 950-years of service make it one of Europe’s oldest hostelries – reopened this year after a five-year hiatus, it’s here that Chopin and Goethe once feasted.
Here, too, was where the so-called ‘Beer War’ broke out back in 1380. Erupting between Świdnicka – the city’s official source of beer – and some rebel beer-brewing monks from the Cathedral Island nearby, the beery violence was only halted after a papal edict was issued.
Not without its quirks, the exterior includes a 300-kilo bronze bear whose tongue is considered lucky to rub, and a whipping post topped with the figure of a hangman.
Rebuilt in 1985 following wartime destruction, this was the spiritual home of capital punishment – local style.
According to archived figures, in the years between 1456 and 1526 some 251 people were hung on this spot – and those were the lucky ones. Another 103 were beheaded, 39 toasted, 31 drowned, 35 stretched on the rack, three buried alive and two quartered.
Other wrongdoers, meanwhile, merely had their ears or noses severed and displayed.
Grisly as this might sound, neither is the town hall short of humour as a glance of the façade will quickly reveal; amid the ghastly gargoyles and merrymaking musicians, the reliefs and decorations even include a medieval monkey committing a heinous personal act upon himself.
Charismatically framed by tall, handsome tenements, these have been lovingly restored following the city’s brutalisation during the 1945 Siege of Festung Breslau. Among these sits the Dwór Polski hotel, a historic residence where King Zygmunt III is rumoured to have secretly courted Anna Habsburg.
And then, who can overlook the House Under the Golden Dog. Once hosting Frederick the Great, the monarch was reputedly thrown to the ground while penning a letter by an angry phantom force. Today, find it operating as a microbrewery serving, quite fittingly, beers with names such as Golden Retriever.
Perhaps defined by its monument of the bard Aleksander Fredro (which, much like many of the city’s post-war population, was transported from Lvov in 1954), it’s a square that’s honeycombed with sights and marvels – and of these, there can be none that are prettier than the Hansel & Gretel building to the Rynek’s north-west.
Composed of two skinny buildings joined by an overhead archway, to some it’s symbolic of a couple holding hands. Others, mind you, will know this romantic spot as the scene of a wicked murder committed by some geezer possessed by a demonic dwarf.
And yes, speaking of dwarves, the Rynek has no shortage of these, either. Now famous across the globe, Wrocław’s vaguely irritating trail of gnomes reaches a head in the market square with probably over two dozen to trace.
Among this number, find a beer-carrying maid, a camera-snapping tourist, and a guitar-wielding rocker – the latter, a reference to the annual competition held in the Rynek each summer to smash the Guinness World Record for the biggest gathering of guitarists.
Capturing the energy of the area, it’s almost extraordinary to consider how it could have been so different – unbelievably almost, at one stage serious plans were discussed to fill the Rynek with a 20-story skyscraper designed by Max Berg (author of the UNESCO-listed Centennial Hall).
Fortunately for you, these never bore fruit, and the result is Poland’s best square by a galloping mile – and that’s with or without the Christmas Market.