Wroclaw: Hidden histories and hazelnut vodka in Europe's Capital of Culture 2016
The Venice of Poland
The future is now for one of Europe's oldest cities, says Sasha Brady. Wroclaw is undergoing a cultural renaissance.
Set the mood
In May 1945, Wroclaw (pronounced vrots-wahf) was a smoking ruin, destroyed by bombs and bullets. It suffered one of the most savage sieges of World War II, when it was attacked by the Soviets in an epic 80-day battle.
Today, it's a different story.
The city has been rebuilt, brick-by-brick. Strolling through its maze of cobbled streets, you'll find fondant-fancy mansions, neo-Gothic churches that cast shadows across wide-open squares, quaint wine bars and cosy craft-brewery pubs.
Worclaw is one of two European Capitals of Culture for 2016 (the other is San Sebastian), and while its charms may not be as flashy as the Basque city’s Michelin-Star restaurants and seaside vistas, they work a gentle magic.
Wroclaw's bars buzz with atmosphere. Photo: Paulina Szuta
Wroclaw is full of bars with character.
One of my favourites was a ramshackle, Communist-era spot called Klub PLR (on Rynek Ratusz). It doesn't have a "website or Facebook page", the barman happily informed me as he filled my shot glass with hazelnut vodka (the alcohol equivalent of a Forrero Roche... I probably enjoyed this a little too much) and shared stories of the past from one of the oldest cities in Europe; the 'Venice of Poland'.
The quality of vodka is also so good that locals tend to drink it (savoured and slow) straight-up in shot glasses. Try it with a plate of pickled herring, white onion and crusty bread - a kick of silky-smooth spirit cuts through the saltiness of the fish. Most bars will serve it as a sort of local, tapas-style dish for less than €2.
But it’s not just vodka. Wrocloaw has an illustrious beer brewing tradition, and I was hard pressed to find a beer I didn’t like.
Kontynuacja (facebook.com/kontynuacja) offers 16 beers on tap at any given time and the staff will be happy to chat to you about any brew - without a hint of snootiness. Piwnica Swidnicka (strona.piwnicaswidnicka.com), in the town hall, is home to the city’s most famous beer cellar - and some impressive Gothic architecture.
Wroclaw's Food Truck Festival. Photo: Arek Drygas
Wroclaw, like the rest of Poland, is super-cheap. Your euros stretch surprisingly far when they magically transform into zlotys.
For traditional Silesian cuisine, visit Kurna Chata (kurnachata.pl) where a three-course meal costs less than €10. Try the beetroot soup with dumplings as a starter (€2.24) and the spicy goulash with baked cheese and bread for a main (€3.36).
Spend your afternoon picking your way through the diverse and delicious vendors at Hala Targowa (halatargowa.wroclaw.pl) the city’s largest indoor market. I circled the hall like a hungry raven, dropping by the dumpling bar for a hearty feed.
Wroclaw is the only place in the world where you can enjoy a gnome hunt. 300 of the creatures, frozen in various poses, are hidden all over the city.
Why? During the 1980s, when Communism was still present in Poland, a group of artists began a movement called the Orange Alternative; staging peaceful protests against the regime using silliness instead of force.
The gnome became a symbol of the group and in 2001 the city commissioned a little gnome where the Orange Alternative held its demonstrations. The gnomes multiplied as many businesses took the idea and commissioned their own.
I had a great time trying to spot all 300, but failed miserably with a score of 32. If you’re bringing little ones along, gnome-hunting will keep the imaginations buzzing.
Cathedral Island is one of the most romantic parts of the city.
The cobbled streets are illuminated by gas lamps which are still tended to by a lamp lighter. He ignites them by hand - one by one - at sunset and extinguishes each lamp at sunrise. It's really something special.
Head out for a walk with your other half just before the sun goes down to catch him at work. You'll be enchanted by the old-world magic.
A silent disco in Wroclaw. Photo: Paulina Szuta
I found Wroclaw people to be reserved but painstakingly polite. They're extremely proud of their city and any stranger I met was always happy to point me in the right direction if I found myself lost.
It can seem quiet at times, and some of the streets empty but this was probably because I visited at the height of winter. As soon as I walked into a bar or cafe, I was greeted with a friendly warmth and animated vibe.
In summer, I imagine that atmosphere will spill out onto the streets.
Get me there
Ryanair (ryanair.com) operates daily, direct flights to Wroclaw
A bus to the city centre departs from the airport every 20 minutes and a bus ticket costs approximately €0.67. A taxi ride should take about 20 minutes and will set you back roughly €11 on weekdays or €15 for a weekend journey.
I stayed at the four-star Art Hotel (arthotel.pl/en, above), a trendy boutique hotel that's small enough to feel like a private abode but with all the trappings of a four-star. Set in a beautifully-restored 14th century tenement, rooms are individually furnished and decorated with impressive local artwork. A standard double costs from €60.
See Independent Hotels for the best hotel deals.
Visit Poland Travel for what to see and do in Wroclaw or contact them in London at 00 44 3003031813 for details on upcoming events.