Trying to make the most of the year that everyone wants to forget.
So, the summer had begun for real and we were finally on holidays after the first tough 6 months of 2020, trying to make the most of the year that everyone wants to forget. I was enjoying the city of Wroclaw in southwestern Poland, and probably one of the most beautiful cities in the country. The whole place had a relaxed, yet vibrant excited feeling about it too somehow. So, how does a city become cool? To start off with, Wrocław is a university city with more than 100,000 students, giving it a youth orientated vibe. I love any town with universities and city walls, and Wrocław has both, although the walls are barely visible today. This city also has a long history, and not all happy either, but it helps explain the culture of the place. Dating back more than 1,000 years, Wrocław has been a part of many kingdoms, from the Kingdom of Poland, Hungary, Bohemia, Austria to Prussia and Germany. If that wasn’t enough, the city was also invaded by the Mongols in the 13th Century, as well as being occupied by the Germans in WWII and later by the Red Army after a 3-month siege that killed 40,000 civilians and destroyed half the city. Since then, Wrocław has come up in the world and was the European Capital of Culture in 2016, as well as the World Book Capital and host of the European Film Festival all in the same year. It is also a UNESCO listed city with numerous historic landmarks, including the Market Square and Cathedral Island. To top this off (yes, there’s more!), in 2021 the Financial Times Magazine published the report "Global Cities of the Future 2021/2022," in which Wrocław was classified in 1st place among all medium and small cities in the world. This city has everything going for it, and its past of fires, invasions and destruction has only seemed to make it better, stronger and more beautiful.
I know I spent a lot of time talk about the gnomes around the city, but they are a major tourist attraction. They are also very cute and even more interesting, so how could I not! During our wanderings hunting for gnomes, we also stubbled upon a curious, if not a little spooky monument. On Swidnicka Street a group of 14 very life-like statues seem to disappear into the pavement, some only their feet going under, others up to their necks, only to reappear on the other side of the street. The amazing sculpture is called Przejście (meaning “Passage” or “Transition”), and is also known in English as the Monument of the Anonymous Passers-by. Although I didn’t find a plaque telling me what it was all about, I figured that it had something to do with the war or even the holocaust, as these people seemed desperate and fleeing persecution. The artist is Jerzy Kalina, and it was built as a memorial to the citizens who were killed or went missing during period of martial law in Poland in the 1980s. I liked it very much, despite its extremely sad depiction of human loss. There was so much to this city, far too much in the 2 days that we had here. I was happy with what we’d achieved though, which was a great overview of the city and sore feet from walking so much. It was dinner time, and I’d been smelling amazing food everywhere! One place we walked past was a Thai restaurant. Now, I know what you’re thinking – you’re in Poland, why don’t you eat traditional food? Well, I have been, staying with Polish people you eat nothing but Polish food (which I love!), but something you have to know about Poland is the amazing choice of food! We sat down at the restaurant, my heart already set on a chicken Pad Thai, ordered a beer and relaxed, while the chef (who was Thai thank you very much) cooked up our delicious and very authentic food. A great ending to a great day really. Tomorrow I was planning the climb up the church tower to get a view of the city, before heading back to Poznan.
The main square of Wrocław is huge. One of the largest in Europe, it is 213 by 178 metres and is ringed by gorgeous, colourful buildings, not to mention the town hall (old and new!) in the centre. A true focal point for the city, the Market Square is a cobbled, pedestrian only zone, which only makes it even more European. I couldn’t stop taking pictures to be honest, but it was nearly impossible to get all of the square into one frame. We headed over to the church, which was just off the square and behind 2 beautiful medieval houses call the Hansel and Gretel houses. I’m not sure why, but they are the only remaining medieval houses that formed a whole complex here and are very beautiful, with a small archway leading into the church courtyard. I love climbing bell towers, as you get amazing views, but to get that you need to work for it. I went up but my girlfriend stayed down, as she isn’t as keen as I am for the views, or the multitude of steps to the top. The stairway was small, steep and not easy I have to say. After my recent hiking trip through the Pyrenees, I thought I would be fine, but found my legs cramping a little once I got to the top. Maybe it was because of the heat and sweat, as losing salts can cause muscle cramps. I’d fix that with a beer or two when I got down. Unfortunately, the guy ahead of me was faring far worse – he was puffing like a steam train and was sweaty profusely from every part of his body (even his elbows I swear!). He was a solid wall of sweat and I honestly thought that he was going to have a cardiac arrest! In the end, he was fine and just needed to recover at the top. His shirt, however, may have drowned to death. Once at the top, the air was fresh and the view was spectacular! There is nothing like seeing a beautiful city like Wrocław from above – all of the people looked like toy figures walking around. You also get a different perspective of everything, looking down onto rooftops as well as over them. It was time to go though, so we headed to the train station to get back to Poznan. What an amazing city, definitely on my list to revisit when I get the chance to come back to Poland.
From one amazingly beautiful city to the next, we decided to visit friends in Torun. I’d visited Torun only twice before, once for a conference and the other just to have dinner with a friend. The first occasion was in winter, so although the weather was nice, it was freezing and got dark by 4pm. The second time I was here there was no time to see anything, so I was really looking forward to being in Torun in summer. While my girlfriend was driving, I decided to go a day earlier by train to catch up with my friend Glenn, who I go to Romania with for summer camp. As we’d missed the camp this year (yup, you guessed it, Covid), we thought it would be as good a chance as any – I always have to come to Poland to see him though, and I’m still hoping one day he’ll make the trip to where I am so I can play tour guide! I got off the train and went for a quick walk before our meeting, deciding to cross the bridge over the river. I went this way as I’d never been over the river that runs right by the old town, simple as that. This rickety old iron bridge is just for train, and I later found out that it is sort of illegal to walk over it, but the views were worth it. Looking out over the Vistula river I got a great view of Torun, and I didn’t get anyone asking any questions about me being on the bridge either, which is always good. I met up with Glenn and we walked along the river to the beer barges that dock here for summer. One of them did pizza and the other burgers, but both had a great little bar setup. We enjoyed a couple of cold beers and caught up, enjoying the warm weather. Glenn suggested 2 things to do in Torun that I hadn’t done and I decided to do both – a small WWII museum in a local high school and a historic Mennonite village across the river in the countryside. I visited the museum myself (as he’d been there before), and it was run by Piotr, a local history buff. The Historical and Military Museum in Toruń, built in a basement area of the Copernicus High School, is funded completely by donations and everything that is in on display has been found in Torun and given to the museum. This fact alone amazed me, but I was in for a treat. Although Piotr’s English wasn’t perfect, he communicated well and definitely knew his history! He took me through the displays, even letting me touch some of the relics, describing their story in great detail and with a lot of passion. One of my favourite stories was of Wojtek, a Syrian brown bear who was part of the 2nd Artillery Supply Company with the Polish Army. He was bought at a train station in Iran and served with his fellow soldiers, helping move heavy munitions, rising in rank from Private to Corporal Wojtek. He met generals and served his national well, living his retired life after the war in Edinburgh Zoo. Something else that I loved, yet found a little scary, were the photos of the Nazis in Torun. The Town Hall, which I love so much, was covered in Swastikas and saluting German soldiers.
After the museum, Glenn picked me up and we drove to the outskirts of Torun, crossing the river and stopping at the Torun National Ethnographic Museum. Here was a display of how the Mennonite people, who arrived in in Poland in the 16th century, lived. The Mennonites were similar to the Amish, in the way they shunned technology and live a simple, holy life. They were also great farmers and workers of the land, and where perfectly suited to the land gifted to them as it was swampy and unusable in general. What they did was build their houses, raise animals and create an ideal, productive farming environment. There were a few large houses, fully restored and furnished too, with beautiful gardens and they looked just as they would have back then. The whole buildings were packed up, moved from their original site and rebuilt here. The site also has an original Mennonite cemetery too (unmoved). It was great to walk around and see the buildings, the old furniture and how these people lived – huge houses which included a barn and storehouse, but quite beautiful interiors and rooms. My favourite room was the kitchen, with its small pots and containers for everything, all labelled, and the big bread baking fireplace with a tall chimney. If it had electricity, this place would be very comfortable indeed! Our guide was great – again his English wasn’t perfect but he did well and even made some jokes and understand ours in return! By the time I got back to the city centre, my girlfriend was nearly here with her sister and partner. It was time to quickly freshen up and then go out for some lunch! We chose the pizza barge and had a great meal – the weather was sunny, the pizza was very good and there was cold beer and warm company! What else could you ask for? Torun had done it again, perfect weather and so many things to see and do – I just love coming to this city!
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MyUncleTravellingMatt. August 2020.