If you’ve heard of Wroclaw, you’re already amongst a select group of travellers. But this is set to change. As the European Capital of Culture 2016, its relative ambiguity in the European tourism market should be short lived. For those that have never heard of it, Wroclaw (pronounced Vroks-loff) is the largest city in Western Poland and approximately a three-hour drive south from Berlin.
It is a quaint university city that has a stunningly beautiful gothic marketplace, a fantastic selection of restaurants and bars, beautiful churches and cathedrals and the slow flowing Oder river. It has some brutalist Soviet-era crumbling flats too, but thankfully many historical buildings have been painstakingly restored and put back together in recent years.
Several things made me feel instantly at home here.
Firstly, is a town with a culture of gnomes. Statues of these little bronzed cheeky fellas have been put about the town, outside shops and on side-streets, and once you see one, you’ll see them all over. The town reportedly now has 50 of them, all up to mischievous things – pushing each other over, ‘stealing’ from a shop or taking their own photos, and as ‘Nome from Home’, made me feel quite AT home!
Secondly, it has some fantastic eateries.
Literatka – in the central market square is a red-walled, slightly shabby-chic restaurant was one of the best spontaneous food finds I’ve ever had. They have a set lunch menu for 21 Polish zloty (£5) with two choices of soup, followed by a main – my choices were the cream of potato followed by chicken pearl barley style risotto (kaszotto). It was delicious. They also served my favourite cocktail – a gin basil smash. It is a prandial not on every bar menu and indeed the next day it was off the menu again (no more basil apparently). Still, I was glad I got the one!
Wroclaw has many pleasant walks and once you’ve had a hearty Polish meal, I would recommend taking in its huge square, historic university, walled river banks and take one of the bridges over to the cobbled streets of Cathedral Island. Many of the city’s church spires can be scaled for some stunning views of the city, I took on the vertiginous climb up to the Penitent Bridge (Mostek Pokutnic) on St. Mary Magdalene Church (kościół Marii Magdaleny) for views out over the square – but only if you like heights!
In need of more gound-based activities and a quick (soft) drink, I popped into one of the city’s many milk bars, Jacek i Agatka. These are old-fashioned canteens (think dinner-ladies in hairnets and red-checked pinafores) serve a selection of hearty and filling lunchtime fare for low low prices. This distinctly un-western setting is a must-see as a lingering cultural remnant of the city’s heritage as part of the Eastern Block, and whilst it can’t be said they are glamourous, they still do a great trade with hungry city workers.
Another must-visit eatery is a bakery, Stara Paczkowska, specialising in hot-straight-out-of-the-oven, deliciously fresh paczki (doughnuts). A window and a hole in the wall to order and just three or four filling choices on offer, I tried two; the toffee, and the cream and they were mouthwateringly good and worth every calorie.
Continuing my impromptu food tour, I took the opportunity to walk along to the covered market, Hala Targowa. Nothing gives more of an insight into a local culture than people-watching in parks and food markets and the standout product in this market was mushrooms – millions of them. All different types, shapes, sizes and colours – prebagged and loose, it was a pick ‘n’ mix for edible fungus lovers. It made me very keen to try some Polish mushrooms for my supper.
And I did – pork loin in chanterelles sauce with cabbage and potatoes at the city’s top-rated restaurant, jaDka. A stunning setting with excellent staff and huge portions (I’m not sure Poland does ‘fine’ dining), this restaurant has a warm, intimate vibe with old red-brick walls, crisp white table linen and soft furnishings.
The city at one stage was tipped to be a hot venue for stag parties. Thankfully, it doesn’t seem to have materialised and its bars and pubs are still frequented by locals too.One that was particularly good for Polish craft beer is Kontynuacja in the centre of town, which has a laid-back but trendy atmosphere and was packed by 8pm. And, if you need a hearty breakfast the following morning, the best bagels in town can be found at The Central Cafe – I had mine loaded with cream cheese, smoked salmon, cornichons and salad, a perfect set up for my return trip to Berlin.
While my first trip to Poland and the city of Wroclaw lasted just over 36 hours, it has given me a taste for its beautiful architecture, friendly people and mostly it’s very tasty food. I will most definitely be coming back for a second helping!