Wroclaw, Poland

Trip Start May 27, 2007
Trip End Sep 01, 2007

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Saturday, August 25, 2007

8/25 I took a morning train to Wroclaw, Poland from Krakow for about $15. It was quite slow and stopped often making what should have been a quick trip into a 3 hour tour (minus Gilligan). The Polish countryside was primarily farms with corn and hay, along with forested hills. The train was hot and we were unable to open the windows so it was another human terrarium experience reminiscent of my trip with Tim and Sandy. Somehow, despite the heat, I finished Harlan Coben's One False Move which was fine but I thought the ending weird.

Surprisingly, the area around Wroclaw is totally flat. On the map it is not far from Germany or the Czech Republic so I expected some mountains. The suburbs of Wroclaw looked just like the US with highways, big box stores, drive-thru's and non-descript, generic houses. I picked up James Patterson's Black Market since it did not sound familiar but I can't believe I would have missed one of his books. We'll see.

The train arrived on time and I wanted to buy my train ticket from Wroclaw to Dresden for later in the week since there was one time that was preferable. All of the signs were in Polish only and it took 3 lines before I ended up in the right place. It was odd because to buy an international ticket, unlike other places, you had to go into this office which was more like a travel agency even for the simplest of tickets. Of course, only one agent was working and there were plenty of kids with backpacks trying to get tickets. Once my turn arrived I had my ticket within 5 minutes.

Before leaving the station I bought a map and small guidebook (I don't think they have any large guidebooks of Wroclaw). The city has 650,000 people which is the same number it had in 1939 before the war and is the fourth largest in Poland. On the walk into the old town I noticed how disciplined people are about the crosswalks. Even if no cars are coming they will not cross the street until they get the green signal. I had to exhibit extreme patience to do the same.

My guidebook had a walking tour of Wroclaw so I stashed my backpack and began the walk at Rynek (Market) Square which is the center of tourist activity in town. Market Square was developed in the 13th century with Town Hall in the center. More than 50% of the buildings around the square were reduced to ruins in WWII and, during the reconstruction, the houses were mostly given Renaissance and classical facades. The square is very picturesque with outdoor cafes, fountains and a tourist-friendly atmosphere.

The Town Hall also dates from the 13th century with a building that has Austrian influence including a big 1580 astronomical clock. It is one of the finest town halls in Europe with a richly decorated interior. Diagonal from Market Square is Salt Square which I thought odd since two squares are not usually that close (I guess they couldn't be together because then it would be a rectangle and I've never heard of Market Rectangle). Salt Square was erected in 1260 as an annex to the original square. It is also surrounded by picturesque buildings with a fountain and flower shops on the square.

The Old Town in Wroclaw is dominated by many old, large churches. I saw St. Elizabeth's Church(14th c.), St. Mary Magdalene's Church(14th c.), Church of St. Adalbert(13th c.), St. Christopher's Church(15th c.), St. Vincent's Church(13th c.), St. Matthias's Church(13th c.), Church in the Name of Jesus(17th c.), Corpus Christi Church(14th c.) and more! I think there must have been some job security if you were a church builder. Most of the exteriors were not very interesting and most of the churches were either closed or undergoing renovations on the interiors.

One of the biggest tourist attractions in Wroclaw is the Panorama of Rackawice which is a monumental painting dating to the end of the 19th century. The canvas is 120 meters by 15 meters (picture the size!) and is circular with a round viewing area in the middle. The painting, to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the Kosciuszko insurrection, has a 30 minute audio tour which I listened to in English that explained the elements of the painting. The painting marks an important milestone in Polish independence.

It was getting late so I headed back to the train station to get my backpack before heading to the hostel. On the way I passed another new Galleria complex and started to think these Gallerias are sprouting up as often as McDonalds. It was still crowded though and included a grocery store where I bought provisions.

My hostel appeared to be a Communist-era dorm that is converted to a hostel in the summer. My room had 3 beds with desks and bookshelves and all of the charm of Moody Towers at the University of Houston. Fortunately, the location was not bad since it was just across the Oder River from the Old Town. I read a little before bed and realized I had read Black Market before so I started The Shipping News instead by Annie Proulx.

8/26 I was up early and began the second half of the walking tour and quickly realized that people in Wroclaw, including tourists, are not up early on a Sunday morning. The weather was perfect again. I passed the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist(1000), St. Giles Church(13th c.), Church of the Holy Cross(13th c.) and St. Martin's Church(12th c.) before reaching the Oder River. It seemed there was a huge church on every corner, almost like Plano.

Crossing the Oder River I entered Ostrow Tumski which is the oldest region of the city dating from the 9th century. Ostrow Tumski is one of several islands that have been created in the Oder River by its various channels. There was a posh 4 star hotel on the island with pretty gardens surrounded by old cobblestone streets. The Church of the Most Holy Virgin Mary on the Sand (14th c.) dominates the small island which also houses a monastery. At night people stroll along the nicely lit riverbanks admiring views of the many churches.

Leaving the island I crossed the river back into Old Town and saw that much recent work had been done to upgrade the city including new tram (light rail) lines, new streets and sidewalks, and improved signage. Outside of Market and Salt Squares, though, the city itself seemed very dated and lacked the energy you might expect in a city this size. The Communist-era buildings are just downright ugly leaving limited sights for a tourist. Maybe being there on a Saturday afternoon and Sunday in the summer influenced my experience.

I continued walking and headed across the Oder on the Grunwaldzki Bridge(1910) which is the most photographed sight in town. It the only suspension bridge in Wroclaw, held by huge granite pylons. I next crossed the Zwierzniecki Bridge from 1897 that I thought had more character. I arrived at Centenary Hall, now called Peoples Hall, which is the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in town.

Peoples Hall was built in 1912 to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Leipzig and the defeat of Napoleon. The Hall constitutes one of the first and finest examples (guidebook opinion!) of reinforced concrete in European architecture at the turn of the century. As luck would have it, the Hall was hosting what I would consider a swap meet during my visit so I paid my 60 cents to see what was going on.

I hate to trash another city's famous sights but this building is ugly! It hosts sporting events so just picture a small, round Astrohall. Maybe people would say the same thing about the Astrodome but the Astrodome isn't a UNESCO World Heritage Site either. I began to question the criteria they use if this thing made the list. Do they ever take anything off the list? As for the swap meet, it was nothing but people selling the junk from their garages to other people who collect junk from peoples garages.

The one nice thing about the Hall is it is situated in a large greenspace which also houses the city zoo, a Japanese Garden, a botanical garden and sports fields. The area was very nice but I was pretty disappointed in Peoples Hall. On the way back to Old Town I passed yet another Galleria complex on Ronald Reagan Square. As in Krakow, the locals still call the square by its original name, Grunwaldzki. One nice thing about these new Gallerias is they have all been non-smoking!

I went in search of a cybercafe and could only find one that was dark and smoky so I kept looking but eventually found nothing else and returned to the nasty one. I'm just amazed at how many and much Europeans smoke. I can see the progression to non-smoking facilities as the new malls, some train stations, some restaurants, etc. go that route.

Wroclaw was recently rated one of the top 10 cities to visit that you've never heard of by Budget Traveler magazine (yes, I subscribe). I just had a hard time justifying that rating based on my experience. In hindsight I should have used the time in Krakow or Dresden although the train trip from Krakow to Dresden was long with multiple trains and bad times.

I found that the discover of Alzheimers Disease lived in Wroclaw. Dr. Alois Alzheimer(1864-1915) has been credited with the first published case of "presenile dementia." I think I'd be from the town of Denton Cooley and Michael Debakey. Sister cities of Wroclaw include Dresden, Germany and Charlotte, NC.

8/27 I was up and out early to catch my train to Dresden, Germany. I was surprised to see the people of Wroclaw up early as well. The streets were bustling and the trams were full even at 7 am which is very early by European standards for rush hour. I managed to get rid of all my Polish money before leaving since my remaining cities are all on the Euro.

The train was pretty full and was one of those with compartment seating for 6 rather than airplane style seating. I was one of the first on board and quickly realized it was way too hot in the compartment and opened the window at the top. I then discovered that the heat was on! All of the Polish passengers had on jackets and sweaters while I was quite comfy in a t-shirt and shorts. What do these people do when it's below zero?

Wroclaw was perhaps more of a typical Polish city than Krakow, but I enjoyed Krakow far more. There was just so much more to do in Krakow. Had I stayed longer in Europe my schedule was to go to Warsaw with Wroclaw not even considered but, since I needed to fly out of Dresden, I added Wroclaw. It wasn't a horrible city but does have a long way to go before I would recommend it.
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